Essay on the State of Evangelical Parenting

A just-published story in The Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb entitled “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy” raises some helpful questions about modern parenting and how it is stimulating narcissism.  There is some strong language in the piece, so I’m not linking to it.  I will, however, quote a section to show the strength of the ideas in the article:

Another teacher I spoke with, a 58-year-old mother of grown children who has been teaching kindergarten for 17 years, told me she feels that parents are increasingly getting in the way of their children’s development. “I see the way their parents treat them,” she said, “and there’s a big adjustment when they get into my class. It’s good for them to realize that they aren’t the center of the world, that sometimes other people’s feelings matter more than theirs at a particular moment—but it only helps if they’re getting the same limit-setting at home. If not, they become impulsive, because they’re not thinking about anybody else.”

The point continues:

This same teacher—who asked not to be identified, for fear of losing her job—says she sees many parents who think they’re setting limits, when actually, they’re just being wishy-washy. “A kid will say, ‘Can we get ice cream on the way home?’ And the parent will say, ‘No, it’s not our day. Ice-cream day is Friday.’ Then the child will push and negotiate, and the parent, who probably thinks negotiating is ‘honoring her child’s opinion,’ will say, ‘Fine, we’ll get ice cream today, but don’t ask me tomorrow, because the answer is no!’” The teacher laughed. “Every year, parents come to me and say, ‘Why won’t my child listen to me? Why won’t she take no for an answer?’ And I say, ‘Your child won’t take no for an answer, because the answer is never no!’”

These provocative insights, of course, are really just good old-fashioned common sense.  Saying no to a child–what an idea!  This is the stuff of ground-breaking, cover-making wisdom at present.

I’d like to use this piece to offer a few thoughts on the current state of evangelical parenting.  Many of us do focus on developing self-esteem in our children, which has a few positive and many negative effects–good because our children know we love them and are interested in what they do, bad because they can all too easily learn self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness.  That, to say the very least, is a problem, as is the practice of rewarding children for mediocrity and even failure.

But there’s a parallel issue that concerns me about the “parenting style” of many of us today.  It is theological: we love grace.  We so exult in God’s lavish grace–and nothing is more worthy of exulting in, or exalting–that we lose sight of other important biblical-theological concepts.  Like what, you say?  Like the law.  The law does not and cannot save.  Only the gospel can.  But the law is nonetheless of great value to us in forming character, understanding God’s nature, and driving us to the mercy offered us in Christ (see Galatians 3:24).

How does this apply to modern evangelical parenting?  I’m concerned that many evangelicals who prize God’s sovereign goodness as I do are diminishing the importance of rules, morals, and appropriate behavior.  Let’s be clear–I’m not advocating moralism. I don’t want kids to grow up with hard-and-fast ethical boundaries but no grace, no love, no affection.  I guess I’m theologically greedy.  I want both.  I want a home that is driven by and centered in and soaked through with grace.  God-rooted grace should drive the life of a family such that love, not law, is the dominant trait one picks up about a Christian family when one spends time with it.  “What was it about the Harpers?  They interact with one another in such a loving way.  Why?”  That’s the kind of question people should ask after being around our godly families.

To read the rest, visit the BibleMesh blog, where this piece is posted in full.


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