I was 22 years old, wide eyed and earnest in the pew, when I first heard my pastor commission all the parents in the church to teach their children to obey “quickly, cheerfully, and completely.” In doing so, he avowed, they would position their children to be more likely to obey God into adulthood. I wasn’t yet a parent myself, but I hoped to be one someday and was taking careful notes.
By the time I became a mother years later, I had encountered this philosophy, whether spoken or unspoken, in nearly all the Christian parenting resources I had scoured. Like all new parents, I was looking for a formula that would guarantee my child’s happiness, holiness, and health. Overwhelmed by the power of the love I had for my son, I desperately grasped at anything that could fool me into thinking I controlled what might happen to him. After all, the Bible verse quoted by these pastors and teachers says, “Train up a child in the way [they] should go. And when [they are] old [they] will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6, NJKV). All the books and seminars told me that meant I had to train my son to obey me. The thing was, he wasn’t having it.
I don’t think we were an anomaly. My guess is that whether their child is 2 or 22, most families have to reconcile with the fact that good parenting doesn’t ensure a perfect outcome. This is because children are actual human beings—complex and dynamic—not robots that, if programmed correctly, will become adults guaranteed to behave a certain way. We all know parents who are religiously faithful and still have children who struggle painfully in adulthood. As much as we would like there to be a formula, one simply does not exist. So is the pursuit of this parenting goal actually working? Or is it possible that training a child to be obedient is more about convenience for the adult than best practice for the child?
Examining obedience-based parenting models begs the question: Is the apex of our hopes for our children really that they would blindly obey authority figures? That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a very healthy or safe society.
Since the day I was first presented with an obedience model as “Christian parenting,” I have adopted one child and given birth to four. After years of finding my own way as a mother, I now know that what I want for my kids is not the ability to obey me or anyone else blindly; it is to learn to discern God’s movement in themselves in a way that equips them to make choices that are rooted in empathy, connectivity, care, and a posture of learning. I want them to notice when their conscience says those in authority are missing the mark and to have the problem-solving skills to decide what to do about it. I have to wonder, what if this is actually what it means to “train up a child in the way [they] should go”? To teach them to discern their own conscience?
As a Catholic parent, I believe these values directly align with my faith. In our home, we take Catholic social teaching seriously and hold it as a basis for how we hope to live our lives. This is not for the sake of the rules as an end to themselves but because we believe Catholic teachings about the primacy of the conscience—as well as those about community, participation, and the common good—express God’s heart for human relationships and how to best live in harmony with one another.
In the family unit, this looks like emphasizing cooperation over obedience. Obviously, we can’t allow our children to have free reign over their own lives; they would make choices that would compromise their health, appropriate development, and safety (and likely the safety of others). Instead of “laying down the law” as an authoritarian voice from above, parents should involve their kids in forming the family rules together, as a collective whole. That way everyone is held accountable to one another.
Families, children included, can decide together what their shared values are and then create family rules that keep everyone aligned to those values. For instance, in addition to the obvious values of health, proper brain development, and safety, in our home we all agree that we value compassion and critical thinking. So when someone behaves in a way that is not compassionate, we bring them back to their own professed values. When a child argues with an adult, we can encourage them to form an articulate debate as long as it is respectful.
A theologian friend of mine once told me that the word obedience is rooted in the Latin word for “listen to,” which, she pointed out, brings clarity to its usage in our ancient religious contexts and monastic spaces. We are not pledging mindless allegiance to an authority figure—even a divine one! We are committing to deeply listen to one another, to the common good, and to the movement of God within our conscience.
Letting go of the old-school obedience mindset can be difficult. The longer we’ve been used to parenting one way, the more time it takes to change. That’s OK. There is grace in slow growth. But there is also an invitation for some healthy self-awareness. We can begin to ask questions about our desire for control: Where does it come from? What fears feed it? What is the fruit?
St. Ignatius of Loyola teaches about the spiritual benefits of detachment, a valuable practice for parents perhaps more than anyone. Detachment doesn’t mean we choose not to care about our kids or are somehow not emotionally affected by their choices. It means we accept that some things are out of our control and that there is a divine wisdom much greater than our own. Ignatian spirituality invites us to prayerfully assess our desires, frustrations, and emotional responses every day—and then practice letting go of our attachment to specific outcomes. When we conscientiously decide to live in openness to the Spirit in this way, we grow in inner freedom and invite our children into their own freedom too.
One of the most vulnerable things about parenting is the way it holds up a mirror to our deepest, often unacknowledged beliefs about ourselves. The way we treat ourselves will always shape the way we treat our children. The disappointment, shame, and criticism we feel toward ourselves transmit into our parenting behaviors. Part of doing the work in our interior life as people of faith means we have to be willing to look at our own shadows: the parts of ourselves that are scared or injured—and likely have been since childhood. Approaching our own dark places with the tenderness and compassion of Christ is necessary to stop transmitting our pain onto our children.
In therapy circles, this is often called “reparenting your inner child.” In some ways it is perhaps similar to Jesus’ urging that we must “be born again” (John 3:7, NKJV). When we invite the presence of God into our wounds, we can find tenderness and mercy for ourselves as we heal. And in the process, we invite others into their own healing. Because to “train up a child in the way [they] should go” doesn’t mean we get to control the outcome. It means we get to journey alongside our children to each learn to discern for ourselves the sound of the voice of love.
This article also appears in the January 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 1, pages 15-16). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Keren Fedida