Fearful parents raising fearful children…
As the father of ten and the grandfather of seven, Peter Leithart has some wise counsel for raising healthy children in our rapidly declining culture. Rather than a detailed blueprint, he provides a broad outline gleaned from a wide-ranging survey of Scripture, including both Old and New Testaments.
You’ve heard the horror stories about the schools: kindergartens with a dose of amoral sex education; teachers sowing gender confusion with the hearty support of administrators; violence and widespread drug use in the tony prep schools that train tomorrow’s elites; depression, eating disorders, suicide. You can move out to the hinterlands in an attempt to keep your children safe, but the ubiquitous wild west of the Internet will hunt you down.
Parents are feeling scared. Scared and guilty, because many think that if they protect their kids, they’re going to raise asocial misfits.
Fear never produces healthy child-rearing, or healthy children. Neither does guilt. Fear, for one thing, is self-fulfilling. The closer we clutch our kids, the more they squirm to get away. The more we isolate them, the glitzier the outside world appears. Jesus has a simple message for parents: Don’t be afraid. Don’t be haunted by past failures, because the merciful God forgives. Don’t be afraid of the future, because the Father knows what you need. Don’t be afraid of the world. Jesus has overcome the world.
That confidence is critical, but it doesn’t add up to a model for child-rearing in the postmodern world. Can we protect our kids from the world and prepare them for it?
Parents can draw guidance from an unexpected source: Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where Paul describes Israel’s history as a centuries-long process of child-training (Galatians 3–4). When Yahweh first brought his son from Egypt, he gave clear, detailed commandments and exercised strict discipline. Israel was, Paul says, “no better than slaves.” But this was always intended to be a temporary arrangement. The law was a tutor, but when faith comes, then “we are no longer under a tutor.” Israel was under guardians and stewards, but then God sends Jesus and the Spirit so that “we might receive the adoption as sons.” Overall, it’s a progression from childhood slavery to mature adulthood.
We can see this progression within the Old Testament. Early on, Yahweh created a comprehensive world that was at once a protection and a pedagogy. He gave his creatures stories, songs, structures, and rules—many rules. By the time of the kings, Israel had grown up. Instead of being withdrawn from the nations, Israel began to make good on the Abrahamic promise to be a light to the nations. Kings and queens streamed to Jerusalem to hear Solomon’s wisdom. Exile was both a judgment and a commission: By the time Nebuchadnezzar deported the Jews, they had become true children of Abraham, capable of leaving home for a land they didn’t yet know.
All this adds up to a rough but useful pattern for child-rearing. On the one hand, parents should have no problem treating their children as “slaves” during their youngest years. “No” is not a swear word; eight of the Ten Commandments begin with “No” (in Hebrew), and one of the two positive commands is “Honor your father and mother.” We don’t send toddlers into combat, and we shouldn’t send them into the warzone of the world. Should we sequester young children in an artificial cocoon of peace, love, and virtue? Absolutely.
On the other hand, the goal is to prepare them to leave, and to keep their heads as they pass through the big world outside. Like the God of Israel, we prepare them by gradual manumission. Some years ago, I read in a now-forgotten book that a parent moves from commander to coach to counselor. We give orders to little kids and require obedience. We coach them through the challenges of young adulthood, giving them room to make decisions, fail, and try again. By the time they’re ready to leave home, the commands should be second nature, and we offer advice to help them over the rough patches.
As Christians tell it, at the end of Israel’s story, the Lord doesn’t command Israel to “return.” Instead, Jesus, the God of Israel made flesh, sends the new Israel of the disciples away: Get out of the house. Fill the corners. The Hebrews started as priests, serving in Yahweh’s house, living under command. They grew to be kings, conquering and ruling a land in wisdom. They were sent out on a prophetic, then an apostolic mission, no longer slaves but sons, heirs of God. It’s the perfect pedagogy of the perfect Father, and we do well to imitate it.
“Rearing Slaves, Rearing Sons,” by Peter J. Leithart, was published online by the journal First Things. Dr. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute, Birmingham, Alabama, and an adjunct Senior Fellow at New St. Andrews College. He is author, most recently, of Gratitude: An Intellectual History.