I was on vacation last week, so I didn’t blog until Friday. I missed jumping on the train with the rest of the people who responded to Steve McCoy’s tweet about teaching our children they are “deeply broken.” There are still ripples from that tweet, and at no point has Steve bothered to apologize for his tweet. Instead, he’s chosen to troll Stephanie Drury on her Stuff Christian Culture Likes Facebook page, and he’s responded to the criticism (which has been vast) with defensiveness. He’s claimed that what he meant was that he personally does teach children that they are loved, though still sinful. The problem is, he tweeted something which had no context and wasn’t followed up with anything further. Plus, you know, the fact that what he said is wrong in the first place.
People screw up, make mistakes, do terrible things, hurt each other, sin, whatever you want to call it. We’re not perfect, and none of us can claim that we always do the right thing in every situation. But we are not “broken.” Objects can be broken, but humans cannot be. The word broken implies a need to be fixed or changed or repurposed in some way. It doesn’t make any sense to apply that to people.
Since that tweet and its fallout, I’ve seen many people talking about the shame they’ve felt because they were taught from a young age that there was something fundamentally flawed about them. This is common in Reformed Christianity, though it appears in various forms in all sorts of denominations. It’s based on the first premise of Calvinism, the doctrine of total depravity. While I don’t actually agree with that particular theology (or Calvinism in general), I can see how it could be taught in a less threatening manner. There is no excuse, on the other hand, for teaching anyone that they are “broken.”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because I’ve been doing some reading from autistic people. And yes, I’m referring to autistic people rather than “people with autism,” because this is how many autistic people choose to identify. The reason for doing so (in their words) is to emphasize that it is not something separate or external to their core as people–it is a vital part of their existence and make-up. It is this specific thing which makes me angriest about the “deeply broken” tweet.
After reading this excellent post by Michael Scott Monje, Jr. about person-first language, I began thinking about my son’s ADHD. There is only “person-first” language to describe him–he’s a boy with ADHD. I wish there were a different way to describe it, though, because without his ADHD, my son would be an entirely different person; he wouldn’t be himself. The urgency for such language increased after reading Steve McCoy’s tweet.
My son spent fourth grade in a classroom with a teacher who viewed him as, in a way, broken. I’m not necessarily criticizing her; it’s a common perspective in educational settings. I’m bringing it up because it’s the same thinking that leads to telling children they are broken in church settings. It’s a view of people–particularly those who don’t fit some expectation of “normal”–that leads to shaming them and turning them into “others” with whom we’d rather not associate.
The problem with that is that we can easily rationalize poor treatment of anyone we see as “broken.” When we teach children from a young age that they are broken, who they are at their core becomes irrelevant. My son’s ADHD and my friends’ kids autism are part of their “brokenness” rather than being something of value that makes them uniquely themselves. Rather than helping them understand their own identity, the language of brokenness shames them into thinking that they require fixing. Even for children who do fit into cultural and religious norms, these words are damaging and can lead to years of struggle to feel whole, particularly for those who develop physical or emotional challenges later on.
Instead of defending this terrible language, why aren’t people like Steve McCoy listening to those who have been deeply hurt by this teaching? Why aren’t they apologizing for the use of abusive, triggering language? And why in God’s name aren’t they urging us to have a view of our children that emphasizes their worth?
My son is not “broken.” He is not flawed, damaged, or otherwise ruined. These are not words he needs to hear, particularly as a child who does not fit with what’s expected. My daughter also has some things about her that make her different from other girls her age, and she does not need to be told she’s “broken” either. Failure to tell them that they are “deeply broken” will not lead to a belief that they are perfect and sinless. That concept is not necessary; they already know that everyone messes up. They are learning that who they are is not the same as what they do, and they are learning that there is a big difference between behavior some people don’t like and behavior that actively hurts someone else.
Instead of teaching our children that they are broken, I propose that we love them, cherish them, and teach them that they are precious, beautiful people. Instead of raising them on the doctrine of total depravity, how about we simply correct behaviors that are hurtful and harmful? How about we seek their forgiveness when we do the wrong things? We don’t need to make children–or adults, for that matter–feel ashamed of who they are at their core; they will meet plenty of people willing to do that for them. It’s our job to assure that they know how deeply loved they are.