How Should Christians Feel About Gentle Parenting?

How Should Christians Feel About Gentle Parenting?

In the world of parenting, there has recently been a shift away from the widely held authoritarian parenting view, which focuses heavily on obedience and correction. In its place, what is commonly referred to as gentle parenting or intentional parenting has come into vogue. This style of parenting focuses less on immediate obedience and strives to acknowledge and understand the feelings and motivations behind a child’s challenging behavior.

As you can imagine, both parenting styles exist on a spectrum with regard to how daily parent-child interactions are managed. On the authoritarian side of parenting, the worst end of the spectrum can look like abusive forms of corporal punishment carried out on disobedient actions. On the gentle parenting side, the extreme cases can be void of any form of correction or discipline. 

How individuals feel about authoritarian parenting versus gentle parenting has tended to fall along political lines. Strong conservatives make the claim that gentle parenting is too “woke” and is creating a generation of people who lack discipline and who just want to pass around a feelings stick. Strong liberals make the claim that authoritarian parenting is barbaric and abusive. Certainly, extreme forms of each parenting style could be characterized as such, but it is unfair to assess either philosophy on the basis of those extremes. 

What sets these two dominant parenting styles apart is their objectives. One sees the purpose of parenting as raising a child who is obedient to the authority structures placed over them. The other aims at raising an independent child who can regulate his or her emotions. 

No one would deny that the role of a parent is critical. Parents leave an indelible mark on the next generation—whether it was the mark they intended to leave or not—to shape our collective culture into the future. The mission for all Christians is to live out the gospel in everything we do, so how is that translated into the way we parent?

Over the last decade, the model of parenting to which most Christians have subscribed of the authoritarian variety. In this model, the greatest offense a child can commit is being disobedient or misbehaving. Such behavior is seen as a failure of discipline on the part of the child’s parents—lack of discipline can lead to unruly and disruptive children. 

Christian parents have long advocated for physical discipline, such as spanking, largely due to one well-known phrase: “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” You can’t find this exact wording in the Bible, though it is widely held as a core value of Christian parenting. 

This value is rooted in Proverbs 13:24, which says, 

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them. 

So the words might be a little different from the widely used axiom, but the meaning is still the same, right? Not exactly. 

To be sure, my intention is not to wade into the highly controversial topic of spanking, but I do hope to look at the verse that has become a pillar to support physical punishment as the undeniably “biblical” way of parenting.

At the crux of the issue is how we interpret two words in Proverbs 1324.

1. ‘Rod’

The Hebrew word, shebet is translated as rod in this verse, but it can be found over one hundred times in the Old Testament. Every instance of this word in the Old Testament falls into one of the below categories:

Tribe: 1 Samuel 10:20, Judges 21:24, Genesis 49:16 (a few examples)

Scepter: Genesis 49:10, Numbers 24:17

A Club: Isaiah 10:24, Isaiah 11:4, Isaiah 28:27

Rod, Staff, or Crook Used for Shepherding: Micah 7:14, Psalm 23:4

As we look at the different uses of shebet in the Old Testament, the two logical translations for rod in Proverbs 13:24 are either a club or a shepherding rod. In the context of this verse and similar verses in which discipline is discussed, I believe that the best translation of shebet is shepherding rod. 

Many would agree with this assessment, but then argue that shepherds used their rods to punish (that is, beat) their sheep. However, it actually would have been disadvantageous for a shepherd to strike his sheep. To strike the sheep would either slow it down or make it weary of his shepherd. 

Instead, the way a shepherd would use his rod was as an instrument to lead the way for the sheep, to correct the path of the sheep if they began to wander, or to remove the sheep from harm. It was also a tool that could be used as a weapon against predators or to pick up sheep and examine their wool.

The rod was never used as a tool to punish sheep, so for us to interpret this use of the “rod” as corporal punishment within the context of parenting is simply inaccurate. The rod is a guide and corrector. In this interpretation, it also makes more sense why David would reflect that God’s rod and staff bring comfort in Psalm 23. 

2. ‘Discipline’

Oftentimes, we use the terms “discipline” and “punishment” interchangeably. However, these words are not used the same way as each other in Scripture. That is, “discipline” does not necessarily mean “punishment.”

For example, Christians are constantly called to discipline themselves in the ways of the Lord. Now, does this mean we are to punish ourselves for the sake of Christ? Of course not. Yet, this seems to be the first correlation we tend to make when it comes to disciplining children.

Discipline is far more about training and guiding. In God’s relationship with us, in our relationship with ourselves, and in a parent’s relationship with their children, to discipline is to train and guide. Discipline is not the same as punishment.

The biblical way to raise your children is to train them and guide them in the ways of the Lord. There is no specific verse that says exactly how to do that. Much of how to practically go about disciplining children is left open to interpretation and wisdom of godly counsel.

What we do know is that the role of a parent is to raise their children in the ways of the Lord. That may look different for each family. 

What we also know is that the Bible does not ever explicitly endorse physical punishment for children. Now, does it endorse gentle parenting instead? No. That would have been an entirely foreign concept in ancient Israel and in the first century. Nevertheless, whether or not to spank our children is not a question directly addressed by Scripture.

However, we can all agree that guiding and directing children is of paramount importance. This includes telling your children about Jesus and showing them Jesus in the way you interact with them. Jesus led 12 disciples, and he disciplined them in the ways of the Lord by modeling the life he wanted them to live. He guided, corrected, and cared for his disciples.

The Bible clearly provides us with the objective for parenting children. However, there is freedom to decide how that is carried out day-to-day.