When parents have their first child they have a lot to learn from this new experience. Prior to the birth some parents read books on child rearing, take classes, and make every attempt to be perfect parents. Usually by the time the second or third child arrives they are content to be “good enough” parents.
How we bring up our children does make a difference. In an old school of rearing some said, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” (From Proverbs 13:24) Spanking used to be a customary way to discipline children both at home and at school. At my boarding school children were spanked with a paddle for not making their beds properly. Today more effort is made to converse with children to help them follow the right path; and when necessary to take a “time out” or a recess from use of a cell phone to make a point.
A problem with corporal punishment is that if the spanking is given by the father, with a paddle or a belt, the
child can transfer this image of what it means to be a father to God the Father. The way a father is to his children is often interpreted as the way God the Father is to us. When I worked in an inner-city parish in Newark, New Jersey, most of the fathers had abandoned their families, both because of irresponsibility and to allow the family to get on welfare. In this situation I seldom spoke of God as a father – one who abandons us and lets us fend for ourselves.
Little principles for child rearing can be helpful to strengthen the self-esteem of our children. Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk and author of books on mindfulness and being peace, has written:
“This is the way to water the seeds of happiness. We should avoid saying destructive things like, ‘I doubt that you can do this.’ Instead, we say, ‘This is difficult, darling, but I have faith you can do it.’ This kind of talk makes the other person stronger.” (Touching Peace)
In the Scriptures when children seemed to be annoying Jesus his disciples thought the children should be sent away. “But Jesus called for them and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever
does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’” (Luke 18: 15-17)
The Jesus I understand is not one who intimidates us with fear demanding our love with punishment if we refuse. I understand Jesus to be loving, nurturing, and one who forgives us our mistakes, pulling us up from falling time and again to let us know that we are loved, even beyond what we can possibly imagine.
There is so much to learn bringing up children, and even our best efforts may only be good enough. But children learn what it means to be a good person by what they see in their parents and mentors. This recognition may come in their adult years, but we teach by example. If you slap your child while the child is in a grocery basket at the market, it is likely that when that child is a parent her children will be slapped in the grocery basket. If you seek to respect your child, to avoid shame, and to encourage your child, the child is likely to become that kind of person as well. Let the image of God the Father and Mother be a good one.