Through the last decades of the 20th century, evangelical parenting advice from people like James Dobson or Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo emphasized parental authority and children’s obedience. Now that many of the kids who grew up under those rules are parents themselves, they’re determined to raise their own kids differently — even while finding it hard to break inherited patterns.
Damian McClintock, a family therapist and specialist in play therapy at Lipscomb University, meets plenty of people who want to raise their children in healthier, more developmentally supportive ways than the “obey, or else” culture they grew up in. But he knows that can be challenging.
“(Some parents) spend so much time trying not to be a certain person that they don’t take the same amount of time figuring out who they do want to be,” he said.
In doing so, they fail to work with the parts of themselves that are, thanks to both genetics and formation, very much like their own parents. When they have children of their own, they are shocked to see themselves repeating their own parents’ methods and behaviors. “We have to be able to admit those things to ourselves if we’re going to change them,” McClintock said.
‘Trust and obey’
Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, evangelical parents absorbed their pastors’ and ministry leaders’ concerns about an increasingly permissive and rebellious youth culture. In response, some evangelicals adopted a style of parenting that emphasized emotional connection but also demanded obedience in a way some researchers and evangelical leaders considered authoritarian, a parenting style that demands obedience without explanation to or feedback from the child. Authoritarian parenting has been continuously linked to negative outcomes like aggression, depression, and poor decision-making skills. Researcher Christina M. Rodriguez found that authoritarian parenting styles and tactics were associated with parent-child aggression, which is also associated with a high risk of child abuse.
Authoritarian parenting is by no means limited to religious families, and Dobson’s ministry — Focus on the Family — has distanced itself from the authoritarian label, primarily because this style of parenting often does not value warmth and emotional connection. Most current Christian parenting resources recommend something closer to what psychologist Diana Baumrind called “authoritative” parenting in the 1960s. Baumrind’s language is still in use, with authoritative parenting the heavy favorite of doctors and experts.
While an emotional connection might salvage a parenting strategy from the dreaded “authoritarian” label, the high demand for obedience comes at its own cost. The degree to which children give up intellectual autonomy in the home is another characteristic of authoritarian parenting, and in some cases a blurry line exists between authoritative and authoritarian, especially for children who grew up singing “trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.” Researchers found that while they might not claim to be authoritarian, many conservative Protestant and Catholic households expected levels of obedience more akin to authoritarianism than the discussion-based, give-and-take of authoritative parenting.
New models, new problems?
Today, many Christian parents are aware that there are other options, said Meredith Miller, pastor and author of the book Woven: Nurturing a Faith Your Kid Doesn’t Have to Heal From. Maybe they’ve seen appealing “gentle parenting” influencers on Instagram, or they’ve read a book by a progressive Christian on why justice and allyship are the real values we should be imparting to our children. But as Miller points out, those goals can also miss the mark.
They’ve changed their goals for their children, she said, but not their understanding of the parent-child relationship at its essence.
Both obedience-focused parenting and progressive or gentle parenting can be reduced to a series of strategies and “how tos,” Miller explained. It makes sense that parents who were raised in a system that guaranteed results would be looking for an alternative that guaranteed different results with the same confidence. But if the goal is to guarantee that kids turn out a certain way by doing prescribed activities — whether attending church or protests — or using specific scripts, Miller said, “We’re just changing what goes on the to-do list.”
What’s missing in this approach is both wisdom and grace, she said, which are both things that parents will need to offer themselves and their children. “What is really challenging is the ticking clock,” Miller said. “Where will I find the time and space to tend to, [revisit], and [interrogate] my own functional theology when this child is coming at me with all that childhood brings?”
Both authoritarian and many gentler parenting methods can raise the pressure on a parent to get it right from day one. They fear that every mistake is leaving an indelible mark on their child’s psyche. And the concern about these early interactions is not unfounded: The developing brain is highly responsive to the social and emotional environment of the home, even from the womb, McClintock said. For instance, a mother’s cortisol levels begin to affect the baby during pregnancy. Kids who grow up stressed and scared by harsh discipline have a hard time learning how to genuinely regulate their emotions, obeying out of fear or fighting back and incurring more punishment. They may become parents whose coping mechanisms are challenged by their children’s big emotions; instead of providing the stabilizing “co-regulation” a child needs to manage their own big emotions, the parents find themselves dysregulated as well.
God made you good
But while early influences and wounds are strong, they are not impossible to heal.
Counseling is usually helpful for parents trying to learn how to accept and integrate their own emotions, McClintock said. He added that a lot of people need an outside voice to offer strategies, guidance, and to redirect them away from old thought patterns. It can also help them do the difficult work of owning how they are like their parents — the very people they are trying not to be — and growing in compassion for their parents, who were also products of their own upbringing.
For Christian parents, Miller also recommends a theological reset going all the way back to fundamental questions like “Am I good?” and “Did God make me good?” Authoritarian discipline is often rooted in the idea that the child is fundamentally sinful, and that the sin needs to be managed or forcefully expunged.
Miller encourages parents to tell God about the kind of obedience-demanding deity they were raised with, and, together with God, call that deity a false, untrustworthy invention. She invites parents to regularly tell themselves and their children that they are good, that God made them good, and they can trust themselves. These beliefs allow a family to find the right places and expressions of faith for their household culture, traditions, and ways to handle behaviors that don’t match up to their values.
Miller and McClintock both pointed to the benefits of understanding basic developmental psychology — the changes a person’s brain makes as they grow, and what skills and behaviors likely accompany these changes. So much behavior has to do with brain development and emotional regulation, not moral instruction, McClintock said. Trying to impart life lessons to a screaming toddler is futile, but the toddler isn’t screaming because they are morally bankrupt. Recognizing this both alleviates the panic parents might feel under a strictly moral lens and gives them more tools to help guide the child away from harmful behavior.
Even when a child does something that seems morally serious, McClintock said, keeping developmental appropriateness in mind can help a parent respond in a way that guides a child toward shared values without overreacting. It can help a parent keep perspective when they know the various non-moral reasons children lie.
“It’s fairly average in terms of childhood development,” McClintock said.
And when kids or parents inevitably mess up, Miller points to what she considers to be one of the great redemptive truths:
In a home trust and dignity are the basis of relationship, Miller said, everyone deserves an apology when they are harmed, including children. This is another way to reparent, she said.
She recommends thinking back to times in childhood when you knew you were wronged and deserved an apology.
Seeing children — our younger selves and our offspring — as worthy of amends can bring parents closer to the healthy relationships they want, Miller said. “Living on the other side of the resurrection, we know that nothing means there’s too much, too far, too gone.”