By Sharon Hodde Miller
“Are sharks mean guys?”
My three year-old son is in the middle of a big superhero phase. Every day this month, I have either played the part of Wonder Woman or “Mommy Incredible Hulk,” while he rotates between Batman, Spiderman, and Superman. He sees the whole world in terms of heroes and bad guys, which is what prompted the question about the shark. He had seen a clip of the 1960’s Batman tv series, in which a shark bit Batman on the foot.
Before answering his question, I thought for a moment. It would have been easy to say, “Yes, sharks are mean guys,” because they are definitely scary creatures. On the other hand, sharks aren’t mean on purpose. They’re just hungry. They eat the food God created them to crave, which doesn’t make them mean. It just makes them sharks.
So that is what I told my son.
A part of me wonders if I was overthinking the whole thing. My son is three, after all. His world is black and white, which is totally normal for his age. On the other hand, that sort of labeling does not end in childhood. Even adults are quick to categorize people as either good or bad. It’s not a mentality that I want to enforce, especially since Scripture paints a very different picture of people.
Take David. David is one of the best examples of our complicated human nature. David was both a hero and a villain, a good guy and a bad guy. He was a man after God’s own heart, but he was also cruelly self-interested. Depending on which part of his story you tell, David is both a good example to our kids, or a terrible example to our kids.
It can be hard to reconcile these two sides of David. How could a man of such faithfulness and courage acts so cowardly and selfish? And yet, that’s a question our kids need to consider. At some point our children need to wrestle with the reality that people are complex, that no one is all good, or all bad—including themselves.
The truth is, there is a little David in all of us, and that truth should shape the way we treat others. In every person, no matter how lost, there is potential for good because of God’s grace. Likewise, in every person, no matter how saintly, there is a terrible capacity for sin. That is what it means to be human in a broken world.
Knowing this, the story of David should guide our parenting in multiple ways. First, it should shape the way we talk about people, including our children. We should be careful of labeling people “good” or “bad,” instead labeling their actions alone. Your child or her friends might be disobedient, but be cautious about adjectives that label their identity, particularly if that label is out of step with what Scripture says about them.
Second, the story of David helps us to extend grace to others. Rather than assess someone based on their worst behavior, give them grace. Perhaps they’re having a bad day—or a bad year—and there is good in them too. It’s our role to help our kids see people the way God sees them, which is through the lens of redemption and grace.
And finally, the story of David warns us against putting “good people” on a pedestal. The only hero who will never disappoint us is Jesus. Every other person, no matter how good or well-intentioned, will let us down. That’s why we need to teach our kids biblical expectations of others. No person can bear the weight of perfection, so they will inevitably let us down. Jesus, on the other hand, never will.
Labels are rarely a helpful way to understand people—whether it’s others, or ourselves—but David helps us with that. His story, of a deeply flawed man who did great things for God, is an opportunity to introduce our kids to the many layers of human nature. We live in a world of people who do good things and bad things, but our identities are defined by God alone. The sooner our children can grasp that truth, the better.
Sharon Hodde Miller is a writer, speaker, pastor’s wife, and mom. She is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics, and has also written for Propel, (in)courage, Relevant, Gifted for Leadership, The Gospel Project, and Christianity Today. To read more of her writing, visit her blog at SheWorships.com.