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Discerning, but not judgmental

by Greg Krehbiel on 21 August 2004

An important lesson a child needs to learn — especially before the teen years — is how to be discerning without being judgmental.

By “discerning” I mean that a child needs to be able to size up other people to decide if they’re “the right sort” — the kind they should hang with or make friends with. When the child meets new people, he needs to give them the old perceptive glance. What kind of group is this? Will they be a good influence? Will they help me be the kind of person I truly want to be? Or will they drag me down?

This discernment will involve several things. How do they talk? How do they dress? What music do they listen to? Do they smoke or take drugs? What do they do for fun, or to relax? How do they treat other people — especially their parents, other adults, and the unpopular kids.

You may wonder, “How do you get all this in a glance?” Well, you don’t. But you form a preliminary judgment based on appearances, and then you refine it with further observation.

Someone will say, “it’s not fair to judge people on appearances,” but that’s balderdash. People dress to conform to a stereotype. When we judge a person on appearances — not meaning the size of their nose or the shape of their ears, but their clothes, whether and where their body is pieced or tattooed, how they wear their hair, what color lipstick they wear, and that sort of thing — we are simply reading what they chose write onto themselves. A person who chooses to get a belly-button ring, or to wear black kipstick, is self-identifying with a sub-culture. How can it be unfair to recognize that choice?

Being observant and discerning doesn’t mean that the child should pass moral judgments on other people, and it certainly doesn’t mean that the child should gossip. “Did you see the skirt so-and-so was wearing?”

It also doesn’t mean the child has to shun anybody. Shunning people is for uptight blue-haired church ladies from New England. A child should be able to be friendly with anybody. But that doesn’t mean they have to be friends.

Here are some clues. If the child finds himself getting offended at the way other people walk or talk or dress, then he’s heading towards church lady territory. Likewise if he can’t laugh at their jokes, or sit at their lunch table every once in a while.

Being morally good doesn’t mean that you have to be offended at everything. Remember that Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners. He even went to their parties, and I doubt He would have been invited to these parties if He had that sickening, chilling, wearying habit of always taking offense or of giving disapproving looks.

The easily offended church lady has gone too far in one direction, but the laid back, easy-going, mellow yellow type has swung the other way and hasn’t learned to take sin seriously. The point here is along the lines of that old saying that we should hate the sin but love the sinner. The trouble with that saying is that “hating the sin” often turns into blue-haired lady opprobrium, so I think a better way to put it might be to avoid sin — and near occasions of sin — but love sinners.

You don’t want your teenage girl hanging out with the tattooed, pierced, rock-concert crowd, but you also don’t want her to gossip with her friends about them, call them names, look down on them or think that she’s superior. If she meets these folks at an otherwise safe and wholesome event, she should be friendly, talk to them, laugh at their jokes, share a bucket of fries, or whatever seems appropriate.

But she doesn’t want to get drawn into their orbit and adopt their values. She needs to be polite, but she needs to be careful to keep her distance when required. She needs to discern who will be a good influence and who would make a good friend, but she doesn’t need to judge the people who’ve taken a wrong turn.

A child who can walk this line can live an upright and decent life and help others to do the same. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people who have been converted from the darker sides of our culture, and not a single one was helped by the disapproval of the blue-haired lady or the laid-back, moral laxity of Mr. Mellow. I don’t mean to imply that your first priority is to make your child a star evangelist. Your first priority is keeping your child morally and physically safe. But in this case the two go hand in hand.

-- 2004-08-21  »  Greg Krehbiel

Talkback x 3

  1. wayne
    21 August 2004 @ 2:35 pm

    This is amazing. My wife and I were having a discussion over these same issues this morning. It came about when she expressing her disgust over the suits that the US women beach volleyball team wears. She ended up misunderstanding my points about not judging, and thought I was arguing that we shouldn’t be able to say “that sets a bad example” and “how do we teach our kids”, etc. I had to let it go without really getting my nuance across. I think I’ll have her read this. Excellent points!

  2. EHamilton
    21 August 2004 @ 2:39 pm

    I don’t know, Greg. It seems to me that being “judgmental” (in the sense of breaking off contact) becomes necessary at a certain point. I’d encourage my children (if I had any) to avoid spending time with anyone who is intentionally cruel to peers. I don’t think that it’s appropriate to laugh at jokes if they are obscene or demonstrate a profane disregard for religious truths and values (and in certain age groups, that’s almost the norm these days). I don’t think we should be offended by everything, but I think it’s an equally great error to be offended by nothing at all.

  3. GregK
    21 August 2004 @ 3:34 pm

    There is certainly a place to “break contact” if you find yourself in the wrong crowd, and I suppose there are jokes we shouldn’t laugh at, but the point here is that there’s a difference between keeping ourselves morally clean and being a prude.