Gentle Discipline and Shades of Formula Parenting

There appears to be a growing trend in some Christian homeschooling circles away from corporal punishment. The term generally used instead is “gentle discipline,” and it sounds in many ways quite similar to what I call “positive parenting.” I hesitate to make the critique I’m about to make, because I truly am glad that these parents are deciding not to spank.

The thing is, when I read blog posts by mothers into gentle discipline, I am sometimes afraid that they have simply exchanged one formula for another. It’s as though the corporal punishment/immediate obedience parenting method is a recipe designed to create carrot cake, and the gentle discipline parents still want to end up with carrot cake—or at the very least cake—and are simply trying a different recipe. Still the discussions about parenting are all about how you can turn out a child who shares your same religious and political beliefs.

The thing is, children don’t work that way. When it comes to children, there’s no perfect formula where you input given ingredients and end up with some specific result. Sometimes you don’t end up with cake at all, sometimes you end up with pie, or biscuits, or tarts, or bread. And if you spend your time expecting cake, and thinking you’re entitled to end up with cake because of the recipe you’re using, you risk grave disappointment.

To be perfectly honest, I stopped formula parenting some time after I adopted positive parenting. Because as I see it, formula parenting isn’t about the specific formula used, it’s about the expectation of a specific result, a result that can be reached if you just follow XYZ method. And for a time, I still had specific expectations. For a time, I still thought I could control the final product. Today, I don’t practice positive parenting because I want some specific result at the end, I practice positive parenting because it’s the right thing to do. To bring back the recipe example, I’m not trying to end up with cake, or pie, or tarts. Instead of trying to follow a recipe and end up with a specific result, I’m simply ensuring that the ingredients I put in are healthy—I figure that’s all I can really do. I think I’ve probably stretched this analogy enough now, but you get the point.

I understand why these gentle parenting mothers do this, I really do. When you’re a devout Christian—when Jesus is the center of your life—ensuring that your children also turn out to be Christians becomes more important than just about anything else. But if I could speak directly to these mothers, as a woman who grew up in devout Christian home and is now an atheist, I would ask them what they’ll do if a grown son or daughter comes to them and says “I don’t know about that whole Jesus thing” or “I just can’t believe in God anymore.” Because like it or not, these mothers’ expectations—the results of their formula parenting—will come between them and any of their children who may choose different paths. These formulas and expectations have the potential to threaten and even destroy their relationships with these children.

One theme I’ve seen in Christian gentle discipline circles is that love will fix everything. Just focus on loving your kids, and they’ll turn out fine, and even if they don’t your relationship with them will turn out fine. But to be perfectly honest, sometimes it’s the love that is the worst. If I didn’t know, intensely, how much my mother loves me, it wouldn’t be so hard to live every day knowing that I have gravely disappointed her.

One response I’ve heard from the sort of Christians who practice gentle discipline is that they would tell their “wayward” children “I still love you.” Still. Still? Therein rests the problem. I don’t think parents realize how much those words can hurt. I don’t think they think about what that one word—still—implies. Part of that may be that many Christians have this idea that it’s a wonderful thing that God “still” loves us even though we’re “lost sinners,” and they don’t realize the problems that stem from viewing children who have simply made different life choices through this lens—as lost sinners who should be eternally grateful that their parents “still” love them in spite of their “sinful lifestyle.”

And so I suppose I would simply appeal to these mothers: Please, drop the last trappings of formula parenting, stop seeing their children as something you can program, something you can wind up and set running, and start seeing them as independent individuals who will make their own choices whatever they may be and that’s okay. If your children grow up to make different choices and you respond by draping your relationship with the disappointment of unmet expectations, those children will distance themselves from you. They’ll have to. It will hurt too much otherwise. But if you can start seeing them as individuals early and drop the expectations, if you can instead just focus on being loving and kind parents because that’s what’s right, not because you’re trying to get some specific result, your children—and your relationships with them—will be better for it.

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