Five ‘Christian Parenting’ Ideas To Let Go Of

Five ‘Christian Parenting’ Ideas To Let Go Of July 13, 2012

I was invited by Paul, my editor at Huffington Post, to write a piece on Christian parenting, and more specifically, how that looks different today than maybe in the past. When I started thinking back to scripture, my mind first wandered to several “what not to do” stories, which abound in the Bible. For example:

  • Don’t pass out drunk before securing your loincloth first (See: Noah)
  • Don’t hand over your virgin daughters to an angry mob to be gang-raped (See” Lot)
  • Don’t lay your son out on top of a big rock and attempt to sacrifice him to God (See: Abraham)

I could go on, but you get the idea. There’s plenty of fodder for sub-par parenting in the Good Book if we want to find it. But based on the examples of Christian parenting I see in more contemporary culture, the things we’d be best to move beyond are a little subtler (sometimes anyway) than the examples above.

Consider James Dobson’s (former head of Focus on the Family) writing on raising children. He advocates corporal punishment, placing the male as the “head of the household,” and other advice that makes a guy like me cringe. And interestingly, a lot of the differences I have with traditional (some might say “evangelical”) Christian parenting parallel my differences in how to approach Christian community all together.

In that light, here are five habits, often attributed to “Christian parenting” values, that I’d just as soon replace with something new:

Beatings will continue until morale improves. Though physical violence is a shortcut to compliance, it sends the wrong message to our kids. We say as Christians that our core values center on mercy, love, grace and compassion, so where exactly does corporal punishment fit in this? Some will contend that sparing the rod spoils the child, but the Hebrew word (shebet) often translated as “rod” can also be translated as “authority.” In this sense, we can interpret that the author of Proverbs (from which this 12th century phrase seems to come from) may have meant that if we don’t use our wisdom, authority and influence to guide our children’s lives, they will likely be lost.

Because I said so. This style of parenting is a bit like being in the middle of a theological debate and throwing down the “The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it” trump card. True respect doesn’t come from browbeating or intimidating someone into compliance or silence. It comes from living the example you preach, and in doing so, illuminating a path your children – and perhaps even others – desire to follow.

Father is King. This certainly isn’t limited to Christian households (my dad was an atheist and ascribed to this ethos), but it’s certainly prevalent within lots Christian families. From Promise Keepers to the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family, there are many faith-based groups that base their family values on the establishment and maintenance of a clear, hierarchic order. Everyone knows their role, their place, and that the dad is ultimately in charge. Yet in Galatians, Paul says that as Christians such labels and hierarchies should fall away. If, instead, the principles of the Greatest Commandment (Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; Love your neighbor as yourself) are placed at the head of any family, the rest falls into its proper place.

Sex is dirty; save it for marriage. We Christians have such a screwed up relationship with sex and sexuality, it’s a wonder we keep finding a way to reproduce at all! From Eve to Bathsheba and Delilah, we delight in paining the woman as the sexual temptress who leads men astray, as if we have no control over ourselves. And from this, any number efforts to oppress the rights and identities of women emerge. But guess what? We’re still clueless when it comes to sex. We tell our kids about how scary, dirty, dangerous and evil even thinking about sex is, but then we tell them it’s precious gift to save for the one person you love and plan to live with forever. This is a setup for sexual confusion, guilt and even sexual addiction or abuse later in life.

Think like me when you grow up. Many Christians say that their faith is all about a personal relationship with Christ, trumpet the primacy of free will and love to quote scriptures about “seek and you shall find.” But not when it comes to our kids. We feel the need to force-feed our notion of the faith on them far too often, rather than trusting that, given the chance, they will find God on their own terms as they come to understand it. More often than not, it seems at least within my generation, the didactic forcible approach to raising kids in the Christian faith causes them to run the other direction as soon as they’re able. How many millions more will it take walking away from Christianity forever before we finally wake up and realize that maybe we’re part of the problem?

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  • love this. yes, please!

  • Bobmako

    I have to assume that you do not have children based on this post. Most of these five are severely skewed from very good reasons to modify and use them all.

    1. There is an infinite difference between a beating and properly administered corpral punishment. This may range from a tap on the hand to a swat. It must always be measured, and is not always appropriate. 

    2. Parental authority is vital. You can try and reason with a 2 to 6 year old, but only if you are willing to allow the child to experience their own pain. It doesn’t work with a 13 year old, but why would I even think that it would.

    3. Father is King- well respect your parents is the real message. I will go along with throwing out father is king.

    4. If you were taught sex is dirty, that was wrong. If you were taught premarital sex is sin, that is correct. We get lost in trying to help our children understand something before they have the experience. Oh, and it was David who was the villain in his story. Where on earth did you come up with Bathsheba as a temptress. That is not scriptural. And both Samson and Delilah were wrong. And as for Eve, it was a mutual disobedience from Adam and her.

    5. Think like me? Why would I burden my child with that mindset.

    I will say that Focus on the Family did a huge disservice to the country by trying to move Christianity from Christ based to values based. A lot of their stuff is great, but the Gospel is best. And just for full disclosure, I still listen to Adventures in Odyssey. Cheesy at times, but just fun story telling works for me.

    FYI, father of 3 well adjusted adult Christians here. And my part was small, I give God the glory in helping me to not screw up too much.

    • Fred386

      Well put – good response.

    • Psst…glance at the title of my memoir in the right sidebar…

      • Bobmako

        I thought it was philosophical, like holy heretic. Pssst back at you. 😉

  • Fred386

    I don’t know what kind of house you grew up in, friend. But I grew up in a Christian home and it was nothing like what you have written about here. It was a home filled with love and warmth – where good deeds were recognized and rewarded and bad did not go unpunished. We live in dark times, when being a Christian is viewed upon by society as something bad. You certainly do not speak for all Christians. And your comment about sex is completely ignorant.

    • Given the context in which you use it, I’m not sure that word “friend” means what you think it means. Buddy.

    • you seem very angry.  I’m not sure why you feel attacked.  He didn’t say all Christian homes are horrible.  I wonder what you are defending.
      I’m sorry you are living somewhere that Christianity is seen as a bad thing.  Are you in China or someplace like that?  If you are in the US, you need to put on your big boy pants.  There is no whining in Christianity.

  • Mp27980

    Phil, I would love to read more blogs like this one. I can relate so well with everything you wrote about. And I am one of those that have been so discouraged by christians and feel the same as you do. I have said before and will say it again, I want no part of it.

  • Melanieseier

    You forgot to put in here that the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement saying that the book Babywise and all of the other Ezzo methods (which are so highly marketed in churches and so very similar to what Focus on the Family teaches) is shown by research to be unsafe for children!  Check out  I agree with you on all of these points, and I really wish more Christians would use their brains and consider research instead of just blindly following tradition or how some random pastor interprets Scripture and preaches it.  Research shows that violence (even Christian’s version of “disciplining their children in love” or spanking) begets violence and does not turn children into  “God-fearing,” moral adults.  

  • Melody

    Somehow, I KNEW I’d see the “you don’t have kids” cop-out. It drives me crazy when people use that to justify bad parenting methods or teachings. It’s not skewered at all. Maybe it is for more reasonable parents, but I was largely raised on these points. Perhaps that’s why I’m so bitter and frustrated (yes, I admit it, so no fundy here can try to use that cop-out, either).

    (Disqus doesn’t like Android, so I can’t

  • Melody

    *groan* My comment got cut off. Was saying, Disqus doesn’t like Android, so I can’t reply on Patheos.

  • Nicole

    Loving these posts 🙂 Wish we had more voices like yours – may have prevented thousands of screwed-up kids (through what is considered as ‘godly’ parenting but is merely a fear reaction to the perception of a big, bad, dark, world) and screwed-over kids. (through religious institution doing severe psychological damage as they wave the bible and “God told me so” rhetoric). Keep them coming please 😉

  • I like the comment on sex. I find the ‘purity’ ball movement particularly disturbing amongst Evangelicals.

  • I like this but you didn’t address one thing. While I don’t agree with spanking, I will say that I was not screwed up by that. It was verbal abuse for me. I think that the authoritarian type of child rearing encouraged by some Christians can be very damaging. If you constantly tell your child how bad (sinful) she is, then you can literally destroy that child. I used to be told how horrible I was, and then at the end of the lecture my mother would hug me and say that she loved me. A child can’t process those two things at once! I ended confused and thought that she hated me.

    Also communication was only one way, from parent to child. I was not allowed to have any feelings. Parents need to understand that kids feel pain too. And they should also understand that they make mistakes also. It would have helped me so much if my mother had said “I’m sorry” once in a while.

    I am not saying that all Christian households are like this, but the Bible does tend to encourage this kind of parenting.

    The Bible says to honor your parents. I would also say that parents should honor their children also.  

    • Carrie

      RE  “The Bible says to honor your parents. I would also say that parents should honor their children also.”  Actually, the Bible says that, too.  It’s in a couple of Paul’s letters (don’t have my Bible with me), right after the usual “Children, obey your parents” line.  Paul says, “Fathers, do not discourage your children. . . . ”  Just as he includes “Husbands, love your wives as your own flesh,” and “Masters, do not abuse your slaves, but remember that you too have a Master in heaven, and he does not show favoritism.”  The traditional lines get all the play, while the heart of Paul’s message, the thing that made him unusual in his cultural context, was his warnings to the people in power, and his treating the people without power (children, women, slaves) as actual moral agents with choices to make.  He’s still patriarchal–how could he not be?–and I don’t consider his household codes binding on modern Christians–but within his context he was pretty radical.  A shame so many Christians over the centuries have missed that.

      • Thank you for pointing that out. I was not aware of that.

  • katz

    I was neutral on corporal punishment (spanked as a kid, turned out fine) until someone pointed out that you’re modeling for your child that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems.

  • Scarlet

    I loathe the cop-out “you don’t have kids so you’re not entitled to an opinion”. People have NO idea what they’re saying when they do this. Are you more special for having children? Are you more right? Is your experience more valid? God decided to take away my ability to have children, would you think that would be because I would have been a terrible mother? The sheer fact that I’m unable to have children makes me increasingly more sensitive to how I see other people raise theirs. All too often, I see people taking their children for granted. I think the overall message to this is “brainwashing is bad”. 

    C’mon, people. Children are not hostages. While I was spanked as a child, I don’t think it ruined me. Having parents who did all of the above is probably what ruined me. Being ignored totally and not being allowed to grow and learn and have opinions and make mistakes ruined me. Being taught messed up ideas about sex ruined my ability to have a healthy sexual relationship. Even as an adult, I end up fighting a lot with my mother because she still believes that everything she is is all that is good and right and as a child I don’t have the right to disagree with her. Frankly she’s wrong a lot. After graduating from a christian university and being submerged in an environment full of people who were raised in various christian households, I’ve come to realize that maybe a traditional christian upbringing isn’t the most healthy for children. I think this is mostly because the average christian I befriend these days has a totally skewed idea about what love really is. I’m starting to lose faith in Christianity simply because it’s no longer about love, but rather about who is more right. 

  • Melanieseier

    I wonder why it is that so many “Christian” parents think that children don’t deserve any respect?  To me, part of being a follower of Christ…probably the largest part…is to look out for the oppressed and vulnerable…who is more vulnerable than a child?  I just can’t see Jesus taking a child over his knee and pulling down his pants and giving him a good spanking to “teach him a lesson.”  I can’t see Jesus shaming a child in ANY way by making him “confess” in public settings or other strange methods that so many misguided Christian parents use to straighten out their children.  And I certainly can’t see Jesus getting all worked up about premarital sex when some of his closest followers were prostitutes, and he hung out with them EVERY DAY…should we give our kids a good, moral foundation?  Yes!  Should we going so far as to stop respecting our children as individual people?  No!

    • Aaron

      The prostitutes and tax collectors who followed Jesus did repent of their sins, and change their ways. Jesus was concerned with extramarital sex, as indicated in the story of the woman caught in adultery – He did not condemn her, but he told her to “go and sin no more.” Jesus loves the sinner and desires that they would repent of their sin and restore relationship with God; however, He does not wait for us to fix ourselves before He welcomes us into His family. I agree that Jesus was not about bashing, shaming, or humiliating people who were known for their sin, but He still rejected sin as sin.

  • Ryan

    “· Don’t lay your son out on top of a big rock and attempt to sacrifice him to God (See: Abraham).” This doesn’t make Abraham a bad parent, but a “hero of faith.” See Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.”