Kate Orson shows how brain science helps us better understand the Bible’s teaching about bringing up children
As a parent educator who recently came to Christ one of my big questions about the Bible was, what does it say about discipline, and does discipline mean punishment? I’d heard about the more authoritarian styles of ‘Christian’ parenting, using corporal punishment, and the often quoted paraphrase of proverbs 13; ‘spare the rod and spoil the child.’
My training and understanding of the latest brain science indicates that punishment, even the non-physical kind, such as consequences are not the most effective way to parent. While consequences can be used to manipulate children into compliance, they don’t address the root cause of why children misbehave.
Are you connecting?
What humans need more than anything is connection. Maybe it’s a result of the fall but life often feels to me like a constant dance of connection and disconnection, to God and to each other. Our children are no different. Their young developing brains need close connection to the caregivers in order to be able to function well.
While we’re all born with a tendency to sin, we are also created in God’s image. God’s law is written on our hearts. Our children know deep down right or wrong. It’s just that sometimes their feelings get in the way.
When children feel upset, or disconnected from adults around them, their pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for rational, logical thought does not function well. A child might know it’s wrong to pull the cat’s tail but they still do it because they can’t think straight. Their off-track behaviour is like waving a red flag, saying ‘’help, I need connection, to help get my thinking back online, so I can behave well again.’’
Addressing the feelings beneath the behaviour
Traditional parenting focuses on behaviour but doesn’t address the feelings that caused it. The child who tortures the cat may be feeling disconnected after the birth of a new sibling. The child who fights with their brother constantly may be being bullied at school. The reason may not always be obvious, but whenever a child misbehaves, there is almost always an emotional root cause.
When we ignore this it can lead to greater behavioural problems in the future, or children that seek to meet their connection needs in other, less healthy ways. Children who fear punishment may lie to avoid it rather than come to an adult when they are having difficulties. It may even result in adults who struggle with mental health due to unprocessed feelings.
One common objection to ‘gentle parenting’ is that it is assumed that without consequences children will not learn, or just continue misbehaving. But what if we took Jesus as our example of how to be a gentle parent? In the book ‘Jesus, The Gentle Parent,’ Christian parent educator L.R Knost points out that ‘the word disciple is the root word in discipline, so in a completely literal sense to discipline them means to disciple them.’ Jesus did not use punishment, or consequences when his disciples did wrong, he talked patiently with them, and explained things.
If you get down to a child’s level during a spat with a sibling, or respond to a backtalking tween with eye contact and kind words, you may notice a shift. The child might become emotional, angry words might shift into tears. With attention and the safety of love and connection, emotions can rise to the surface.
Tears can lead to healing
What most parents have never been told is that crying is actually a God-given healing process. A research study from Dr. William Frey found that there are actually stress hormones in tears, so when we cry, it’s like literally releasing stress from our bodies. The Bible says that those who ‘sow in tears, reap with joy.’ Psalm 126:5 We all know the feeling of a good cry, and when pent up emotion is released with an adult warmly emphasising, (rather than angrily chastising), it allows this natural, healing process to take place.
When a child is about to hit a sibling, getting down on their level, and telling them gently ‘’I’m sorry I can’t let you do that’ sets a limit on the behaviour, but also provides connection. A child might cry or have an emotional outburst and the key is to allow the emotion but not the behaviour.
L.R Knost points out Jesus never sinned, but he did angrily overturn the tables in the temple. ‘’He was angry, he toppled tables. He threw things. He chased people away. But Jesus was and is sinless so clearly being angry, being overwhelmed by big emotions, and acting on these emotions is not a sin, in and of themselves.’
Supporting children and offering them connection when they are upset actually helps to prevent them from sinning. As L.R Knost says, ‘emotions can lead to sin when they remain unsettled, are left to burrow deeply into our hearts and take root, and when we subsequently respond with spite, bitterness, vengeance, or rage.’
How were you parented?
When I hear stories of people who’ve been put off church by Christians who were judgemental or closed-minded I can’t help but wonder how they were parented. Since scientific understanding about the emotional root causes of behaviour is new, most of us did not grow up with parents who responded to our misbehaviour with warmth and empathy. Without healthy models of Christ-like gentleness it can be hard to be that for our children or in the wider community. It’s not easy, it may at times seem impossible, but ‘with God all things are possible.’ (Matthew 19.26).
As adults we’ve been given the free gift of eternal life, because Jesus paid the price for our sins. Why would we want to apply Old Testament style punishment to those who are smallest and most vulnerable? Like everything we do, our parenting should show the fruits of the spirit, ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.’ (Gal. 5:22-23)