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Moral precept number six in On Becoming Childwise is to Avoid Legalism When Giving Instructions. Let’s start with an explanation of what Legalism is.
Legalism is viewing everything as either black or white. “Legalism elevates method over moral principle to create prohibitions” (page 85). This means that you value the rule more than any virtue that might require you to break that rule.
There are many examples of being legalistic in the scriptures. Pharisees and the Sadducees attempted to catch Jesus Christ in an act of breaking the law in some way. If he healed on Sunday, they accused Him of breaking the Sabbath. They tried to create situations to cause him to break some law–like bringing the adulteress woman before him. The lessons learned from these stories in the scriptures are that we should follow the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Sometimes the ox is in the mire, and given the context of that situation, we do some labor on the Sabbath day.
Legalists do not consider context when making decisions. As we discussed last time, context is an important factor to consider when giving and following instructions.
We need to be careful about legalism because a child tends to think very legalistically. When you say, “Don’t throw the ball in the house” the child might jump to “I can never throw balls!” When you say, “Do not yell inside” the child will hesitate to yell even if yelling could save someone from harm.
The child things in black and white terms, so we need to be careful that we do not teach legalistically. Avoid the words “never” or “always.” Remember to teach why and explain the context of a rule.
Avoid legalism in your own mind. When your child breaks a rule, think before you respond. Did your child get out of bed even though you have a rule to stay in bed? Before you respond with a consequence, inquire as to the reason your child got out of bed. Perhaps your child needs to use the restroom or maybe your child feels sick. Wait for an explanation before you jump to your own legalistic conclusion.
Remember, we don’t want our children to just act morally, we want them to think morally and to be moral. It will take time and teaching, but you will get there.
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