Three and a half years ago, I became a parent. I remember it vividly. It was like being thrown into the Arctic Circle without a parka. I had no idea what I was doing. I went to the hospital to give birth, and, afterward, a nurse handed me a baby and said, “Here you go.” I said, “Where’s the instruction manual for this thing??”
I faced many challenges as a new mom. One of them was ending up with a highly active, stubborn, intellectually gifted child. Another was finding my parenting style.
My parents raised me under a very authoritarian style. I was told what to think and how to think it. It wasn’t just enough that I obeyed–I had to have the correct attitude about it and the correct expression on my face as well. I had to obey at right speed. Any little shortcoming was punished by spanking, shaming and/or lecturing. I couldn’t make a single decision without my parents’ input and approval.
Seeing the negative effects this kind of parenting has had on my adult self, I decided I didn’t want to raise my child in the same way. But what to do? I had no other tools in my toolbox.
Through much prayer and research, I finally uncovered some useful parenting tools. One of those tools is gentleness. Gentleness is the ultimate form of self-control. If you’re being gentle, you are operating in the Spirit of Christ.
However, gentleness doesn’t get much press. Never has. I can recall hundreds of sermons I’ve heard on other gifts of the Spirit–namely faith and self-control. Dozens more on love, joy, and kindness. But, somehow, none on gentleness. Odd, since gentleness is one of the main traits believers are commanded to exhibit (Philippians 4:5, Colossians 3:12).
Spare the Rod?
Now, there are some Christian teachers who would disagree with me here. Some claim that children must be brought up with a firm hand, even if it means breaking their spirits. They point to Proverbs 13:24 for justification:
Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.
In doing so, they very conveniently overlook this verse:
Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged (Colossians 3:21).
So, we must be careful to discipline our children, but not “discipline” them in such a way that causes them to feel discouraged or resentful. Discipline is about imparting the wisdom to make sound decisions (Proverbs 29:15), not creating the perfect Stepford child. In other words, discipline is ultimately a form of empowerment.
I will not lead you to believe that I never spank. I do, when it’s necessary. However, I’ve found that spanking is often too easy and lends itself well to my own lack of self-control. When I’m giving full vent to my anger, I’m not thinking about imparting wisdom. I’m thinking about bending this “irritating little squirt” to my will, no matter how irrational my will may be at the moment. And I’ve noticed that when I demonstrate a lack of self-control and spank out of anger, my son models that behavior by acting out even more. However, when I respond to his lack of self-control in a calm and gentle manner, he responds in kind.
Children don’t just learn from the rod; they learn by example, too. The “Do as I say, not as I do” approach to parenting will eventually backfire. Guaranteed.
If we want children to be gentle, we must model gentleness. If we want children to refrain from using insults, we must not insult others. If we want children to exercise patience and restraint, we must do so as well. If we want children to be honest, we must be honest at all times. If we want children to share, we have to share with others first. If we want children to work hard, we must work with all of our might. Children will do whatever they see their parents doing.
In short, parenting has taught me far more about how to develop the character of Christ than any seminar ever could. It has made me draw upon the Holy Spirit for strength and guidance time and time again.
It was the words of Psalm 23 that really changed my mind about authoritarian parenting:
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me (verse 4).
Wait, the psalmist finds comfort in a disciplinary rod?! How’s that?
Because the rod isn’t wielded in anger or violence.
The Savior’s rod isn’t there to bend His followers to His will.
The rod exists as a source of wisdom–a way of knowing how to live and act responsibly. It’s wielded with authority, but it’s a gentle authority.
So, now, instead of looking for ways to punish my child, I look for ways to teach. Instead of just discouraging bad behavior, I also encourage good behavior. Instead of simply telling, I also show and model. And it’s working. Fabulously well.
What I love most about gentle parenting, though, is the effect that it has on me. I’m in control of myself and my emotions. I’m more logical and consistent in my approach to discipline. I’m never a slave to my child’s behavior. (For instance, I no longer get wigged out when my child has a fit and start pleading with him to stop.) I’m more affectionate with my child, more forgiving, more capable of enjoying the time we spend together. Gentle parenting has made me a more confident parent.
If you’re looking for resources on effective parenting, allow me to recommend two books: How to Make Children Mind without Losing Yours by Dr. Kevin Leman and How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk by Faber and Mazlish. I don’t agree with every single thing these authors say, but their advice has helped me immensely. Also, see this fun blog post on self-control by my favorite blogger: “Screaming Like a Banshee: How Not To.”
For those who are interested, I can write a post that explores some of the specifics of gentle parenting. Let me know–or share what has worked for you–in the comments!