There are all kinds of formulas in life—formulas for getting rich, getting thin, reaching your life-goals, advancing your career, and successfully managing your time. I think that people often lack the wherewithal to figure things out and so they want specific step-by-step instructions. This type of mentality definitely affects life in the church, but especially child-rearing. It seems like there’s more or less a ten-year cycle in the church that new parenting formulas crop up. People will start talking about the latest parenting methods, whether it’s for infants or older children. I’ve seen books, videos, and even Sunday school curriculum floating around churches all with the promise that if parents follow the simple steps and principles, they will successfully parent their children around the various pitfalls of life. Each time this cycle unfolds I find parents buying-in hook, line, and sinker. But what’s worse is not only do they buy-in to the formula, but they begin to evangelize and encourage, even demand, that others follow suit. On occasions far too numerous to recount I’ve been told, “This is the biblical way to raise a child.”
I remember a family that was very insistent upon raising their children in a certain manner: they homeschooled, because “that was what the Bible demanded,” kept their children from TV, did not allow them to listen to rock music, even of the “Christian” variety, and generally kept them close at hand. And sure, I will admit, early on both children looked like paradigms of virtue, all prim and proper. Later, however, when one of the children turned 18, it was like an exploding atomic bomb. Beneath the surface of propriety, a rebellious heart was just busting at the seams and couldn’t wait until he was legally of age to leave home. Days after he turned 18 he left home, within a matter of weeks eloped and married an older woman with a questionable profession of faith, and then within months was sitting in my living room in need of pastoral counseling. There were accusations of physical abuse, incidents where the neighbors called the police, and reports of marital infidelity. It shouldn’t surprise anyone to learn that this marriage ended in an unbiblical divorce. These parents were convinced that if they followed the formula, they were guaranteed success, but as you can see, something definitely went awry.
The problem with the formula mentality is, the Bible has very little specific advice on child rearing. It says nothing about when to feed an infant or what type of napping schedule the child should have. It never says specifically when and how to discipline a child. When do you discipline, for example, and when do you act in mercy? When do you forgive a child to teach him about grace and when do you let him bear the full brunt of the consequences of his sin regardless of how severe they may be?
There are certainly a number of things that the Bible does say, such as, raise a child in the fear and admonition of the Lord (Eph. 6:4). But in between the biblical principles of the Christian life lie a variety of ways that parents can raise a child. Bottom line, there is no one successful formula for raising a child. Parenting depends upon many different factors, such as the temperament and maturity of the child. All you have to do is speak sternly to a child and he will burst into tears, while others may require the responsible administration of corporal punishment. Other children are impervious to corporal punishment so other means of discipline have to be employed.
Yes, we have a moral responsibility to follow the Bible’s instructions on child rearing and point our children to Christ through the means of grace. But in the end, child rearing not only calls for the application of the law but of wisdom as well. Sometimes, you answer your foolish child according to his folly, and other times, you don’t answer your child according to his folly. In the end, if there is one sure formula for parenting it boils down to this: regularly expose your child to the means of grace (the reading and preaching of the Word, the sacraments, and prayer) and then get on your knees and intercede on behalf of your child in prayer before the throne of grace. Pray that Christ would lay hold of your child’s heart and never let it go.