Sunday, May 30, 2010

Eight: The Age of Accountability

Toward the end of last week’s Gospel Principles class on “The Restored Church,” our teacher read in the manual from a list describing distinctive features of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, including the statement that “Children do not need to be baptized until they are accountable (eight years old)” (GP 99).

A non-member attending for the first time who had not spoken all class raised his hand and asked, “Where does the number eight come from?” Anyone who has ever seen a non-member ask a doctrinal question in a room full of relatively knowledgeable and experienced church members knows that we all began to respond at once.

The immediate consensus was that the answer to his question could be found in Moroni 8, and we quickly flipped to that chapter, where we read: “Listen to the words of Christ, your Redeemer, your Lord and your God. Behold, I came into the world not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance; the whole need no physician, but they that are sick; wherefore, little children are whole, for they are not capable of committing sin; wherefore the curse of Adam is taken from them in me, that it hath no power over them; and the law of circumcision is done away in me. [9] And after this manner did the Holy Ghost manifest the word of God unto me; whereas, my beloved son, I know that it is solemn mockery before God, that ye should baptize little children. [10] Behold I say unto you that this thing shall ye teach—repentance and baptism unto those who are accountable and capable of committing sin; yea, teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall be saved with their children” (Moroni 8:8-10).

While this passage clearly condemns infant baptism, there is little or no specific guidance as to when children cease to be “little” and begin to be “capable of committing sin.” But that this transition happens, and that it occurs in childhood, is made equally clear by revelation. The Lord speaks to Adam in Moses (in a passage lost from Genesis) to explain how his children would make the transition from innocence to experience that Adam himself experienced in the Fall: “And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good. [56] And it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves, and I have given unto you another law and commandment. [57] Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God, for no unclean thing can dwell there” (Moses 6:55-57). At some point when children “begin to grow up,” but before they become adults, children sin and, therefore, must be taught to repent.

So why eight years old? Because the Lord commanded in the Doctrine and Covenants that “inasmuch as parents have children in Zion or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents. [26] For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized. [27] And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands” (D&C 68:25-27). These verses clearly establish the ecclesiastical mandate for waiting until eight for baptism (and, interestingly, emphasizes that the baptism of eight year olds, like the baptism of adults, is for “the remission of sins”), but leaves the connection between age eight and sin implicit; they imply that “sin conceiveth in their hearts” by age eight but do not state this explicitly.

The answer to our nonmember class member’s question was in the Doctrine and Covenants, but what, he asked, was the rationale for this age; wasn’t it somewhat arbitrary? The 68th section of the D&C was received in 1831, and as far as I have been able to ascertain, there were no other religious communities that had identified the age eight as an age of accountability; several sects, most notably the Anabaptists and, later, the Baptists, had rejected paedobaptism and been popularly named for the practice, but these groups typically waited until somewhat later in life before administering baptism and had not, as far as I know, identified a minimum age for baptism by that time.

There does not seem to have been, in the nineteenth century, any compelling reason to identify age eight as the age of accountability, but contemporary scientific research has demonstrated the wisdom of marking that age as a point at which children begin to be accountable for their actions. As Dale Kunkel argues in the Handbook of Children and the Media, “most children younger than about age 7 or 8 do not typically recognize that the underlying goal of a commercial is to persuade the viewer” (381). This suggests, at least to me, that children under the age of eight often—consciously or unconsciously—act under the influence of outside sources, whether those sources are commercials (“PLEASE CAN I GO TO CHUCKY CHEESE?”) or friends (“But Bobby said that word . . . why is it wrong?”), and hence are not fully accountable for their actions.

A second way of making the same point is to note, as Brad Bushman and Rowell Huesmann did, that “the correlation between a boy’s exposure to TV violence at age 8 and his aggression at age 18 was .31, whereas the correlation from age 8 aggression to age 18 exposure to TV violence was about zero” (HCM 233). In other words, exposure to casual violence causes viewers younger than age eight to act violently (and not vice versa; violent behavior does not cause an increase in the viewing of violence). This is because “children younger than 8 years cannot discriminate between fantasy and reality, they are uniquely vulnerable to learning and adopting as reality the circumstances, attitudes, and behaviors portrayed by entertainment media” (American Academy of Pediatrics, Pediatrics 108.5, p. 1223).

Age seven or eight is the point at which many children begin to recognize their own ignorance—that “wishing does not make it so.” As Kathleen Berger notes, “Children under age 6 often think they know everything and are unaware of the mistakes they make or the failures of memory that are evident to adults. In other words, their metacognition is almost nonexistent. That makes it more difficult to teach them, except by discovery and example” (The Developing Person Through Childhood and Adolescence 346). Berger’s findings suggest that children are incapable of understanding the logic behind moral imperatives—such as divine commandments—unless they 1) experience the consequences of breaking those commandments for themselves or 2) see someone else experience them. After age eight, they can reason through the consequences of disobedience without experiencing them for themselves. Berger explains that “[t]his movement away from egocentrism toward a more flexible logic is illustrated by research on 5- to 9-year-olds who were asked about two hypothetical boys—David, who thought chocolate ice cream was yucky, and Daniel, who found chocolate ice cream yummy. Most 5-year-olds (63 percent) thought David was wrong, and many felt he was bad or stupid as well. By contrast, virtually all (94 percent) of the 9-year-olds thought both boys could be right, and only a few were critical of David” (DPTCA 340). Instead of relying solely on their own experience of ice cream, 9-year-olds are able to assess the moral consequences of disliking ice cream and recognize that there is nothing inherently immoral about David’s lack of good taste.

Perhaps most importantly, age eight is also the approximate age at which children “understand reversibility, the principle that after being changed, a thing may be returned to its original state” (DPTCA 339). Children must be accountable and able to evaluate the morality of potential action without experiencing it for themselves before they can be baptized, but they must also be able to exercise faith in the healing, restorative power of the Atonement. It is this ability which will make the baptism of an eight-year-old efficacious, as he or she recognizes the opportunity to repent even when their newly acquired agency and moral reason fail them.

All in all, I am astounded at the number of key cognitive developments that occur in adolescent brains at or around age eight; they are a further testament to me of the inspired guidance of the Restoration, which made the age of eight the age of accountability long before these scientific studies and experiments confirmed the appropriateness of that standard.


Amazon Mama said...

Interesting connections.

Jo Jo said...

I also have heard that there is a physical change in the brain at age 8 that doctors know happens, as the child brain turns into an adult brain. How fun to have that question asked!