I was asked to write a piece on Christian parenting, and more specifically, how that looks different today than maybe in the past. When I started thinking back to scripture, my mind first wandered to several “what not to do” stories, which abound in the Bible. For example:
- Don’t pass out drunk before securing your loincloth first (See: Noah)
- Don’t hand over your virgin daughters to an angry mob to be gang-raped (See” Lot)
- Don’t lay your son out on top of a big rock and attempt to sacrifice him to God (See: Abraham)
I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s plenty of fodder for sub-par parenting in the Good Book if we want to find it. But based on the examples of Christian parenting I see in more contemporary culture, the things we’d be best to move beyond are a little subtler (sometimes anyway) than the examples above.
Consider James Dobson’s (former head of Focus on the Family) writing on raising children. He advocates corporal punishment, placing the male as the “head of the household,” and other advice that makes a guy like me cringe. And interestingly, a lot of the differences I have with traditional (some might say “evangelical”) Christian parenting parallel my differences in how to approach Christian community all together.
In that light, here are five habits, often attributed to “Christian parenting” values, that I’d just as soon replace with something new:
Beatings will continue until morale improves. Though physical violence is a shortcut to compliance, it sends the wrong message to our kids. We say as Christians that our core values center on mercy, love, grace and compassion, so where exactly does corporal punishment fit in this? Some will contend that sparing the rod spoils the child, but the Hebrew word (shebet) often translated as “rod” can also be translated as “authority.” In this sense, we can interpret that the author of Proverbs (from which this 12th century phrase seems to come from) may have meant that if we don’t use our wisdom, authority and influence to guide our children’s lives, they will likely be lost.
Because I said so. This style of parenting is a bit like being in the middle of a theological debate and throwing down the “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” trump card. True respect doesn’t come from browbeating or intimidating someone into compliance or silence. It comes from living the example you preach, and in doing so, illuminating a path your children – and perhaps even others – desire to follow.
Father is King. This certainly isn’t limited to Christian households (my dad was an atheist and ascribed to this ethos), but it’s certainly prevalent within lots Christian families. From Promise Keepers to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, there are many faith-based groups that base their family values on the establishment and maintenance of a clear, hierarchic order. Everyone knows their role, their place, and that the dad is ultimately in charge. Yet in Galatians, Paul says that as Christians such labels and hierarchies should fall away. If, instead, the principles of the Greatest Commandment (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; Love your neighbor as yourself) are placed at the head of any family, the rest falls into its proper place.
Sex is dirty; save it for marriage. We Christians have such a screwed up relationship with sex and sexuality, it’s a wonder we keep finding a way to reproduce at all! From Eve to Bathsheba and Delilah, we delight in paining the woman as the sexual temptress who leads men astray, as if we have no control over ourselves. And from this, any number efforts to oppress the rights and identities of women emerge. But guess what? We’re still clueless when it comes to sex. We tell our kids about how scary, dirty, dangerous and evil even thinking about sex is, but then we tell them it’s precious gift to save for the one person you love and plan to live with forever. This is a setup for sexual confusion, guilt and even sexual addiction or abuse later in life.
Think like me when you grow up. Many Christians say that their faith is all about a personal relationship with Christ, trumpet the primacy of free will and love to quote scriptures about “seek and you shall find.” But not when it comes to our kids. We feel the need to force-feed our notion of the faith on them far too often, rather than trusting that, given the chance, they will find God on their own terms as they come to understand it. More often than not, it seems at least within my generation, the didactic forcible approach to raising kids in the Christian faith causes them to run the other direction as soon as they’re able. How many millions more will it take walking away from Christianity forever before we finally wake up and realize that maybe we’re part of the problem?