What if becoming the parent God has called you to be to your child from a hard place means that you need to un-learn as much or more than you need to learn? What if many of the popular approaches to parenting and discipline, many of which are regarded as “biblical,” actually aren’t best for your child given his background and history and what he needs to heal and grow? What if the parenting program you previously used, even with great success, when raising and training your other children needs to be significantly altered or even discarded for the child you adopted? What if the parenting techniques that most of your friends are using or that you grew up with are likely to be ineffective in achieving long-lasting change for the child you now love and desire to connect with?
I believe that parents need to seriously consider these and many similar questions as they set the course for how to best relate to and parent children from hard places. More importantly, parents need to honestly engage the question, “Am I willing to unlearn and let go of certain ways of parenting?” If you’re willing, what “new things” do you need to learn and, most importantly, how do you go about doing this?
We have come to conclude that many traditional parenting approaches and programs, including many promoted in our churches, are simply not effective for children from hard places. Many of these approaches often tend toward the extremes, while also failing to reflect the heart of God for our children. They are either overly harsh, punitive and authoritarian in nature (referred to in the child development literature as “Authoritarian Parenting”) or overly permissive, excusing and lacking a healthy amount of structure (referred to as “Permissive Parenting”). Tragically, parenting styles falling within either of these extremes often serve to compound the problems they intend to address, while leaving parents and children more frustrated, disconnected and discontent.
As we mentioned, many parents are inclined toward Authoritarian Parenting or a “law and order” approach, focusing almost exclusively on structure—rules, requirements, control, consequences and punishment. Misbehavior is met with more and more structure, with a focus on changing the behavior above all else. With this high structure, low nurture approach, every offense is met with a consequence or punishment, and as the behaviors persist or escalate so too does the punishment.
Yet both research and experience show this approach is almost certain to fail with at-risk children. Because many of our children lack a solid foundation of trust, which ideally would’ve been established in the first year of life, attempts to establish authority (i.e., “who’s the boss”) without connection generally prove ineffective. Ironically, research indicates this reality persists even as children grow older, evidenced, for example, by the fact that children from homes with an emphasis on structure without a corresponding emphasis on nurture are more likely to engage in hard drug use and other acting out behaviors as teens.
Conversely, other parents practice Permissive Parenting by focusing almost exclusively on nurture, ignoring altogether their child’s need for structure to learn to regulate his behavior and develop healthy relationships. In their desire to be compassionate and extend grace to their child, these parents sacrifice the structure their child needs. This is seen in a parent who allows her child to behave in hurtful and even cruel ways because, as she said, “he has already been through so much I simply want to show him God’s love and grace.” One mother told us she allowed her daughter to repeatedly attack her, bruising her face and body, and accepted the beatings believing she was showing her God’s love. Instead of helping their child heal and grow, however, these parents are offering “cheap grace” by allowing their child to operate without boundaries, guidance and correction. As a result, this approach also fails to bring about the lasting change parents desire, just as it does in our lives when we cheapen the grace God extends to us.
Instead, we are convinced that parents need to find a new balance in their approach to parenting, referred to as an Authoritative Parenting style. Particularly for children with difficult and painful histories, parents need to apply this balance in order to truly connect with their children and lead them toward healing and lasting connections. This balance isn’t found so much in mastering the “right” parenting program (be it “Christian” or otherwise) as it is in understanding and applying the principles of Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 6:4 to “take our children by the hand and lead them in the way of the Master” (The Message). Different translations and versions of Scripture use slightly different terms to communicate this point (including “nurture and admonition,” “discipline and instruction,” and “training and instruction”) but the essential idea remains: as parents we are responsible for connecting with and correcting our children in a way that shows them the love of Jesus. It is in providing a consistent balance comprised of equal parts of high nurture (connecting) and high structure (correcting) that we can best lead our children in the direction they need to go and show them the love of God in tangible ways.
This conclusion is also supported by child development research that confirms that an optimal environment for children is one in which there is an equal balance between nurture and structure. This Authoritative Parenting style is rooted in the belief that the Law (structure) is our teacher and that Grace (nurture) is our guide. In fact, the research supports that those children who experience this ideal balance are at a lower risk for acting out behaviors in adolescence. The parent who understands the need for a balance of nurture and structure is most likely to be successful with the at-risk child.
I like to think of this as yet another example of science catching up with God. After all, isn’t this how God relates to us as His children? Using a balance of both nurture (His tender mercies) and structure (His guiding hand that directs and corrects us), He kindly, yet firmly, leads us into a right relationship with Him. The apostle Paul puts it this way: “God is kind, but he’s not soft. In kindness he takes us firmly by the hand and leads us into a radical life-change” (Romans 2:4, The Message). Both we and our children need love that is expressed in ways that lead to connection and transformation.
*This article is an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Created To Connect: A Christian’s Guide to The Connected Child. This study guide companion to The Connected Child can be downloaded for free. Printed copies of the study guide are also available for purchase.