Tom Wright, theologian and former bishop looks at a question every parent faces
The ’Ask NT Wright Anything’ podcast is based around listeners’ questions and included this one: ”I do my best to parent from a place of rest and peace, pointing my children to Jesus. That means I don’t use punishments of retribution or consequences to make them feel bad about what they did - like smacking or timeouts, taking away privileges etc… I get a lot of push back on this and am told I’m not parenting my children in a biblical way. What do you think?”
Here’s NT Wright’s response
Approaches to parenting should be driven by the gospel, but it should also be wisely rooted within local culture. There’s cultural variance between different parts of the world. Of course, we should be subverting the culture where necessary too, such as when violence is the norm.
When I was younger, being smacked as a punishment was normal - it didn’t mean you were a bad person, it just meant “you’ve stepped over the mark here, and we want to try and help you realise this is not a good way to be”. However, if I was starting again now, I wouldn’t want to go that route. (For a discussion of this topic go here)
It’s been very interesting for Maggie and me, who were children in the 1950s, watching how the generations differ. I think of a young family we see now and then. Sometimes when the children are indoors together doing stuff, there are going to be bits of friction, and the parents have to deal with that while respecting each of the individual participants. I’ve learned a certain amount from observing that.
However, I think the idea that you never punish, in the sense of never withdrawing privileges or never imposing a timeout, would be going too far. These small people do need to be guided into the right paths. By way of analogy, guardrails on the sides of roads are there for a reason: If you stray too far over, there’ll be a crash! It’s about putting ‘guardrails’ around our children’s lives and saying, “no, sorry, if you persist in going that way, we’re going to need a timeout, and I’ll come and talk to you about it”.
It’s about helping them to think and helping them to be wise. As Psalm 32:9 says, “Don’t be like a horse or mule with no understanding whose mouths must be held with bit and bridle”. We’ve got to train our children to become people who realise that some things are deeply unwise. I look back to times when my parents said a very firm “no” to me, and with hindsight I’m grateful they did! If that means imposing a timeout, or appropriate withdrawal of privileges, then I would do that.
In terms of smacking, I know that it is endorsed in Proverbs (23:13-14), but it’s very interesting that it isn’t reinforced in the New Testament, and that Paul says to parents, “don’t provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the fear and knowledge of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4).
That leaves it quite open, but there are some parameters there, especially that you must not do things which would make your children get resentful. Paul also gives commands to children, to “obey your parents”, because as a general rule, parents have your best interests at heart (even if they may not always get it right!) and that’s a good place to start while you’re growing up.
We have to be very careful about being too prescriptive one way or another, always seeking to follow Jesus with the rule of love, realising that God’s love is very, very demanding - it isn’t soft soap stuff! God loves us so much that he doesn’t want to leave us as we are. God wants to direct us into paths of wisdom and truth. That’s often tough to navigate, but we have to be people who know how to do that with our families.
Tom answers listeners’ questions every week on the ‘Ask NT Wright Anything’ podcast. Hear this response in full on episode #85 askntwright.com