Why I'm Not "Training" My Children: A Plea for the Ending of Obedience-Based Christian Parenting
I sat on the carpeted floor of our little apartment, legs sprawled around board books and plastic instruments, and looked my 18 month square in the eye.
"No throwing." My voice was as firm as the swat to his calf.
We had been going back and forth like a tennis match, neither of us willing to concede the grim game. When my husband and I had adopted him 7 months prior, we had already been carefully groomed for years by our local church to be the perfect parents. From the moment we said our vows we had been inundated with messages on the importance of feeding schedules, sleep training, and above all else, "first time obedience". I had been taught (by lovely, healthy older families) that training my child to obey me immediately would result in him growing up to obey God unwaveringly.
My formidable toddler picked up a toy guitar almost half his size and threw it at my head, brazenly daring me to keep trying to raise him "God's way".
Nearly one year later I was seated at a missions conference where there was, predictably, a breakout session on parenting. A first time toddler-mom my own age raised her hand and half cautiously, half desperately pleaded for advice from the panel. "If I spank him for every single infraction, I will nearly be spanking him all day long." Yes, the panel agreed, yes with some children for some seasons it will feel that way. But if you're faithful to teach him first-time obedience, he will flourish eventually.
I thought of my own child, now well over the age of two, who wasn't showing any signs of flourishing. In fact for each day that went on my gut got louder and louder that something was wrong, that he was trying to tell me something I couldn't hear.
And of course I couldn't hear: I wasn't even trying to listen. All of my parenting intuition had been shoved aside to make room for All The Right Ways That Would Guarantee A God-Fearing Child. And it wasn't just my local church who was voicing it; everywhere I turned I ran into James Dobson and his three dozen parenting books, or Michael and Debi Pearl and their penchant for unnecessary extremes in discipline. There was no room left inside my brain for interpreting the very personal signals my own individual child was trying to send me, his one and only mom.
It is not my intention to vilify anyone. I believe everyone who offered advice did so out of a deep love for their own children and sincere desire to lead them to a loving Christ. And I am not saying that their methods did not function appropriately within their own family. How could I know that? What I am saying is that it is not okay to present one parenting style as The Only Way. In fact, not only is it not okay, it is decidedly harmful and irresponsible.
An unbalanced emphasis on obedience and performance might not have severely detrimental effects on a typically developing child who is also receiving (and has always received) a lot of nurture. However, such parenting methods run completely at odds with the needs of an adopted or foster child whose brain does not make the same connections as that of the first child, and often operates in a state of fight or flight. Not only will such methods make the child feel endangered and ashamed, but they will often incite undesirable behaviors as a result. I speak from personal experience when I say this critically damages the family unit.
Another example would be families with parents who have themselves been poorly parented, under-educated, and exposed to exponentially more challenges than the white middle class pastor in the pulpit who is presenting spanking as best practice. Such advice simply cannot be given to a congregation of 500 people. The accountant who grew up surrounded by healthy attachments and high nurture will internalize an endorsement of spanking in a much different way than will the young father who never had a paternal figure in his life and is completely surrounded by a culture of misogyny and violence. They both want to be great parents. But they need drastically different guidance. And it is completely irresponsible to claim otherwise.
Is it wrong to teach our children to obey authority figures? Certainly not, it's quite important within the right framework. But is it worth instilling reflexive obedience at the expense of the child feeling fully heard and known? At the expense of special needs going undetected for years? At the risk of a child being spanked 20 times a day? At the risk of sexual abuse the parents never know about, because the child has been trained to unquestioningly obey grown ups?
In addition to what feels like an exorbitant amount of risk, there is also the glaring question at hand: is it really appropriate for a child to never question authority? It is certainly more convenient for the adult if he or she complies immediately with every request, but it's hard to imagine that strengthening his critical thinking skills or her creativity over time. I would rather feel impatient explaining the significance behind rules and requests for 18 years than raise a child who obeys them without understanding why. I have great hope for this world, and part of that hope is preparing a generation to think outside the box for new solutions to old problems. But I don't see how they can do that if the desire has long been snuffed out.
Furthermore, research tells us that more than anything children need secure attachments with their parents and caregivers, and they need to know they have a voice. The Church once spearheaded scientific research. Why does it now seem that mainstream Christianity has set herself up as the chief opponent of much of the sciences? Have we become too proud to admit that we could learn something from a mouthpiece that is something other than explicitly Christian? God help us. No wonder the rest of the world sees us as arrogant, stubborn, and uninformed.
I love the Church. I love the Catholic church and the Protestant church; I love the Church universal. I believe that the most beautiful thing about our Church is the potential she has to represent the character of God and the love between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I believe the same is true for families; I believe that is part of the reason the God Man came to earth within a family unit. In both institutions it is human-to-human encounter, the knowing of another person, that turns our hearts towards God. In neither place is obedience for obedience's sake the highest good. Love is always the highest good. And love only comes from knowing.
*For clarity's sake: feeding schedules, sleep training at appropriate ages, and occasional spankings are things I believe to be subject to individual families and which can be done in healthy ways. These are not the problems that I am referring to in this piece. If you don't recognize the stream of thought I am addressing here, count yourself lucky and move on.*
Parenting in the Field
The Transforming Power of Saying "Yes" To Your Kids
And Elizabeth Esther has written extensively on this topic. Check out her blog here.