Teaching Children About Sin Versus Protecting Their Self Esteem

Thanks for joining us for another session of the Children’s Ministry Think Tank. The purpose of these posts is to address some of the sticky issues that come up in real world kids ministry. Please join the conversation by leaving a comment at the end of the post.

Question: Thinking about Sin and Self Esteem

How do you teach the doctrine of sin to children without harming their self-esteem? Especially with preschool children, how explicitly do you teach them about their own depravity? How do parents in your ministry respond to these issues?

Response From Brenna Phillips

The Bible speaks clearly about obedience. We have a great responsibility to be obedient to God. We can learn from the kings who ruled Israel and Judah that there are consequences for having a lack of obedience. Some kings began their time of reign as good kings who followed God’s ways but somewhere along the way, they lost their focus and traveled down the wrong path leading them to destruction and often death.

How do we teach sin to children? We teach them that it is our responsibility to be obedient. We love God; therefore, we are obedient to follow His ways. When we lose that focus and are not obedient to God then there are consequences and punishments.

We are obedient to God by being obedient to our parents, grandparents, teachers, and other adults. When we mess up and are disobedient, that is called sin. Sin separates us from God. Sin can be big, like stealing something that doesn’t belong to us or hurting someone else even as far as death. Sin can be something smaller, like saying unkind words to someone or treating others badly. God loves us but He hates sin. God wants us to follow His ways and obey His commandments and rules.

Think about a river. As the water flows in a river, it picks up dirty mud, trash, and pollutants along the riverbanks. This trash floats in the water making it very dirty. Sin is the trash in our lives that makes us dirty. The cross upon which Jesus died is our bridge across that “dirty river.” When we accept Jesus as our personal Savior, we are walking across that bridge to God where we are clean and free from sin again. It is our responsibility to be obedient to stay clean and follow God’s ways and commandments.

The parents of the children involved in the children’s ministry at my church have not had any responses to teaching about sin. They are appreciative that I teach their children on their levels of understanding.

Brenna Phillips is the Children’s-Family Minister at Mission Fellowship Church in Middletown, Delaware, and teaches 3-4 year old students at an early childhood learning center. www.brennaphillips.com

Response From Terry Delaney

I believe first and foremost we have made an idol of self-esteem. While we do not want to “beat” the children up with talk of sin, I think we need to start at a very early age explaining to the children what sin is. We are told to teach “these things” to our children in Deuteronomy 6. The “these things” being referred to is the book of Law and it is there where you find what sin is exactly as well as what obedience to God looks like. By not teaching our children early in life what sin is and what it is not, we create the exact opposite of what Paul wants us to be in Romans 12:3–that we not think as highly of ourselves as we ought.

Teaching them about their depravity (I would not use that word in talking with the kids) is actually quite simple. If you continue to show the kids what the Bible says about their disobedience, the Holy Spirit will begin to work in their hearts. We really do not need to do much other than hold them accountable to what Scripture says. We should always compare them to Jesus Christ as the ultimate role model rather than having them look to another child who is acting obedient. When compared to the standard of Christ, we all fall short of the glory of God.

Unfortunately, I have found that I need to teach the parents more about sin than the children. The kids know they are sinning, but they also know that mom and dad will let them get away with it. Parents have bought into a psychological understanding of rearing their children that does not corroborate what the Bible teaches–that we are all sinners from birth. The children usually understand more readily that they are sinning than the parents. For those parents who do begin to make that paradigm shift in their minds, I have noticed a major attitude change in the children. It is amazing what a biblical understanding of your child will do for your ability to discipline properly.

By teaching children early in life that their disobedience to mommy and daddy is actually a sin against God lays a wonderful, biblical foundation for the gospel later. I have seen this in my own son who just turned five years old. He told us the day before his 5th birthday that “Jesus cast Satan out of my heart.” He said he was tired of sinning and wanted Jesus to forgive him. While we are not ready to dunk him and declare him to be a Christian, we have noticed that the Spirit really convicts him of his wrong doings and that when we challenge him with the Bible he readily conforms to Scripture.

Terry Delaney is the Children’s Minister at Carlisle Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, KY. He writes at Christian Book Notes.

Response From Wayne Stocks

When I first got the e-mail asking me to participate in the most recent Children’s Ministry Think Tank, my first thought was “I hope I am qualified, and I am certainly humbled to be in the company of the other writers in this series.” My second thought focused on the term “self-esteem” in the question. I was inclined to share my opinion on the psychologically created idol of self-esteem. I was all prepared to remind everyone that the Christian life is all about God and not about us. I was fashioning language to express the truths of how big God is and how small we are. I was looking up the verses about not esteeming ourselves (Romans 12:3) and how any esteem we have should come from God (James 4:10). Then I decided not to go down that route and instead answer the broader question “How do you teach the doctrine of sin to children?” I think the answer to that question will implicitly answer any issues of “self-esteem.”

An understanding of sin is foundational to the gospel. Without sin, there is no need for the cross. Without the cross and resurrection, there is no Christianity, and to paraphrase Paul, we are to pitied above all men. So, how do you teach the doctrine of sin to children?

I believe that it is essential that kids understand five different things about sin in order to really understand the concept of sin. Those are:

1. What is sin?
2. Where does it come from?
3. Who sins?
4. What are the consequences of sin?
5. What is the solution for sin?

PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS:

This post is already much longer than I had anticipated, so I will try to keep this short, but I think there are some practical considerations that should be taken into account when teaching elementary age children about sin.

First, at that age, kids tend to be literal thinkers. Although I think the concept of sin is natural to them (it is evident in their own lives), it is still a concept and the more concrete examples you can provide the better. That said, be careful not to overemphasize behaviors as sin and remember that sin is more about heart attitudes than the actual behavior which they manifest.

Secondly, repetition is key. The more you can reduce the concept to small “sound bites” and repeat those, the more likely they are to retain them. For example, an explanation of sin can be quite lengthy. This article is proof of that! But, if you boil it down to the minimum, sin is “Doing what we want to do instead of what God wants.” Use that phrase, or whatever you come up with, over and over. Have the kids repeat it with you. Even something as simple as “Everyone sins. Everyone!” can help to drive the point home when repeated over and over.

Thirdly, find ways to help kids internalize these ideas. Don’t just tell them that everybody sins, explain to them what sin is and have them come up with ways that they sin. Make a game show out of it. I can hear it now…. “Welcome to a brand new edition of ‘EVERYBODY SINS!’ Join us as we find out how normal everyday people have sinned this week.” The topic is serious, but the presentation can be fun and help the kids to internalize the concepts using examples from their own lives.

Next, I don’t think you can do justice to the idea of sin in one 30 minute teaching. Consider doing a series. You might consider a five part series dealing a little more in depth with each of the sections addressed above.

Finally, above all else, don’t underestimate kids. Don’t discount their ability to comprehend because they are small. I have a blog in which I address various issues related to Children’s Ministry, and I find this point coming up in virtually every article I write. If I could impress one thing on people about working with kids it is this – “they are capable of a lot more than we give them credit for!” The ideas they grasp, their simple take on complex concepts, their ability to comprehend, and their openness to ideas astound me more and more every week! Let me give you an example from my personal life. My son, who is now eight, was learning about sin and the cross. One night when he was four, my wife and I were having a particularly hard time with our teenage son, and I had lost my patience and started to yell. My five year old came up to me and said, “It’s OK Daddy, the devil made Josh’s heart black for now, but God wants to make it red again. He just needs to ask God to do it!” I’ll say it again…don’t underestimate their ability to comprehend!

PARENTAL REACTION

I have not gotten any feedback from parents as of yet on this issue, but I am a father of four children and in a position to talk about it from that perspective. I do know that many parents are somehow able to divorce the ideas of the Bible from their own kids in their minds. Parents don’t like to accept that their kids are sinners. How can that innocent little bundle of joy that they just brought home from the hospital actually be a depraved being steeped in sin since birth? If you’re going to teach kids about their sin and that everyone sins including their parents, you should be prepared for some feedback.

If you’re planning on doing a lesson or series with your kids on sin, it might be worthwhile to suggest to your pastor or leadership that the whole church have a bit of a refresher course on the topic. There are too many churches where the issue of sin and the consequences of sin are not giving nearly enough attention.

I think a lot of parents who do teach their kids about sin put too much focus on behavior. “You know lying to Mommy and Daddy is a sin.” or “Hitting little Billy is sin.” I know that I have been guilty of this in my own childrearing. I think we can help parents both on this issue, and in parenting in general, by steering them to issues of the heart. Finally, parents must understand that no matter what we teach kids at church on Sunday, ultimately the Christianity which their kids will likely live out is the Christianity they see their parents living Monday through Saturday!

Read more from Wayne on his blog “Dad in the Middle

Response From Jeri Tanner

Great topic, and a truth that parents and other teachers should examine and wrestle with in Scripture if necessary, until it has been come to terms with. I’ve seen devastation in the lives of children and adults who haven’t grasped the implications of our depravity—our inability to please God apart from the work of Jesus Christ. We all need to comprehend more deeply our need for the Savior. And we need to understand why instructing our children in these truths, at the appropriate level for their age, can’t begin a moment too soon.

The doctrine of depravity, understood and taught correctly, will not damage a child’s self-esteem; in fact the opposite is true. This doctrine provides the only true hope for mankind, as it both explains what we see all around us and offers the solution for it. Apart from a firm grasp on the reason for our own sinful behavior and inclinations, we’ll turn to moralism and legalism as ways to transform behavior; ways that are surely doomed to fail! Helping our children to grasp the sweetness of the gospel of Christ in light of our stubborn opposition to God will cause us and them to know we are loved for eternity. That’s self-esteem worth having!

Of course, a two year old cannot grasp all this or its implications. But as children progress in maturity, the real dilemma of their souls can be understood more and more. As we share with them how we all were (and are) “in the same boat” with them, so to speak, children do not see their own badness in any untrue sense. Carefully and regularly teaching them the gospel, going back to the fall of our first parents in the Garden of Eden and God’s subsequent promise to send the one who would crush the serpent’s head and save us from our sins, should become the best news they have ever heard.

Parents in the church may not be familiar with these gospel truths themselves, and may be offended when we tell their children that apart from Christ there is no righteousness. I have sympathy for any distress brought about by it. Wisdom, patience, and humility are called for. The greatest ministry of the children’s department can be to parents, helping them grow in doctrine and godliness so that they can instruct their children in the things that lead to salvation.

Jeri is a wife, mom and member of Christ’s body in Trussville, AL. She is writes from Ministry-To-Children.com and serves the children in her local church.


Comments

  1. Sandy says

    Tonight I am headed to children’s church and I found this site to get ideas as to teaching the sin concept to preschool children. How I appreciate these pointers, and I will use them! Another idea that has come to mind is to talk to them about their own frustration in trying to “be good” all the time. They do try and they know they fail when they try. Sin is like a master that entices them regardless of their best intentions. When Jesus took the blame for our sin, He broke the power of that master. Romans 6:22 speaks of becoming servants of Jesus instead of slaves to sin.

  2. Jan says

    There is an amazing wealth of information here! Thank you for it all!

  3. says

    Julie,

    Thanks for the reply. It’s actually a nice crisp fall day here. No sunshine, but I’ll take this over the rain!

    I really think you it on four critical points when it comes to dealing with sin:

    1. Sin is not a lists of do these things and don’t do these things and you’ll be OK. Sin is about a heart attitude and an attitude towards God. I think anytime we give kids examples of sins, we must be very clear that these are just some examples, but their are innumerable ways to sin.
    2. I also think the heart grows harder and more deceitful as we grow older. I think that is why our Lord said we must be like children to enter the kingdom of God. Frankly, it’s also one of the reason I so enjoy working with kids.
    3. There is an astounding lack of good adult mentors in our churches today, and those personal relationships are critical to the spiritual growth of children including learning about sin and redemption.
    4. The marrying up of their feelings with the truth is important and gives kid personal application. My only concern is that we don’t teach kids that their feelings are the determiner of sin (i.e., if it feels bad or guilty it must be sin and if not, you’re fine). That said, God did give us this internal guidance system called our conscience to help guide us.

    Thanks for your contributions. These Think Tank questions are always a lot more fun and edifying when people share their own views!

    God Bless!

  4. Julie King says

    Hi Wayne,

    I agree with you on the concept from Jeremiah (I find myself repeating it a lot, actually). I was mostly thinking in terms of giving kids a list of examples of sins–i.e. lying to your parents, hurting someone physically, etc. I worry sometimes that, without good adult mentors to help kids understand the bigger picture of the nature of sin and of redemption and of those experiences in real life, we give kids a list that just sounds like “don’t do these things and you’ll be okay.”

    I also think that, given the young age of your son in the examples you gave (and I’ve seen examples like that in my own two kids and in my own church), very young kids often begin by recognizing within their own hearts that something isn’t right–that they feel sadness or guilt, and if we can help them recognize/put together those feelings and the truth of sin, we go a long way toward helping them understand the need for God and God’s redemption. Personally, I think the heart gets more deceptive as we get older! And in working also with middle- and high-school youth, I do see what you’re describing that way, but more often in older kids.

    I guess if there were easy, clear-cut answers (not the individual guiding and mentoring of each young disciple, which is so much more intensive and effective), it wouldn’t be a think tank question!

    Blessings, and I hope you’re having some sunshine in your world today (it’s raining cats & dogs here),

    Julie

  5. says

    Julie,

    I appreciate your comments and especially your desire to take biblical concept and convey them to children in age appropriate ways. And, I do believe that the Holy Spirit uses our conscience to convict us of sin. That said, when I read your comments my mind kept wondering back to Jeremiah 17:9 which indicates that the heart is deceitful above all things. I think teaching kids about sin based solely on their feelings is dangerous. As the father of four (and in my own life) I know that sin does not always lead to a feeling of being further from God. Children must be rooted in truth and truth is often at odds with our feelings. Especially in the post-modern world we live in where something may be “OK for you” but “it’s not my thing,” I think it is important that kids understand that things are sins, not because you or I feel they are, but because God says they are. There are lots of people out there who feel close to God because they are very legalistic and moralistic outwardly when in fact they are far away from God.

    I do recognize that Children at that age often have a hard time stepping outside themselves to see their own sin. I think that it why it is important to give them a mirror. When they can’t step outside themselves to see sin, the truth of God’s Word serves as that mirror so they can see themselves in it – where they line up with God’s plan and where they don’t.

    Finally, I have to say that I don’t think kids have to be “older” to understand that they are sinners in need of a savior. Oftentimes I think they grasp that concept better than adults. My eight year old son got baptized this past weekend with an understanding of the power and grace God has shown him in his life. At the age of seven he (out of the blue and unprompted), he took his knowledge of the gospel and told me this story (From The Mouth of Babes…. In my post above, I tell the story of where, at age five, he saw sin, recognized it for what it was, and talk about God’s solution for it. I am constantly amazed by what kids, even young kids, can grasp about sin and salvation, and I think that God calls us to share to full counsel of his truth with them from a very early age.

    God bless you as a mother and a fellow Children’s Ministry Worker!

    In him,

    Wayne

  6. Julie King says

    The thing we need to remember when talking with young children (early elementary and younger) about sin is that, while they may know if they did something good or something bad that other people will react to, they can’t developmentally “step outside themselves” and recognize their behavior, or their attitudes (even harder), as sin. So it helps if we give them a beginning vocabulary and ways to think about their experiences. I try to teach that sin is something that makes us feel farther away from God. So if a child does something or says something or even thinks something, and it makes them feel far from God or makes them feel like they want to hide from God, that’s what sin does. It takes us–our minds and our hearts–farther from the God who loves us. That’s one way to recognize what sin is and how it makes our lives worse.

    Then as children get older and learn more about Jesus and the Gospels, we can start to connect the dots for them that God loved us enough to send us Jesus. Jesus loves us enough to show us the Father and then to die in our place. The Holy Spirit loves us enough to come and be with us always, guiding us always toward God. It’s complicated stuff to a small child, especially all at once.

    I have a kindergartner right now who has a pretty short fuse. He and I are trying together to learn how to control the “mad” when it comes up. I need to talk with him about whether the “mad,” and what the “mad” makes him do, helps him feel closer to God or farther away from God.

  7. Dawn Cooper says

    I appreciated all of the above wonderful points. Thanks! I too teach children and have made a giant “Wheel of Dreaded Consequences” game. It keeps the class fun while reinforcing the truth that there are consequences for our Choices–and that is my Main Point–Choices, Choises, Choices!! Every day, each one of us (adults too) must make choices for right or wrong. I use these foundational scriptures with these comments: I set before you Life or Death, Blessings or Cursings–CHOOSE LIFE!
    The Wages (you “earn” it=choices) of Sin (disobedience/rebellion) is DEATH, -But- (the “Good News” is) the Gift of GOD is Eternal Life.
    Satan comes to Kill, Steal, Destroy. Jesus came that you might HAVE LIFE Abundantly! — It is the Fathers Good Pleasure to Give you the Kingdom! He Loves you SOOO much that he even gave His only Son to die for you. GOD IS LOVE. GOD IS GOOD. GOD wants only your best. He is the Good Shepherd. The Lord is MY Shepherd so I shall have NO Wants! I believe if the kids see the enemy as he is and the Lord high and lifed up in His Majesty, they will want to Choose to do right. They must see Satan as their enemy–he is out to get you to fail and to mess up your life. He is a deceiver, a liar, a murderer. Don’t fall for his lies. Be smart, and be on guard. Jesus is you best, faithful friend who loves you beyond measure. He said I will never leave you nor forsake you.
    One of my favorites–Delight in the Lord, and He will give you the desire of your heart! Acknowledge ME in ALL your ways, and I’ll Lead and Guide you.
    He said He’d be your Comforter, your Strength, your Wisdom, your Power.
    HE is FOR YOU, — and satan is AGAINST YOU!
    So, CHOOSE YOU this day who you will SERVE, because you WILL serve one or the other. There is no middle ground.
    When we study the Bible lessons, I always point out the Blessings the people recieved for Obedience and the Consequences they received for their Disobedience. (Beginning with Adam and Eve being blessed in the garden and having to leave when they Chose to Disobey) I make sure I stress the Mercy and Longsuffering of God and that WE Reap what WE Sow, and that that is entirerly fair. Also the scripture It is not His will that any one perish, but that ALL COME TO REPENTANCE. Coupling that with …and IF any one does sin, if we confess our sins, He is faithfull and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness! (Praise the LORD!!!) Jesus said, Go, and Sin NO more. Be Overcomers. Especially important to kids is to stress that it is a Growing and Learning process and that God looks on our hearts. HE knows our motives and whether we are really honest before Him. He is not harsh, but Full of Compassion. Offer them something better. Offer them Hope and Love. Isn’t that what we all want, after all? The bottom line is, If you Love Me, You WILL Keep My Commandments. (Love) Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do NOT the things that I say? If you love someone, you naturally want to please them. It is really all quite simple, isn’t it? LIFE/DEATH, BLESSINGS/CURSINGS. Hmmmmm tough choice? I think not! GOD IS A BLESSER, A REWARDER, A LOVER–HE IS GOODNESS!

  8. says

    Glad to see you all continue to carry this torch. Well done. Wayne, you are plenty qualified, and again well done. :)

  9. says

    Brenna, I love the further explanation of the bridge analogy. Maybe everyone else has heard it before, and I managed to miss it all these years, but I love it and I’ve started using it.

    Terry, Your point about making sure that Jesus is the yardstick is critical. When we compare kids to other kids, or when they do it, we miss the bigger point of God’s standard.

    Jeri, your comments on parents being offended reminded me of 1 Peter 2:1-12.

    A couple of the responses touched on the need to deal with heart issues in kids. The best resource I have seen on this for parents is Tedd Tripp’s book “Shepherding a Child’s Heart.” One of the points that book drives home is that discipline should not be mainly about corrective action but about bring a child to the Cross of Christ. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t checked it out to do so!

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