Two four-year-old cousins were striking the dwarf plum tree with sturdy sticks. Laughing and chanting a nursery rhyme, the pair used their enchanted scepters to knock from the branches the newly formed plums. Too late, grandma discovered and stopped their fairy-tale game. Previously, spring rains had wiped out all but a couple dozen plums. Now, nearly half of those lay on the ground. Were their actions childish, or foolish? What is the difference?
From time to time we all act inappropriately. Sometimes we purpose to do wrong, but there are times when we make honest mistakes or uninformed decisions. The first is intentional, the second is not. The same is true of our children of all ages.
Willful, intentional defiance and open rebellion are what the Bible calls foolishness. Proverbs 22:15 tells us that, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.” The word in this verse comes from the root word folly, which means deception, trickery, disobedience, lacking in wisdom, or rebellion. Foolishness is acting without regard to consequences, or without regard to injury to self and others.
Childishness on the other hand are honest mistakes or accidental occurrences, uninformed decisions that were wrong. When seven year old Ashley accidentally tripped on the lamp cord, causing it to fall on the floor and break, her actions were not intentional or premeditated. There was no willful defiance at play. She simply tripped. Here actions were childish.
However, a child is not acting childishly when he is disobedient; he is acting foolishly. Parents must gear their efforts toward one common goal of taking the foolishness that is bound up in the heart of a child and replacing it with wisdom. Foolishness shows itself either directly or indirectly. Disobeying, talking back, refusing to accept correction, and rejecting any form of authority are all expressions of direct, willful defiance—they are foolish. The haughty look, pretending not to hear, pleading ignorance to the obvious after being caught in a misdeed, doing something good or cute to get out of doing what was instructed, and constantly saying, “I forgot,” are various forms of the more passive, indirect forms of defiance. (In this last situation, the problem is not only in the child’s characterization of failing to remember the instruction, but in his failure to put any effort into learning the lesson.)
Think of it this way. Childishness is a head problem; the child doesn’t know any better. Foolishness is heart problem. The child knows what is wrong but pursues it anyway. Why do parents need to know the difference? Because they should never punish a child for childishness, but they will correct for it.