Wess Stafford, former President and CEO of Compassion International said, “Every encounter with a child is a Divine appointment.”
This quote resonates with me as a parent, a professional counselor and a counseling professor. I am encouraged and challenged by this wise statement on a regular basis. If the quote is true, then the bar is high as we seek to promote effective parenting. And it should be. Children are considered a vulnerable population in almost every society in the world. They are dependent on adults for their very survival. How we treat them is crucial, if we want to raise healthy, well-adjusted children into adulthood. I cannot think of a higher calling for a Kingdom citizen, whether one is a parent, a caregiver or a member of society.
So, what does this look like day-to-day when one is parenting a biological or adopted child or caring for a child in an orphanage, foster home, correctional facility or reaching out to children who are homeless? I would recommend that our best example is how Jesus treated children, and I invite you to investigate this issue with me.
Raising children needs to start with protecting a child’s dignity and fostering a sense of their worth. A plethora of research studies have been conducted in the field of counseling about how to foster well-being in children and the data has revealed the importance of providing a trusting environment where the child feels both physically, psychologically and spiritually safe. This type of social science research essentially studies empirical data to show the facts about the effect of various parenting practices. These studies show from research that love and trust—virtues inherent in seeking to follow and emulate Jesus—are vital in the effort to foster healthy development in children.
If this is true, the adult needs to take stock of their character to discern if they are trustworthy. The optimal environment involves the child being able to form healthy early attachments and being able to bond with caregivers, which can foster flourishing. In order for this to happen, the child needs to trust the caregiver and experience nurturing and unconditional love. The adult caregiver has the opportunity to be the most trustworthy person from whom the child learns about his or her self-image and about the world. They are often the child’s first impression of the world, and of course, first impressions are powerful. They are integrated into the child’s perception of relationships and life and sometimes of God.
With this in mind, how would one discipline a child in the role of parent or caregiver? Before we answer that, we would be wise to look first at the spiritual and psychological health of the parent or caregiver. This involves the adult being willing to look honestly at their character strengths and weaknesses and investing in their own growth and transformation. For example, traits such as being overly critical, having a temper or being emotionally unavailable are not considered conducive to creating a safe home environment for children. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, but each adult who is responsible for raising children is wise to take this role seriously by striving for their own mental and spiritual maturity. If nothing else drives us to repentance and dependence on Christ, parenting could.
The adult has the opportunity to reflect on their own upbringing and decide which customs and aspects of their experience they want to pass down and what they could leave behind. The goal is to avoid perpetuating generational dysfunction.
This raises a question: What makes a family functional or dysfunctional? I would suggest that the functional family expresses love and knows how to communicate and manage conflict in a direct, honest and respectful way. That means each family member’s dignity and well-being matter and are protected, opinions can be voiced, and conflict is seen as inevitable and part of reality.
The dysfunctional family tends to struggle with expressing love and tends to pretend there are no conflicts. If there are conflicts, they tend to be either avoided or become catastrophic—at times even abusive. So, in the dysfunctional family, communication is blocked and an oppressive leader tends to promote the repression of thoughts and emotions. This environment does not create fertile ground for developing self-worth in the child or a worldview of healthy trust in people beyond the family system.
This is the starting point. As with so many difficult issues, I would suggest that we not start with a superficial question like, “Should parents spank their children?” Instead, we should begin the dialog by asking broader questions like, “What kind of parent-child relationship reflects God’s design?” and “What type of parenting style exudes the character of Christ?” and “What type of home environment will promote spiritual maturity for all family members?” It starts with the parent’s character and the environment they seek to create, and God provides the wisdom we, as parents, so desperately need.
In my next post, I will lay out the kinds of questions parents and caregivers could wrestle with, if they decide to pause and invest in a thoughtful process of critical thinking about this issue. How to raise and discipline children is one of the most important sets of decisions parents will make. I do not believe any of us will regret taking the time to have this conversation in our communities, in the effort to be Godly stewards of this sacred role.