Parenting with Hope, not Punishment

Parenting with Hope, not Punishment April 8, 2016

Do you know anyone with a background in Christian fundamentalism? If you do, then you know that a good portion of that world view is oriented around fear. Fear of hell, fear of punishment in the afterlife, fear that our children will be disobedient. Oops, did I say that out loud?

The way I was raised in my own fundamentalist (or fundie) background, if my child was disobedient to me as a parent, they were in danger of never listening to anyone else in their life, including God, and would very likely rebel against God and end up in hell.

This meant that my main objective as a parent needed to be to teach my children to obey the first time I asked them to do anything, without question. Not only was this lesson applied to potentially dangerous situations in my experience (Don’t run into the street!), but also in mundane everyday instruction (Clean the bathtub this way! Don’t question me about why. Do it because I said so). Sadly, this can shut down critical thinking in kids when their brains are still developing. And believe me, I have caught myself taking this approach with my children on more than one occasion. It is deeply rooted in my psyche.

This is probably a good time to say my parents did the best job they could have done with the information they had at the time. And I don’t feel I am scarred for life or anything like that, because our home was full of love and nurture.


Photo credit: author, Mandy Martin

But… I’m learning another way of parenting. Because once a kid has made a single poor choice, I tend to start categorizing them subconsciously as being on a path of eternal punishment. Instead of giving them chances to do the right thing (we call it a “re-do” in our house), I start trying to catch them doing wrong. And with my kids, whom we adopted after over five years of living in situations of neglect and trauma, making poor choices happens a lot. Unfortunately, if the only tool in my toolkit is a hammer, everything I see looks like a nail.

What motivates the human heart, though, is not fear of punishment or consequences. What motivates the human heart best is LOVE. It is a sense of well-being, that we are worth-while, that we are capable and we can do it. There is no fear in love; instead, perfect love drives out fear, because fear involves punishment. Sound familiar?

I see this in my parenting of one of my challenging kids all the time. After a rough patch where he’s struggling to make good choices, I finally remember to put away my hammer and take out a different tool. It’s a flashlight. I try to shine a light on his good choices, no matter how tiny, and give him HOPE. He desperately needs hope to believe he can choose the right things. And what neuroscience is discovering right now about how traumatized brains can heal and change is so encouraging, because he is capable of learning to make better choices.

And that’s what we all need, deep down inside. We need hope that our life has worth, that we can make it. If we fall down, we can get up and keep trying, because there are new mercies every morning.

I’m really hoping to hear from some of my “formerly fundie” friends on this post. How has your approach to parenting been affected by your fundie roots?

Mandy Martin is a mother, writer, and artist who blogs at There’s a fire burning in her bones to see justice and peace for all the people of the earth, regardless of race, creed, background or orientation.


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