Parenting as evangelism

Walking the beach

Walking the beach, Joel and daughter Felicity (photo by Megan Miller)

If you have kids, you know that discipline is inescapable. Without discipline they will talk with their mouths full, smart-talk their elders, punch their siblings, wear their underwear three days in a row, play in busy streets, tease animals, ignore their homework, and tell off-color jokes.

At least that’s what I did.

Because children can be so foolish (childish?), Dr. D. Ross Campbell says that many parents “conclude that discipline is the basic and primary way of treating a child.” I gave my parents plenty of reasons to think so. But in his now-classic parenting book, How to Really Love Your Child, Campbell challenges that notion and argues that the basic and primary way of treating a child is with love. “A child is the most needy person in our society,” he says, “and the greatest need is love.”

This may seem obvious, but it’s also a bit tricky. Our children are not blank slates. They have their own temperamental dispositions, whether they are, for instance, more positive, adaptable, distractable, etc. Loving parents can positively shape and influence these dispositions. But, as the cliché goes, love is a verb, not a feeling. Campbell suggests that too many parents feel lovingly about their children and feel as if they are exhibiting this love but are in fact not very successful in doing so.

He says that parents (particularly men) must take the initiative in demonstrating unconditional love. “By our behavior a child sees our love.” Childrearing is fundamentally an interactive and dynamic enterprise. Kids learn what we exhibit, so if we fail in demonstrating love, then they learn behaviors that negatively condition their natural temperamental dispositions.

Campbell says that love should be demonstrated by three emotionally-gratifying means: eye contact, physical contact, and focused attention. My kids are both very affectionate, and the first two are not difficult for us, but I personally find the third one a challenge. I’ve written before about Gordon MacDonald’s book Ordering Your Private World; budgeting time is as crucial in parenting as it is on the job or anywhere else. The tyranny of the urgent (or the tyranny of the tired) can squelch almost any opportunity to demonstrate love if given the chance.

What really hit me about Campbell’s argument is how it ties into a serious concern of mine—passing on my faith to my children and having it take root in their hearts. It’s the concern of almost every Christian parent. I’ve written before about how cultivating virtue protects against unbelief. Here’s another angle: Parenting is more about evangelism than it is about discipline. And, as is true for evangelism, love is the key.

This isn’t a question of permissive parenting so much as perspective and priorities. “A child who does not feel genuinely loved and accepted,” says Campbell, “has real difficulty identifying with parents and their values. Without a strong, healthy love-bond, a child reacts to parental guidance with anger, hostility, and resentment.” What if by inadequately demonstrating love I am actually acting as an impediment to my children’s belief? What if they have “real difficulty identifying” with my faith because of me?

Thinking about those questions makes one thing very clear and certain: Good parenting isn’t just a question of making sure kids are respectful and well-mannered. It’s loving them into the arms of Christ.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Clark Logan

    Yes. It is indeed a ‘both/and’ — and not an ‘either/or’.

    Discipline without love will not get to the heart of your child. But neither will love without discipline.

    Our Heavenly Father models this well in the way He treats His children.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Agreed. It’s important to keep Hebrews 12 in mind:

      “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”

      God is love and loves perfectly. His discipline is love. The trick for us is that we neither love nor discipline perfectly. We have to be constantly mindful and prayerful that our discipline be an aspect of our love. It’s easy to separate the two.

  • http://practicinghuman.wordpress.com practicinghuman

    The more and more I get to know the children in my parish, the more I am convinced that this idea has some profound truths. It’s a bit different to be a single adult expected to learn how to worship alongside of an infant. Our children are fully communing members and, as such, they must be in the eucharistic assembly. It’s also amazing how the evangelism goes both ways as they teach me about love.

  • Tom Hoffman

    I’m also convicted by this that parenting, like (extra-familial) evangelism, will depend much more upon prayer and humble reliance upon the Lord than upon any method or strategy or pattern or routine or once-successful habit.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Great post, Joel. We have made plenty of mistakes in raising our children, but love has always been a priority. One of the sweet benefits of this, as they have grown older, is that they still come to us…when they have made mistakes, when they are wrestling with something, when they are hurting. They invite us to speak into their lives. They do not always follow our advice. :) But, because they know we love them all the time, no matter what, they know there is nothing they can’t say to us. And they still hear our voice.

    Keep loving Fionn and Felicity well. Then what you value will matter.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    Great stuff Joel!!

    I love what Megan (http://www.meghmiller.com/) put on Twitter today:

    “Today I got a great idea for filling your kids emotional tank: 10 min of quality time in the am, 20 after school & 10 before bed. 10-20-10.”

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  • Steve Hansmann/East Central Minnesota

    Sorry, this is typical confusion over cause and effect. There is no need for religion, either in morality, or raising healthy disciplined children. I’m the father of six, largely homebirthed and homeschooled children, married to the same woman for 35 years, atheists to the core, and my kids are all hard-working, disciplined, respectful law-abiding, none have even had a traffic ticket, (my oldest is 20 and married with three college degrees, my youngest 12), and no one has impregnated anyone, had a DUI, etc. etc. damn near perfect kids. You don’t need an ancient tome thrown together by nomadic illiterate shepherds to instill intelligence, morality, and respect in your children. In fact I’d argue the opposite is true. If you want to produce a clutch of smarmy little arrogant literalists that think they have the world by the keester, be religious. They’ll probably also be impregnating/be impregnated, getting abortions, and being divorced, but hey, Cheezus will save them.

  • http://trinityreformedkirk.org Jo

    I have read a couple of Dr. Campbell’s books, have heard him speak about this very subject for our MDO. I also have had the pleasure of teaching 2 of his small grandchildren and I attest to the love and gentleness in this family. They beam with the love of Jesus…abd the children are obedient and joyful.
    As with all teaching the content is much more caught than taught. Disciplining children without the focus being on loving them is selfish and self-serving to produce little robots. We discipline so that our children will love the truth and long to seek the God of goodness, truth and beauty. Thank you for this post.


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