Raising children is one of the most difficult jobs on the planet, at least that is what I have heard and am only beginning to experience myself with a 9 month old daughter. I have had numerous conversations with parents who seem to be frustrated with parenting, as it seems raising kids today is much more difficult than in past generations. From tantrums, to fighting with siblings, to blatant disobedience, parents seem at a loss for why their kids won't go to sleep when it's bed time, won't eat their food, and act like a deranged maniac in public.Why does today's generation of children seem more "strong willed" (whatever that means) than when we were kids?
Generally, there are two main approaches to parenting that most parents in our culture follow. The first style of parenting is less popular but is what many of today's younger parents grew up with, which was a "do it because I said so" style of parenting - a John Wayne-ish authoritarian (borderline tyranical) style. This first style focuses on strict obedience to authority, usually by spankings, intimidation, and discipline; it is a "do it or else" approach to parenting. This approach did produce some results in the past, but in today's culture has proven to be largely ineffective. Today's parents are a part of the generation that threw off authority. The racial and anti-war protests of the 1960's radically affected societie's view of authority. Individual autonomy is now a virtue that largely goes unchallenged. Children raised under this mentality no longer stand in line quietly and patiently. They no longer ask for permission to talk. Also, inevitably, they no longer fear the consequences of talking back to their parents. Sometimes Christians will still try the authoritarian style of parenting but only end up frustrated with it's deficiencies. This approach used to get children to be externally obedient, but even in the past when children listened to authority it was a bad method of parenting. It's simplicity was convenient but it's effects were devastating.
The reason that the authoritarian/tyrannical style of parenting is bad, even if it gets the child to obey, is because external obedience is not the only goal of parenting, or at least it shouldn't be. The goal of parenting is to guide and shape a child's heart to not only be externally obedient, but internally as well. A child can learn to obey parental commands but in their heart be full of anger and selfishness, and if parents focus only on external obedience they will raise children who know how to mask their selfish behavior behind external obedience; this is not what we want for our children. So, the authoritarian style doesn't work which leads parents to another style which is worse but more common today; the peace seeking wimp style of parenting.
When writing this article, I struggled over whether or not "wimp" was too harsh of a term; but in the end I decided its bluntness was necessary to convey the devastation that this commonplace parenting method has upon a home. The wimp style of parenting does whatever is necessary to stop a tantrum as soon as possible. For these kinds of parents "no" doesn't really mean "no", it means if I have to tell you five more times then you are going to get a "time out" (or even worse a "time in") which usually involves being sent to their room to play with toys instead of in the living room - it's often just a break for the parent. These kind of parents struggle to understand why their child won't go sleep at night or obey when they have been told numerous times not to do something: like play with things that are not toys. This style of parenting wants peace above anything else, and because of it they will do whatever is necessary to pacify or distract their child to end an outburst as quickly as possible. When their child throws a fit at the grocery store over a candy bar, they usually tell them no several times, and then promptly give in and give the child what they want for the sake of peace. This approach to parenting often says things like, "if you eat all your food then you can have ice cream", and even worse, when the child doesn't eat all their food and begins to throw a fit about not getting the ice cream, the parent quickly changes the original terms to "if you eat just three more bites then you can have ice cream." This kind of parent doesn't use situations like this as an opportunity to teach their child correctly, instead they teach their children to have a self entitlement mindset and that when mom or dad says "no", if they put up enough of a fuss, they can get what they want. Along with this parenting style children often hear things like, "you can be whatever you want to be" and "you are special (snowflake...) and different than everyone else." But the reality is that their child can't be whatever they want. A boy who grows up to be 5ft and 135 pound is never going to be an NFL linebacker. Teaching our kids these kinds of things furthers the idea that they are better than everyone else, and that they deserve everything.
The problems with the wimp style of parenting are blatantly obvious, but still, why do so many parents today end up following this approach? Well, put simply, they don't want to parent, not really; they really want peace at any cost. Think back to the child who was rewarded ice cream for rebelling. The child was clearly rebelling against the parents' authority, but the parents didn't believe that dealing with the rebellion head on was worth the hassle (worth parenting over). There are numerous situations where these parents teach their children that what mom or dad says is an option: things like stay off the stairs, to stay out of the cuboards, to don't play with the glass vase, to put your toys away, etc. The wimp style of parenting teaches the child that the world revolves around their needs and desires, but it doesn't. The child is continually being taught that if they throw a big enough tantrum they can manipulate the parents into doing what they want - it is a constant game of chicken in which the child usually wins in some way or another. For these parents everything is about their kids; the day at the zoo isn't about the family spending time together at the zoo, it's about little Billy or Susy having the time of their life; the entire event is orchestrated around them instead of the family.
Again, thinking back to the situation of the ice cream, the primary goal is not to get the child to eat their food at any cost, it is to address rebellion at any cost - including the cost of the child getting the ice cream. Parents who follow the wimp style of parenting want peace above all else, which is nothing more than idolatry - They make peace and their children's happiness their ultimate goal and satisfaction. This style of parenting often masquerades as loving, but it's not. Tullian Tchividjian says it well: “Parents are cruel and unloving to their children when they place a large burden on their small shoulders that they were never intended to bear, namely, ‘Make my life worth living.’” Another downside to this, is that the marriage relationship becomes secondary to the parent to child relationship. The proper order of relationships is God, spouse, children, and not children, God, spouse. This approach is bad parenting; but fortunately, there is a third style of parenting.
The third style of parenting is the biblical approach, which could be called the shepherding style of parenting. This third style of parenting seeks to not pacify the child at any cost nor achieve mere external obedience, but seeks to shape and mold the child's heart: their inner thoughts and person. The approach is simple; whenever a child is being rebellious it must be addressed in some form of discipline by the parents. If the child walks away from the situation with a rebellious heart then the task of parenting in that situation is not completed. Parents who follow the biblical approach of parenting will give up peace for the good of their child, and more importantly, obedience to God. One of the most unloving things a parent can do is to give their child whatever they want whenever they want it. Biblical parents see every rebellious situation as a means to guide and challenge the child's thoughts and help them learn discernment and wisdom. The third style of parent doesn't just spank their child into external submission, nor give them whatever they want for the sake of peace, but uses every aspect of parenting to teach their child to love and obey God. The only way a parent can do this is by embracing the power of the gospel.
The central focus of good parenting is the gospel. "You need to direct not simply the behavior of your children, but the attitudes of their hearts. You need to show them not just the "what" of their sin and failure, but the "why." Your children desperately need to understand not only the external "what" they did wrong, but also the internal "why" they did it. You must help them see that God works from the inside out. Therefore, your parenting goal cannot simply be well behaved children. Your children must also understand why they sin and how to recognize internal change."1 Without the gospel, God's law is impossible for us to follow both externally and internally. "A change in behavior that does not stem from a change in heart is not commendable; it is condemnable." A gospel centered approach to parenting involves the parents regularly asking their children for forgiveness when they fail to parent correctly by following the wimp or authoritarian methods. A gospel centered parent disciplines their children not as punishment but as a tool of loving correction. That doesn't mean there aren't consequences, but consequences are a means of correction and teaching instead of punishment or vengeance. They never spank their child out of frustration or anger, which is nothing more than abuse, but instead use spankings and other forms of discipline as teaching tools for when a child refuses to listen to reason and loving correction. A gospel centered parent continually makes rebellion against their authority relate to the real rebellion that is going on in a child's heart against God's authority.
So, parental authority matters, but what if you don't believe in God or the gospel? Ask yourself this question, "why should a child obey their parents"? For the Christian God is the final authority and He has delegated authority temporarily to parents, so the child is to listen to the parents because of their God given authority. On what logical basis does an atheist or agnostic tell a child they ought to listen to them? Rationally speaking, there isn't a good reason and the only justification boils down to a might makes right argument. Basically, "listen to me because I'm bigger and stronger than you are." However, when the child becomes a teen and is bigger and stronger than the parents does this authority shift? Why not? As with every instance of life, without God nothing makes logical sense if it is examined closely and honestly, and if we attempt to parent without God's methods we will inevitably fail and end up frustrated.
Children need loving and firm parents, not friends who will give them whatever they want. They need parents to constantly and lovingly challenge the rebellion in their hearts as soon as the child understands what the word "no" means. The task of parenting is not easy, but it is vitally important. While there will be times a child will have to listen to a parent because the parent knows better and the child is unable to understand the reasons, parents should regularly be in the business of explaining to their children why something is off limits, which will build trust. The deficiencies of the authoritarian and wimp styles of parenting are devastating to a child, so embrace the gospel and strive to parent as God intended.
1. Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child's Heart (Yorba Linda, CA: Shepherd Press, 1995), Kindle Locations 175-180.