Modeling Mutuality & Equality


The Relationship Between Parents and Children

"It may sound strange to speak of the relationship between parents and children in terms of hospitality. But it belongs to the center of the Christian message that children are not properties to own and rule over, but gifts to cherish and care for. Our children are our most important guests, who enter into our home, ask for careful attention, stay for a while and then leave to follow their own way….

They have their own style, their own rhythm and their own capacities for good and evil. They cannot be explained by looking at their parents....

Children carry a promise with them, a hidden treasure that has to be led into the open through education. . in a hospitable home. It takes much time and patience to make the little stranger feel at home, and it is realistic to say that parents have to learn to love their children....It comes forth out of a relationship which has to grow and deepen....

What parents can offer is a home, a place that is receptive but also has the safe boundaries within which their children can develop and discover what is helpful and what is harmful. There their children can ask questions without fear, and can experiment with life without taking the risk of rejection....

The hospitable home indeed is the place where father, mother and children can reveal their talents to each other, become present to each other as members of the same human family, and support each other in their common struggles to live and make live.

The awareness that children are guests can be a liberating awareness, because many parent suffer from deep guilt feelings toward their children, thinking that they are responsible for everything their sons or daughters do....But children are not properties we can control as a puppeteer controls his puppets, or train, as a lion tamer trains his lions. They are guests we have to respond to, not possessions we are responsible for....

We keep reminding ourselves that they are just guests who have their own destination, which we do not know or dictate, we might be able to let them go in peace and with our blessing. A good host is not only able to receive his guests with honor and offer them all the care they need, but also able to let them go when their time to leave has come."   

-Henri Nouwen
What would be the benefit in limiting one parent in fully using their gifts?

In times of social change, people often try to hold on to the past with one hand while they reach toward the future with the other. We cling to certain forms and structures because they feel familiar and safe. Eventually inappropriate forms become so uncomfortable that they are modified by most people. 

At times, Christians are no different.  We may be so preoccupied with forms while blind to the reasons we hold them, that we are unable to apply timeless Christian principles to new circumstances.

It is not enough for children to respect and obey their father. Instruction in the Bible is for children to respect their parents. This is an essential principle. If the father does not reciprocate in a completely mutual way and model for the children equal respect for the mother, the result is dysfunction, since then one parent cannot function fully as a parent.

“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms.” 1 Peter 4:10

“But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” 1 Corinthians 12:7

When discussing parenting, we find a general disregard for the gifts God gives to each individual. Much conversation centers on the culturally customary ways men and women raise their children.  But God gives us each unique gifts because He knows us best and loves us perfectly; and both women and men are commanded to use their gifts for the common good.  Parenting, being part of the common good, should allow both mothers and fathers to fully use their gifts.

A parent who sincerely cares about their child wants to see them thrive and grow, much like a shepherd who tends the flock.   What would be the benefit in limiting one parent in fully using their gifts?


Is there any lasting benefit to unquestioning obedience based child rearing?

In recent years there has been a resurgence of unquestioning obedience training among Christian parents.  It has been claimed that “child training is the conditioning of the child's mind before the crisis arises and preparation for future, instant, unquestioning obedience.” 

But isn’t the goal in child-rearing to teach them to run their own lives, not teach them to allow us to run their lives for them?

The difference is enormous and the fallacy of trying to teach children to master their own defects by teaching them to allow us to master them is being recognized. We live in an age which has lost its faith in the ability of autocratic authority to do more than control the physical life, and many have begun to realize that it is not merely the physical life of children which needs control.

No one should expect children to act like clockwork under a system of training, first because they are not clocks, but human beings, and secondly because there is nobody to apply systems but other human beings.  When two fallible human beings come together there are bound to be clashes, no matter how ideal the theory may be.

Many parents attempt to have it both ways at once, with the expected loss of balance. We say to a child, "You must mind me because I will tell you what is best to do," but when at times the child is able to point out something better to do or equally as good, we do not rejoice over the child’s increasing ability to reason. No, we are alarmed at this use of his brain and quickly shift our weight back to the  leg of “unquestioned authority.” 

By doing this the child hears, "The real point is not that you do what is right, but that you mind me."  

We want our children to learn reasoning skills and hope they mature into reasoning adults.  But we try to shut off reasoning about the one force always present in their lives, “the reason why Mom/Dad says so." 

The crux of the matter is the object of that verb, "obey." What is the child to obey? Is the child to continue, as one must in childhood, obeying the will of another because it is stronger? Or is a child to be initiated little by little into the idea that the will of another is to be obeyed only when the commands are virtuous?

In guiding a child to exercise their reason in deciding between right and wrong, the parent will have the satisfaction of knowing that their efforts are directed towards a much longer lasting accomplishment.

 Beyond Parenting Rooted In Patriarchy

I believe the disrespectful way many parents treat children is one of the last vestiges of patriarchy still considered acceptable by many adults.   This attitude holds that any inappropriate behavior by the “inferior” reflects on and is highly disrespectful to the reputation of their “superior” and must be forcibly modified to save face.   

Our society has progressed a long way from treating other adults as slaves or chattel, but the way we treat our children may be the last stronghold of this social order of hierarchy, domination and control. 

In order to strengthen the bond between parent and child, I’m referring to a different definition of “respect” than the patriarchal one, which is automatic respect for your “superiors”, while having to gain their respect through your appropriate behavior.
Parenting with mutual respect is parenting is based on love instead of fear.   Authoritarian parenting and permissive parenting are both based on fear.  Permissive parenting is based on the parent's fear of losing the child's love and authoritarian parenting is based on the child's fear of losing the parent's love. When a parent's behavior creates a connection, the child feels that the parent is on his side, and their bond is strengthened.

A parents' effectiveness is in direct proportion to the strength of the bond they have with their child.  Anything that undermines the strength of that bond is counterproductive.
What does non-hierarchical mutual respect between parent and child really mean?  First, it is realizing that parenting is stewardship, not ownership.  It means reaching your hand down to the child’s level and lifting them up and learning how to respond rather than react to your child.  It involves vigilance in strengthening bonds rather than fostering disconnection - acknowledging when we have said or done something hurtful to our child, apologizing and asking forgiveness.  This includes responding with love and grace to their shortcomings, mistakes, and misdeeds.  In other words, be empathetic – try to see the world through your child’s eyes.
“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” Hebrews 10:24
This also means we should not discipline in a way that intimidates or humiliates your child.   It involves communicating with respect – do not interrupt or put them down, allow them to ask questions.  Stress your child’s strengths and treat mistakes as learning experiences.  A child whose parent over-reacts to mistakes tends to avoid trying new things, but a sense of accomplishment gives them the confidence to persevere the next time they face a challenge. 

Accept the child for who they are.  In turn they will feel more secure reaching out to others and learning how to solve problems. As they mature, instead of always telling them what to do encourage them to come up with solutions to problems.
We cannot protect our children from every hurt, but we can nurture their confidence to persevere by maintaining a strong connection with them.   We do not have to be part of the problem.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.  Now we ask you, brothers and sisters, to acknowledge those who work hard among you, who care for you in the Lord and who admonish you.  Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work. Live in peace with each other.  And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.  Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else.” 1 Thes 5:11-15


How can we expect children to understand and practice “Love thy neighbor as thyself” if we treat them with anything less?

The most common criticism I hear of young people these days is, "They don't treat anyone or anything with respect." The truth is that children learn respect or disrespect from how we treat them and how we treat each other.   Ironically, even Christian parents often try to teach children to be respectful by treating them disrespectfully. When children live with disrespect that is what they learn.  When they live without grace or love, the same principle applies.  We can teach these only by modeling them.
Children are born with human dignity as God’s image bearers; to treat a person with disrespect is to devalue that.  Unconditional love and respect from a parent communicates to children that despite their shortcomings, mistakes, misdeeds, or accidents they are still valued human beings.  Healthy, nurturing parents respect their children as human beings – interacting with their children by extending the same grace and consideration they would like for themselves.
Since children have long been treated as "less than," or even as possessions, many adults carry "narratives" of disrespect from their own childhood. Learning to treat children with respect, love and grace may require a change of heart and conscious effort.   Our first step may be accepting God’s grace and love ourselves.   
Many people don't grow up because true maturity isn't about marveling over one's powers. It is about becoming like Christ who came not to be served, but to serve.