For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about my parents’ philosophy towards raising kids. Like most IFB parents, they believed in the popular “spare the rod, spoil the child” myth that they think comes from Proverbs.
In and of itself, that idea is problematic, especially when that “rod” is taken literally to mean an instrument with which to beat someone (i.e. a belt, cooking spoon, wooden paddle, etc.) However, it’s not that philosophy that has been bothering me lately, even though it certainly bothers me at other times. It was one they extracted from another verse in Proverbs 22:6.
“Train up a child in the way that he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”
My dad had a favorite illustration he would use in his sermons to convey how he thought this verse was to be used. It was the idea that children were like plants. If you want a plant to grow a certain way, you put constraints on it and prune it. Otherwise it will just grow any which way it wants.
The problem is that children aren’t like plants—at least not the way he viewed plants (For the record, I have a much different view of plants, but for the sake of this post, I won’t get into that.)
In his mind, a plant might be “living” in so far as it grew, but it wasn’t a conscious being. It didn’t feel pain. It had no hopes, desires, dreams, plans, or personality. Thus, cutting it or manipulating it to grow the way he wanted was about as offensive as molding clay.
Children are not like plants.
They do have personalities, dreams, hopes, sometimes even plans.
And they definitely feel pain.
To assume that growing a plant is the same as growing a child is grossly problematic. For one, plant growth is physical. It’s an awesome ability to be able to grow new shoots after being cut down, but you can’t cut a child’s arm and have it regrow in a better shape. Children don’t just grow physically, and obviously this illustration wasn’t talking about the physical growth of a child. It was about the mental growth.
One of the most important psychological developments for a child is the development of a sense of self—a sense of being a separate being from others. With that sense of self should come a growing sense of autonomy and an ability to think and reason for oneself.
But fundamentalism doesn’t acknowledge that aspect of growth in children and acts in a way that actively tries to stifle the natural development of the child’s psyche. Like so many of my friends who survived living in the IFB, I remember all too well the lessons and songs about obedience. Children were to obey right away, without question. Anything else was rebellion, and rebellion, I also remember being taught, was “as the sin of witchcraft,” which was a stoning offense in Bible times (both rebellion and witchcraft).
From a very young age, therefore, I was led to believe that questioning my parents’ reason for any rule was a dangerous place to go. As I got older and started to develop my own tastes, that presented unique problems. They thought rock, country, pop, rap, CCM, jazz, and any other music genre you can think of were all bad. They thought movie theaters and playing cards were sinful. They thought drinking alcohol was wrong. They thought wearing “tight” (aka didn’t fall off my hips without a belt) jeans and shirts was morally reprehensible. They thought shorts and bathing suits and tank tops were indecent.
And I discovered that I liked Shania Twain, didn’t think there was any logical reason why playing cards and theaters should be off-limits, wanted to wear clothes that fit and that expressed my unique style, and didn’t want to have to leave my cousin’s wedding reception early because people around me had wine in their hands.
I was doing what any normal teenager would do—developing my own ideas for myself. And they were hardly radical ideas to the rest of the world.
But in my family, I was “rebelling.”
There’s actually a psychological term for what I was doing—individuation. It’s a healthy and necessary step in the psychological development of a person.
In fact, as far as I know, every teen in the IFB goes through a “rebellious” phase—some sooner than later. Some are easier to “break” than others (yes, the goal is to “break the will” of the child—their own words)—but every child “rebels” within this paradigm.
So I had a strict upbringing. Who cares, right? It’s no big deal. What is so dangerous about this teaching that children, like plants, can be manipulated into absolute obedience?
The danger is this: Physical growth isn’t enough. Children need to stimulate their mind in order to develop their brains so they can function as adults. By making individuation a sin, my father automatically made growing up an act of rebellion.
I recognize that he is, to some extent, the victim of this teaching too. He didn’t come up with it on his own. It was taught to him, maybe by his parents (ironically, I don’t know what their parenting philosophy was), probably more so by his college and seminary training. And for that, I do not hold him responsible.
However, I do hold him responsible for perpetuating that teaching onto his own family and the church that he pastors.
Shortly before I left, my dad said, “I’m sorry I raised a daughter like you.” I suppose it must have been terribly disappointing to realize that his parenting method didn’t work as well as his gardening methods. Unfortunately for him, children aren’t chia pets.