The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.
Well, after recovering from last week’s
disaster post, I’m pleased to report that What to Expect from a Twelve-Year-Old (hereafter referred to as 12YO) will not be a repeat of Why Satan Wants Your Firstborn. That’s not to say that 12YO didn’t have its fair share of wrongheaded ideas, just that they weren’t quite as extreme or ridiculous as the ones in Why Satan Wants Your Firstborn. And since I’m short on time (it’s Saturday night – all hail Hester’s mad time management skillz) and not in the mood for a lengthy or clever introduction, let’s get right down to business and take a look at Davis’ central thesis in 12YO: that some Biblical accounts give us specific developmental goalposts for our children.
You may be wondering what passages Davis has in mind. Well, if your first thought was Ephesians 6:1-3, then you would be wrong. Davis instead talks about Samuel, who apparently demonstrates three character qualities (total obedience, full respectfulness, and responsiveness to God) that Christian parents should expect of all three-year-olds. In other words, three-year-old Samuel (even though he’s never actually stated to be three years old at any point in the first three chapters of 1 Samuel) was placed in the Bible for the express purpose of giving Christian parents a “model” three-year-old with which to compare their child. The same apparently goes for twelve-year-old Jesus amazing the teachers in the temple (Luke 2:41-51):
Jesus is the example for twelve-year-olds so that, at age twelve, they can examine their lives and make sure before they hit their teen years that they are truly following in the steps of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Unfortunately Davis never made any effort to prove this main principle (virtuous children in the Bible are age-specific developmental models for all children of the same age). He merely assumed it, then used it as the basis for the rest of the lecture. And since I can’t find anything in the accounts of either Jesus or Samuel to indicate they were intended as child development models, I have to conclude that Davis simply imposed this grid upon the accounts and ran with it ad infinitum, thus corrupting everything that followed.
But isn’t Davis right in principle, at least about Jesus? Aren’t Christians supposed to be imitators of Christ? Certainly they are. But as we’ve seen from his treatment of Samuel, Davis turns this excellent piece of general advice (imitate Christ) into an overly-specific list heavily infused with his own legalistic assumptions. In fact, Davis gets no less than seven specific character qualities out of Luke 2, which all twelve-year-olds are apparently supposed to exhibit. I won’t list all of these here, as I’ll be going through them in the rest of the post. Suffice to say that most of them sound good, until we get to Davis’ specific applications.
I do, however, want to look at one of the character qualities Davis claims Jesus exhibits in Luke 2. This is “full obedience” (which by this point we know really means first-time obedience). This turns out to be the central irony of 12YO, as it’s clear from Luke 2 that Mary and Joseph not only did not intend for Jesus to stay behind in Jerusalem, but were much less than pleased when they found Him in the temple after three days of searching:
Now so it was that after three days they found Him in the temple, sitting in the midst of the teachers, both listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. So when they heard Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” (Luke 2:46-48)
In other words, it’s easy to construe Luke 2 as an act of disobedience on the part of Jesus. Davis’ only way around this is to latch on to vs. 51, which states that Jesus was “subject” to His parents when the family returned to Nazareth. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Davis, however, that this qualification may have been necessary precisely because of Jesus’ distinctly non-“subject” behavior in the rest of the account. It’s thus hard for me to hear 12YO as anything but an elaborate dance, designed to minimize behavior by Jesus that’s extremely difficult to shoehorn into Davis’ first-time obedience philosophy.
In fact, whether he realizes it or not, Davis has painted himself into a very unpleasant corner here. If anything other than first-time obedience is sin, what are to make of Jesus’ actions – since, despite Davis’ obfuscations, they clearly do not conform to first-time obedience? We can conclude nothing else but that Jesus sinned when He ran away from His parents and went to the temple. This, of course, causes a whole world of problems for Christianity. So since Davis’ ideas about obedience run directly counter to Jesus’ own teaching anyway, wouldn’t it be much safer to just ditch first-time obedience (and S. M. Davis)?
#1: Josiah, Boy of Destiny
Okay, so the title of this section was obviously inspired by this Calvin and Hobbes strip. However, I wasn’t the first one to use the word “destiny,” Davis was, because all twelve-year-olds are supposed to have a mature sense of responsibility, purpose and destiny. What this means only emerges gradually as Davis explains himself. At first it seems to mean only that twelve-year-olds should do their chores without being told, but it soon becomes clear that Davis is really after mini-adult behavior by children. We can see a good example of this in his examples of Biblical teenagers who “caught a vision” for God:
Both the Bible and history prove the astounding ability of teenagers. In 2 Chronicles 24, Joash became king at age seven, then reigned for forty years. The Bible says he did right in the sight of the Lord, he repaired the temple of the Lord. Josiah became king when he was eight years of age. 2 Kings 22:2 tells us, and he did that which was right in the sight of the Lord and turned not aside to the right hand or to the left, he stayed right on target with what God wanted him to do. He began to seek after God at age sixteen. He decided to repair the temple of God, and the book of the law of God was found while they were repairing the temple. They brought it to the king. They read to the teenage king out of God’s law, and when they did the young sixteen-year-old king Josiah ripped his clothes and then took action…
There’s two problems here. For one, Davis is not telling the whole story about Joash. Though he may have inherited the throne at age seven, it’s highly unlikely Joash was actually running the state at such a young age; there was probably a regent involved until he became mature enough for the job. More importantly for our purposes, however, is that Davis leaves out an all-important qualifier when he says Joash “did right in the sight of the Lord” – a qualifier included in the full account in 2 Chronicles 24:
Joash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest. (2 Chronicles 24:3)
Reading further in the account, we learn that after Jehoiada’s death, Joash begins worshipping idols and even has Jehoiada’s son killed when he calls him on his apostasy (2 Chronicles 24:15-22). This hardly looks like “catching a vision for God”!
The second problem lies in Davis’ example of King Josiah. Now certainly no one would deny that Josiah was a competent and accomplished ruler who appears to have begun his career rather early. However, I’d like to draw your attention to the seemingly tiny detail of Josiah’s age. Davis first claims that Josiah began to seek after God at age sixteen, which is true (2 Chronicles 34:3). However, the events Davis mentions concerning the book of the law did not occur when Josiah was sixteen (the rest of the Chronicles account can be read here, and the Kings version here):
In the eighteenth year of [Josiah’s] reign, when he had purged the land and the temple, he sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, Maaseiah the governor of the city, and Joah the son of Joahaz the recorder, to repair the house of the Lord his God. (2 Chronicles 34:8)
Let’s do a little math. If Josiah became king at age eight, and the book of the law was discovered in the eighteenth year of his reign, how old was he? Certainly not sixteen as Davis claims – unless Josiah was ruling Judah in utero (talk about precocious) – but twenty-six. So the “teenage” king who tore his clothes when he heard the words of God’s law, was in fact not a teenager at all, but a fully grown adult.
But Josiah’s age causes even bigger problems for Davis (aside from casting serious doubt on his reading comprehension skills). This is because, in the end, even Josiah fails Davis’ own test. After all, Josiah was not twelve when he began to seek God, but sixteen. This turns to be a pattern with most of the historical figures Davis mentions – at least half of them were older than twelve when they accomplished whatever remarkable thing Davis praises them for. There were a few exceptions – for instance, David Farragut, who was put in command of a captured ship at age 12, and John Trumbull, who passed the entrance exam for Yale at age 7 – but by and large, most of them were in the neighborhood of 15-17 years old. Thus, Davis is, more often than not, changing the terms halfway through his own argument. In terms of maturity, there is a world of difference between a twelve-year-old and a sixteen-year-old, and Davis cannot equate the two simply because they are both “teenagers.”
What Davis also misses is the element of exceptional talent. Mary, Joseph and the teachers in the temple are “astonished” and “amazed” when they hear Jesus’ answers. In other words, far from being standard operating procedure for all twelve year olds, Jesus’ accomplishment was viewed as unusual even by His contemporaries. Thus, the Bible itself does not seem to indicate that we should expect a normal child who is not the omniscient Son of God, to reach this level of achievement by age twelve. As for the historical figures Davis mentions, history alone should teach us that most twelve-year-olds could not captain a ship like David Farragut or go to Yale like John Trumbull. This has always been the case, even in the “good old days” Davis so eagerly romanticizes. Davis can sustain his case only by failing to mention the thousands of average twelve-year-olds who did not or could not achieve these things.
#2: Creep radar
Davis’ next requirement for twelve-year-olds is that they have a keen sense of discernment, especially about the company they keep. Now I’ll be the first to agree that a lot of Christians could do with a big dose of discernment. That being said, however, it becomes clear by the end of this section that Davis lacks the very quality he’s encouraging in twelve-year-olds. He begins with the typical anti-peer rant we’ve come to expect from Vision Forum’s speakers:
At age twelve, who was Jesus with? Jesus was not cruising up and down Jerusalem Boulevard with the local yokels. He was not running the streets forming gangs. He was with the doctors, the experts in the Word of God, the teachers of the Word of God. He was hearing them and asking them questions and they were amazed at Him.
Davis concludes from this, as well as the account of Rehoboam, that twelve-year-olds should spend as much of their time around godly adults as possible.
Now I’m certainly not against children listening to their elders, and it is a good thing to learn from Rehoboam’s mistake and not completely eliminate older and wiser counsel from our lives. However, like the rest of his FIC-inclined friends, Davis seems to swing too far in the other direction, almost to the point of portraying peer interaction as bad in and of itself. He talked a lot about a child’s elders, but only mentioned their friends if they were “wrong friends” (peers who would lead Christian children into misbehavior). In fact I found myself wondering if children are even allowed to have friends in Davis’ world (though I doubt he intended to teach this).
Where Davis’ discernment fails, however, is not in the area of peers but in that of adults. In his zeal to condemn peer socialization and encourage children to heed adult counsel, he has failed to issue some very important warnings, most crucially the warning that not all adults are safe. Some adults are drug dealers; others are abusers; still others are child molesters or sexual predators. I imagine that if he was confronted about this omission, Davis would insist that he keeps children safe by directing them to only godly adults, who would never engage in any of the aforementioned behaviors. Unfortunately this only reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the tactics of sexual predators, who are often extremely skilled at tricking authority figures and potential victims. Boz Tchividjian elaborates:
It is critical to note that this abuse is no less prevalent in the faith community. In fact, there are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments. The Abel and Harlow study revealed that 93% of sex offenders describe themselves as “religious” and that this category of offender may be the most dangerous. Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims. This disturbing truth is perhaps best illustrated by the words of a convicted child molester who told Dr. Salter, “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.”
#3: Questions, questions and more questions
Davis’ third requirement is that twelve-year-olds should have a hunger for truth and wisdom. Now it isn’t really a secret that the average twelve-year-old will usually ask a lot of questions, and actually Davis’ initial advice in this section isn’t that bad taken in isolation from the rest of the lecture:
How can you create in your children a hunger for truth? By sharing truths that you discover. As you discover a truth and get excited about it, your children will get excited about it. Then they will want to find and share truths with you. Discuss the messages that you hear in church, go home after this service and discuss this message. Encourage your children’s presence in adult discussions about the things of God. Let your children hear you asking wise questions. Asking questions is itself a sign of maturity.
It’s really a pity, then, that Davis doesn’t agree with himself. Near the beginning of the lecture he condemned an article about teenagers in a popular magazine, and one of his first criticisms was that it promoted twelve- to fourteen-year-olds “questioning their parents’ values.” So is questioning a sign of maturity or not? Or is only some questioning acceptable – i.e., questioning that assumes the parents have everything right? I already seriously doubted Davis’ ability to cope with a young person who had questions about big issues in Christianity. His lack consistency here makes me even less confident that he could handle such a situation.
#4: Separating the men from the boys
It was only a matter of time before first-time obedience showed up yet again, and sure enough, it is Davis’ fourth requirement for twelve-year-olds. Since I already discussed above how Jesus’ actions in Luke 2 don’t line up with first-time obedience at all, I’d like to expand upon the idea of children being mini-adults, which Davis touched on again in this section:
Obedience must not be negotiable. Before age thirteen, a child should obey concerning what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, with whom to associate, what books they can and cannot read, what duties they must perform, what kind of attitude they’re allowed to display. Incidentally, ideally a child should not have to be spanked after age twelve. Why? For the same reason you don’t get spanked as adults. … But by age twelve, a child should be an adult who shows true obedience and true responsibility. I didn’t say it wrong or a sin to lovingly and without anger spank a teenager, I said hopefully by that age they wouldn’t ever need it. Obedience to proper human authority is the automatic response of a heart that is tuned to gladly obey God.
As an aside, I do feel I must point out to Davis that some Christians actually do practice adult spanking. A proper exploration of that subject, however, would require a whole post of its own (and probably a psychiatrist too), so I won’t go down that rabbit trail today. For now, I’d like to focus only on Davis’ statement above that a twelve-year-old is an “adult,” as well as a related one he made near the beginning of the lecture:
I appreciate the wisdom of a godly man who said to a ten-year-old he was talking to one day, he said, oh, you’re ten years old. Just two more years before you become a man.
As I said above, Davis seems to be crystal clear here that the goal is for twelve-year-olds to behave like tiny adults. It’s unclear to me, however, how his description of a child’s life before age twelve or thirteen would in any way promote mature adult behavior:
Before age thirteen, a child should obey concerning what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, with whom to associate, what books they can and cannot read, what duties they must perform, what kind of attitude they’re allowed to display.
The parent in Davis’ ideal picture here is, essentially, controlling all aspects of their child’s existence. The child must eat when and what the parent says. All their friends must have parental approval. The parent’s even doing their level best of to regulate their child’s emotional states! Then, on their twelfth birthday, all this magically changes and the child must suddenly become a responsible adult. But how is this supposed to happen? How can a child learn responsibility if they’re never allowed to make any of their own decisions, and experience the consequences of those decisions? Certainly, under Davis’ system, they’ll probably experience the consequences of disobedience. But this is teaching conformity, not responsibility. A dog could experience the same thing – but no one would ever dream of referring to a dog who learned to sit as “responsible.” If this feels dehumanizing to you, then congratulations – you’re not alone.
Then, of course, there is the salient fact that no matter how Davis wants to spin the topic, twelve-year-olds are not adults, physically, emotionally or psychologically. Puberty happens for a reason, because in the real world (unlike in Davis’ world), it takes time for a child to transition into adulthood, even physically. In fact, I’m curious, since Davis probably doesn’t believe in psychology and thus wouldn’t accept the emotional and psychological components I mentioned above as valid, what physical milestones a child must reach to be considered an “adult.” Is an eleven-year-old girl who gets her first period now a “woman,” regardless of any other factors?
And since I’ve opened this box, I’d like to explore for a moment a disturbing, but completely logical, potential consequence of Davis’ reasoning. If twelve-year-olds are “adults,” then what’s to prevent them getting married? After all, they supposedly aren’t children anymore, and people in Jesus’ day got married around age 13 all the time. It would also be extremely easy for a layman with little or no medical knowledge to equate a girl’s first period with instant fertility, and thus assume that because their twelve-year-old “adult” daughter is menstruating, she is “marriageable” because she is supposedly able to bear children. Combine this with the fact that at least one fundamentalist health curriculum completely omits the reproductive system from its human anatomy chart, and that one betrothal advocate, Matthew Chapman, was apparently first attracted to his future wife Maranatha when she was 13 years old (he was 26), and the potential for an extremely scary scenario emerges. Perhaps it sounds ridiculous to you. But after this many Big Box lectures, I’m not sure I would be surprised.
I’d also like to note that Davis said the following in passing in this section:
A parent should work diligently to make sure that all bad attitudes, rebelliousness and disobedience are gone before a child turns thirteen. I have a friend who runs a home for rebellious girls, has a tremendous ministry turning them around. He told me the worst rebels he has ever seen are twelve-year-old girls. The second worst are fifteen-year-old girls. But the worst of all, he said, are twelve. He said, Brother Davis, a rebellious twelve-year-old is like she is totally insane. It’s like she has no sense at all. She’s almost impossible to deal with.
We should remember as we read this that Davis’ name has cropped up in connection with Hephzibah House (see this post for details). If he is talking about Hephzibah House here, then let’s just say the measures his friend took (or permitted to be taken) to “deal with” the twelve-year-old “rebels” under his “care,” are not something I would want to be holding up as a model for anybody. I certainly would not describe them as a “tremendous ministry”!
#5: Watch your mouth
This section, predictably, is about respectfulness, which in 12YO, as in other lectures, appears to be Davis’ second favorite topic after first-time obedience. And as with first-time obedience, the irony is thick here as well, as Davis tries to make Jesus’ reply to Mary in the temple into something parents of Davis’ persuasion would be pleased to hear from their child:
So when they saw Him, they were amazed; and His mother said to Him, “Son, why have You done this to us? Look, Your father and I have sought You anxiously.” And He said to them, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:48-49)
As someone who’s known many parents of some kind of first-time obedience bent, I can tell you that Jesus’ words here would not be considered “respectful” by any of them. It would not matter in what tone they were delivered, or with what facial expression. The parents I’ve known would hear the above as their child insulting (or at least disrespecting) them by implying their search was foolish and they really should have known better. In other words, if Mary had been a first-time obedience parent, she would have hauled Jesus out of the temple by His ear for His cheek, then spanked Him as soon as she got back to the caravan.
I also have some questions about Davis’ particular application of respectfulness to women and children:
There’s an important area of teaching that previous generations had that we’ve almost lost in our day. I’m talking about how young men should show respect to young ladies in both their actions and their speech. I remember my mother clearly teaching me as a young man, son, you always treat a girl special. You show respect to her. You never say anything lewd or off-color or suggestive, and if someone else does, you defend her. I’d say to you, I don’t think we’ve accomplished anything when we’ve gotten to the point in our day where young men and young ladies in churches and in youth groups can just talk any way they want to to each other. A century ago it was part of our culture to treat women and children with respect.
This sounds nice, but what is really being said here? Is Davis merely suggesting that boys not make lewd jokes around girls? If so, then by suggesting this, is he implying that it’s okay or somehow less objectionable for boys to make lewd jokes around other boys? Is he talking about lewd comments directed at the girl in question? Or is there something even bigger in view here, possibly the idea that frank sexual discussions of any kind should never happen in the presence of women?
Davis does have a bit of a point here – that issues of politeness and propriety can arise when discussing sexual matters in mixed company, and that our society (even the church in some cases) does seem to have an unhealthy obsession with sex. That being said, however, neither of those problems would be solved by a blanket ban on discussing sex in front of the womenfolk. Davis also may have failed to recognize that frankness is not necessarily the same as lewdness, and the idea of sex being an inherently inappropriate topic for women has led to some pretty appalling examples of preventable ignorance.
#6 and #7: God’s pressure cooker
It seemed best to combine Davis’ last two character qualities as they are closely related. The sixth is that a twelve-year-old should be fully committed to the will of God for their life, and the seventh is that they should demonstrate unmistakably godly behavior. Davis is quite explicit about the first one:
Every twelve-year-old, before ever becoming thirteen, should come to a definite personal decision, I must be about my heavenly Father’s business. No wrestling about it from thirteen on, no question about it from thirteen on. The decision is final, it’s as final for a fourteen year old as it is for a forty year old. He’s gonna follow through on it.
As a Lutheran I find this little tidbit extremely interesting, as the confirmation process in the Lutheran church usually does not even begin until the child is around 13, can be anywhere from 1-3 years long, and ends with the child (usually 15-16 years old) confessing their faith in front of their congregation. Notice once again, that the age at which the child is finally asked to own their faith publicly, is similar to the actual ages of Davis’ historical figures above – 15 or 16. Not 12. There’s a very good reason for this, which is that a child younger than 12 almost always does not have the maturity to deal with all the issues surrounding a decision to publicly commit to the Christian faith.
Of course, those of us who attended AWANA and similar fundamentalist programs are all too familiar with the usual results of systems like Davis’, where children are encouraged to make faith decisions at as young an age as possible. “Pressure” is the word of the day. Speakers cajole, guilt trip and emotionally manipulate children into “praying the prayer” so they can satisfy the system’s requirements and get their “fire insurance.” Almost no attention is given to whether the child actually understands even the most basic contents of the gospel message, and in your spare time with friends, you brag to each other about who “asked Jesus into their heart” the earliest. (Extra candy and stickers to anybody who “prayed the prayer” at age two. Maturity win!) Sorry, Mr. Davis, but I’ll take confirmation any day!
Davis’ statements about “godliness” when discussing his seventh item are also quite telling:
Godliness isn’t something mystical, strange and weird. Godliness is normal human life like the God who made you meant for it to be. Life without the God who made you is strange, weird and abnormal. Godly people don’t act or look weird, ungodly people do. Godly people look normal, and have normal human relationships. It is not normal to be disobedient, disrespectful, rebellious, wild, weird and strange. Why do we have so much foolish teen rebellion in our day? Because the children were not godly by age twelve. The time to disarm and defuse the teenage time bomb is before he or she becomes a teenager.
Now I can’t argue with Davis’ statement that God originally designed humans to be godly, but the rest of the paragraph is riddled with all sorts of loaded language. What does Davis mean by “disobedient”? Failure to obey every command immediately with a smile. “Disrespectful”? Failure to say “yes, sir” and “no, sir.” “Wild” could refer to scandalous activities such as hand-holding before marriage, and since Davis never defined “weird and strange,” I can only assume they include anything he personally finds odd.
These tweaked definitions extend even to the word “normal.” Remember that Davis just spent most of 12YO holding up extraordinarily gifted people like David Farragut and John Trumbull as examples of what all teenagers are supposedly able to do. Thus, as I said before, he has already completely redefined “normal” by ignoring the average and only talking about the exception. He’s also redefined “normal” by subtly attaching it to his pet doctrines – for example, the idea that it is “normal” to only become emotionally attached to your boyfriend after you are engaged.
Davis’ statement above thus functions as a conversation-ender. You think it’s weird to not hold hands until marriage? Well, you’re wrong. I’m not weird – you are. In fact, you’re not just weird, you’re rebellious and ungodly, because if you were obedient and godly, clearly you would agree with me! Stop being so wild, strange and abnormal and get right with God!
And now, thankfully, we’ve reached the end of 12YO. It’s late, I’m tired, and I think I’ve finally paid my dues for putting this post off far longer than I should have. But there is one tiny, faint light at the end of the tunnel…and that is the fact that next week’s lecture, The Influence of Older Children on Younger Children, will be my last interaction with S. M. Davis for several weeks. My reaction: