Children were raised, not parented

In generations past, children were raised, not parented. Raising children mainly amounted to keeping them healthy, clothed, and fed as best you could while gradually integrating them into the economic life of the family. This is till the way children are raised in millions of families around the world who live life on the edges of survival. As Western families moved from the edge of economic survival to middle-class security post-World War II, raising children took a more studied bent. Dr. Benjamin Spock instructed millions about the ins and outs of developmental milestones and strategies for soothing teething babies and blistering rashes. And in the last fifty years, a huge industry has spring up in response to parental anxieties over self-esteem, behavior, achievement, moral formation, and much more. We now have attachment parents, helicopter parents, free-range parents, and achievement-pushing parents. Groups within evangelical Christianity positioned themselves as the standard-bearers and gatekeepers of what they called a “biblical parenting” model for Christians and framed parenting as a spiritual call to arms in the face of a fallen world. Whole curriculums were developed to ensure that children were saved from moral corruption through submission to parental and particularly male authority, allegiance to traditional gender roles, and reliance on Scripture and prayer to overcome “impure” thoughts and feelings that suggested a lack of faith and joy. 

Apart from religious expressions of parenting, we’ve seen a parenting culture develop that often places children’s self-esteem and individual achievement above all other considerations. Parenting is sold as a skill to master, and if you do it successfully, you’re promised the reward of a baby who can read, a child who doesn’t have tantrums, or a high schooler who gets into the college of your dreams. We have been taught to believe that the right tools, applied in the right way at the right times, can get us the outcome we want to achieve – obedient, happy, “saved,” successful, emotionally intelligent, mannerly, sleeping-on-a-schedule, safe from danger, realizing their full potential, on-their-way-to-Harvard children. Whatever your metric, there is a parenting program to get you there. With the right formula in place, we can supposedly train our children in exactly the way we think they should go.

But what is the right formula? The right way to parent? Thirty years ago experts told us to use star charts and time-outs. Then we found out that star charts had produced a generation of kids without internal motivation because they grew up being rewarded for everything they did. Now we are warned that time-outs may be psychologically damaging. Keeping up with it all is exhausting. You never know which way the pendulum will swing next.

Could it be that all this parenting business is more about our own anxieties and desires rather than the intrinsic needs of our children? And that a particular fixed outcome we have in our minds for our children may have little to do with who they actually are and who they were created to be?

We’re convinced it is time to move in another direction. To fully engage in the design and love God has for us and for our children, we must understand and believe something important: human development is primarily a relational process that is constantly unfolding. Things are and will always be changing, and our children become who they are mostly amid the daily, mundane, and imperfect interactions they have with us over the years. Your relationship with your child is a journey, and how you travel together is what matters, not the singular achievements or failures that so easily stand out in our minds to comment or condemn us. The path you’re on with your child will stretch ahead past diapers, time-outs, curfews, and graduations and well beyond what you can see today. 

From “The 6 Needs of Every Child: Empowering Parents and Kids Through the Science of Connection” by Amy and Jeffrey Olrick