Religion, spanking, and other controversial things: Thoughts about instilling “healthy fear” in kids

I have this habit of noticing and trying to learn from examples of other people’s good parenting– whether it be a patient parent at Target, a touching moment on Modern Family, or the mother in a fairy tale (Yah, I even think there’s a lesson to be found in  The Three Little Pigs.)    So, despite the fact that I practice a pretty eclectic spirituality, I was recently inspired by an example of parenting within Christianity: 

I happen to believe that the God of the Bible was being a pretty solid parent when he decided to exchange  “getting humans to behave by threatening fire and brimstone” (the old testament) for  “getting humans to behave through their relationship with Jesus” (the new testament).

I have this cartoonish picture in my head of one day, thousands of years ago, God thinking to himself:

“Hmmmm… is this whole ruling the humans with fear thing really working?   I mean they worship me because they are afraid I will burn their cities to the ground, but I did hear them trash-talking me behind their beards about how controlling I am.   That one male human was going on and on the other day about how he really wanted a variety of crops in the same field and was dying to wear clothing with two different fabrics (some old testament rules I found on Google.), and I wouldn’t let him..….The go reaction of the humans just seems to be anger as opposed to love, kind of like my example of when I decided to drown most of the humans because they were disobeying.  Because I have not provided an example of love and I have not developed a personal relationship with the humans as a whole,  they only ever want to do the “right thing” in order to avoid my wrath.  They feel powerless, frustrated, and lacking in any lessons or examples of love….. and they’re dealing with it all by raping and killing and stuff.  I wonder if there’s another way….

And so enters “another way”:


Do you recognize this man?  You know, the guy who was all about his children developing a relationship with him, the guy that was all about love? 

Jesus taught and lived the concept of love first. Then obedience naturally flowed from that foundation of mutual respect, trust, compassion, awareness, and empathy.  As parents, we may benefit from taking a hint from Jesus’ tactics.

Jesus never made the sinners, the money-lovers, or the prostitutes fear him.  He didn’t resort to making them fear his disapproval, his fury, or his ability to annihilate them.  He did, however, speak with love and empathy about the very real reality of consequences.  Like Jesus did, we parents can certainly instill a healthy awareness and even fear of consequences without making our children fear our rejection or our physical power over them.  There is a difference between making our kids fear their parents and making our kids fear consequences.

No doubt, we often have to instill a “healthy fear” in our children (meaning a fear of consequences, not a fear of the power of the parent).  Often times, especially with young children, we have to let our kids know that they must do____ or else____ in order to motivate them or teach them.  In telling my child he better eat his peas or he doesn’t get dessert, I am instilling a fear of not getting dessert.  In telling my child that he must stay on the sidewalk or he could get hit by a car, I am instilling a fear of becoming harmed by a vehicle.  In telling my child he needs to hold my hand at the mall so he doesn’t get lost, I am instilling a fear of getting lost.   In telling my child that if he touches his brother with his sword, I am taking the sword away, I am instilling a fear of not having his favorite toy.  However, in none of these examples am I making my children afraid of me, of my power over them, of my ability to harm them.

That being said, there have certainly been several occasions when I have been tempted to  rain down some fire and brimstone on my kids, and truly make them afraid of me.  I have certainly wanted to throw down my fists on the table, spank my kids, yell within inches of their little faces:  I TOLD YOU TO STAY IN BED!!!! STOP TOUCHING YOUR BROTHER!!!! I TOLD YOU FIFTY TIMES TO GET YOUR SHOES ON !!!!!! I am four times their size, so I could absolutely remind them of my ability to harm them, demonstrate my power over them, and scare them into submission.  But I have refrained from doing-so.  Instead, I have chosen the Jesus-method of practicing patience, providing explanation, and offering consequence without invoking a fear of me.  Here’s why:

1) I am my child’s example for how to behave (how to manage frustration, how to love, how to show empathy, how to teach) and I don’t want my child to resort to dominating or hitting.

2) This tactic misses some important  lessons.  He will refrain from getting out of bunk bed or touching his brother for the time-being, but he will miss lessons about empathy. He’s not thinking about how his brother is affected by having his sleep interrupted or how his brother feels about being hit; he’s simply reacting to not wanting to get yelled at.

3) If my child is afraid of me, his primary attachment figure, he will likely have anxious relationships (expecting possible rejection and pain) and trust issues.

4)  If I get him to do what I want by instilling fear of me, he will never trust that my rules sincerely have his best interest in mind.  He will probably just assume that his mom is selfish or power-hungry.  This will dramatically damage our relationship and will likely even affect his general expectation of future relationship partners.

5)  How I treat my child sends a message to him about his worth.  I don’t want that message to be, “I am not worth respect.”

6) Feeling dominated and disrespected by a primary attachment figure, (the person who he desperately needs/wants to feel safe with and protected by) can lead to anger and powerlessness at best and depression, anxiety, rage, and hopelessness at worst.

Choosing love instead of fire and brimstone is a long-term plan.  If I shout at and spank my kid for sneaking a cookie from his teacher’s gift basket, he will likely refrain from ever doing that again.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t grow up to be a dishonest thief with no respect for other people’s’ property. Taking the Jesus-way is harder, but will have more long-lasting effects.  If I practice refraining from making him feel diminished, teaching him by words and by example,  providing understanding and empathy even when consequence is necessary, I am ultimately cultivating the broad values of respect, self-control, patience, compassion, and love.

And that sounds pretty great to me.

*The Jesus painting is by Mormon artist, Del Parson*


4 thoughts on “Religion, spanking, and other controversial things: Thoughts about instilling “healthy fear” in kids

  1. I do not think that there is anything controversial or bad about the way you approached this. I think about these ideas a lot. And although I am not perfect at this I know Jesus would not yell at my children or spank them. And for his constant example I am grateful and hope to emulate more perfectly each day. By the way, the photo you used is by a Mormon artist, it is one of my favorites,

  2. Cool! Thanks, Rachel. And that picture came from a google search, and I did not know it was a Mormon artist, or a professional artist at all. I should look up the name and give him/her credit. :-)….and it was probably the “Old Testament God” in my mind that could be somewhat off-putting to some people. I didn’t mean any disrespect; I was just trying to illustrate a point in an exaggerated way.

  3. I love the way you put this. I wont be spanking either and people act like I am insane. I always hear the “spare the rod, spoil the child” sentiment. It irks me how some people pick and choose what to follow from the bible. Im not really religious but I am familiar with religion and I agree with what you said, Jesus didnt run around beating everyone for doing wrong. And were talking about children! They only know right from wrong from us, it is our job to teach them. How can a parent teach a child not to hit others by hitting the child? It doesnt even make sense. Thank you for posting this, its nice to know that there are other moms with similar outlooks.

    • Thank you for your thoughts and support! I can’t wait to check out your blog more in-depth when I get more than a few minutes… 🙂

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