No, Explanations Are NOT a Problem

I have to admit, I rarely come upon things that do this much of a dance on my blood pressure. But this . . . wow. It’s an article from Shepherd Press, reposted by conservative Christian actor Kirk Cameron on his blog. It is called “The Problem with Explanations.” Throughout this piece, I’m going to assume that Kirk Cameron posted it on his blog because he agrees with it. Let’s take a look, shall we?

God has not called parents to explain but to train. Explanations often lead to frustration and anger for both parents and children. Children are not in need of lengthy, compelling explanations. What they are in need of is the understanding that God must be obeyed. Ephesians 6:4 addresses this issue:

Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Explanations tend to focus on getting someone to agree with you. The logic for explanations runs something like this: If I can just get my children to understand the reason for my direction, then they will be more likely to follow my instruction. While this may sound like solid reasoning, it is not. Explanations are more consistent with gaining approval and winning arguments. Neither of these are appropriate goals for biblical parenting and can lead to anger in your children as Ephesians warns against.

If that’s your logic for giving explanations, of course you’re going to have a problem! I don’t explain things to my children in an attempt to get them to do what I want them to do. That’s so backwards! I explain things to my children because I want to help them understand the world around them and learn to navigate that world themselves someday. I explain things to my children because I believe all people, including children, deserve to know the why behind things rather than functioning on mere obedience to commands. I don’t explain things as part of “gaining approval” or “winning arguments.” That would be terrible parenting!

And this bit about explaining things to your children leading both of you to anger and frustration? It may be hard (apparently) for people like Cameron to believe it, but dictating to your child and demanding their obedience without understanding or explanation can actually lead to a great deal anger and frustration. Now yes, it can sometimes be frustrating to explain things to children, because they are not always able to understand complex topics and they sometimes have very different priorities. But you know what? Occasional frustration is part of having children. Actually, it’s a part of life. You have to learn to deal with it, and railroading your children because they can be “frustrating” with their questions is not healthy in the least.

Honestly, it sounds from reading this like Kirk Cameron would probably get on quite well with fundamentalist child training guru Michael Pearl (of To Train Up A Child fame). I mean, they both share this horrible notion that raising children is about making them obey you, not about helping them learn or answering their questions or, God forbid, actually allowing them input in your family or decisions. And really, it boils down to this: Teach your children to obey you, and discourage them from questioning you. Because they need to learn to obey God and not question him, right? Because apparently God is some petty being who smites people who dare question him, and you need to model yourself after him, as a petty parent who lashes out at children who dare ask questions of you.

Interestingly, proponents of gentle discipline generally also base their ideas about raising children in their view of God, but it is a very different view of God. They argue that just as God can handle our questions, and does not blame his followers for wanting to understand his commands, even so parents should accept and value their children’s questions and be ready to explain their reasoning behind things to their children. Theirs is a gentle view of God, and their parenting in turn is gentle. Cameron and Pearl’s is a harsh view of God, and their parenting in turn is harsh.

This doesn’t mean your parenting is to be arbitrary. You must use kind and pleasant words to instruct your children. You must be patient. You must be sensitive to your children. But you are not attempting to secure their approval for your instruction. This can easily lead to manipulation rather than discipline and instruction.

There are times when it is important for children to obey whether or not they understand. But you know what? This idea that the only way to get children to obey at these times is to force them to obey absolutely and without question at all times is false. When a parent has long fostered open communication with a child and always valued both explaining and listening, children are generally able to understand that there are times when they do just have to obey. The parent can say “I’ll explain later” or “I’m sorry you don’t understand, but this one is not negotiable” or “you’re just going to have to trust me here.” When there is a relationship of trust and openness between parent and child, this really does work. And if it’s a moment of danger, children can also read a parent’s tone.

Furthermore, there are plenty of times when offering an explanation actually makes a child more likely to remember and obey the command long term. Imagine telling a small child not to touch the stove, but not telling her why? She might try touching the stove, curious. My little Bobby is only one, but even he understands what “hot” means. In other words, providing explanations can promote obedience, because it promotes the understanding of why obedience is important. Some time ago a commenter here mentioned that she had gotten in trouble for speeding, but that instead of being fined they had her take a short course on why it is important not to speed. That course showed her the danger of even a few extra miles per hour, and made a big impression. She wrote that she will be a lot less likely to speed today than she would have when her speeding was only kept in check by the fear of getting pulled over and ticketed. So yes, explanations work—and often better than simple commands.

With young children and toddlers, lengthy explanations cloud the real issue.  Obedience is a response to God’s authority. Biblical obedience is not a matter of winning a debate.  Young children must be trained to obey right away, to do exactly as they are told, and to obey with a good attitude.

Note that young children are not only to be trained to absolute and unquestioning obedience, but that they are also to be expected to obey “with a good attitude.” For those like Cameron, controlling outward actions is not enough. No, children’s very emotions and thoughts must be brought to bay. I have two children in this “young children and toddlers” range, and the idea of parenting like this is really quite horrifying. Sally, my four-year-old, is quite the questioner. She is intensely curious and extremely interested in understanding and in contributing to our plans as a family. If I were to follow the advice given here, I would seek to shut all of that down and turn her into an automaton.

Children from 6-12 must be encouraged to obey because they know this pleases God. Your discussions will be more involved than with young children, but again you are not trying to win their approval. You want them to grasp how important it is to trust God and the reliability of his word. This type of training will yield a conscience that is sensitive to the things of God.

I’m actually thinking teaching children to trust the reliability of God’s word by teaching them to trust the reliability of your word is a very bad idea. Parents are not infallible and they do not know everything. What’s to stop kids raised this way from questioning God when they finally learn that their parents are far from perfect?

But honestly, this complete and total abhorrence of questioning things is making me sick to my stomach. Why fear questions if your God is real? Why fear questions if your God has answers?

It doesn’t take much insight to realize that teenagers and long explanations don’t go well together.  Obedience with teenagers is to be primarily be focused on helping them see the value of following God because they love him and that God’s ways are the only ones that can be trusted. Your goal is to have conversations not explanations. 

And what, pray, is the difference between conservations and explanations? This distinction makes no sense. Should conversations not involve explaining things? Given the condemnation of using explanations on teenagers, I’m guessing not. But what in the world do these “conversations” consist of, then?

Explanations may be well intended. But at the root of many conflicts in families is the attempt to explain rather than to train. Don’t provoke your children to anger. Provide them with the loving instruction of your heavenly Father.

The denial is deep with this one.

I grew up with a family that did the whole training and obedience thing. And you know what we still had? A whole lot of conflict. I was reading the other day about the years after slavery, and about the amount of “enforcement” (read: lynching) that was needed to keep blacks “in their place.” When you set up a totalitarian system of absolute obedience in your home, you have to enforce that system. There will be times when your subjects try to break out and buck that system. You will have to respond with force to keep them down. This is called “conflict.” I grew up in an comparatively functional family implementing this system—i.e., my parents followed these child training methods “correctly”—and I still saw it. You can’t get around it.

As I look back at my childhood and think about my parents’ system of “training,” one thing I see quite a lot of is conflict and anger. I felt it myself. I was the kind of child who liked to ask questions. “Why?” I would ask when told to do something. I wanted to know reasons, wanted to understand, wanted more than just blind obedience. And I was shut down time and again. I felt stifled. I felt like my ideas weren’t being listened to. I felt angry. Sometimes I absolutely seethed inside, but I hid it as best I could, because anything other than a good attitude and a cheery disposition was unacceptable and might result in punishment.

Something to think about.

Or not.

I feel really bad for Kirk Cameron’s children right now.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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