By Dr. William Sears
Issue 93, March/April 1999
So many religious "experts" now offer inflexible childrearing advice. But can any of us truly know God's will? And which do you trust, your teacher or your heart? A primer on Christian parenting
"As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you." - Isaiah 66:13
Over the past few years, there has been increasing confusion as to what it means to be a "Christian parent," or what is "God's way." Many churches offer advice and even prescriptions for proper, biblical childrearing. If you don't follow these systems, you're told, you will not raise a godly child. But the Bible is surprisingly nonspecific about the day-to-day aspects of parenting. It would be easy if God's word, the Bible, laid out a list of parenting commandments, but it does not. There are no specific references on whether to let a baby cry, how long a mother should breastfeed, or where a baby should sleep.
Still, many well-meaning advisers have taken it upon themselves to presume to know God's intent for parents, producing elaborate programs for parents to follow. Some parents welcome this. Others wonder if their newborns really are benefiting - and whether anyone else can know God's intentions for their family.
As a pediatrician, Christian, and father of eight children, I would like to reassure all worried parents who find themselves asking, "Will I be a good parent? Will I be able to raise a godly child?" God would not give you a child without also giving you the ability and means to raise that child. He would never give you a child with, for example, a temperament that you couldn't handle. This would violate the very concept of "creator." God, as creator, designed within every mother and father the necessary tools to parent each individual child.
The key to compassionate, successful Christian parenting is simply to discover your tools and use them according to the plan that God has for you and your child. This may be a different plan than your neighbor's or anyone else's in your church. That's fine. Just trust in the concept of creator and know that within you He has put the tools to become an expert on your baby.
To show you how to discover your God-given skills - and how devout, concerned Christians can be misled into certain styles of parenting that may not be God's design for their individual child - I wish to use a long parable, the form of teaching that was most common in biblical days. Read it, and ponder it for a while. Afterward you should have a clearer understanding of what it truly means to care for your baby as God would have you do.
THE JOURNEY OF MICHAEL AND SUSAN
Michael and Susan were expecting their first child. Dedicated to being godly parents and raising godly children, they also, like most new parents, weren't sure how to achieve this. So they decided to take a parenting class offered at their church. After the first class, they realized that there were different opinions, especially in their own church, about raising godly children.
Feeling a little confused, they decided to talk over the various childrearing issues with their , Dr. Joan, an experienced mother of three and a devout Christian.
Dr. Joan's advice was simple and clear: "By all means study up on parenting. Read books and attend classes. Learn all you can about babies. But remember, too, that this is your unique baby, and you are his or her parents. You must become an expert on your baby and develop your own method for raising him or her. No one else can create a method for your baby." Michael and Susan nodded in agreement.
Dr. Joan went on, looking stern. "The burning desire to be godly parents makes you vulnerable to all kinds of advice that promises you godly children. But no one can guarantee that. Parenting advice is often a matter of opinion. There is no one way to raise every child. If there were, we would all be clones, children would all have the same temperament, and this would be a dull world. So be discerning. Remember that much of what you will hear in this church-led parenting class is opinion, even if it's presented as fact."
LEARNING TO CONTROL
The next evening Michael and Susan attended a parenting class on the subject of control. The teacher kept a tight rein on the class by not allowing any debate. Almost immediately he announced that God had ordained that parents control their children, responding to them only when the parents choose to. No picking up a baby whenever he or she cries, no comforting that child late at night. Order and schedules would establish the household's proper authority. "Who's in charge," the teacher challenged, "you or the baby?"
A few veteran parents in the class stirred uneasily. "What if you have a fussy baby or one with high needs?" one parent asked. "This sounds like a way of making childraising convenient for parents, in spite of the baby's needs."
The teacher was insistent. "Remember the original-sin nature of a baby," he said. "Don't let that baby manipulate you." It was becoming clear to the class that this Christian teacher believed that a baby comes into this world an adversary and is out to overpower you if you don't overpower him first. Several mothers frowned.
But Michael perked up. Control, order, authority, setting a schedule. He liked those ideas; they gave him a feeling of power in a situation where he'd been feeling helpless. Maybe this baby would not change their lives much after all. Susan, however, didn't share his enthusiasm. "Something isn't quite right here," she told Michael. "I honestly can not imagine letting our baby cry and not responding."
Michael dismissed her concerns. "You are just being emotional. The teacher warned us that mothers need to react out of logic and order, not 'intuition,' and that I might need to insist on that as your husband."
Susan, still struggling, called Dr. Joan later that week. The doctor's comments were succinct: "Mother's intuition is a God-given way for you to develop a sense of what is right for your baby," she said, adding: "Remember, you'll find some useful information in each parenting class, but be discerning."
THE STRUGGLE TO NOURISH
The next class began with the teacher reiterating the control issue: "In this class, you're going to learn some practical ways to establish authority over your baby," he said. "One of the most important is feeding. Get your baby on a three-hour feeding schedule, and feed him only during the day so he will learn to sleep during the night." The dads looked thrilled, especially the first-time fathers. No exhausting late-night feedings. No worries about whether a child was truly hungry. The baby would be fed on schedule; he or she would be content. Period.
Susan, however, had the same niggling feelings of uneasiness she'd had in the earlier class. This military-style scheduling of her baby's life didn't feel right somehow. She and Michael had already decided they were going to feed their baby the milk designed by God and not by man. But must they stick to a strict nursing timetable?
Susan decided they should discuss this idea of controlled feeding with Dr. Joan, who sighed. "Michael, what do you do when you're hungry?" she asked. "Do you look at your watch?"
"No," Michael responded, "I get something to eat."
"Yet you propose looking at your watch before feeding your child. Do you really think the creator of the universe would design the tiniest of human beings to have no awareness of when he or she is hungry? Don't even the sunflowers turn to the sun when they need nourishment? And isn't your baby much more intricately designed than the flowers?"
Dr. Joan went on, "All babies grow, but not all babies thrive. Thriving means growing to your fullest potential - physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In my experience as a doctor, rigidly scheduled babies grow, but many of them don't thrive. Do you sincerely believe God would wish that?"
CRIES IN THE NIGHT
The next class began with another control issue - crying. The teacher warned parents against responding to their baby's cries. "He will learn to manipulate you," the teacher said ominously. "Do not pick up your baby, and he will stop crying. You'll then have a good baby." The novices nodded enthusiastically. That's what they wanted: a good baby.
Michael was especially pleased. Susan, as before, was much more hesitant. So once again, the couple went to talk to Dr. Joan, who shook her head sadly when they told her of the class's latest lesson. "Let him cry it out; that old line again," she said. "I thought that philosophy had died out, but I guess it is coming back again."
"It sounds so easy and desirable," Michael persisted. "I want to be in charge of our child, just as God is in charge of us."
"But I don't know if I can do it," Susan said.
Dr. Joan looked from one to the other. "I'm going to have you consult with a friend of mine, Dr. Johnson, a developmental specialist who is also a Christian and a father. I think you will profit from what he has to say."
Dr. Johnson had a learned, grandfatherly demeanor, and both Michael and Susan immediately felt comfortable in his presence. He got to the point without preamble. "Crying it out - there is probably more difference of opinion on this issue than any in parenting," he said. "Volumes have been written about the signal value of the infant's cry and its effect on the mother." He turned to Michael. "There are reasons why an infant's cries affect you and Susan differently," he said.
"A baby's cry is a baby's language," he continued, "designed for the survival of the baby and for the development of the mother. It is the only way babies have of communicating their needs. The key is to learn how to listen."
"But I don't want our baby to manipulate us," Michael interjected.
"Tiny babies do not manipulate, they communicate," Dr. Johnson corrected. "That is why your baby's cry will produce especially strong reactions in you, Susan. Blood flow to your breasts will increase, your heart rate will go up, the hormones in your system will increase, and you will have a biological urge to pick up, nurse, and comfort your baby. Susan, you are biologically wired - and I believe God designed you this way - so you will give a nurturing response to your baby when she cries, not restrain yourself."
"Something just dawned on me," Susan interrupted, "What does the it mean in the 'cry-it-out' advice?"
"Ah," Dr. Johnson smiled at her, "You have put your finger on the weak point of this philosophy. The 'controllers,' as I call them, feel it's a habit, a manipulation, a gambit for goading parents. I don't believe this. In the early months especially, stay on the safe side. Consider your baby's cry a call for help of some kind and give a nurturing response according to your God-given mother's instinct. In time you 'll learn when to pick up your baby, when to put your baby down, when to give a quick response, and when to let your baby fuss a bit. Certainly, you do not have to pick up a seven-month-old baby as quickly as you do a seven-day-old baby. That is a cue-response network that you and your baby will eventually work out."
"But God let Jesus cry on the cross," Michael protested.
Dr. Johnson looked deeply troubled. "Michael, that was for our very salvation. And it was so hard for Jesus because before that God had always responded to His son. That's the lesson I hope new parents will learn from the Bible. Because what we've discovered in recent years is that babies whose mothers give an appropriate and nurturing response to their cries learn to cry less. They feel the world is a friendly, responsive place. But babies who are insecure and don't know whether they are going to get picked up or not are the ones who become clingy and whiny. Or worse, they simply shut down, clam up. Sure, they become 'good' babies, but at the price of their inner happiness. I don't think that is what you or God want."
OF THE GOOD
The next parenting class was about how to training babies to sleep through the night, and it proved to be extremely popular. "Have you seen your friends drained from the nighttime feeding demands of their newborns?" the teacher asked. "This is unnecessary and avoidable." The soon-to-be new fathers practically cheered. "Be sure your baby is well-fed, changed, not sick, and then let him cry, perhaps checking him occasionally," the teacher said. "Soon he'll be sleeping through the night. But," he glared at some of the mothers in the class, "you cannot, even once, give in and go to your child during the night. If you do, your baby will learn that if he just keeps crying, he can control you and get his way. You will have lost your godly authority over your infant."
Michael was eager to share this parenting advice with Dr. Joan. "Last week, we learned how to train our baby to sleep through the night by the time he's eight weeks old," he told her happily.
Dr. Joan pursed her lips. "Susan and Michael," she said earnestly, sounding more like a mother than a doctor, "let me warn you against easy, quick-fix methods. If I teach you only one thing about parenting, it is to consider it a long-term investment. The more you put into your parenting, the better your return will be. Lose a little sleep with your child now and sleep better when he is a teen. In other words, listen to your child early, and the child will listen to you later. Doesn't that seem as if it would be God's plan for you and your family?"
Susan nodded eagerly. Michael looked confused and thoughtful.
WHAT IS GOD'S WAY?
The next class opened with the teacher declaring loudly: "What I've been teaching you is the correct way of childrearing; this is God's way." Immediately the novices perked up their ears. That was why they were coming to the class. They truly wanted to be godly parents. Michael and Susan were both impressed. But afterward, they stopped to talk to Pastor Paul, who had not been involved with the class.
"We're both feeling torn," Michael told the pastor. "We have been hearing so many different opinions about God's way for true Christian parenting, and these differences are now dividing our friends, dividing our church, even dividing Susan and me."
"I have certainly seen the dissension," Pastor Paul said. "So I've been giving the issue a great deal of thought lately, and here's what I have found. First of all, the Bible isn't clear or dogmatic on the day-to-day issues of baby care. Different verses can be interpreted differently by whomever reads them. The problem is that, in biblical teaching, as in every profession, we are guilty sometimes of manipulating God's words to support our own bias. This is known as 'scripture twisting.' It's a natural, human weakness that all teachers have to guard against. What concerns you most about the advice you've been hearing in the church parenting class?" Pastor Paul asked.
"I guess it's the let-baby-cry-it-out advice," Susan volunteered. "It seems that much of the controlling style of parenting boils down to that, and I do not think I'm going to be able to let my baby cry."
"In times of need, when you cry out to God, what do you expect?" Pastor Paul asked Susan.
"The Bible says that God will never leave me or forsake me," Susan said slowly. "Even when He says 'no' or 'wait' to what I'm asking for, I know He's there for me. And that is very comforting. I know that I won't give my baby everything he wants either, but I surely want to be there for him when he cries."
"And what would you think of God if He didn't seem to hear you or respond?" asked Pastor Paul.
Michael hesitated. "I guess it would cause me to lower my expectations," he said finally. "It is important to me to know that God hears my prayers and responds to me."
Pastor Paul looked pleased. "The Bible makes it clear that God hears our prayers," he said. "Psalm 34:17 says: 'The righteous cry out and the Lord hears them; He delivers them from all their troubles.' Psalm 55:17 says: 'Evening, morning, and noon I cry out in distress and He hears my voice.' Psalm 145:18 says: 'The Lord is near to all who call on Him in truth.'"
Pastor Paul stopped and looked closely at Susan and Michael. "I believe God wants you to develop your own method for raising your baby," he said. "The Bible tells us clearly to 'Train up a child in the way he should go, and' - this is a passage with a promise - 'when he is old he will not depart from it.' So remember that it's good to go to a variety of classes and talk to lots of parents. But use only what fits your temperament and your desire for your child's happiness. In that way you will learn how to train up your child in the way he should go."
A CHILD'S GARDEN
Susan and baby was almost due. They had finished their last church-led parenting class and were visiting Dr. Joan for one of their final prenatal appointments. "So," Dr. Joan asked, "do you feel prepared for the arrival of your child?"
Susan smiled at her. "I don't know if we can ever be prepared," she said. "But I do feel ready to meet my child."
Michael looked more worried. "I am still concerned about losing control of my household," he said.
Dr. Joan shook her head at him affectionately. "Michael and Susan, I'd like you to leave me with one important lesson. Consider your responsibility as parents to be to shape your child rather than to control him or her. Think of being a parent like being a gardener. You can not control the color of the flower or when it blooms, but you can pick the weeds and prune the plants so that the flower blossoms to greatest advantage. Parents who accept and love the child God has given them will produce loving, godly children. And those parents will be loved in return."
She paused. "Whenever I myself struggle as a parent," she said after a moment, "I like to remind myself of one of my favorite biblical verses, from Isaiah: 'See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.' That is how God sees us - that is how familiar and beloved we are to him. And that is how we feel toward our family members when love guides us."
Michael smiled and briefly laid his hand on his wife's growing belly. "I'll do my best to love and guide our child," he said. "In the end, that must be what God requires of us."
Our tale is done. I hope it's provided food for thought and fuel for soul searching. But I won't pontificate further on Christian parenting. Let me only say that being a parent is a dynamic process, not a series of dictated recipes. It is a relationship built on mutual knowledge and trust between parent and child, an ability to read and respond to the cues of one another. Different children, however, offer different cues. Bear this in mind if you begin to be swayed by the Christian baby trainers. Systems that make no allowances for differences in temperament eventually become one-size-fits-no-one systems. Children can't be made to conform to someone else's view of what a child is supposed to be - even if those views spring from deep and sincere spiritual belief.
Those who promote childraising "systems" have no biological relationship to your child, no investment in your child's future, and no responsibility for your child's outcome. Tragically, those parents who adopt "systems" too blindly can lose their own sense of investment, of responsibility, even of unique love for their child. The system creates distance, not closeness.
An ideal parenting relationship mirrors the profound relationship that we have with God. As young people, we grope our way towards faith. And as new parents, we move slowly and hesitatingly toward greater knowledge of our children. We grow together - the child growing in size and strength, the parents growing in wisdom and empathy. This is the journey that leads to understanding. And that is the surest way to grace.
William Sears, MD, one of the nation's most renowned , is an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of California Irvine School of Medicine. Among the more than 20 books he has written or coauthored are The Baby Book, The Family Health and Nutrition Book, Parenting the Fussy Baby (all from Little Brown), and The Complete Guide to Christian Parenting and Child Care (Broadman & Holman, 1997). He lives and practices in San Clemente , California , with his wife and eight children.