Woe is the day when a good friend rages, “My little girl said that your son…” Or worse, you walk in on your boys and a neighbor kid in a state of undress, experimenting with their bodies. The horrors of discovering that your young teenage boy is addicted to the worst kinds of pornography, or catching your girls trading lurid notes with other girls or boys! I could go on and speak of the things you may discover about your sons or daughters at various ages, beginning at three or four years of age, but “it is a shame to even speak of those things done of them in secret.”
We get the ugly letters. Parents are shocked, angered, and then brokenhearted and finally despondent. In one very rigid family the parents discovered their teenage boys and girls were engaged in immorality, and the parents were so demoralized that they turned back to their pre-church, pre-homeschool days of drinking, smoking, and bar hopping. The whole family went to hell. But one of the girls, after several years of marriage, experienced the new birth through faith in Jesus Christ, and it is she who wrote their story, now dismayed for her wayward parents.
There is no safe place. You cannot move to heaven. Even our little church and tight community discovers untoward behavior among some of the children from time to time. The Amish and Mennonite community has its share of horse dung now and then. You can isolate your children from all outside influences, yet they will discover and cultivate the lord of the flies lurking in their own flesh. Most kids have had some sort of sexual contact before they reach puberty.
We parents expect the best of our children. We train them to do what is right and protect them from evil influences. We are concerned when we see moral tragedies all around us, awful failures, kids taking the short road to hell. We know something like that could never happen to our children, for we are Christians and our kids are brought up to know right from wrong. Yes, we should have the highest of expectations, but if the unexpected happens and the devil dumps on our doorstep, do we know how to respond? Sometimes our parental response to a child’s divergence into the profoundly ugly is the deciding factor as to whether it is a one-time curiosity or a permanent turn down the road to perdition.
We hear too many stories from shocked and horrified parents. “How could this happen? I didn’t believe my son was capable of this. We did everything right.” And it’s true. You can do everything right and your children can still end up exposed to the sins of Sodom, the adultery of David and the fornication of Samson. The question is, have you gone beyond just “raising them right” to taking proactive steps to arm them against the day of dark temptation?
Innocence is no hedge
I am amazed at parents’ belief that they and their children are somehow immune to the depravity of the human race, that good is the default position in their family. If I didn’t have a Holy Bible, I would definitely believe in a sinful nature. Observable phenomena are indisputable. Universal depravity is more certain than taxes or death. Yet by the grace of God, through his Word and the power of the Holy Spirit, we can be overcomers in this world, and we can train up our children in the way they should go so they will not depart from it, but such is the supernatural exception, common to those who fear God, not the status quo.
Children are not born with our values. They do not come into the world good. They come innocent. And innocence is a two-way street, with no signs—only desire. Just as innocence provides no propensity to evil, it provides no protection from the false promises of the fun of experimentation. All options are equal in the mind of a child who has not yet come to a full knowledge of good and evil, something that comes to complete fruition by at least age 19. That which is morally obvious to us adults is—to a child—nothing more than two flavors. Why should one be eaten and the other shunned? They know not. So they taste all that is available until they develop a taste one way or the other. Eve couldn’t discern any difference between the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that led to death and the tree that would perpetuate life. She didn’t possess the experience and maturity to differentiate—as is the case with all children. But innocence is no hedge against the consequences inherent in any departure from the holy and pure.
The surprise and shock experienced by parents stems from children’s ability to originally conceive sin. Not all sins are copycats; not all spring from temptations without. Where children are concerned, there are many original sins. The natural appetites of flesh and mind are sufficient to account for the sins of youth. “A child left to himself will bring his mother to shame”, but even a child well-guarded and properly instructed will, like Eve, be tempted to taste the forbidden fruit, knowing not that a flaming sword will part them from their garden of innocence.
I have noticed a trend down through the years. Some parents are suspicious and distrusting of the flesh of their children and of the human race in general. They know their teen boys are going to, at the very least, take a mind trip down the road of immorality. These discerning parents know their young sons are going to come in contact with queer bait boys and grabbing girls. They are wisely suspicious of the preacher’s sons, the choir director’s girls, the old man teaching Sunday school, and the woman giving piano lessons. Then there are those parents who seem to trust everybody in the church and anyone who maintains a respectable lifestyle and has a good reputation. They act as if evil comes with a devil suit and a sign. They allow their children to run in a herd with other kids and believe evil resides on the other side of the tracks only.
If experience had not taught me something different, I would believe that parents who expect evil and take extra steps to guard their children are the ones who had rough pasts, and that parents who are naively trusting that their kids “would never do anything like that” are the innocent ones who have never seen true evil up close. Surprisingly, not so. Often parents who have come from the dark side of the tracks think they left evil behind and that their children could not possibly get involved in the things they experienced in the sick and seedy world of their pasts. Those of us who were brought up in the church and protected from societal evil can examine our own hearts and know that innocence is no haven against imaginations of the flesh.
What do you do if you suddenly discover you have a child that has been dancing with the devil? This is the most important thing I will say to you, so listen carefully: When the worst happens, do not assume it is all over. Do not go into mourning. Do not persecute the child. Don’t give up. Know that there is yet plenty of hope.
I am not merely telling you to keep a positive attitude like the doctor might tell you to do after informing you that you have brain cancer. Hear me now. Statistically-speaking, a young child who engages in shameful behavior is not by any means destined to be a pervert. Now think back to when you were a child. Did you ever get alone with a cousin or sibling and discuss the intimacies of what mommies and daddies do in private? Do you ever remember out of curiosity examining a member of the same or opposite sex? Did you ever view pornography? Did it make a pervert out of you? Did it totally destroy your life? A small percentage will say it was the first step to a downward road. For most it was just a passing discovery. I am not minimizing the seriousness of childhood participation in aberrant behavior, but I would like to minimize your emotional response, to prevent you from reacting in a way that is going to leave horrible scars where there would otherwise be quick healing, or maybe no wound at all.
According to age and need
Our response should be measured according to the needs and age of the child. The key is to discern the heart of the child. Children under five may see their parents or someone on television making love. Be sure, like everything else the world offers, they are going to try kissing or fondling any other boy or girl, sibling or friend, just to see why adults find such delight in it. When they find it to be quite boring, they will give up the idea and try a different flavor of ice cream. Unless they are led on by older children who do find excitement and stimulation, the little ones will not be harmed by curious investigation of their bodies or of others their age. Their exploration is certainly not desirable and may be a warning flag, but it does not mean you have a sexually active four-year-old.
If you should catch your very young children in this kind of unseemly behavior, do not blow your lid and go ballistic. First, without any show of emotion (difficult, I know,) evaluate the scene. Do they display guilt at being discovered thus? If not, then just say, “Put your clothes back on and stop that. That is what mamas and daddies do, not children.” Show a normal amount of irritation or mild anger as you would at a common infraction of the rules. Then make a show of forgetting it. But don’t forget it; keep an eye on them and make sure that is the end of it. You don’t want to attach guilt or shame to something they will otherwise forget for lack of significance. Don’t make more of the event than they made of it. Then in your regular Bible story time with them, teach the law of God concerning adultery, incest, fornication, etc., but at an appropriate level to their age and understanding.
Now what if the young children respond with strong guilt or shame? Make sure it is not just a reflection of the shock and shame on your face. If it is a true reflection of their souls, chances are this is not the first time and they are deriving some kind of illicit pleasure out of the event. They are knowingly violating their consciences. You have a sinner in the house.
It is yet important to remain calm and in control. You need to separate the kids and talk to each one individually. As much as it pains you, get the whole story. It is now important to express controlled shame and disgust at their deeds, but not so intensely as to cause them to clam up. They need to see your sadness, your tears, your grief, but this will pass, so allow them space for repentance. Don’t create an atmosphere that will prevent them from feeling loved and forgiven.
I have suggested that if the small child seems to be doing nothing more than experimenting out of curiosity, don’t highlight the moment by making a big deal out of it, and wait until later to teach them about Sodom and Gomorrah and the sin and judgment of King David. But if there is great guilt and shame, if this is a secret sin to the child, the time to teach is right now. Again, stay calm and in control. They have a spanking coming. If there are children involved who are not your own, and you feel the other parents will share your approach to discipline, and they are immediately available, they should be called to participate in the “court proceedings.” If you feel the other parents are not going to sympathize with your approach, separate out any that are not your own children and then deal with your kids alone.
After briefly defining their transgression and telling them the evil of their deeds, with all of your children that were involved present, spank them soundly. If you are not in control of your emotions, save the spanking until you are. Do no harm to the child. That would be counterproductive. They need to see a dignified judge passing sentence, not an out of control personal response of violence. If they are expecting a spanking, by getting it out of the way, they will be more focused on what you have to say. Now sit them down for a serious Bible study on their sin and the consequences.
If there are other children in the house who are aware of the foul deed, and are old enough to benefit from the teaching, they should sit in on the session, as well. As you teach, it will be appropriate to continue to express limited grief and sadness. More is caught than taught. You should have already been teaching these things to your kids in your regular Bible story lessons, but, if not, now is the time. For those who feel completely inept at teaching, I suggest the Sex Education for Children audio message that instructs kids in Biblical prohibitions against sexual sins. As a preventive measure, Deb and I addressed the subject to our children at least once a year, and from time to time they heard instruction and warning in sermons and adult Bible classes. All the children, of any age, sat in on the teaching.
Seven- to twelve-year-olds
Even where it concerns older children, all is not lost. There will be better days. Do you remember the story we have told of the beautiful homeschooled girl, lying in an uninsulated one-room shack with no water, electricity, or heat, delivering the baby of an empty-headed boyfriend? Deb, my wife, functioned as her midwife and then brought her and the child into our home to recover. The offended and insulted parents had shunned her to hide their own shame and protect the rest of the children from her bad influence. But her life got even worse after she married the father of her child and he took her to live in his father’s house. It wasn’t long before she discovered dark deeds involving a stepmother and trade-ups made in the night, things I cannot describe without being vulgar beyond bounds accepted in state prisons.
She took her baby and fled to where even we could not locate her. The parents were brokenhearted to the point of treating her as if she were never born. It took about two years for her to surface. Today, fifteen years later, she is happily married to a fine man and has several more children by him. She is still a lovely person and no one would ever know that she walked the valley of the shadow of shame. I do not know how she now relates to her parents, but I wonder if they wish they had acted with a little more grace and hope. I have seen too many parents deal with a crisis like this by taking on a permanent state of sadness and rejection. They end up destroying the rest of the family and drive them all out of the home early.
Teenagers can be amazingly volatile and foolish. They can scream they hate you and never want to see you again, disappear out of your life seemingly forever, and, one year later, be sitting at your kitchen table chatting like nothing ever happened. When they are thirty-five years old, married and with several kids, they will shake their heads in embarrassment at their foolish years. The question is, will you still be a part of their lives, or will you have responded with such anger and criticism that they chose to live without you?
So what does it mean and how should you handle it when a seven- to twelve-year-old diverges into some form of sexual curiosity or activity? The age brackets I discuss are not rigid. You must understand the principle and adjust to the needs of your child. First, know that at this age it has the possibility of being serious. You must get all the facts first. If you immediately show great anger, they will likely clam up on you. Try to appear calm and objective as you ask questions. If it takes an hour to wear them down to telling all, then stay with it until you are confident you have gotten all the details. “Has this been going on for a long time? When and with whom did it start? What other expressions have you indulged in? Why do you do it? What has influenced you to do this—television, videos, computer, a peek at mommy and daddy, seeing someone else, viewing pornography in a magazine, contact with an adult?”
Then ask them how they feel about what they were doing in secret. You want to discover how deeply they are violating their consciences. If you have not exposed your children to teaching against sexual promiscuousness, and have not taught them Bible stories that warn against such, then they may consider it not much more than stealing a cookie. If you determine this to be the case, it does not lessen the ramifications of the events, but it does modify the way you respond. Now is the time to show grief and sadness while you teach and instruct them against such practices. Commence a daily Bible study in which you teach the stories of God’s displeasure and judgment against sexual sins. Teach on sexual sins every day for about two weeks and then leave the subject and teach the greatness of God and his goodness and mercy and forgiveness. Teach the book of John or Mark, story by story all the way through. Teach the Psalms and especially Proverbs. As you come to the subject in Scripture, teach against sexual promiscuousness at least once a month.
If, before the events, your children have been well-taught about the sinfulness of their deeds and they have indulged anyway, the problem is much more serious. They do not fear God and do not believe his Word. Ask yourself why and remedy that problem in the future. Willful sinners, of any age, who turn away from their consciences, are on the road to addiction and perdition. You need to bring the Biblical truth to bear in such a way that they fear to walk the dark path. In your teaching time, recount the horrors of hell and eternal suffering.
Children who have violated their consciences will need to be soundly spanked after they have understood the awfulness of their sin. Their souls need the release that judgment brings. This will be one of those rare times when you give them more licks, distributed over a wider area so as not to bruise or damage the skin. They need to know this is an especially dark deed deserving of special judgment.
How should you respond when post puberty children engage in sexual conduct?
I know you understand this is a different matter altogether. Girls do not just grow into sexual interest and passion. They must be conditioned to it by some outside influence. But boys develop sexual passion by just going through puberty. No one need tell them anything. It is their destiny. Parents and the church must prepare boys for the transformation and temptation their hormones will bring. If a boy just follows his drives, he will become a predator and quickly develop into a deviant. Passion, fire, aggression, and violence are in the members of all fourteen-year-old boys. Only though self-restraint and discipline can a young man contain his passions and wait his turn to “possess his vessel in sanctification and honor”. I know of only two things that can constrain a young man—the morals and restraints of community, and the Word of God.
All that we said concerning your response to a pre-puberty child is true here, but there is an important added element: you are now dealing with an adult—in various degrees, depending on age and maturity. The only restraint will be self-restraint. The kid must repent, change his mind about his actions and choose to suffer the pains of temptation in self-denial. Only by the power of the gospel in his life will this happen. Once the flower blooms there is no putting it back in the bud. The trick is to now keep it in the flower stage until it can be taken to a wedding.
How should we relate to children other than our own?
Once, a parent came to my wife shocked and upset. Her five-year-old son came to her telling how another boy, eight years old, had cornered him in an aggressive manner and demanded to see his “PP.” The five-year-old was afraid of the older boy but refused to expose himself. Good training! The mother acted as if she had just lost her innocence. “How could this happen among good Christian families?” Probably because they are sons of Adam, made of flesh. If you think otherwise you are naive at best.
Now how should this mother and father relate to the family with the PP-peeking pervert? The short answer is, “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17–18). Look at the wording, “mark them.” Put a mark on them so you and everyone else can “avoid” them.
As far as your children are concerned, the offender is as taboo as a rattlesnake. The offender will probably grow up to be normal, but know that he is part of the pool that will produce the small percentage of perverts that decorate the walls of post offices and occupy the cells of prisons. You should have compassion for the offender, and if you are in a position to minister to him, do so, but your first duty is to protect your children from rattlesnakes by never allowing them in the same yard together. That is not to say that you take your children and go home if the offender’s family ends up at the same gathering as yours, but it does mean that by all means you quietly and inoffensively take whatever steps are necessary to keep your children from ever spending five seconds alone in his presence. By alone I mean standing and talking within sight but out of hearing.
We want to be balanced and compassionate. What if you are the parent of the offender? Would you want others to just throw your son away? Would you want the church and community to publicly mark him as a pervert? Of course not. Then do unto others as you would have them do unto you. You have two separate responsibilities. You must first assure the protection and sanctity of your son, and then you must do what you can to save the offender from his untoward behavior. Keep in mind that the offender will most likely grow up to be quite normal. It could have been just a moment of curiosity. We do not want to publicly destroy the young boy or girl and thereby force them into a life of isolation and anger.
On the other hand, even if the event (and possibly several others like it) does not cause the boy to grow up to be a pervert or a predator, know that his possibly passing display of voyeurism or curious moment of exploration could have much more negative consequences on those whom he infects. He might grow up to be normal while he leaves behind weaker souls who grow up to hang out in the men’s rooms at interstate rest stops. We must be protectors first and healers second—but never persecutors.
If a nine-year-old is a repeat offender and has on more than one occasion tried to see the private members of another boy or girl, it is obvious that he has a chronic problem. Mark him to your children, by discussing the evil of his ways. Let your children see an attitude of disgust on the one hand and compassion and pity on the other. During your family worship time and in your bedtime prayers, pray for the offender’s lost soul.
Never allow your children to play with or even talk to the child. It won’t do any good to change churches. Kids everywhere are offenders. Where you are now, at the very least, you have identified one offender. There are others in the same group—in any group, without exception.
Deb spotted two post-puberty Amish girls in the creek feeling each other. When she confronted them they confessed that several of the girls carried on in such a manner in the two-stall privy at the one-room schoolhouse. When Deb had them confess to their parents, the parents were so uncomfortable discussing it that they dismissed her and buried the whole thing with silence. The girls appear to have grown up to be “normal,” except one.
Pretend it never happened
Many parents will pretend it never happened, or if it did happen it doesn’t mean anything. Once, in our own church service, a visiting girl who is homeschooled but attends a public church passed a note to one of our girls who has been known to offend. The note said…I can’t tell you what it said, but it had the strongest of lesbian content. The parents brushed it off with a smile and the remark, “Oh, you know, kids will be kids.” Yeah, and kids will be little Sodomites and fornicators as well. Remember, children died in Sodom and Gomorrah just like the adults. And when God sent Israel to possess wicked Canaan, he told them to kill every man, woman, and child. Yes, they could not adopt one of the beautiful little two-year-old girls, for the whole nation was conditioned to great immorality and infected with disease.
Judge and Jury
Do not become a persecutor of the offenders. Don’t act vindictively. Don’t despise the parents. Put yourself in their place. You could be there three years from now. Have compassion. Be sympathetic. By all means, protect your children, but don’t give your own kids cause to see you as hostile. You may generate sympathy for the offender and render yourself dislikeable in the eyes of your own kids.
Fourteen to eighteen-year-olds
There are two kinds of teenage offenses—consensual and predatory. Our response should reflect that difference. Predators should be reported to the law and incarcerated. It will be the end of their moral life, for they will be placed in a government institution with other perverts where they will prey on one another and learn all the foul arts of Sodom. It is sad, but under Mosaic law they would have been stoned to death.
If you have teenagers that descend into the dark pit of sexual promiscuousness, it is too late to parent them into a course correction. When the member gets out of the pants it cannot be put back in except by the crucifying power of the Holy Spirit. (See my series, Sin No More.) Your job will be to manage them in a manner that minimizes the impact of their sin upon the rest of the family and upon others with whom they come in contact.
If they are cooperative and repentant, thank God and show mercy and forgiveness. Offer support and try to normalize the relationship.
If you become aware your child is involved in consensual sexual activity with a child about the same age, you must view both of them as equally guilty even though one of them may have been initially the experienced predator. There are too many variations for me to cover all the possibilities.
My readers come in a variety of extremes. I know that it is impossible to communicate clearly with all of you. Some are so “compassionate” and afraid to offend that they will believe the best, cover sins with silence, and ignorantly act as if all is well, giving evil the cloak it needs to continue its insidious, undetected infestation. Other of my readers are “fearless defenders of the truth” who pride themselves in their stand for righteousness. They will recklessly condemn the guilty and mark in bright red the offenders, hounding them with condemnation until they are driven out of the company of “decent folks.” I would have to speak in the extreme, one way or the other, to reach the radical left and right on this or any issue. I am sad to confess that most of my readers will only remember those words that enforce their already preconditioned perspectives. The compassionate will avoid judgment and the judgmental will refuse to show compassion, as has been their manner all along.
I must confess that I am conflicted. Part of me would like to mark all the sinning children, separate our families, and shun the offenders altogether. But there is another part of me that wants to redeem the sinning children and weep with parents who must deal with these issues. One of the things that gives me hope is my many years of experience. God is merciful and longsuffering, and I have seen him forgive people I wouldn’t have buried with my dead dog. I have observed as God lifts a piece of trash from the ground and holds it to his heart. As I watch in awe, it turns into a lovely son or daughter of God. The useless is united with heaven itself, and he is not ashamed to call them brethren. I don’t want to get to heaven and find God hugging something I threw away.
So, I say again, first protect your children, and then reach out in compassion to lost souls of any age. Secure the safety of your family and then become missionaries to an evil world. Just because the devil is clutching something, don’t fear to reach for it with a hand of mercy and a heart of grace. The blood of Jesus Christ covers a multitude of sin. (See my teaching from the book of Hebrews.)
“And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6: 11).
Help Me Help You
There is so much I didn’t say and couldn’t cover in the space allowed. I am no expert on the subject. I am not a counselor on sexual matters. I would be glad to leave this subject to those more qualified, but there is a vacuum I have tried to fill. I welcome your input. It may well be that I am blind to some of the issues or have overlooked good solutions. As you share your perspectives I will learn from you and take that into consideration when addressing this subject in the future.
For more information on how to talk to your kids about Biblical prohibitions against sexual sins, get Michael Pearl’s audio message called Sex Education for Children, available at the NGJ Web Store.