Lately, I’ve been trying to educate myself about child development from a secular standpoint. In the beginning, fundamentalist childrearing seems good because the children seem very obedient and controlled. But if the goal is to bring them to Christ, it seems to fall apart around adolescence and young adulthood.
As I study these things, I approach my grandbaby with a completely different mindset than I had 20 years ago.
There’s the little sweetie pie…
This is not to say that every child raised in an authoritarian or fundamentalist-type household has major spiritual struggles or life struggles, but many do. I can say from my own experience with my oldest and talking to adults who were raised in such homes, that raising children is not the “just add water and stir” method that is often presented. “If they’re disobedient just beat them”. So much emphasis is put on discipline (say “spanking”) and total obedience, that many other areas suffer attention.
When I was raising my children, generally, all secular forms of teaching on a child’s development were shunned in our church in favor of advice from the pastor’s wife or the instruction of older, more experienced saints. If you were adventurous and chose a Christian author like Dr. James Dobson or Mike and Debi Pearl, you were often left trying to implement a few good things, but also you could become lost in a patchwork of methods based on the general idea of raising up your child in the way they should go.
Literal Child Rearing
Most of the adults that I’ve talked to are women raised under strict codes of dress and corporal punishment. What keeps coming up and ringing true is the neglect they experienced (the local church was more important than their needs), the suppression of decisions, ideas, questions and choices at a time when they needed their parents’ support and to identify who they were (childhood and adolescence) and young adulthood (when they were usually still treated like children).
These people are victims of what I’d like to call literal child-rearing, meaning raised with biblical inflexibility and without contextual biblical interpretation. The mindset is that if the words are on the page, it is to be obeyed without thinking too hard, because questioning, research, and critical thinking will get you in trouble with your faith.
Child Development Theory
For the next few posts, I will be using developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of human development here to show things that are often missed by fundamentalists parents. Today, I will just deal with the first two years (Erikson uses 0-18 months).
Erickson, tells us that trust is the foundation of a good relationship with a child. During this first development stage, the child learns to establish trust with mom and dad. Who’s going to comfort me, who will feed me and who will take care of my needs? Therefore, when a child is crying and you come to their aid and pick them up, you are establishing trust. When they’re hungry and you feed them, this is establishing trust. They are learning about trust through your care and they are learning to trust you as their first caregiver. 0-18 months is also a critical stage of learning. Kids learn through their curiosity. Stifling their movement and curiosity can hinder their development and the learning process if exploring the world around them is punished.
The Mindset of a Fundamentalist Parent
In contrast, the mindset of the fundamentalist parent is control. Biblically, the child is seen as innocent but having a sinful, rebellious nature. Therefore to some Christian parents, the infant’s crying is often seen as acting out or just wanting their own way.
So crying is not often perceived as a genuine need. The child is fed and dry, what else could they want? If it’s just attention or closeness, then the pattern is, don’t spoil the child.
Also, as an African American, I think some of this thinking is cultural as well. As I studied this first stage I began to see correlations between our child-rearing methods and the mentality of fundamentalism. Many of our families came from the southern bible belt of America where this interpretation of child-rearing comes up through our families. In addition, the harshness of slavery didn’t leave much room for showing your offspring compassion.
Such strict thinking includes:
- “Let that baby cry”, “make the baby wait, teach them everyone’s not going to come running every time they cry”. “You have to start showing them early whose boss”
- The mentality that “children should be seen and not heard”.
- It is your responsibility and duty to raise the child in the fear of God. Therefore things like blanket training and spanking apply from an infant forward, because you must teach them to obey authority at all times (this can be dangerous by the way). One pastor’s wife taught that if by the age of 5 you had not fully trained the child to obey, you’d lost them to rebellion.
- As the parent, be in control at all times or when they get older they’ll never respect you. Control, control, and more control.
Often it was said that everyone can tell what you’re doing with the child at home by how they act in church. I beg to differ. Since children are human beings and a lot more complicated than a glance at a behavioral event, this certainly is not true. By the time they get to church some children are tired or irritable. One bad attitude or tantrum does not equate to bad parenting. The atmosphere in some churches demands perfect training that should be imprinted on the child at all times.
Besides, children are a beautiful lifetime of work in progress.
As a parent give yourself a break and understand that you are learning as well. Do things for the benefit of the child and not the people around you. Love your kids, respect them. Learn to breathe as a Christian parent and let God show you the way to bring the child up in love and understanding.
Feel free to share your thoughts.