Douglas Wilson

CHILDREN have an innate sense of justice that is quite strict. But unless parents shape and mold this understanding, that sense of justice will do what each sense of justice do when it goes to seed—either it will remain “strict” and manifest itself as egalitarianism, or it will go the way of all hypocrisy and remain strict with others and quite loose with itself.

First, egalitarianism. A child's sense of justice is affronted if any other child within the household gets any privilege that is significantly different than those held by the other kids. One bone of contention (and a fine example of this) is bedtime. The fact that brother is two years older does not mean that he should be allowed to go to bed an hour later. Hmmm? Differences in food portions can be included here, as well as travel privileges, wearing of make-up, and all sorts of other potential pitfalls. Egalitarianism, as children attempt to impose it, is the doctrine that all children in the household, except for the baby, should be treated in exactly the same way. During all such discussions, parents should remember that God created hierarchy in the world, that egalitarianism is a false and pernicious doctrine, and that a conflict over such things is a good time to teach this. There is an important lesson here to learn: rank hath its privileges. This is good and noble and does not come close to constituting any injustice whatever. So not only should parents stick to their guns, they should be resolved to not feel guilty.

But there is another sense in which justice must be even-handed, a sense in which the same principles apply to all the children. The distinction is one which we used to have in our civil government, but which has been greatly muddled in recent years. Civil rights, rightly understood, apply to all. The right to a trial by jury, free speech, or habeas corpus, should apply to every citizen whether or not he or she is rich or poor, black or white, tall or short. But in an example of what has come to be confused with a civil right is the “right” to affordable housing. This is not in the same category.

In the home, each child does not have the right to the same bedtime—in just the same way that the citizens of the nation do not have the right to the same annual salary. But every child in the house has the right to not be convicted of a household “crime” on the testimony of just one witness. That has nothing to do with age, or body weight, or sex, or any other distinction between the kids.

In the last judgment, God does not show partiality on the basis of such things as race or wealth or what have you. This is the reason why our civil courts should have a statue of Lady Justice outside, blind-folded. What is it that she is supposed to not see? She is supposed to see and weigh the evidence, but she is not supposed to see or take into account the social status of the accused. Are they poor? Are they rich? It doesn't matter (Ex. 23:3, 6).

In the same way, and for the same reasons, these basic principles of justice should be honored in the treatment of the kids. By doing this, parents are not just doing justice for their kids, but they are also teaching them how to do justice themselves when they are grown. One of the reasons why many grown-ups do not know how to handle rules of evidence with any degree of wisdom is that they have not ever been treated with true justice themselves.

So first, do not convict any of your children on the strength of one witness alone. For example, if a squabble pours in from the back yard, and one kid says the other did something bad, but that kid denies it, there should not be a spanking—even if you have a strong hunch that he really did it. Scripture requires that every fact be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses (2 Cor.13:1). So if two kids accuse another, but you suspect that they delivered him up because of envy, then require three witnesses. The Word says two or three, just to mess with the tidy-minded.

An exception would be when the one witness is one of the parents. This is not because the principle is abrogated, but is rather analogous to a defendant who does something wrong right in the courtroom. The judge has the right to hold him in contempt of court, and does not have call witnesses to prove to him that he just heard what he in fact just heard.

Another basic principle of justice requires that the dispute be of a nature that in principle it can be inquired into (Deut. 19:18). If one child accuses another one of harboring sin in his heart, the parent should simply teach, not investigate, and certainly not spank. But if a child is accused of having climbed up onto the roof of the garage, then the parent should investigate.

To take the principle one step further, the accuser must be under authority as well. In that same passage, a false witness or perjurer, has to be subject to the same penalty the accused would have received had the charge been found true (Deut. 19:19). To carry out the example, suppose that getting on the garage roof was a spankable offense. Suppose a child is accused of it, and it is investigated, and it turns out that two or three of the other kids saw him up there, and ten minutes later twenty or thirty neighbor kids saw him up there. So the answer is found, and Billy gets a spanking. But suppose it is investigated, and the charge turns out to be false. The child bringing the false charge should be treated as though he were the one who had climbed up on the roof.

This kind of approach establishes a home in justice.

Reprinted from Credenda/Agenda, Volume 15, No.3