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The Danger of Pragmatic Parenting

Parenting children is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. There are many temptations for parents, the biggest of which is to be result-oriented because it’s easier to make children behave than doing the hard work of training them.

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Have you met the counting lady? Let’s call her Mable. Maybe you have seen her at Walmart standing in the checkout line. Her 7-year old son–let’s call him Biffy–was disobeying her and she was fearfully hoping that he would stop his disruptiveness. Her method for getting little Biffy to behave was to count: 1. 2. 3.

This parenting method to obedience is like a game of dare. Mable begins a slow count toward some indeterminate number, with the hope that her son will not only discern what she is doing but choose to be respectful and obedient.

This method is often the product of a fearful or angry parent. It is fearful because Mable is embarrassed by what other folks in Walmart may think of her child, which is a reflection of Mable. She is angry because her child won’t “get in line” with her expectations.

If Biffy does not respond well, she may stop the counting process and start yelling at him. Perhaps she grabs a body part to motivate him to cease from what he is doing. If it goes that far, and if he still has not responded appropriately, she will probably be at a loss on how to change Biffy’s behavior.

Success in Mable’s mind will be an immediate behavioral modification that takes all eyes off of them, which she may accomplish through anger, the infliction of pain, or the threat of future retribution from little Biffy’s dad after he arrives home.

The sad thing for Biffy is that he will not be fundamentally changed from the inside out because the family parenting model is based more on pragmatics (immediate behavioral results) rather than a longterm parental vision and plan. Behavioral modification approaches typically work under two conditions.

  1. The parents find the right approach to behavioral change while missing the critical necessities of the heart.
  2. The child chooses to behave while he is young because it’s the path of less pain.

Peace, But No Peace

If there is “shalom in the home,” it will only be temporary peace because there has been no lasting transformation in the child’s soul. There may be many reasons why parents choose pragmatic parenting over the longterm goals of a biblical-centric parenting model.

In many of these family situations, if not most, the dad has not been biblically leading the family by coming alongside his wife and providing compassionate directive-care for the child. It could be that he is not in the picture at all. Perhaps he has delegated his parental responsibilities to his wife because he is preoccupied with other things like his job.

A dad’s job is similar to mom’s in that it’s a twenty-four/seven responsibility. Though he may divide his day between work and home, both spheres make a whole that requires him to “be on the job” all the time. Parenting is a full-time job, every day with no time off.

Pragmatic parenting happens frequently, and it’s an easy trap to fall into, especially with the pace in which some families live their lives. If the parents are thinking only of short-term results rather than embracing a longterm gospel-motivated vision for their children, they will be susceptible to un- or sub-biblical parenting practices. Here are a few that I have seen in my counseling career.

  • Dad is watching football, and the kids are interrupting. He yells at the children and the children conform to his angry manipulations.
  • Mom is embarrassed about the child’s behavior, per my Walmart illustration. She yells, threatens, and counts, hoping he will obey her orders.
  • Dad is more concerned about how he looks before others rather than the spiritual needs of his children. He chooses to enforce conformity regardless of the future costs.
  • Mom is overwhelmed in the home and has lost patience for non-compliant children. She threatens them until they change their behaviors.
  • One or both of the parents are lazy, and they choose enforced conformity rather than the work involved in gospel-motivated teaching.
  • The parents came from a fear-based, legalistic culture that emphasized externalities. They were not taught how to parent from the heart.
  • Parents are oriented toward short-term goals. They focus more on the perfect 3-year old, 4-year old, or 5-year old rather than a grace-filled model that keeps the end in mind.

All of these situations can accomplish immediate results for the parents and from the children, especially if they are young. The bad news is that it’s a myopic parenting model that falls woefully short of what the Bible teaches. As the children become teenagers, their parent’s manipulations will no longer hold sway over them. And the likelihood of them rebelling is high.

As teenagers, their lives will become progressively worse due to a lack of heart-motivated, grace-centered, and gospel-transformation preparations. Thinking biblically while responding with humility will not be part of their worldview. In one sense, the children will adopt the lifestyle of the parents.

Their parents chose the easy path to conformity rather than the hard way of prayer, modeling, encouraging, motivating, teaching, and disciplines. The teens will not know how to do these things, choosing instead to take the easy option of rebellion.

Because of a lack of training to think or respond biblically to trying situations, when things become difficult for these teens, they will more than likely react similarly to their parents: what is convenient and works best for them without considering the longterm effects of their decisions. Pragmatic parents make pragmatic children.

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Creating a Gospel-Centered Context

This kind of parenting is more rule-based, massively structured, and self-reliant in methodology. The family has rules, some of which are good and biblical, while others are centered more on the parent’s preferences, conveniences, and fears. The answer is not to throw out the rules because a structure is essential to sound biblical parenting, but parents should always contextualize their structures inside a gospel-centered environment.

Many parenting models are motivated by fear because the parents are hoping to keep their children from becoming whatever it is that they fear. Too often these fears are connected to whatever bad thing that happened to one of the parents from their childhood. Rather than trusting God by parenting from the Bible, they oversteer the “parenting car” by “motivating” the children from their fears.

It is hard for some parents to keep from “mapping their negative experience” over how they see life. And when it comes to their children, there is probably not a more powerful shaping influence.

If your parenting is not connected to and flows out of the gospel, you will set your children up for current frustration and future failure. Many children reared pragmatically, spend a significant portion of their adult lives “un-parenting” themselves.

They have to unlearn the shaping influences of their parents. The irony is that the children–as adults–will make a similar mistake as the parents, as they react negatively to what their parents did to them.

Parenting According to the Gospel

If you believe you may be a pragmatic parent, the first thing for you to do is examine your parenting model. These three questions will help you to think and talk about how you parent.

  1. What does it mean to parent according to the gospel?
  2. What is your methodology for bringing change into the lives of your children?
  3. What would your parenting look like if you similarly parented your children the way your heavenly Father parents you?

I have developed a biblical diagnostic so you can examine your parenting style. Carefully read 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 and then replace the word “love” with the name “Jesus.” You will notice how the name “Jesus” and the word “love” does not alter the text. Now insert your name where the word “love” is explicit or implied.

________ is patient and ________ (is) kind; ________ does not envy or ________ (does not) boast; ________ is not arrogant or ________ (is not) rude. ________ does not insist on (his/her) own way; ________ is not irritable or ________ (is not) resentful; ________ does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but ________ rejoices with the truth. ________ bears all things, ________ believes all things, ________ hopes all things, ________ endures all things.

There are fifteen blanks where you inserted your name. God has called you to imitate Him (Ephesians 5:1), and one of your most profound discipleship opportunities is how you imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1) while leading your children into adulthood.

  1. How do you compare to the words love and Jesus?
  2. What specific areas do you need to change?
  3. What is your specific plan to begin that change process?
  4. Who is one person you can call on to help you implement your plan for change?

Paul’s text conveys the heart of gospel-motivated parenting. God–our sovereign authority figure–is love (1 John 4:8). Because you are an “authority figure” in your children’s lives, would they see you like love? You are your child’s most influential authority figure, at least while they are young.

Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life. – Proverbs 4:23

The Father parents you from a heart of love. For you to imitate your heavenly Father, your first call to action is for the gospel to transform you. Hearts not rightly affected by the gospel will not be able to export it adequately to those within their spheres of influence. Do you parent from a heart of gospel-transformed love?

For no good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit, for each tree is known by its own fruit. For figs are not gathered from thornbushes, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush.

The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks. – Luke 6:43-45

If you need to change the way you parent, a great place to begin that process is by identifying the weaknesses from the diagnostic assessment. It would be profitable to have a close friend to walk with you through the transformation process as you take your soul to task regarding each of the descriptors the Spirit revealed to you as an area of needed improvement.

If you are married, your “close friend” must be your spouse. Disunity in your marriage will create disunity in your children. A couple is one flesh, not two. There cannot be division in the marriage if you want to export unity to your children.

If you are a single parent, it would be wise to ask your church leadership to help with the soul care needs of your children. Though there is a disruption in your one-flesh union, you can find the sufficient unity you need from your local body to parent your children well.

Regardless of your marriage situation, the vital thing to remember is that prayer is your most effective parenting weapon. You don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that if you do well as a parent, your children will turn out okay. Or believe that if you do poorly, your children will turn out badly.

You are to cooperate with God in the parenting of your children, but if they turn out well, it will be because of His kindness to you and them. You don’t want to presume on His grace (Psalm 19:13) by doing nothing, but you also do not want to think that you are the primary change agent in your child’s life (1 Corinthians 3:6).