TTUAC: Short-Circuiting Children’s Natural Development

To Train Up A Child, pp. 

We now start chapter 2, “Childish Nature: Understanding a child’s natural development.” To be perfectly honest, I’m finding this chapter confusing and unclear, but I’ll do my best here to untangle it.


Just last night while sitting in a meeting, I looked over to see a young mother struggling with her small child. He seemed determined to make her life as miserable as possible—and destroy her reputation in the process. She had the “Why me?” look on her tired face. He kept defiantly throwing his bottle on the floor (assisted by her picking it up and handing it back to him) and making angry noises that forced the preacher to scream louder and louder. With threats of increasingly embarrassing displays, he forced her to put him down on the floor where he proceeded to audition for circus clown while insisting on procuring a neighbor’s property. When she tried to prevent his thievery and rescue the stolen goods, he kicked his feet like an eggbeater and screamed his protest.

It was enough to make you believe the Devil started out as an infant. I am just thankful that one-year-olds don’t weigh two-hundred pounds, or a lot more mothers would be victims of homicide. It causes one to understand where the concept of a “sinful nature” originated.

I’m very uncomfortable with this. Small children don’t set out to destroy their parents’ reputations or make their parents miserable. From the description, the kid didn’t want his bottle and he wanted down. He wanted to explore and touch things and learn about the world around him. When he wasn’t allowed to do these things he got angry, and screamed and kicked his legs. Children that age can’t communicate their frustrations, and they may not even be able to fully process their emotions, so all of this is normal. If I’d been this mother, I would have taken the child out and found a place where he could explore without disrupting anyone. Or, I might have found something to interest the child while still in the meeting, such as an iPhone children’s app with the volume off. But to Michael, this child’s normal and natural and understandable behavior is enough to suggest that if he could, he would murder his mother.

The mother knows the child shouldn’t be acting like this; but due to the child’s limited intellectual development, she feels helpless. Older children and adults have their actions constrained by many mental and social factors. This child is not affected by peer-pressure, threat of embarrassment or rejection. His life is one of unlimited, unrestrained self-indulgence.

The parents are waiting for the child’s understanding to develop so they can correct “bad” behavior. They helplessly watch while selfishness and meanness of spirit grow behind a wall of undeveloped understanding.

What is the driving force in this child, and how can it be conquered? We need to understand some things about the nature of a child in order to institute appropriate training.

First of all, the child should be acting like this. Second, the child’s limited intellectual (and psychological) development doesn’t render the mother “helpless”; rather, it should simply inform how she responds to the child. Third, that the child isn’t constrained by peer pressure or threat of embarrassment doesn’t mean his life is one of “unlimited, unrestrained self-indulgence.” Yes, small children often have yet to fully understand that others have needs too, but they are not completely devoid of empathy. Fourth, responding appropriately to a child’s level of understanding does not mean letting “selfishness and meanness of spirit grow.” In fact, it’s responding appropriately to a child’s level of understanding that best helps foster empathy, relationships, and trust. Fifth, Michael sees anything he doesn’t like as something that needs to be “conquered.” Instead, I look at my children and think “how can I help foster appropriate behavior.”


For the purpose of moral development, God created us to exist in a constant condition of need and dependence. The needs are most apparent in the small child. He needs food, warmth, companionship, entertainment, and a dry diaper. God has endowed him with strong, involuntary compulsions to taste, smell, hear, with eyes to see, and a desire to touch and feel.

The desires and passions in the infant are not yet complete. As he matures, he will find himself possessed of ever-increasing natural desires for things “pleasant to the eyes,” things “good for food” and for those things that will “make one wise.” His growing humanity will give way to a desire to build, to know, to be appreciated, recognized, to succeed, be a lover, and to survive in a secure state.

This part actually isn’t so bad. Yes, small children have needs, and yes, they have a natural desire to explore the world around them. Yes, small children are still developing and will mature over time. In fact, Michael speaks of maturity here as something that grows naturally over time, which actually makes him sound normal and, well, not crazy.

As infants grow, they learn to manipulate their surroundings to their own gratification. A smile, a grunt, kicking the feet, rolling and shaking the head, crying, screaming—“Pick me up—Feed me-Just look at me—Doesn’t anyone realize I have urgent needs?—What could be more important than ‘me’?”

The infant’s world is no bigger than his needs. It is the only reality he knows. He soon learns that his “wants” can be just as readily satisfied. The infant cannot think in terms of duty, responsibility or moral choice. He has no pride or humility—only desire. He comes, he sees, he takes. He is created that way. By nature, he is incapable of considering the needs of others. The baby doesn’t know you are tired and also in need of comfort.

The self-centeredness of infants and small children has all the appearances of a vice. But they are acting on natural, God-given impulses to the meeting of natural needs. They “go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies (Psalm 58:3).” Yet, God does not impute the lie to them as sin. God reckons as if they had no moral character, and therefore no responsibility. They do not possess the intellectual and moral maturity to say “No” to appetites. They cannot yet be deemed blameworthy. They begin life in innocent self-centeredness.

Growing up, I heard a lot about the idea that infants “manipulate” those around them to get what they want, and it was never talked about as a positive thing. There was this idea—which was always credited to the Pearls—that infants are selfish and need to learn that they can’t just get what they want by crying, and that this is a problem and is the beginning of a life of selfishness and unhappiness. This is why my mom would “train infants out of crying” by not getting them out of their cribs until they stopped crying and were cheerful. Given this, I’m confused, because Michael seems to imply that it’s normal and okay for infants to cry for what they want, and that they shouldn’t be blamed for this—that it’s not the result of vice, but rather of natural impulses planted by God.

On further thought, I think I’m beginning to understand. Michael quotes from the Bible that infants “go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies,” but that it’s not counted as sin because, in Michael’s words, they have “no moral character, and therefore no responsibility.” In fact, he says they do not have the “intellectual and moral maturity” needed “to say ‘no’ to appetites.” Michael says infants “begin life in innocent self-centeredness.” He has said before that parents should start “training” infants before they are capable of telling right from wrong. I think what’s going on is that Michael is admitting that it’s normal for infants and small children to act as they do, and that it’s not actually sin, but that parents must preempt with proper “training” or their children will hit this phase and then transition and develop into selfish, hedonistic, ungodly adults.


As the child gets older, say eight- to twelve-months, the adults begin to pay less attention to his demands, and a weaning process begins. The child is made to wait, told “No,” and given boundaries. He must learn that he cannot always be first. If by now training has not already subdued the manifestations of his “selfishness,” the child may come to be what we called “spoiled.”

Guilty, frustrated parents are manipulated by the child’s whining and crying. The sparing begins. The kid gets jerked around. Resentment builds. The adults begin to blame him.

The child feels the tension, but does not lessen the demands. He connives, calculates and resorts to angry tantrums. I have seen a two-year-old take a weapon and angrily strike his mother. The young child is not matured to a point where he can understand responsibility, weigh values and make conscious decisions based on moral or social worth; but he sure can mimic the criminal mind.

And here we see that I was right.

Michael is talking about a very real and important phase in children’s development. Infants have their every need met without question and then, as they move toward toddlerhood, they have to learn that the world does not revolve around them. This can indeed be a rocky time, and for obvious reasons. However, Michael sees this as a period when “resentment” builds between the parent and the child, and, presumably, as the beginning of life-long problems. I disagree. It’s true that parents often experience a lot of frustration during this transition, but if a parent understands that this is just a phase, works on seeing things from the child’s perspective in order to foster understanding, and tries to think long-term and build relationship with the child, there need be no buildup of “resentment” or “blame.”

But the key of this passage is this:  “if by now training has not already subdued the manifestations of his ‘selfishness.'” Michael appears to be saying that parents face this frustrating struggle—i.e., helping small children transition from having their every need met to living in a world with boundaries—only if they (the parents) have not already “subdued” their children’s (innocent and natural) selfishness. Michael, as you will remember, recommends “training” children as young as four months, using the word “no” and a switch to impel immediate and complete obedience. By doing this before children have actual understanding, Michael suggests, a parent can avoid the normal frustrations experienced by both parent and child as the toddler moves from being weighted on hand and foot to living in a world with boundaries.

The thing is, children need to go through that transition, and what Michael suggests is short-circuiting it entirely. It’s sort of like suggesting that adolescence is a problem because it can be trying for both parent and child so it should simply be avoided entirely, rather than recognizing that period as an important and necessary part of child development.


What is happening? A short time ago, the adults around this child would have given him anything he wanted, including their own life-sustaining food; but now they are beginning to expect a little giving on his part. He doesn’t want to give. Taking has been his way of life from conception. The arrangement suits him just fine.

We adults, sensing the capabilities of children, expect them to give-and-take at a level appropriate to their maturity. When they fall behind our expectations, we become irritated. They NEVER make a smooth transition from the utterly self-centered “give me, give me” mentality to assuming responsibility for some of their own needs.

We are delighted when the three-month-old grabs food from our hand and stuffs it in his mouth; but let a three-year-old try it and it is not so cute. We are delighted when a three-year-old interrupts our conversation with a tale of his own, but a nine-year-old is expected to say “Excuse me” and wait for an appropriate time to participate in the conversation.

When we believe a child has matured to the point of being capable of responsible action, we automatically expect it of him. If he is slow to assume his duty, we become irritated with him for not “acting his age.”

I’m confused by this passage. What does Michael mean by “we adults”? Is he referring to himself and others who follow his ideas, or does he mean to refer, as earlier in this passage, to people in general rather than to those following his methods? Because nothing in Michael’s book thus far has suggested that he actually senses “the capabilities of children” or expects then “to give-and-take at a level appropriate to their maturity.” I suspect he is suggesting that this is what ordinary people do, like when he lampooned parents for “waiting for the child’s understanding to develop so they can correct ‘bad’ behavior.” He is here stating that the transition from being center of the universe to living in a world with boundaries is never smooth, but earlier he stated that it wasn’t smooth if parents haven’t already “trained” the child using his methods.

And yes, different behaviors are appropriate at different ages. Just today I was thrilled when I opened a book and Bobby pointed and said “cat.” I would not have experienced the same excitement if I’d opened the book and Sally had pointed and said “cat.” Analogous at Sally’s age would be her reading the word “cat.” But honestly, I’m unsure what point Michael was trying to make by pointing this out.

The beasts of the earth, in contrast to man, never need make a decision to deny natural drive. They are within their intended bounds living to self-gratification. But the growing child, as well as the adult, who doesn’t rise above self-indulging desires is fallen from God’s intention and design. The root of all sin is found in the runaway indulgence of God-given desires. Though, due to lack of moral development, the child is not held accountable, the unrestrained indulgences of his desires will be the very root that will one day result in his sinfulness.

This last bit suggests that Michael is doing what I think he’s doing—he’s saying that young children’s “selfish” actions (I use the scare quotes because Michael unfairly interprets essentially everything a small child does as selfish) are natural and that they cannot be assigned blame for them, but that if they are not checked they will grow into sinfulness, willfulness, rebelliousness, etc. The solution according to Michael, if I am reading this right, is to follow his methods from a very early age rather than waiting for children to naturally go through this phase. What he’s missing is that it’s possible to handle this very natural phase—this transition from being the center of the world to existing in a world with other people—in positive and age-appropriate ways that help a child navigate it and come out on the other side better for it. Again, Michael’s solution is to short-circuit the whole thing by training a child to immediate obedience from birth rather than allowing them to be the center of the universe as an infant (by supplying their every need) and then helping them transition to a world where they understand both their needs and others needs and learn to balance those in a healthy ways.

If you think I’m misinterpreting any of this or have suggestions on other ways to understand what Michael says in this passage, do offer your thoughts in the comments!

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