When my mother taught women’s Bible study at her church, she had a ground rule for the discussion time: We can debate ideas, but we love people. In this post, I’m going to tackle a very emotional and hotly debated topic, so I’d like to adopt that ground rule here as well. Over the years, I have seen some unbelievably rude and mean spirited comments from both sides leveled at the people who practiced the other side’s ideas. So, before I even start sharing my thoughts on this, I want to say that I sincerely believe that the mothers on both sides of this debate truly love their babies and want what is best for them.
There’s an idea out there that children need to be trained from the day they’re born. That makes sense. After all, children are learning even in the womb, and certainly from the moment of their birth, they’re learning constantly. The important questions are: What should we be teaching them? and How should we go about doing it?
I believe that the ultimate goal of Christian parenting should be to teach our children how to relate to God. That is the reason behind everything else. Why should children obey their parents? Because God Almighty commanded them to. Why should we be unselfish? Because this life is not about us; it’s about God. Why should we be polite and kind? Because God is pleased when we esteem others as better than ourselves, etc. Everything we want our children to know and do springs from a correct understanding of God.
A lot of people out there (such as Gary Ezzo of Babywise and others) teach that the first lesson we should give our babies is the lesson that they are not the center of the universe and that they must submit to parental authority. Those are good lessons, and certainly ones that need to be begun during the first year. But here’s where it gets dicey. The main method that is supposed to transmit these lessons is a schedule, or some people call it a “routine,” but the idea is that if the baby is allowed food and sleep only when the parents think he should have them, then he will learn submission and even grow to be less selfish. If he does not want to sleep or eat on his parents’ schedule, then many people say that he should be left to cry. And here’s the crux of it, they call this being left to cry “discipline.”
I have a lot of problems with this. I addressed the main biological/physiological problem with feeding schedules in my post, Breastmilk, Ice Cream, and Infant Feeding Schedules: How Much Space is on YOUR Counter Top?. Here, I’d like to talk about my main theological concern.
The Bible has much to say about child training in general, and discipline specifically. In my personal study, I have found numerous passages on giving verbal instruction, reproofs, and rebukes to our children. And I have also seen several verses advocating the use of the “rod,” or spankings.
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes. –Proverbs 13:24
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. –Proverbs 22:15
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. –Proverbs 23:13-14
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. –Proverbs 29:15
There is no verse that says, “Feeding schedules, and enforced bedtimes give wisdom, but a child rocked to sleep bringeth his mother to shame,” or, “Thou shalt isolate him in his crib and shalt deliver his soul from hell.” But strangely enough, people are actually out there teaching that this kind of “discipline” is necessary, foundational, even the key to preventing the terrible twos and teenage rebellion, and that parents who don’t do this are “spoiling” their children, practicing New Age parenting, or are just plain less Christian than the ones who do.
Now, it’s true that the other side very often recommends unbiblical discipline, too. They will tell you that you should let your baby eat when he’s hungry and sleep when he’s tired, that he should never be left lonely and bewildered, crying himself to sleep in his crib, and oh, by the way, you shouldn’t spank him when he’s two, either, because that’s mean. Just distract and redirect. And don’t worry, he won’t misbehave that much because once he’s spent so many cozy months bonding with you, he’ll never want to displease you, anyway. This is also completely unbiblical. Again, there are no verses that say “Preemptive bonding and responsive parenting give wisdom, but a child on a schedule bringeth his mother to shame,” or, “Thou shalt distract him with other toys and shalt deliver his soul from hell.”
The fact is that biblically speaking, BOTH these parenting schemes have nothing to do with real discipline. Neither one bears any resemblance to the Bible’s method for effecting genuine change in a child’s foolish, sinful heart. The Bible calls for the rod and reproof. An infant is not ready for either one.
An infant is not ready for biblical discipline because an infant cannot truly obey yet, and therefore cannot truly disobey, either. In her excellent booklet, Unto the Least of These, Rebecca Lewis points out that in order to obey or disobey a child must be able to do three things:
- Your child must be able to understand what it is you want him to do or not do;
- Your child must understand that you are requesting him to do it / or not do it; and
- Your child must be capable of obeying your command.
In my experience, these criteria are met well before the first year, but children are not born with these abilities. Around the time they develop to the point of reaching out to grab something, they can easily learn, “No.” And you can expect obedience or else you will need to discipline with a small spanking. However, a two month old waiting all night to eat is not obeying. You cannot say to an infant, “Go to sleep and wait patiently for your next feeding time.” There’s no way for him to understand what you want, or that you’re requesting it, that the fact that you put him in his crib at this time means that he’s not supposed to want food for eight hours, whereas other times you put him in his crib, you’re willing to get him and feed him after only three. Also, he’s not really capable of obeying. If he’s hungry, he’s going to cry. If he’s uncomfortable and can’t get back to sleep, he’s going to cry. If he’s scared or lonely, he’s going to cry. If after being ignored night after night, he finally gives up and stops crying, it isn’t because he’s learned to “obey,” it’s because he’s learned either that no one can hear him, or that no one cares. This is not submission to authority. It’s resignation, giving up, for some babies, it’s even despair. It’s not the same as when an older baby stops reaching for a hot stove because his mother said, “No,” and enforced it with a spanking.
Now, of course, there are babies who naturally sleep through the night, without being left to cry. But these babies are not submitting, either. They are simply not hungry or uncomfortable, most likely because their mothers have milk supplies on the large side, and because the babies are not in the middle of a growth spurt, or teething, or struggling with reflux, or gas, or diaper rash, etc.
All right, so maybe letting babies cry isn’t the biblical discipline needed later in life, but what about the fact that it seems to work so well for some people? Why not use it and recommend it? Well, for starters, we need to be absolutely clear on what the Bible actually teaches so that we do not place undue burdens on each other, and so that we do not fall into pride when others don’t parent the way we do. There are prophets of doom out there who claim that if their own pet parenting method is not followed, your children will grow up to be horrible, spoiled brats. The Bible does not say this. The Bible calls for the rod and reproof. The Bible calls for discipleship (Dueteronomy 6:6,7). But the Bible is silent on whether babies should get to nurse at night, silent on how much time should pass between feedings, silent on whether babies should be snuggled to sleep or fall asleep on their own.
But there’s something else wrapped up in all this, something I do not believe the Bible is silent about, and that brings me back to my premise that the ultimate goal of Christian parenting should be helping our children develop a right relationship with God. And with that in mind, consider this: God does not abandon His children to cry alone.
The way that we treat our children is their earliest education in how they can relate to God. A quick concordance search on words like “call” and “cry” yields some interesting results. Here is just the smallest taste:
First, God hears His people and responds to them.
The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, and his ears are open unto their cry. –Psalm 34:15
He shall call upon me, and I will answer him: I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him, and honour him. –Psalm 91:15
The LORD is nigh unto all them that call upon him, to all that call upon him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of them that fear him: he also will hear their cry, and will save them. –Psalm 145:18,19
Second, one sign that we belong to God is that He hears us when we call to Him.
And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people: and they shall say, The LORD is my God. –Zechariah 13:9
Third, those whom the Lord will not listen to when they cry are those whom he is intending to destroy.
When they fast, I will not hear their cry; and when they offer burnt offering and an oblation, I will not accept them: but I will consume them by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence. –Jeremiah 14:12
If we believe that we should be teaching our children, first and foremost, how to relate to God, then it is crucial that we are godly ourselves, that we model behavior consistent with God’s character. Letting our children cry because it is not the “scheduled” time for us to do something for them is not only not biblical discipline, but it’s also not consistent with God’s character. He never says to us, “This is your scheduled rest time, you will have to pray about your financial difficulties later,” or, “I know you’re upset, but you just fed on my Word an hour ago, you may read another Psalm at 4:00.” No, God is always there for us.
The permissive parenting so often preached by the “don’t let your baby cry” crowd is also not consistent with God’s character. God is holy. He does not tolerate sin. As parents we shouldn’t tolerate it either. Children need to be confronted with their sin, not distracted from it. God never says, “Oh look, Sherry’s yelling at her children again, I’ll just bring a cheery visitor to her door to redirect her to smile.” No, it’s much more likely He’ll bring something along that will smite Sherry’s heart with conviction.
For whom the Lord loveth, he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. –Hebrews 12:6
Our children need to know both that God is always there for them, that he will never leave them nor forsake them (Hebrews 13:5), AND that God is absolutely intolerant of sin, that He is an authority that must be obeyed. Any time we branch off into unbiblical parenting methods, either by embracing false “discipline” that ignores our children’s cries, or by tolerating their sin, we give them a wrong impression of who God is.
The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. –Proverbs 29:15