Conventional wisdom says that if you tell someone not to do something, they’ll do it. Dr. Dean Edell made this point today on the radio, discussing a study on nutrition. Apparently, if parents restrict certain foods, their children will be more inclined to eat those foods later in life. This may be true, but only partially.
The reality is that people do things because they want to, not because people tell them they shouldn’t. In high school, I remember the “Just Say No” campaign. Granted, many students said, “yes,” but the majority said, “no.” I consciously decided against drugs. That adults said “no” didn’t inspire me to want to say “yes.”
A further reality is that people do things because they are taught to do those things. Anti-drug efforts fail because many adults abuse drugs (prescription drugs included); abstinence programs fail because many parents (and society) are promiscuous. Commandments are broken because adults fail to model the correct behavior. Saying “thou shalt not” alone will not ensure obedience. Adults must model the correct behavior.
I recall some time ago a parent crying to me about her son’s alcohol problem. (I’m a youth pastor.) I listened with stunned amazement. I knew precisely why her son drank: because mom and dad provided the alcohol. At weekend parties and in pantries, alcohol was ready at hand, and little was done to prevent that access. Further, the parents drank to excess themselves. In actuality, the son was “obedient,” doing precisely what his parents “taught” him to do.
This may appear an extreme example, but it’s not far off the mark. Children learn what parents, schools and society models — and we are not very good models.
So it’s not the commandment — “thou shalt not” — that inspires people to sin, but the desires of the flesh, the practices of the people. “For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me” (Rom. 7:11). The commandments were given to expose sin, not inspire it. And God warns against sin: “[It] is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Paul’s chief accusation against the world was that people condemned the very things they themselves did (cf. Rom. 2:1). We cannot expect more from our children.
But not all is bleak. If failing to model the correct behavior is the problem, then modeling the correct behavior is the solution. In my service as youth pastor, I have known many parents to quit drinking (responsible drinkers, mind you) while their children were underage teens or young adults, and I have known parents to embrace good eating habits, hoping their children would follow suit. I have seen those efforts largely succeed.
Lip service fails; actions succeed. Yes, teach children to “just say no,” but then model the correct behavior — we must do it.
I do not say this as a substitute for the gospel. No, we are all sinners in need of the Redeemer. But nations are judged according to their actions, and societies must model the behavior they expect from their younger members. Children can see through hypocrisy.