I am a stay-at-home dad of three kids. Each of my kids has a unique personality with their own challenges and gifts. As I look at my children, I realize how amazing it is to be a father and how much they have managed to inadvertently teach me about God. Through behavioral struggles, and parenting failures, I can without a doubt say being a father is a blessing.

It is because of my experiences with my own children I am continuously amazed that any person claiming to understand children would purport to have discovered THE “parenting system” that will equip every parent to handle every child.

Often men, these persons tell you that if you just practice this principle, or apply these Scriptures, or read this book everything will be okay. And, of course, if you fail to fit within their narrow parameters, your kids will likely grow up to be unruly hellions.   There are seemingly countless books of this nature in the “Parenting” section of my church’s library. Today, I want to focus specifically on four men, all of whom have authored books available from the library at my church.

The Four

When I think of influential parenting advice to fathers within the Evangelical church, four men readily come to mind. Two of these men, James Dobson and Chuck Swindoll, were instrumental figures in my fundamentalist upbringing. The other two men, Steve Farrar and Voddie Baucham, I encountered more recently. I first encountered Farrar’s work while participating in the No Regrets Study Series. His book Anchor Man is a staple of the curriculum, and Farrar has been a keynote at the annual No Regrets Conference in Brookfield, Wisconsin. I learned of Baucham even more recently, as I was researching for my open letter to The Gospel Coalition. As I look at the work of these authors, I have observed three central themes which unite them.

Themes

  1. Children as Enemy

All of these men see children as the “enemy” of their parents. Whether it be James Dobson referring to a three-year-old as a “tyrant and a dictator,”[1] Baucham calling all children vipers, or Farrar describing them as “barbarians,”[2] they all see fatherhood as a battle to be won. Of course, they also believe children are to be loved and nurtured, but – as Chuck Swindoll says -a father first has to recognize and conquer the evil tendencies of defiance in them.[3] Or, as Dobson is fond of saying, it is necessary to first meet any act of defiance with an equal act of corporal punishment, then take the time to hold your child and tell them that treating them like an enemy to be conquered was an act of love rooted in a sound, biblically-rooted morality.[4]

I’m forced to wonder, how is this view is reconciled with Jesus’ command to practice a child-like faith (Matt 18:1-5)? If children are by their very nature tyrants and snakes, then why does Jesus praise the faith and innocence of children as an example for which adults should strive?

Also, it is perplexing that these men work so hard to disenfranchise the weakest among us. Doesn’t the Gospel tell us that God exalts the weak and humbles the strong (1 Cor 1:18-31; Matt 23:1-12)?

  1. Breaking the Will

Regardless of how they choose to describe it, all four men believe that in order for me to be an effective father, I have to break my child’s will. Dobson calls this “shaping your child’s will,” a form of behavioral conditioning accomplished by corporal punishment. A father must first establish himself as the boss, and only after he has done this, he should offer comfort and nurture. There is no love without the rod. [5]

Baucham takes a similar approach. In one sermon, he speaks of having all day spanking sessions designed to cow children into unquestioning obedience. He then continues by advising parents to spank shy children publicly to prevent them from embarrassing their parents with their timidity (see here).

Steve Farrar likewise speaks of using corporal punishment to show dominance when a child is defiant. He advises (quoting Dobson) starting such punishment as early as fifteen months, advising parents to create a holy fear in their children.[6]

Chuck Swindoll certainly pulls no punches when he tells parents their job is to break and curb their children’s “assertive self-wills.”[7]

As these men see it, an adult, who by the very nature of the parent-child relationship resides in the place of power and privilege, must meet any act of defiance from a fifteen-month old child with physical violence designed specifically to condition the child to fear retribution. The parent must reinforce to the child that disciplinary violence is a god-ordained and normal expression of love.

It must be asked, in what way is this not classic grooming behavior practiced by abusers of all varieties?[8]

Further I wonder, how does one hold so tightly to the words “spare the rod” (Prov 22:14-15).[9] yet cling so loosely to Paul’s command for a father to avoid provoking his children (Eph 6:4)? How do they insist upon absolute obedience to an OT proverb but completely neglect Christ’s command against “eye for an eye” responses (Matt 5:38-42)?

If Jesus truly demands we love our enemy and not “repay evil for evil” – even if others seek to harm or destroy us – in what way is it Christ-like to treat your own children with less respect and dignity than we are commanded to show our worst enemies (Matt 5:43-48, cf. Rom 12:9-21)?

  1. Father as Controlling Authority

Finally, all four men establish the father as a controlling authority. Steve Farrar and James Dobson explicitly place the burden of child development on the father. According to both men, a father who does not provide for his family – or in any way abdicates his masculine authority – will raise “emasculated” sons who grow up to be “homosexuals.” [10]

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 11.06.26 PMBaucham has a similarly strange focus on daughters. He makes a daughter’s sexual purity the measure of a father’s effectiveness. As such, a truly godly father will control his daughter’s virginity until such a time as she is married, at which point he will relinquish control of her sexual identity to the man he has chosen for her to marry.[11] A man is not a man if he does not work, does not have children, and does not practice absolute authority in his house.[12]

In similar fashion, Swindoll laments times past – when men were “men” and women were “women” – by stating the role of men is as protectors, providers, and heroes while women ought to be pretty.[13] We must raise our children to meet these molds – our sons to lead and our daughters submit – or else we have failed them as fathers.[14]

How do the views of these men not reduce children to objects? If my daughter’s virginity is ultimately about my honor, is she not little more than a commodity to be traded to feed my own ego?

How does this coincide with the command in Matthew 20 to put others before myself, or the command in Philippians 2 to consider others better than myself? Am I to treat my children with less respect than I would treat a random stranger on the street?

A Hypothetical Scenario

As such, taking these three categories in account, it appears that in all cases, my success as a father is measured against the perfection of my children. It is not enough for me to strive to live life alongside them, nor to share in their failures with love and grace. Instead, if I cannot present my daughter as a virgin on her wedding day, I must see this as a slight against me because her virginity is supposedly my property. Or if my son should someday marry another man, according to these men it is because I am a stay-at-home dad.

Whether or not we agree with gay marriage or premarital sex, the issue here is not moral instruction, but authoritarian control. Can I not walk my children through my own understanding of godly sexuality without turning their bodies into objects?

Further, what if they should fail the standards I teach them?

If I were to follow these teachings, how would I respond to a teen pregnancy? Instead of coming alongside my pregnant sixteen-year-old daughter, loving her and her child and helping her become something she is ill-equipped to be at sixteen (a mother), my response would be anger and hostility. I would see this baby as a slight and a threat to my authority even in utero. Rather than recognize the pregnancy as a mistake of passion, the result of poor decision making inherent to teenagers who have underdeveloped prefrontal cortexes, I would see the action as a personal affront.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 11.16.24 PMHow, if I am to respond to any insult to my authority with a commensurate response, would the proportionate reaction to such an offense be anything less than to expel her from my household?

If this is how godly men are to parent, if these are the parenting books available in church libraries, if these are the parenting “experts” commended as “godly,” and if these are the authors cited in men’s ministry curriculums, is it any wonder that there is correlation between conservative Christian belief and terminated pregnancies – especially among women and girls under the age of 25?

If a girl knows her father will minimize her, treat her as an object for his own edification, and have a potentially violent reaction due to perceiving her pregnancy as an affront to “biblical masculinity,” is it any wonder she feels safer at Planned Parenthood than in her “Christian” home?

Personal Story

The above statements will naturally seem extreme to some. When you have been raised or indoctrinated with the ideas of these men as “biblical” and “godly” it can be hard to see ideological weakness by considering merely hypothetical situations. Thus, it seems beneficial to also consider how these principles might have affected my real life relationship with my five-year-old son.

When my son was three years old he was diagnosed with a speech delay. Essentially, at the time he was tested, he was at the developmental level of an eighteen month old. This explained why he was having ten or more full-scale meltdowns a day, but it also left me with a certain level of shame. Surely I had done something wrong; had I not worked hard enough with him? Had I somehow failed him as a father?

At the recommendation of a specialist, I took my son to speech therapy multiple times a week. I worked closely with him at home in hopes that, perhaps, I could make up for my failures as a father by teaching him proper communication skills. Perhaps he would act out less if he had the necessary skills to communicate his wants and needs.

Then came my living hell. For reasons that were entirely unapparent at the time, my son began passing bloody stools. Soon after, he began having nearly nightly vomiting fits. The symptoms were distressing, yet our doctor told us there appeared to be nothing wrong.

Finally, my wife and I took him to another doctor for a second opinion. This doctor quickly diagnosed him with a dairy and egg allergy. We quickly switched him to an allergen free diet, and the meltdowns began to decrease.

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 10.57.59 PMHe continued to have emotional outbursts, especially in social situations. He would hit other kids and even once bit his preschool teacher. On multiple occasions, I had to physically restrain him to keep him from hurting himself.

Some days I lost my patience. There were many tears shed and a great deal of frustration expressed. I am not the perfect parent, and I did not do everything right. But I did strive to show my child love. I worked hard to communicate with him. I asked questions of him when he was willing to talk in order to try to see the world through his eyes.

When he threw a massive fit in school, I sat down with him and his teacher – an absolute saint of a woman – and discussed with him why he had thrown the fit. I chose to see my child struggling, and to work to embody his struggle because I chose to believe that he is beautifully created by God and that my patience, love, and invested time could bring out the good I knew he possessed.

I refused to see my son as an evil barbarian trying to usurp my authority, and instead saw him as a confused child trying to navigate a complex world with flawed and self-destructive behavior. And so I worked to develop strategies with him. Over time, we created a list of simple principles he could use to engage the world. I asked for his input and respected his opinions, I chose to validate his perceptions while guiding him towards a better and healthier expression of his emotions.

Today, my five-year-old thrives in kindergarten. We have had a couple hiccups in behavior, and every time he has been able to sit down with me calmly and discuss what he ought to do better next time. He is, by any account, a healthy and happy boy who has now reached or exceeded nearly all his developmental goals.

But what would have happened if I had treated his outbursts as a threat to my authority? Would one of Baucham’s all day spanking sessions have helped him to communicate the complex emotions that he simply did not have the developmental capability of expressing?

Would he have magically made up his developmental gap if I had set out to break his self-asserting free will?

How about his violent outbursts? How would I have taught him that the lex talionis is not an appropriate paradigm for confrontations if his every challenge had been met with an appropriately severe spanking? How would using violence to break his self-asserting free-will have taught him that physical violence is not an appropriate way to handle anger?

Conclusion

After considering the above teachings, and considering how they would have affected my own son, it seems to me they defy the teachings of Christ in numerous places. They ignore the high regard Christ has for children. They ignore the call to self-sacrifice for the better of others in imitation of the cross. They entirely forsake any concept of personal humility, and instead assert a patriarchal hierarchy which treats children as little more than property. And perhaps worst of all, they advise fathers to rule their children with fear by bullying them into compliance – methods that more resemble those of the Romans who crucified Jesus than the Christ of God who allowed himself to be crucified.

In light of this, I close with this thought from Scripture:

If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were thrown into the sea.

– Mark 9:42

Nate Sparks-Bio PhotoNate Sparks is a stay-at-home dad with a Biblical Studies degree from Judson University. His passion for social justice and equality is poured into his work, as he often writes about the theological and practical issues surrounding church abuse. His blog, Sparking Conversation, can be found here. He can be followed on Twitter at the handle @NateSparks130 and Facebook at Nate Sparks.

[1] James Dobson, The New Dare to Discipline (Wheaton: Tyndale, 1992) p. 4.

[2] Steve Farrar, Anchor Man (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2000) pp. 115-117.

[3] Charles R. Swindoll, You & Your Child (Nashville: Word, 1998) p. 78-90.

[4] Dobson, Discipline, 18-26.

[5] ibid.

[6] Farrar, Anchorman, 112-137.

[7] Swindoll, You & Your Child, 78.

[8] For an example of how abusers groom victims, see here. Are there not strikingly disturbing similarities?

[9] Swindoll, You & Your Child, 77-90.

[10] Steve Farrar, Point Man

[11] Voddie Baucham, What She Must Be (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009) p. 47-66.

[12] Ibid. 67-139.

[13] As quoted in Farrar, Anchorman, 162.

[14] Swindoll, You and Your Children, 91-109.

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  1. Amazing insight, Nate. I’ve been contemplating these thoughts since my conversion four years ago. I believe you are correct in comparing these techniques to the grooming of an abuser. My question for several years is also why do we punish children for these sorts of things, but afults, who do far worse, we’re told to forgive and let them be? It’s all such a double standard. Loved you line early on about how can there be one true way to raise kids. I’ve got five. None of them can be raised the same as the others. 😀 Anyway, rambling, obviously. Great work. It’s given me more to think about.

    1. Thanks Sara! Your observation about how we treat kids so ungraciously, yet offer empty forgiveness and defense of unrepentant adults who repeatedly behave like children (Mark Driscoll anyone), is spot on.

  2. Excellent post, Nate. As a parent of 2 special needs kids (now 17 and 13) I can definitely say that there is no one way to parent — and this heavy authoritarian technique makes no sense. Parenting is a very challenging and humbling thing: as parents we need to both ask for grace and extend it to our kids. I know I do, because I mess up every day. Blessings on you and have family.

  3. Should be *your* family. I should stop making blog comments on my phone — autocorrect is always trying to anticipate what I want to say & getting it wrong 🙂

  4. This is fantastic, Nate! Spells out a lot of the parenting beliefs I have grown into as well. My thought is that if we really believe in the priesthood of all believers that HAS to include believing children… which means that they are also included in the “submit to one another” verses. Ultra-controlling parenting has no room for a child to be right and a parent to be in the wrong. Parents must retain face and control at all times… ‘you give and inch and they will take a mile” and all that.

    I absolutely disagree with permissive parenting that has no boundaries or consequences, so that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about discipling children into maturity with the graciousness of realizing that they are image-bearers the same as I am. I am talking about taking child development and immaturity into account and ASSUMING THE BEST rather than that they are just little sinners out to manipulate and do evil if you don’t keep them under your thumb.

  5. I think you are so right in all that you wrote here. I tried to read Dobson as a young mom, and even tried spanking, and the whole thing made me feel even more out of control of the situation, just increased my anger because now I was angry at myself too for actually giving in to that, and left us with the problem of Joe’s behavior just getting worse, because now he was angry and didn’t trust us. Those men have such a racket going. Young moms buy into the whole born again Christian culture, and it has it’s leaders who know everything about everything, so you read their slickly packaged books and programs for marriage and parenting and living your life, and follow them because they know Jesus, they must, they quote Him all the time, and then when it doesn’t work it is just guilt upon guilt you feel, for failing Jesus and your husband and kids, because you didn’t fall into the roles that these guys decide are for men and women, and all the pretty sounding books, especially the ones written by and for women about being a submissive, supportive wife and serving mother, all make it sound like life will be so sweet and pure and simple, and if it isn’t it’s because you’re doing it wrong, or your faith isn’t strong enough or you aren’t taking enough time for prayer or to make their lives perfect. Okay, that tiny rant is over, phew. Bitter much, Jen??? Sheesh. It’s okay. Love, forgive, breathe, Jen. Phew.hink you are so right in all that you wrote here. I tried to read Dobson as a young mom, and even tried spanking, and the whole thing made me feel even more out of control of the situation, just increased my anger because now I was angry at myself too for actually giving in to that, and left us with the problem of Joe’s behavior just getting worse, because now he was angry and didn’t trust us. Those men have such a racket going. Young moms buy into the whole born again Christian culture, and it has it’s leaders who know everything about everything, so you read their slickly packaged books and programs for marriage and parenting and living your life, and follow them because they know Jesus, they must, they quote Him all the time, and then when it doesn’t work it is just guilt upon guilt you feel, for failing Jesus and your husband and kids, because you didn’t fall into the roles that these guys decide are for men and women, and all the pretty sounding books, especially the ones written by and for women about being a submissive, supportive wife and serving mother, all make it sound like life will be so sweet and pure and simple, and if it isn’t it’s because you’re doing it wrong, or your faith isn’t strong enough or you aren’t taking enough time for prayer or to make their lives perfect. Okay, that tiny rant is over, phew. Bitter much, Jen??? Sheesh. It’s okay. Love, forgive, breathe, Jen. Phew.

  6. Nate, you have an awesome and Christ-like insight into parenting. Our Lord NEVER said that we had authority over anyone, and that includes our children. We are to ‘raise’ them in the ways of the Lord. We are to guide them and yes, at times, we must insist on consequences for their bad actions. But I believe we are never raise a hand in anger to anyone, including children. These four men are, IMHO, control freaks. They want to control their wives, control their children, and control their following. Jesus never ‘controlled’ anyone, He give people the free choice to follow him. Congrats to both you and your wife for doing a wonderful job.

  7. This was really good. I appreciated how you loved on your son. We do need to use wisdom in rearing children, and our hearts should be open to God’s Spirit to guide us. I don’t believe that discipline should look like a power struggle in which the strongest party will eventually undoubtedly win. Discipline can look like a parent allowing a child to experience the natural consequences of his or her actions. I believe that parents who lord authority over their children’s heads do great damage. Later on in life many of those children end up resented their parents. It’s sad.

  8. When Jesus said to let the little children come to him, he didn’t add “But only if they behave properly.” The men you write of use shame to force fathers to treat their children in authoritarian ways: if the kids don’t turn out right, shame on those fathers for failing to glorify God in their families. Blech.

  9. Excellent post. I don’t think my husband and I were quite as organized in our thinking when our kids were younger, but we used many of the same parenting strategies that you describe. We didn’t ever feel comfortable in an adversarial relationship with our children. We love and like our kids – who are now 20 and 17. BTW, my hubbie was a stay at home dad for 10 years while I practiced medicine. I’m now the at home parent because of chronic migraines and he’s now a math teacher. What a life! But, our kids have survived and even thrived!

    1. I’ll be honest, I laughed when you said “organized in our thinking.” I’m not even sure I knew what I was doing. I just knew the approach my parents took with me would not work. I made the decision that my son deserves the same respectI would pay any other human being in distress, I chose to understand his outbursts as a flawed method of communication instead of intentional acts of defiance. The paradigm was thought out. After that, I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants. I often feel entirely inadequate as a father and I have days I feel helpless and clueless. Parenting, for me, is not a commitment to perfection, but to vulnerability and honesty, to a love and humility. It is hard and often heartbreaking, but I have faith that in the end the approach will continue to make a difference. I’m encouraged to hear it has worked for you.

      I’m sorry about the migraines, my wife suffers from debilitating migraines and, were it not for host of pills she takes and the excellent work of a headache specialist, I don’t know what we would do.

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  10. Great post, Nate. You’ve nailed it: this is abuse, and the church seems to buy it. My kids are now 22 and 20. While pregnant with the first one, I read Dobson, and thought–this is a load of crap. I studied other parenting books, including Dr. Sears. I interviewed other parents (I was a newspaper reporter at the time, I knew how to research). We decided to follow the parenting philosophy of Positive Discipline, a very helpful book. We chose not to spank our kids, we worked to help our kids see that they had the ability to make good or bad choices, but we always loved them. My daughter is strong-willed and we refused to break that will. It turned out to be a very helpful trait when she needed to resist peer pressure in jr. hi and high school. So keep up the good work with your son. Rejecting the work of these four men will be the best thing you ever did for your son. And explaining the horror of what they recommend is a great service for the readers of this blog. Thanks!

    1. Thank you Keri 🙂 The kids have been on spring break and we are in the process of packing up to move and it has really taken a toll. In the midst of three very stressed out kids, not being the domineering parent who responds harshly to everything my kids do can be a struggle. It is all the difference when we strive to see our kids negative actions as a means of communication, when we understand sometimes they just don’t know how to express their feelings so it comes out in odd and destructive ways. Definitely needed the words of encouragement. Again, thank you.

  11. This made me cry. I was raised surrounded by those men and their teachings. I don’t want to view my future kids as my adversaries.

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