Column entry: Parenting as Discipleship
Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.
Parenting as Discipleship
The joke goes that there was a French philosopher who had four theories on parenting, but no kids. Years later, he had four kids, but no longer had any theories on parenting!
Parenting is one of those universal experiences of humanity. We have all been parented in one way or another. Many people are also parents. According to the 2019 National Survey of Family Growth, over 80% of women and 70% of men aged 35-39 report that they have had a biological child.
Thousands of books on parenting and theories abound. They offer parenting prescriptions and prohibitions, pitfalls, and promising practices. They present family prayers, devotional readings, and blessings to speak over children and households. They deal with specific issues, like technology, pop culture, toddler years, and countless other topics. Many are great, too.
Given our short forum here and the plethora of other great resources, the focus of our column is not on what to do or how to do it. We believe there are clear trends about what makes good parenting, and the trends hold up across cultures and research studies, but that is beyond the scope of what we will cover. We do not tell you to spank or not to spank young children. We do not discuss the advantages and disadvantages of grounding or taking away cell phones as methods of discipline. We do not review what surveys reveal about best parenting practices.
Instead, we draw on those clear trends to present a framework that can help you develop your own parenting theories and practices. Our framework argues that parenting is discipleship, and must be age-appropriate, child-specific, and relationship-grounded.
Discipline is Training
You never have a better chance to make disciples than in your own home. All Christians are to make disciples and teach them what Christ commanded (Matt. 28:19-20). For parents, the most intense manifestation of this commandment is in our homes. Children learn from their parents and often mimic them. Ever heard yourself repeating something your parents said? Or heard a child repeating something you have said? It can be cute, and sometimes cutting. Children emulate our phrases, tones, common expressions, even our gestures. And we tend to mirror the language we heard as children.
Parenting is an intense discipleship—it is a training program that happens whether we want it to or not. And when we discipline, we engage in explicit training. We transmit our values about what is important (what warrants discipline) and what children should expect from those in authority. We model how to manage stress, solve problems, communicate love, and demonstrate respect. Discipline is training.
If we asked you to close your eyes and tell us what comes to mind when you think about a parent’s discipline, you might share things like “time outs,” “grounding,” getting “rewards for doing good.” If we asked you to do the same thing, but think about an elite athlete’s discipline, you would think of different things. You might say “workout routine,” “strict diet,” “trainers,” or “coaching.” Taking this perspective on discipline—that it includes coaching and training young ones in how to live and act in the world—helps redefine the parenting discipline as a training program. So how can we be intentional to train through our discipline?
Discipline should be age-appropriate, child-specific, and relationship-grounded
The best athletes have a personalized training program. Parenting should also be personalized. Sure, there are general practices that can work for almost all parents and kids. These tried-and-true methods are passed down because many found them effective. But we suggest that the parenting endeavor should be personalized, relational, and blossom over time. The guiding principles are that discipline should be age-appropriate, child-specific, and relationship-grounded.
We suggest you use these guidelines as a litmus test for your parenting practices. You might ask yourself a series of questions when faced with a new parenting challenge or when you have space to evaluate your current parenting practices.
- What will my kids value because of my discipline? What kinds of implied messages am I sending by choosing to discipline my kids for certain behaviors? What rules am I strict about and what rules do I let slide?
- How has my training plan changed as my children have aged?
- Do I have realistic expectations for my child’s age? Maturity? Ability? Experience-level?
- What parenting practices seem to work, and which do not work for my child specifically? Even if others say certain parenting practices work for them (or they worked well for other children), how are they working for each specific child?
- Is my discipline a natural extension of my relationship with my child? How are my discipline practices consistent with my parent-child relationship? How do they diverge from it?
The goal of these questions is to help you consider your training/discipline efforts. We are not asking if they work, but we are encouraging you to think about how they correspond with the guidelines of being age-appropriate, child-specific, and relationship-grounded. We want to encourage you to develop your own parenting theories and practices to train the next generation in your own home.
Let us know how it goes!
–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski
Gladys, M. Martinez and Kimberly Daniels, “Fertility of Men and Women Aged 15-49 in the United States: National Survey of Family Growth, 2015-2019,” National Health Statistic Reports; no. 179, Hyattsville, MDL National Center for Health Statistics, 2023, DOI: https://dx.doi.org/ 10.15620/cdc:122080
Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).