Babies: Little Sinners? (Part 2 of 4)

In this series we are asking whether babies are “little sinners,” as they have sometimes been called. Last time we defined “sinners,” and in this post we will define “babies.”

The American Heritage Dictionary (3rd edition) describes a baby as “a very young child” and notes that it is a synonym for “infant.”  Infancy is commonly considered to be the period before the ability to walk is acquired. Young children who are learning to walk are no longer regarded as babies, but are “toddlers.”

If we use this simple definition of babies, then we are limiting our discussion to, roughly, the first 18 months of human life. Here are some developmental milestones that appear in this period:

  • Physically: from reaching for objects at 4 months to walking alone at 14 months.
  • Perception: from discriminating mom from stranger at 0-4 months to discriminating facial expressions at 9-10 months.
  • Cognitively: from possibly imitating some gestures at 1-3 months to early pretend play at 18-20 months.
  • Language: from coos at 0-3 months to vocabulary of 3-50 words and 2-word sentences at 18-24 months.
    (Source: The Developing Child, 7th edition. Edited by Helen Bee. Harpers Collins, 1995.)

It is obvious that many changes occur in this short amount of time. One of the most striking abilities acquired is the use of symbols in language and in thinking. With this ability a human being is able to name things–to assign a word to a thing in order to distinguish it from other things. This is a uniquely human privilege. In the beginning, God brought all the animals to Adam to see what he would call them. God made man to be a namer. Man is a symbol-using creature, even in the earliest stage of life. Babies have remarkable abilities.

A baby is also very limited, however. Concerning a baby’s ability to discern right and wrong, or a sense of morality, there’s not much to say, is there? To have a sense of morality or justice, one must be able to respond to a standard placed upon him. Can babies understand moral standards? Consider where babies would fit in Kohlberg’s stages of moral development:

  1. “Preconventional Morality”
    Morality is based on external standards only. First, this means the child thinks of right and wrong in terms of whatever his parents say. He obeys and does what is “right” in order to avoid punishment from parents. Second, as the child develops, he follows rules not just to avoid punishment, but also to benefit himself. It is in his interest to follow the rules because it brings pleasant results.
  2. “Conventional Morality”
    Morality is based on conforming to social expectations. This begins with just the family, but eventually widens to society as a whole.
  3. “Principled or Postconventional Morality
    Morality is based on the idea of the “greatest good for the greatest number of people.” Teenagers and adults realize that laws may be relative among different cultures and times, but for the sake of the social order, laws must exist and be upheld. Eventually this may mature into a self-chosen set of universal ethical principles that are carefully thought-out and consistently followed.
    (Source: The Developing Child, 7th edition. Edited by Helen Bee. Harpers Collins, 1995.)

Of course, babies fit into none of these stages. While we could entertain the possibility of a prior stage for babies, in which, perhaps, babies are taught a standard though a stimulus-response technique, this would hardly seem to suffice for a sense of morality.

In conclusion, while I think babies are undoubtably unique because they are human beings created in the image of God, I do not consider them to have anything near a conscience. Babies do not have the equipment to discern good from evil, nor can they respond to any law or lawgiver. Although they are made with the potential to know and obey God, babies cannot fulfill this potential until they have developed much further.

But before we can answer our question–“Are babies little sinners?”–we need to wrestle with the Bible a bit in the next post.



Brett Brett (39 Posts)

PhD Student in Pastoral Theology at Southern Seminary. Married to Rachael. Father of two girls and a boy. Louisville, KY.

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