The Christian Ethics of Children: Emerging Questions and Possibilities

[1] Christian ethics of children1 – as opposed, say, to the study of children’s spirituality or faith formation – has traditionally asked profound questions about the larger meaning and purpose of child rearing and the relation of children to society. Deep roots of these questions lie in Jewish concerns with creation, pro-creation, and offspring; New Testament interest in Jesus’ birth narratives, special ministrations to children, and images of Christians as “children of God”; and also extensive Greek discussions in Plato and Aristotle about children in relation to nature, households, and government. The Christian tradition around children has taken many lively twists and turns, disputes emerging, for example, in the Middle Ages between Augustinians based on the Confessions and Thomists from the Summa over children’s sinfulness versus goodness. Reformers like Luther and Calvin disagreed over the relative moral obligations owed children by the church and the state. And deep differences emerged in modernity, not just between Enlightenment thinkers like Locke, Kant, and Rousseau, but also between theologians like Edwards and Schleiermacher, over children’s nature, spirituality, and capabilities.

[2] In contrast with this rich tradition, Christian ethicists of the past 150 years have had relatively little to say about childhood of a systematic or sustained nature. Children have arisen as secondary concerns within larger discussions of business, war, biomedicine, the environment, sexuality, marriage, and women, but rarely in and of themselves. Christians, like other ethicists, often assume that children belong to the private sphere alone, perhaps suitable for empirical study by historians and psychologists, but beyond weighty public debate. But this privatization of childhood itself represents a problematic larger cultural shift fueled by an Enlightenment individualism that values rationality and agency over vulnerability and dependency, as well as a Romanticist division of society from the “separate sphere” of the sanctity of the home.

[3] Children today, however, face a whole raft of unique and profound social issues. Thirty-five thousand children globally die every day from easily preventable causes. In the United States, children in the last three decades have become the poorest segment of society, have the least access to health care, and experienced seismic and well documented increases in ill health, drug use, depression, suicide, and homicide. Children also face significant declines in the stability and existence of their parents’ marriage, time spent with parents, protections from the power of mass media, and other forms of social capital.2 Children have arguably become, in many ways, the new “other” in the public sphere.

[4] The last decade or so has begun to see several emerging voices in the Christian ethics of children that constitute promising early signs for the possibility for a more sustained ethical discipline to develop. Interestingly, almost every one of these voices agrees broadly on the ethical problem: that children’s vulnerabilities are increasingly instrumentalized and commodified under a contemporary social culture of autonomous individualism. But the questions asked of this problem, and the solutions offered, differ significantly.

[5] The earliest voice, from the late 1980’s, might be called a “communitarian” one that opposes individualism by re-imagining child rearing as the transmission of larger social, civic, and historical values. Beyond the simplistic ultra-conservative discourse of “family values,” this “top-down” approach began to use teleological theories from Aristotle and Thomas to ask what children need, as fellow fallen creatures, to become responsible participants in communities. For example, Stanley Hauerwas argues against contemporary “permissive” child rearing for an alternative Christian ethics of “initiation of children into the moral beliefs and institutions which we value.”3 Gilbert Meilander claims that “parents [should] commit themselves to initiating their children into the human inheritance and, more particularly, into the stories that depict their way of life. In so doing they shape, mold, and civilize their children.”4 And in a slightly different way, Jean Bethke Elshtain proposes “a revamped defense of family authority” so that child rearing can overcome superficial self-actualization by “inculcating moral limits and constraints.”5

[6] A quite different Christian ethical approach subsequently emerged, however, in the 1990’s, that I would label broadly “liberationist.” While it is also worried about the negative impact of market utilitarianism (hence it is not to be confused with “libertarianism”), this “bottom-up” view asks instead more deontologically oriented questions about children’s economic, cultural, and social justice in the face of their oppression. Children are innocent and so vulnerable within contemporary market forces that they need special systemic protections and superabundant love. For example, Adrian Thatcher proposes a new global “theology of liberation forchildren” that can prophetically resist their increasing social marginalization.6 Pamela Couture somewhat similarly argues that “the central work of pastoral or congregational care is care for the most vulnerable persons in society, poor children,” and this care fosters “the kind of resilience that continues to share responsibility despite overwhelming odds, gains, and disappointments, a resilience that is tenacious because it arises from God’s grace.”7 And in a different vein again, Herbert Anderson and Susan Johnson claim that “when we say ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ we mean that two competent parents are not enough for the task of childrearing; we also need to develop supportive environments that are economically viable.”8

[7] Finally, an even more recent approach has developed around what I would call a “covenantal” ethics of childhood, although to my knowledge this term is never itself used in this context. This “dialectical” view mixes teleological and deontological concerns by asking how mediating social institutions – like marriage, family, and the church – may support children’s integration into their social ecologies. For example, Don Browning argues for “the revival and the reconstruction of the institution of marriage as a crucial new imaginative response to the forcesof technical rationality,” primarily in order to resist a growing absence of fatherhood.9 Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen advocates a “social partnership” model of child rearing that uses the covenant of marriage to help “putchildren first, without putting women last, and without putting men on the sidelines.”10 And closely related is a Catholic recasting of Pope Pius XI’s “principle of subsidiarity” to argue that specialized family child rearing responsibilities need to be protected but also “furnished help” (subsidium) by larger social institutions like church and state. Somewhat similarly, Lisa Cahill argues for viewing the family as a “domestic church” in which children’s private capacities for compassion and love may be “gradually extended … to larger and larger communities.”11

[8] While each of these kinds of approach is asking important questions, I confess that my own proclivities run more toward a joining of the latter two. I have argued elsewhere that childhood needs to be understood as a broad cultural and political problem concerning the reproduction and re-creation of society itself.12 This means that we need to rethink social institutions – from family and marriage to church, community, the professions, and the state – to better and more rigorously support children’s emergence as creative contributors to the world. But it also means recognizing children’s unique social vulnerability and making profound structural changes to economic and political systems that treat children marginally. The church has not only a vital caring role in children’s day-to-day nurturance and development in families, but also an often untapped prophetic role in calling society to justice regarding those who cannot do so themselves.

[9] But rather than trying to answer the many complex issues raised by these differences in approach, I think it is more important at this point in the only just emerging cultural conversation to try and clarify some of the key questions that might prompt a sustainable, fruitful, and public ethical discourse. To this end, I would like to conclude by taking suggestions from the models of pluralistic hermeneutical debate in thinkers like Paul Ricoeur and David Tracy to propose a more broadly integrated disciplinary agenda.13

[10] First, it is necessary to begin, especially today, with the ontological question of what children are when they come into this world. This question has too long been dominated by Enlightenment views of children as only pre-rational proto-adults. It has also been obscured in Christian ethics by the somewhat different abortion question of when children come into the world. Children’s commodification will be resisted only by learning to investigate fundamental issues of children’s original innocence versus original sin, goodness versus evil, being blank slates or brimming with inborn potentialities, spirituality and embodiedness, passivity versus agency, vulnerability versus capability, and so on. Religious thinkers are particularly well situated to ask such questions because they have to do with primordial human origins. How one answers them makes an enormous difference in how one thinks children should be treated and raised.

[11] Second is a teleological question of what, therefore, given childhood’s starting point in the world, child rearing should ultimately hope to accomplish, its social purposes and aims. Religion is again significant because it is in part through child rearing that societies aspire for a transcendingly better future. Should children grow up into contributors toward common goods or independent-minded social critics, healthy individuals or altruistic lovers of others, stewards of particular traditions or reformers of the larger world? And how should one define and critique differences in social expectations connected with gender?

[12] Third is a more deontological question of where the obligations and responsibilities should lie for moving from one’s ontological starting point to one’s teleological aim. Gender is again important today because child rearing responsibilities, both in the home and elsewhere, continue to follow an industrial model of falling chiefly upon women, indeed arguably increasingly so, a longer tradition of male responsibility having been largely forgotten. But there are also vital questions of the relative ethical obligations toward children of parents versus society, schools versus churches, extended family versus communities, and business, mass media, and the state. Religious ethicists should not confine themselves to the spheres of church and family alone, because children’s lives in our complex and global world are impacted by a vast array of social forces and institutions, all of which require a fresh and more integrated critique.

[13] Fourth and finally are practical questions, questions of phronesis or “practical wisdom,” concerning the means by which these adults and social institutions should help bring children’s formation about. If Christianity finds redemption in the activities of this fallen but not entirely hopeless world, then practical questions are not just afterthoughts but part of the ethical dialogue itself. For example, what symbolic and theological languages could help parents to be simultaneously loving nurturers and limiting disciplinarians? Should parents stay (or get) married for the sake of their children, and should the institution of marriage generally be strengthened for the sake of children’s overall well-being? How should children be considered in marriage education, couples therapy, and divorce law? Is the present school system up to its changing social and cultural tasks? How can churches play a role as children’s public advocates? Should children have greater rights from the state to health care, representation, and protection from poverty?

[14] Some such disciplinary mosaic of questions is needed today if Christian and other ethicists are again to treat childhood as the serious public concern that it is. Religious thinkers have the opportunity, based on their complex traditions, to resist children’s increasing cultural marginalization and lead the way in addressing what will become one of the major social and global issues of the twenty-first century.

1 A version of this essay was first given as a paper at the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion in November 2003, at the inaugural session of a new Consultation on “Childhood Studies and Religion.” Thanks are due to Marcia Bunge and Bonnie Miller-McLemore for organizing this session.

2 During the relative affluence of the last census in the U.S., in 2000, 16.9% of American children under 18 – or 12.1 million children altogether – lived below the rate of poverty (United States Census Bureau, “Census 2000,” available on Census web site,, P60-210, pp. vi and ix). Approximately 10 million children have no form of health insurance (Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West, The War against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads [New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998], p. 250). Children spend on average 10 hours a week less time with their parents than they did in the 1970’s (Victor R. Fuchs, Women’s Quest for Economic Equality [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988], p. 111). Children are now more likely than not to live some of their childhood apart from one parent (Sara McLanahan and Gary Sandefur, Growing Up with a Single Parent: What Hurts, What Helps [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994], pp. 2-3, and Frank F. Furstenberg and Andrew Cherlin, Divided Families: What Happens to Children When Parents Part [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991]). Children now have a 33% chance (up from 5% in 1970) of being born outside of marriage (David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, “The State of Our Unions 2000: The Social Health of Marriage in America,” report of the National Marriage Project, Rutgers University [2000] [see web site at], p. 33). The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2000 “Kid’s Count Data Book” reports that the teen birth rate in the United States in the late 1990’s was twice that of any other developed country, about 6 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19 (p. 28).

3 Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), p. 173.

4 Meilander, “A Christian View of the Family” in David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, eds., Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family (Milwaukee, WI: Family Service America, 1990), 133-48, p. 143.

5 Elshtain, “The Family and Civic Life” in Blankenhorn, et al., eds., Rebuilding the Nest, 119-32, p. 131. See also Elshtain, Public Man, Private Woman: Women in Social and Political Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), p. 326.

6 Thatcher, Marriage after Modernity: Christian Marriage in Postmodern Times (New York: New York University Press, 1999), pp. 132-70.

7 Couture, Seeing Children, Seeing God: A Practical Theology of Children and Poverty (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000), pp. 13 and 16.

8 Anderson and Johnson, Regarding Children: A New Respect for Childhood and Families ( Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), p. 18.

9 Browning, Marriage and Modernization: How Globalization Threatens Marriage and What to Do about It (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), p. 7.

10 Van Leeuwen, “The Signs of Kuyper’s Times, and of Ours” in Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Stanley J. Grenz, Mardi Keyes, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, Women and the Future of the Family (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), pp. 75-92, p. 91

11 Cahill, Family: A Christian Social Perspective (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress, 2000), p. 16.

12 Wall, “Animals and Innocents: Theological Reflections on the Meaning and Purpose of Child-Rearing,” Theology Today 59.4 (January 2003), pp. 559-582; and “Let the Little Children Come: Child Rearing as Challenge to Contemporary Christian Ethics,” Horizons, forthcoming.

13 See Ricoeur, Oneself as Another (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1992) and “Love and Justice” in Ricoeur Figuring the Sacred (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1995); and Tracy, The Analogical Imagination: Christian Theology and the Culture of Pluralism (New York: Crossroad, 1981). The following four dimensions also parallel Aristotle’s “four causes” (formal, final, material, and efficient); see Aristotle, Physics II.3 and elsewhere.