The concept of “gentle parenting” (GP) has recently gone from trend to typical, as millennials (and some Gen. Zers) enter the world of parenting infants, toddlers, and grade school children. The trend has had a profound impact all across our society, including in the church. The term “gentle parenting” is an umbrella term made for a variety of parenting styles. But if we apply the principles of the Scriptures, will we arrive at a parenting style that looks like gentle parenting? As a Christian, mother, and wife, I will attempt to answer the question: Is gentle parenting biblical?
Up until recently, gentle parenting was associated with the well-known term “permissive parenting,” though they are not exactly the same. Permissive parenting involves the parent coddling the child and giving excessive love and encouragement without boundaries or discipline. These parents typically have an excuse or a reason for the way a child is acting in any situation. Gentle parenting, however, is a style that “relies on empathy, understanding, and respect” according to the Cleveland Clinic. It affirms children’s emotions so that the children feel “heard” and know that their emotions are real and valid. The goal is to teach children that while their emotions are real, they need to be controlled. On paper, this may sound Biblical. After all, James 1:19-20 commands us to be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to anger. God has given us emotions, and we’re to love our children. What could be so wrong? However, we are not merely raising children, but image bearers of God who will one day become adults and without us amid a fallen world.
One Size Fits Few
Gentle parenting, unlike permissive parenting, does involve some discipline. My husband and I, along with many parents, support immediate natural consequences. Gentle parenting is no different in this. When you tell a child not to touch the eye of a stove because it could be hot, then the child chooses to disobey and burns their fingers, that is an immediate natural consequence. In the future, the child will not be so quick to disobey and touch the stove again. Therefore, no further discipline is needed as they have already immediately felt the pain of the sin of disobedience. However, disciplining a child in a way that does not have an immediate natural consequence is where the differences between gentle and Biblical parenting become more apparent.
Ultimately, gentle parenting considers the child and their developmental “stage” before reacting and disciplining. This does not seem to be true Biblical discipline. Instead of disciplining an elementary-aged child for calling a sibling a name after an offense, parents adhering to GP focus on the positive behavior the child should have expressed. For example, a parent would say, “I understand you were upset with your brother because he knocked down your block tower. However, we should ask him to help you rebuild it instead of calling him a name. Let’s try that now.” Then the family would recreate the event and practice the newly instructed positive behavior.
Using Appropriate Force
Like anything, we need to be discerning in how we raise our children because one size does not fit all. You do not handle a kettlebell the same way you handle fine china. My children are vastly different (as many siblings tend to be.) My daughter is more sensitive and receptive to discipline, needing a softer hand. We can discuss her actions, why certain actions are sinful, and can get to the heart of the matter. My son, on the other hand, is more stubborn and bold, needing a firmer hand. He truly fits the bill of “spare the rod, hate the child.” (Prov. 13:24) I would not always be able to use GP methods with my son. Likewise, my daughter, though more sensitive, at times still must receive the rod when she willfully disobeys us. While discussion can be made for both, Proverbs 23:12-14 indicates that there should be some sort of discipline given because children need to realize that there are consequences to every action, especially as an adult. A little pain now saves them from a lot of pain later, with the ultimate pain of disobedience being shown in hell.
Instead of disciplining the sins of lying and anger, a GP advocate might say something like, “Well if someone, not you, did knock over the tower, I think I would understand. Having a sister is hard.” However, it doesn’t stop there. The parent then talks through the emotion and gives other suggestions on how to handle the situation.
On the contrary, Biblical parenting does not excuse sinful behavior because of a child’s age. If sudden outbursts of anger are not acceptable before the Lord, they aren’t acceptable anywhere. The lack of self-control carried into adulthood can bring an endless array of dire consequences (lost employment, prison, etc.). A 2-year-old trying to steal a cookie may be cute, but a 20-year-old stealing from their workplace is not. Again, we are not merely raising children, but rather raising children who will become adults and need to function in a fallen world. We want them to be able to be salt and light; we are raising our children to be “in the world but not of the world.” Therefore, children need to be taught self-control and that their sin affects others, not just themselves. They must be shown they cannot act however they want because God forbids us from chasing our own sinful lusts and passions, and it’s truly good to follow God’s ways. (Gal. 5:24, 1 Peter 1:14, Rom. 6:12)
God As Our Example
Biblical parenting uses the Bible as the guide and example for discipline and raising a child instead of just instruction manuals produced by men. Gentle/permissive might label this“authoritarian parenting,” but biblical parenting is not authoritarian parenting. Authoritarian parenting takes Biblical parenting and sinfully distorts it by removing love, care, and compassion from the equation. An authoritarian parent expects obedience because they’re in control and disciplines or punishes out of anger for a lack of obedience. This sets the parents up as God, and the children as their creatures. This is not Biblical parenting. While we are commanded by God to discipline our children, with the rod if necessary, we must not provoke our children to anger (Ephesians 6:4). This means that we should check our hearts and pray before disciplining our children. We are commanded to discipline out of love for our children. “God is love,” so everything He does is out of love, and He only “disciplines those whom He loves.” In fact, scripture goes so far as to say, if we are not disciplined by God, we are illegitimate children. (Heb. 12:5-11) God is our example as we discipline our children.
Everything for Life and Godliness
By using the Bible, we do not need to look to those who are psychologists or believe they know the key to success in raising children. We already have our guide and a prime example of how to parent through our Father. We must not, even if unknowingly, confuse our role as parents. We are under the rule of God just as much as our children. We must submit ourselves to Christ and His teaching, as much as our children must submit to ours. Our children have been given to us, from God as a blessing, but also a resource that requires stewardship. Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, they must not only be sharpened (instruction), but made straight (discipline), and sent over the walls of the Enemy. (Eph.6:4, Psalm 127:4) God has created us. He knows what ways will bring about “the peaceable fruit of righteousness” in our children.
Will we follow His ways, or ours?