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No One is Born Bad (or, Babies are Really Cute)

If I ever do bite the bullet and buy a PVR it will almost be exclusively due to my hatred of television commercials. The prospect of skipping over every moronic attempt to sell me something is a delicious one indeed. But I’m also cheap. What to do? Such are the weighty conundrums of my life.

Anyway, I usually try to hit the mute button when the commercials come on, but I was a little slow on the draw the other night while the kids and I were watching the hockey game. And once this commercial started, well, there was no way the kids were letting me mute it. This comes to us courtesy of People for Good:


And we all felt appropriately warm and fuzzy about the potential of children and human goodness before returning to the spectacle of a bunch of grown men skating around with sticks in their hands trying to hurt each other.

A few days later, I came across this article in the National Post about how the Calgary Board of Education is scrapping the traditional grading system of A’s, B’s, C’s, etc and replacing it with a four-point system: “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging” or, “support required.” This would, apparently, allow teachers to be seen more as coaches than taskmasters. It would also have the happy consequence of never having to tell a child they were failing. Of course, if my kid received a “support required” or even an “emerging,” I suspect that I would think something like, “Oh, so that’s kinda like a C?  Or an F?  I guess, they’re kinda at the bottom of the pile?” But I don’t want to rain on the parade. If the educational theorists are convinced that this new system will be better for the kids, by all means—emerge away.

It’s interesting, this matter of how we think about our kids. As the video above put it, “No one is born bad.” Of course not. They’re all angels, they’re all smart and creative and abounding in creative potential to change the world.  And CUTE. Gosh, are they cute. They could never do anything bad or stupid, or lazy, or predictable, or selfish. They can’t fail, they’re kids. How dare we adults impose all of our harsh, binary judgments and evaluations upon them?!

Except for they can fail. And they do. Anyone who is a parent knows that the idyllic moments of giggles and smiles and wonder and tranquil, Facebook-able cuteness exist alongside (and are sometimes dwarfed by) other moments. Moments of squalling, belligerent rage. Moments of mind-bending irrationality. Moments of pure, unadulterated selfishness. Babies might not talk behind their co-workers’ back or give other people the finger, but there are moments when they sure seem primed to do so should the opportunity present itself. The hardware sure seems to be  firmly in place, even from a very early age.

“No one is born bad.” Of course not. We’re all basically good. And cute. For the most part.

If we stop and analyze this sentiment even for a moment, we see that things descend into incoherence pretty quickly. The most broadly accepted default narrative of human origins in our culture describes a species that has come into existence by a long period of evolution which rewards adaptive fitness and personal survival. Full stop. Human beings are inherently selfish, on this view, right down to the genetic level. Even if we allow for some kind of “group selection” to account for the persistent moral impulse toward things like altruism and selflessness, the best we could say, from a consistent evolutionary perspective with no room for God in the equation, is that human beings are a mixture of pure selfishness and a bit of other-focused goodness (which is really just our selfish genes tricking us into cooperating to enhance our reproductive fitness, but that’s another story). So, on this view, we kind of are born bad.  At least partly.

Of course, the same picture is true on most religious conceptions of the world. I can’t speak to every religious anthropology, of course, but whatever the narrative path might look like, most seem to arrive at the basic conclusion that human beings are a mixture of both good and evil. We have some tendencies that are admirable and praiseworthy, and some that are destructive and terrifying. We have the potential for astonishing goodness, and equally astonishing evil. We are created with the very breath and image of God, but we bear the marks of sin and rebellion. We succeed and we fail. We’re not angels but we’re not demons either. To varying degrees and as a result of countless biological and social factors, we’re somewhere in between. Right from the beginning.

So, on a materialistic view of the world, we’re born a mixture of good and bad. And on most religious views of the world, we’re born a mixture of good and bad. Hmm.

“No one is born bad. We are all basically good.” This strikes me as the sort of sentiment that is uniquely suited to and perhaps could only have been birthed by a culture that has left or is leaving Christianity behind. We have just enough residual belief in the inherent value and specialness of human beings bequeathed to us by Christianity to be thoroughly enamoured with all of the wonders of ourselves, and just enough disdain for oppressive religion to reject the possibility that there could be anything wrong with us. How lucky for us.

It’s an interesting (and enormously flattering) view of human nature but one that, regrettably, I will have to give an “emerging minus.”

(I just can’t bear to give anything a “support required.”)

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ruth #

    Funny, I just had a 9 year old client roll her eyes at this new way of grading. She gave it an F.

    June 12, 2013
  2. Robert Martin #

    I, too, am not entirely comfortable with “everyone is good”. Everyone has the POTENTIAL of goodness in them… but we’re hardwired to look out for the self. Even babies, if you think about it, are all about “me me me me”. I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m bored, I’m stinky, I’m wet, I’m lonely. “me me me me”. As a father of two daughters, it really bothered me trying to figure out “Where did they learn selfishness from?” before they even went to school. Did they get it from their mommy and daddy? I don’t think so… at age 2 I’m not sure if they can understand that. But if, everytime they cry because they have a need, that need gets reinforced, even from a very young age they are being trained, simply from physical survival instinct, that looking out for yourself and demanding attention for your personal needs gets rewarded.

    The POTENTIAL for self-less acts are there… but we need to be INSPIRED to them. Even non-Christians get inspired to self-less acts. But, at the core, is the inspiration for it. For those of us who believe in the transforming power of Christ, the inspiration comes from that connection to God and God’s Spirit, not necessarily through some sort of instinctual thing…

    Anyways, much food for thought here…

    June 12, 2013
    • It’s interesting, isn’t it? For creatures that are “born good” they sure seem to take to this selfishness thing pretty quickly…

      I agree, Robert—it’s about potential and how we nourish and guide and shape this potential. Thanks for your comment.

      June 12, 2013

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