I sat in the Bible study, and my heart sank.
The conversation was once again drifting towards sleep training. Every mom in the room had an opinion. And all of those opinions were the exact opposite of what every single night looked like with my baby.
There was a strong belief among these women, and in our church culture, that sleep training was part of ‘Christian Parenting’. That “Spare the rod, spoil the child” was the Biblical case for leaving your four-month-old to cry it out.
I didn’t know my son had autism at the time. No one did.
But crying it out was something he did all the time, not just at night. And the “out part” never came. He just cried and cried and cried and cried – miserable in his own skin, and overwhelmed with a sensory system that just didn’t synch with the rest of the world.
I explained with much trepidation in the Bible study how tough this was for him. The women tried to be kind and helpful, but the message was clear.
If you really loved Jesus, you would stop idolizing your child and sleep train.
Years later, I moved to a completely different, much more liberal city. At my new church, there were new moms to get to know. As I did, I realized there was an opposite kind of ‘Christian Parenting’ being practiced here.
These moms co-slept and practiced extended breastfeeding. They talked a lot about organic food and natural medicine.
One day, I handed my son a plastic water bottle at the park. All the women were sitting in a circle, talking about Jesus and parenting. I noticed several women’s faces change to disapproval, and one actually said, “If you really want to love your child, why would you give him plastic to drink from?”
“Because he is thirsty and it’s hot out,” I thought.
“Plastic is toxic. It’s bad for the planet and for our children. Being a good steward means taking better care of both,” she said, sure she was educating me and helping me.
I felt the exact same way I did in the Bible study. Ashamed and feeling like I would never get this Christian thing right. Only this time, the ‘Christian Parenting’ model was the exact opposite.
If I really loved Jesus, I would follow more natural parenting practices.
What Does Christian Parenting Really Look Like?
As a new Christian, I was so eager to learn all the things I needed to do, to be part of this new life. As a new Christian, I was on fire for Jesus, but was surprised to learn that we rarely really talked about him.
We talked a lot about the Bible to be sure. But didn’t actually read it.
We just took pieces of it, and used those pieces to defend the parenting choices, the lifestyle choices, and the marriage choices we were making.
More than that, we used those pieces of the Bible to exclude the ones who didn’t fit and define the ones who did.
Over the course of ten years, I heard every single one of the following statements, either spoken to me or to someone else in the church.
“God does not want you to let your children watch Spongebob.” – I can’t even.
“Attachment parenting is not biblical.” – I guess that’s kinda true because God never even makes it a point to discuss different parenting styles directly in the Bible.
“You are idolizing your child when you spend so much time focused on his needs. He needs more discipline. Then he won’t act that way.” – Please, please, please be careful when you try to insinuate that a mother’s God-given love for her child is in opposition to her love for Jesus. P.S. You have no idea what is going on with that child at home.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child. It says it in the Bible. You need to spank him.” – This is used as some sort of mantra over and over again. I have heard it hundreds of times in Christian circles – likely referenced more than verses in the entire Bible. How sad is that?
“Your child is a sinner. The Bible says you need to train the sin right out of him.” – We are all sinners. That’s why we need Jesus. I am not sure how we train the sin out of ourselves, much less our children.
I am exhausted just typing all of this.
Please hear my heart – I do not think anyone I am referencing said any of these things to be cruel. I honestly think they are just trying to figure this parenthood thing out like the rest of us.
But when we associate being Christ-like with all of our rules and requirements, we lose sight of all the good news that Jesus actually brings.
What if a new mom is checking out your church, or your mommy group, or your Bible study and she fed her kid McDonald’s on the way there? Do you really want to communicate to her that Jesus is all about condemning that food choice?
Or what if the new mom is checking out your church, or your mommy group, or your Bible study and has quite comfortably been co-sleeping with her toddler. Do you really want to focus more on sleep training than on welcoming her and showing her Christ’s love?
Moreover, do we want to give our kids this message? That God is about the rules of the all the things you can and cannot do.
What if being a parent has more to do with us and our relationship with God, than somehow applying a Christian formula to our children and having them turn out evangelical?
The more I get to know the Bible and Jesus, the more I feel like God is just bigger than all of this. My mind is so small compared to His omnipotence.
There is no way I can possibly figure out the formula for parenting – I don’t think anyone can and more importantly, I don’t think they should.
This is not a math equation, this is a relationship.
Our children are not projects. They are people, created in the image and likeness of God.
Every single child has been born to the parents God ordained. My children have special needs, yours may not. Do we really think there is a Biblical expectation that we parent them all the same?
Jesus meets every single person in His lifetime on earth, exactly where they are. He loves them, exactly as they are. He helps them, exactly as they are. He inspires them, teaches them, and serves them, exactly as they are.
I want more of that model in my parenting –
Loving my boys when they feel like they have failed.
Teaching them through powerful stories.
Redirecting them as needed, and reminding them of their continual need for Jesus.
Forgiving them over and over and over again.
Sharing all the wonderful things that Jesus did on earth and that He is doing in our lives.
Washing my boys’ feet when they feel the most unworthy.
This is the ‘Christian parenting’ I want to practice.
This is the ‘Christian parenting” I want to talk about.
This is the ‘Christian parenting’ I think we all need.
This post originally appeared on Not The Former Things in 2015.
Shawna Wingert is a former training and development professional turned education specialist, and has homeschooled her two children for the last ten years.Shawna has written four books about homeschooling unique learners and has been featured in homeschooling discussions on Today.com, The Mighty, Simple Homeschool, My Little Poppies and Raising Lifelong Leaners.
You can find her online here at DifferentByDesignLearning.com.