Proverbs for parenting, misapplied? Yes, most of the time it is. Here is what I mean. Proverbs is not a how-to manual for raising children. There, I’ve said it! Now, before you shoot me, at least hear me out.
One of the first evangelical Christian seminars I attended was by Mr. Gothard. His Institute for Basic Youth Conflicts or Basic Life Principles seminar came out of his youth work and had become widely popular in the 1970s. It seemed everyone was going to this five-evening event and this spiritually hungry seventeen-year-old joined them.
Knowing virtually nothing about Christ or the Bible as a teen, his material seemed weird but good. His idea about the chain of command (God-parent-child) was hard to swallow, however, I figured it was because I was such a terrible rebel. He declared that authority and discipline were “keys” (he always has keys and principles drawn from life experiences and the Ten Commandments). He used a few Bible verses to prove spanking was a key method for getting children to comply and conform.
I attended his seminar twice and then went to his advanced seminar. The problem came about while applying his “foolproof” methods to life. Those principles did not work for me the way they did in those testimonies he shared. For example, he claimed that if a teen went to his or her parent and asked forgiveness for disobedience, the relationship would be restored, God would bless, and everything would turn out well. So, I asked my non-Christian father to forgive me for being a rebel son (which, comparatively speaking, I really wasn’t). Instead of forgiving me and improving our relationship, my father only got more agitated with me. Our relationship never became better the way the seminar led me to believe. That’s only one of many illustrations for how Gothard's principles did not achieve what they promised. Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to evaluate Gothard’s materials against Scripture and have found them to be terribly skewed. Gothard is not alone as an “expert” in supposed "biblical" child training; a travesty to be sure!
One of the things he taught was that Proverbs is God's manual for parenting. He also claimed the central method for achieving obedience and conformity in children is by using the rod; you know: the stick, the switch, the belt, the paddle, the thing that is used to apply pain to the bottom of the child in order to deliver the lesson to the top of the child. Think of child training like that game at the fair, the one where you take this huge, weighty hammer and slam the bottom plank with enough force that the metal thingy will slide all the way to the top and ding the bell? In other words, smack the child firm enough so that lesson will ding in the child's head.
That was one concept about child training that seemed plausible and acceptable, which became the centerpiece for my philosophy on child training for too long. Do you see a child who is wayward? He needs more whacks. Have a child who is disrespectful? She needs more lashes to her legs. The rod was the default switch that would fix and cure all woeful thinking and behavior. When do you start? When the child is an infant. When do you quit? When your son or daughter no longer behaves like a child or when the son or daughter marries and leaves the home. How do you know? Read Proverbs!
Since the 1970s, I’ve read many books and magazine articles, attended conferences, listened to seminar speakers, and even taught and pontificated on the necessity of following Proverbs as a manual for parents and using the rod unsparingly to inculcate good morals and so-called biblical values. Sadly, I was wrong. You can read a longer explanation in Our Planned Parenthood. Here’s why I was wrong:
First, to see any portion of the Bible as a technical manual for life misunderstands and misapplies the Scriptures. Much has already been said and written on this subject, so it’s not necessary to detail the reasons in this post. Yet, this I must say: to see Proverbs as primarily a how-to book on parenting misunderstands its purpose and risks abusing it (and one’s children). A valid interpretation will pay careful attention to the character of the text, the purpose of the text, and to the contexts of the verse(s) being interpreted. To segregate a verse or passages of Scripture from those contexts does a disservice to the text. Therefore, verses on using the rod to beat children or any other “child training” scriptures must be understood in its immediate context and also within the context of the whole Bible.
Here are things we must consider in studying and applying the Bible:
1. Application flows from Scripture’s main redemptive-historic purpose in Christ. That is, it comes from God’s unfolding plan for redeeming his people through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, all he is and all that he has done, is the umbrella under which the story and doctrines of the Bible are found. The big idea about Proverbs is that it points us to real wisdom and the personification of true wisdom, who is Jesus Christ (more on this in another blog). True Wisdom is the God-Man who came to save his people from their sins and to restore them to a right relationship with God the Father.
2. After considering how the passage fits into the overall context of redemptive history, one must consider the original purpose of the passage – to who was it originally written and why? What was the history behind the writing? What were the questions or problems God was addressing that gave rise to those particular Scripture(s)? So, the process for understanding the Bible is from the general to the specific, and with regard to the Bible, it is from redemption to redemption applied.
3. How was it written (take into consideration the genre, grammar, etc.)?
4. Then, how does this passage apply God’s saving grace in Christ to the very heart of the broader audience (the world), then to the important audience (God’s covenant community), and then to the individual. Take note that as Westerners we often tend to view everything from Scripture as applying mostly to individual me, without considering the fact that we are intimately, socially, and spiritually connected to God and his covenant people.
5. After these basic considerations are made, then we may ask how to apply the teaching(s) of the text(s) to our lives in a way that glorifies God and forms Christ in us as individuals, families and the local church. This application is what biblical wisdom is all about – skillfully applying God’s thoughts to the various issues and contingencies of life.
Second, much, if not the majority, of the child-training materials I have read use selected portions of the Bible to advocate their philosophy of parenting in a way that mainly promotes their presuppositions (assumptions) rather than what the Bible actually teaches. In other words, many of these materials use the Bible to validate their philosophy of parenting. This is called proof-texting.
Granted, we all have our presuppositions or core beliefs about life. Those core beliefs come from the culture in which we live, the religious or Christian perspectives we’ve learned, and from the very composite of who we are as individuals (our upbringing, personality, mind-body composite, spiritual life, and so forth). It is impossible for us to come to the Bible and various matters in life without the influence of our presuppositions.
What are some of the presuppositions that have influenced the majority of the materials I’ve run across over the years? For one – spanking must be used to train children. If a parent does not spank the child then the child will not learn ________ (you fill in the blank). If a parent does not spank, then the child will definitely become an irresponsible, worthless rebel. Another one claims, “children must be seen and not heard.” Yet another, “Father always knows best.” Or how about, “All authority, especially the authority of the father, must always be respected and obeyed.” And then there is the implied teaching that subservient compliance to parents is true godliness that must be achieved or else.
So, Proverbs is not a how-to manual for rearing children. Or more correctly, it is not merely a how-to manual. Having said that, I will say that Proverbs is a very applicable book that does inform how we think and what we do as parents and children. But before we go off and simply apply what we presume to be Proverbs' unbreakable axioms for parenting and child training we first need to back up and see what Proverbs is all about. Stay tuned.
This article was originally published March 2010 on the blog site, X-Paradigm for Parents.
In the meantime, check out some better parenting resources below: