When it’s bad to be good


The other morning in church, I asked my nine-year-old if he would ask two other boys to help him collect and put away the hymnals. Cooper shook his head and whispered back to me, “They won’t help. … I’m the only decent boy here, Mom.” 

Honestly, he is, if not the only decent boy, a decent boy. Cooper has an impeccable toothbrushing record, gets nearly perfect grades at school, and makes his bed when asked. Fast forward to last weekend, when I overheard two people talking about their teens. The general consensus was if they aren’t hooked on heroin or pregnant, we ought to thank our lucky stars and leave them alone instead of harping on little things like playing too much Guitar Hero or not bringing their dirty pizza dishes up from the basement.

Cooper’s boasting that he was a decent boy and the conversation I overheard both bothered me. Is being a decent boy my goal for Coop? Are we, as God-fearing moms and dads, doing our jobs as long as we churn out kids who aren’t druggies?

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In short: Is morality enough?

According to Pew Research, more Canadians and Europeans think a person doesn’t need to believe in God in order to be good and/or moral. Most of the rest of the world, however, including the United States, thinks belief in God is necessary in order to be upright. Still, are we safe from the line of thinking that we are successful parents if little Johnny grows up to be an upright contributor to society?

We are quick to counter Oprah-esque philosophies, which would have our children believing that finding their voice, being true to themselves, and not giving away their power are the ultimate good. But we aren’t so quick to point out that being good isn’t the end goal, either.

Being good may keep us from alcohol poisoning, drunk driving, and cutting. Being good may save us from sexually transmitted diseases, out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and rehab. Being good may save our reputations, our purity, and our parent’s sanity. Being good is … good.

But it isn’t enough.

When life falls apart—and it will—for our children/teens/young-adult and not-so-young adult children, will having good morals save them?

Marshall Poe wrote in The Atlantic that, as director of undergraduate studies, he saw students falling apart with no one to help. Poe concluded we should teach not just about religion, but how to practice religion. In his opinion, any old religion will do, as long as it gives kids a “way of life.”

Perhaps this religiosity will help kids stop binge drinking and finish their degrees, but, pardon my repetition here, is having religion merely as a coping mechanism enough? Is following Christian principles enough? Is raising decent boys and girls enough?

Halfway through college, I considered dropping out for a semester. My dad said the worst thing that could happen would be my getting a good job, because if I did, most likely I wouldn’t return to school. Striving for the good without God seems similarly seductive.

When our kids sin boldly, as Martin Luther put it, at least they aren’t banking on their own goodness. When they act like angels, their need for God may not be as apparent, and that, my friends, is a problem we’d be fools to ignore.

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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