Fear-Based Parenting

Fear-Based Parenting October 24, 2012
by Kristen Rosser aka KRWordgazer

Latebloomer at Past Tense Present Progressive is blogging about Reb Bradley’s book Child Training Tips.  Calulu at Roadkill on the Information Superhighway is blogging about Michael and Debbi Pearl’s To Train Up a Child.  I’d like to chime in today with some thoughts about the method of child rearing which the two books share: they call it “Biblical parenting” or “Bible-based child training,” but it bears no resemblance to the way Jesus spoke of or treated children.  Instead, it takes a few proof texts (mostly from Proverbs) and builds an entire harsh, repressive and unjust regime out of them.

This is not something I can remain silent about. It goes directly against “do not provoke/exasperate your children” in Ephesians 6:4.  It convinces parents that, rather than bringing children up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, they should raise them strictly under law and without grace.  I call it “fear-based parenting,” because it appears to be founded on two foundational fears:  1) that your child is evil by nature, and 2) that your child will remain so and be lost for eternity unless you force the child into being good.

These are the basic messages taught in fear-based parenting:

1. The parent-child relationship is by nature adversarial.  The child wants all the power in the home, and your job as a parent is to resist the child’s attempts to seize it, and to hold all the power yourself.
2. Your child’s most fundamental nature is selfishness and rebellion against authority.
3. A child’s will is inherently deceitful and wicked, and must be subdued/broken by the parent.
4. Spanking (with some sort of “rod”) will remove the rebellion from your child’s heart. If the child responds to a spanking with anything other than complete submission, you need to spank longer/harder until the child’s will is subdued and broken.
5. To use any other method of discipline than spanking is unbiblical and only encourages your child’s rebellion and selfishness.  To show your child any mercy will only teach your child that he or she can get away with bad behavior.

6. The goal of parenting is complete, cheerful and instant obedience of the child to your will, because this will transfer to complete, cheerful and instant obedience to God’s will.

7. Any act of your child’s that is not completely, cheerfully and instantly obedient is, by definition, rebellion.
8. If you raise your child according to these “biblical principles,” the outcome is certain: your child will become a “godly” adult.

Now, I am aware that orthodox Protestant doctrine says that humanity is sinful by nature and in need of salvation.  I’m not contesting that;  in fact, I find it comforting whenever I (or my kids) do something I wish I (or they) hadn’t done.  No need to get excited or overreact– it’s just human nature.  But I believe this understanding should result in more mercy to my children– not more harshness and law.  They are not different from me.  It was the kindness of God (Romans 2:4) that brought me to repentance.  So why would my harshness bring them to repentance?

The thing is that these “biblical parenting” ideas focus exclusively on human sinfulness, while ignoring or forgetting other basic, orthodox Protestant teachings:

1. Humanity, though sinful, is also made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26), and it is in God that we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).  Paul said in Romans 2:14-15 that non-Jews who never had the Law still have “the work of the Law written in their hearts, their consciences bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them.”  This influence of God’s Spirit towards good in all people is known theologically as “common grace.”

2. None of us can save ourselves or anyone else; we are completely dependent on God’s grace to bring us to salvation.  Romans 3:23-24.

Nowhere does the Bible say that the nature of the parent-child relationship is a power struggle.  The opening chapters of the book of Proverbs are about parents lovingly giving their children instruction, not establishing dominance over them.  In any event, the Proverbs are by genre a set of wise sayings about how life generally works; they are neither promises nor commands.  The passages about using “the rod” need to be understood in the literary, historical and cultural contexts in which they were given.  The Parenting Freedom blog has a cultural/language study that makes it plain that what the Proverbs are talking about, and what the “biblical parenting” advocates say they are talking about, are in two different universes!  And in any event, to take a few verses on “the rod” and conclude from them that spanking is the only God-given method of discipline, is to give those verses a scope they were clearly never intended to have.

Nowhere does the Bible say that our goal as parents should be to break our child’s will.  Jesus said in Matthew 19:14, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not keep them away, because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  If the “biblical parenting” experts were correct, Jesus would have said something more like, “Those children who have been subdued to obedience may come to Me.  All others should be kept away, because their hearts are wicked!”   Children are by nature innocent and trusting, and they are geared to desire adult approval and to want to please their parents.    If you don’t believe me, just spend a little non-judgmental time with some young kids!  This is the image of God in their humanity.  It is not negated or driven out by original sin.  To interpret your child’s every action as a play for power or as an act of selfishness, is to disregard the image of God and His common grace in your child.  1 Corinthians 13:7 says, “[Love] bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”  To see another’s action through the eyes of love is to see it believing well of that person and hoping for the best in that person.  It is not to view every action with suspicion as motivated by selfishness and power-grabbing.  This goes for our children as much as for anyone else.

Nowhere does the Bible remotely imply that any act of another human being can train someone into complete, cheerful and instant obedience to God.   Titus 2:11-14 states unequivocally that it is the grace of God that teaches us to deny ungodliness and live righteously.  “Biblical parenting” is actually a way to play God, seeking to control the outcomes of our children’s lives and eliminate all uncertainty.  But that is not faith– it is fear.   Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Emphasis added).  Having a thing and seeing it is certainty.  Hoping for it and believing in it is faith. Faith faces uncertainty and trusts God.  Fear seeks to control outcomes so as to eliminate uncertainty– not realizing that the elimination of uncertainty also eliminates the need for faith.

Parents, we need to trust God with our children and not live in fear.  Jesus said to do to others as we would have done to us.  This command doesn’t disappear just because we’re talking about our kids.  Would we want to have our every motive suspect, our every action viewed in the worst light?  Would we want to beg for mercy for something we’ve done, and to be given no mercy lest we think we’ve been given a license to get away with it next time?  Would we want to be expected to drop everything, no matter how important to us, at the moment someone over us speaks a command, and be expected to not only show no frustration, but to feel no frustration, even when our dearest desires are denied and thwarted?  Do we want our frustration and lack of cheerfulness, when we show them in spite of ourselves, to then be interpreted and punished as rebellion?

If we would not want these things done to us, we should at the very least not do them to our children. But to truly obey Jesus’ words is to go further, and to do to our children what we would want done to us.  To be listened to.  To be treated with understanding and compassion.  To have our motives interpreted with “I believe the best of you.”  To be given mercy even when we know we don’t deserve it.

I’m not saying we should ignore it when our children do wrong.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t discipline our children or give them boundaries.  Boundaries and discipline are good things we give our children– but when the boundaries become chains, and the discipline becomes harshness and injustice, they are no longer good.

1 John 4:18 says, “There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear; because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”

Fear-based parenting is full of punishment.  But love-based parenting is full of faith and trust in God for our children.

Please– if you can bear it– read this blog post by one who has suffered under fear-based parenting, and please stand with me against it.  If your church, or anyone else, recommends a fear-based parenting book like To Train Up a Child or Child-Training Tips, please speak out.

Children are hurting.  It needs to stop.

Comments open below

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

The Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • SAO

    God doesn’t speak to people and most people who claim that he does are classified as mentally ill. So “Complete, cheerful and instant obedience to God” is an impossibility. To know the will of God, people have to not only study the bible, but to think, reflect and meditate on the meanings and how they translate into modern life and reality. And to reflect on the application of “good” and “right” to life’s myriad of messy situations.

  • MaryMary

    I have known or seen SO manmy people who use drugs, drink to excess, co-habitate, eat themselves into obesity, divorce more than once, curse like sailors, cheat, lie, gamble, gossip, fornicate, and are frequently angry and belligerent but use the quote about,”Spare the rod and spoil the child is in the BIBLE!”

    Most have never studied (or read) scripture, or have any desire to better themselves in any way, but they love the self-righteous excuse for hitting their kids.

    More than anything else, this has left me with only a tattered remnant of faith in a God.

  • Jenny Islander

    This might help. Here’s where it really comes from:

    Since Love’s a boy by poets styl’d,
    Then spare the rod and spoil the child.

    It’s from a poem by Samuel Butler. And in plain English, it means:

    Poets speak of love as the god Cupid, a little boy,
    So if you want love to behave as you wish, you have to apply corporal punishment.

    Or in even plainer English:

    Oooh, baby, I like it when you’re rough!

    IOW, it not only isn’t in the Bible, it’s not even about children. It’s about kinky love play.

  • Hmmmm, kinky love play? I like that interpretation much better!

    Scriptures dealing with using a rod on a child –
    Proverbs 22:15 – Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod of correction will drive it far from him.

    Proverbs 23:13, 14 – Do not withhold correction from a child, For if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. You shall beat him with a rod, And deliver his soul from hell.

    Proverbs 29:15 – The rod and rebuke give wisdom, But a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

  • Jenny Islander

    IANA Hebrew speaker, but here’s what I gathered from people who do read and write Hebrew and have studied the so-called rod verses:

    Proverbs 22:15: A state of being that as far as I can tell is best translated “natural born damnfoolishness” (not just ‘silliness,” but something much worse) is bound down in the heart of a child, and exercise of the authority to guide, teach, and correct that is symbolized by “the rod” in the same way that the President and all of his advisors are symbolized by “the White House” will keep him from turning into a damnfool when he’s old enough to go wrong. (This “rod” is a walking stick–the prop of the wise elder, stalwart shepherd, etc. Taking it as a literal beating smacking rod is like saying that a large white house has a mouth of plaster and lath with which it pronounces decrees!)

    Proverbs 23:13,14: Refers to the consequences that a youth (not a little kid) must suffer if found guilty in a court of law (not the woodshed) and the responsibility of that youth’s parents to allow those consequences to take their course. This is the one case in which “the rod” is used to punish, a la the bastinado in the Singaporean judicial system–again, used on people who are old enough to end up in court. IOW, don’t make excuses for your teenager if he’s caught driving drunk.

    Proverbs 29:15: If you don’t assume that “the rod” is shorthand for “beating that kid,” this is sound advice. Authority and correction give wisdom, but leaving kids without guidance produces embarrassment.