Parenting Ethics From the Bible?
A DISCLAIMER AND WARNING
In accordance with our Mission, this essay will discuss leadership ethics, starting with some principles from the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament. However, today’s subject pertains to parental ethics; that is, some guidelines for raising children. Some important warnings need to be given, though brief. Then we will discuss the topic under consideration.
The Hebrew Bible, in particular, is a very ancient set of documents. Some teachings, even some given by “divine command,” are not to be followed today. This may upset some religious people, Jews and Christians, who believe whatever divine commands were once given stand for all time, however distasteful, opposed to biological instinct, against human laws in any nation. For those persons, there is no ethical or moral progress unless another divine command creates it.
Here are some examples of ancient Jewish teachings we must not follow, because we have made human progress in ethics.
- Fathers could sell daughters as slaves (Exodus 21:7).
- Children who strike either parent shall be put to death (Exodus 21:15).
- Children who insult either parent shall be put to death (Exodus 21:17; Leviticus 20:9).
- Sons who are defiant, not listening to parental demands after their discipline, shall be brought to the elders of the town, then to a public place, then be stoned after the parents make their charges (Deuteronomy 21:18-21).
- A girl found not to be a virgin after marriage shall be taken in front of her father’s house, then the men of the town shall stone her to death (Deuteronomy 22:20-21).
- A father held the right to give a daughter seduced by another man in marriage (Exodus 22:16).
- A woman of any age with a menstrual discharge is “unclean” and may not be touched until evening, etc (Leviticus 15:19-30).
- Do not come near a woman during menstruation (Leviticus 18:19).
- A male whose testicles have been crushed, or penis cut off, will not be admitted to the congregation (Deuteronomy 23:2).
- No child born out of wedlock shall be admitted to the congregation, or his descendants for ten generations (Deuteronomy 23:3).
- If foolishness “settles in the heart” of a child, the “rod of discipline will remove it” (Proverbs 22:15).
- Adults, including parents, committing adultery are to be put to death, etc (Leviticus 20:10-13; Deuteronomy 22:22).
- Fathers (presumably also mothers) are to use physical striking, even beatings, for the spiritual good of children and to “cleanse away evil” (2 Samuel 7:14; Proverbs 13:24; 20:17, 30; 22:15; 23:13-14; 29:15).
Such teachings from Jewish antiquity were obeyed literally by Jews, then later by Christians who adopted the Hebrew Bible, for thousands of years. Some still are obeyed by Jews and Christians who believe “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”
First, we must say something about corporal punishment, striking a child. Granted we parents hardly know what to do when a six-foot, 16-year old male, or female, child is cursing, striking, threatening us with death, or “calling social services if you hit me.” We know there are some persons holding authority with no sympathy even for parents with such children under their “protection” who feel, or are, forced to use self-defense.
On the other hand, striking a child almost always is unwarranted, dangerous to the child in both body, mind, and emotional development. There is a huge established medical and psychiatric body of literature addressing healthy and unhealthy discipline, coercion, behavior management, etc.
Our local child protective services, our courts, and our national news, all regularly have reports of fathers, step-fathers, and male paramours, striking, beating, choking, raping, molesting, and even murdering children of all ages. We occasionally have examples of mentally disturbed mothers who, believing all the children “were evil,” murdered them because the Bible said they should. Such conduct runs against the strongest biological instinct, that of a mother for her babies.
In all such commands, teachings, or admonitions, in the Bible, the parents make the decisions as to (1) whether a child fits the command, or (2) the degree of severity with which to striking or beating ought to be applied to “obey God.”
In all the biblical teachings, no consideration or warnings are given as preconditions to prevent (1) angry parents; (2) emotionally disturbed or mentally ill parents; or, (3) even parents with issues of jealousy against children more gifted and talents, or similar issues related to parental self-esteem, insecurity, or those unrelated in any way to child conduct.
From these grave considerations, it is our duty at Leadership Ethics Online to issue this warning:
Any person, religious or non-religious, who reads the Bible’s teachings on parenting, family values or behaviors, then obeys or uses those to inflict, or seek to inflict, psychological, emotional, spiritual, or physical harms to children, family members, or persons in society, national or international, must suffer the highest penalties permitted by criminal or civil laws.
For those who have, or do, appeal to the “separation of Church and State” as a legal excuse for any form of abuse or violence against others, in particular children, but also adults enduring abuse or harm, we say here, “You may be religious, but your allegation of your religion’s right to harm others is not to be tolerated in a civil society that values the lives of vulnerable people under your authority.”
Having issued these stern rebukes, we now begin our discussion with these final statements:
The Bible contains thousands upon thousands of indubitably healthy, reasonable, and true commands, teachings, and admonitions for personal, familial, and even social health and happiness.
To reject all these teachings because others reflect time, place, ignorance, or even abuses of power, is itself a sign of prejudice, ignorance, and perhaps, antipathy to learning anything “religious.”
Extremism can occur on the far right, and on the far left. Persons who like their own immorality will reject any source (1) calling immoral what they do; (2) showing what they do is harmful to themselves or others; or, (3) calling for individual or social changes leading to health.
Therefore, persons rejecting everything the Bible has to say (1) treat no other historical document that way; (2) make regular use of other historical sources with values different from today; and, (3) demonstrate they themselves have serious issues by such blanket rejections and contradictions.
Shall we all now breathe a sign of relief, and proceed to what originally was intended as a simple task, but which ethical instruction required? (Oh, the high price of being ethical–necessary but rather complex introductions!)
We now (1) quote two simple biblical truths, (2) reflect on them, and (3) draw forth reasonable observations and suggestions for ourselves as parents and as leaders of organizations. We begin…
Some Healthy Biblical Principles for Parenting
Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. [Proverbs 22:6]
If anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for his immediate family, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. [1 Timothy 5:8]
In the passages selected, the first one is famous among Bible readers. It has been taken as a divine promise implying their good efforts will have good effects even after they are long dead. In the second passages does not mention parents or children. Yet it is fair to say it implies also parental duties to children.
Again addressing the issue of literalism, anyone who reads the Apostle Paul, who wrote the second passage, knows it is highly doubtful he really believed that an adult who did not care for family members was worse than an unbeliever. He invested his whole post-conversion life to preaching and teaching that Jesus of Nazareth was the Jewish messiah (meshiach), which faith led to salvation and eternal life. He never ever wrote in any other place as he did in the conclusion to the second passage above.
Comments on the First Text: Lifelong Effects of Parenting
We know this is true, for we live it ourselves. Whether we have great parents, or one was great and the other we may not like to admit was not, or we were raised by caregivers who were not our biological parents, our adult lives to the day of our death are in our minds and continue to influence us. Our very experience ought to reinforce how important parenting is to us.
The first scripture text, however, claims that when we train a child in the way he or she should go, he or she will not depart from it in old age. This is a general principle, not an absolute rule. I know of real-life examples of some criminals who–based on what they did in later criminal activity, and what some said–departed from parental teaching. Yet it is a strong and reliable rule to which we should cling, for experience bears this out also. So please, keep this rule as generally true.
The first promise really probes us to ponder the nature, depths, and power of love. Love given, love received, love transferred, love implanted, is the most powerful force on the earth.
When your children present deep and painful challenges, remember your own experience. Long after loving parents are gone, even if you say and do things of which they would have been ashamed, or hurt, you still think about what “Mom and Dad would say” or the principles by which they lived and died. Their love for you still lives in you.
Claim and exercise the power of your love. Little babies and children are easy to love. Yet as the world (or even our parental mistakes) piles up negative influences they–like us–reflect them in attitudes and development. Remember the power of your love. Purify it. Strengthen it. Be diligent. Work hard against rejections of it. All your love has a power stronger than you often can see at the time.
A Personal Story of the Truth of The First Scripture
I have four children: girl, boy, girl, boy. Like you, I have many beautiful memories of these children as babies and children. I am a very good father. Their mother is a very good mother. We did, we do, all we can for each child now, and will to our dying day.
Yet individuals make choices. Of my four children, two have put themselves and others at risk driving under the influence of alcohol. Another took another risk, became pregnant and chose to become a mother (and is a very good one). This risk-taking was not learned in the home, or from parental examples. The consequences were painful to our children, and to us. We parents each did say, in our own ways, “I told you so.” However, we ourselves are sinners so we were glad to stand by our errant children; help them learn from their sins and errors; and, demonstrate unremitting, stable love. Here is what we have seen.
Though each child made serious mistakes, as time passes, we see them embrace learning, growth, and return to the values and examples taught by us. We have the great satisfaction of seeing how this scripture promise is true. This makes all the pain, struggles, fortitude, and difficulties of remaining loving, all worth it. Did it happen overnight? No. But did it happen? Yes, it is happening. Still, we continue to pray for them–and for ourselves, and for others outside our family circle with similar issues.
Why Love Matters
I have read much on the subject of love in all disciplines, but I cite two child psychiatrists for your attention: Sue Gerhardt and Bruce Perry.
Gerhardt’s book, Why Love Matters, is an excellent short exposition of its title. She discusses how important parental or caregiver love is to the healthy growth of the brain, emotional and cognitive processing, and later socialization into healthy adults. She is British, so her work includes her knowledge of what is happening in that nation as well as ours. This is a handy little introduction to basic subjects. You will find it useful for yourself, and for parental discussion groups.
Dr. Bruce Perry is an expert in child trauma, and healthy parenting. I came across his very fine work back in 2004. I strongly recommend readers go to his website, www.childtrauma.org, and his book, Born for Love. Bruce deserves your fullest attention, diligent study, and support in any way you can. He combines technical, detailed knowledge of the growing brain of the child and demonstrates with medical evidence how love is essential for healthy, whole, well-adjusted human beings. Dr. Perry is an elegant, warm crusader on behalf of children: to prevent harm, and to intervene against it with healing.
As the two psychiatrists above prove, our biological nature and the evidence of neuroscientific knowledge should be sufficient to convince us of our parental duties to love our children. However, our society does much to erode and displace our instinctual powers for love. Our emphases on money, materialism, and ethical egoism threaten the very future of our society and nation.
First Be a Leader in Your Family
If biological instinct and its inner call to duty as loving parents often is overpowered, the second scripture for our reflections puts parents love in the context of faith. If biology is weakened by environmental forces, for theists the call to remember God’s expectations may reinforce parental duties to love children and family. For atheists and skeptics, the text still bears its own truth. We know instinctively we have duties to our basic biological unit, our family.
If you are a CEO, CFO, etc, you have risen into your current position through skills proving your worthiness. You know the demands of your office. Some around or above you actually expect you to put your organization above any other priority. If you have been deceived or deluded into making your career more important than your children, or your spouse, stop the deception and delusion.
After all the career achievements have ended, and you face the end of your life, you will realize how important your children, spouse, and friends are. Live so you make them your first priority now, not out of selfish anticipation you will need them, but because they need your love now.
Shaping Your Child’s Morals and Ethics By Example
There is an old saying, “What you are doing is so loud I cannot hear what you are saying.” You can read and quote the Bible. You can read and quote books on love. You can read and memorize all the moral codes and rules. Ideas, values and principles are mere husks, empty unless filled up with living and loving persons.
Now merely doing things also is not a living example of love. You may change your work schedule. You may attend every child’s event. You may take the child out and spend great sums on clothing, gifts, lessons, and hobbies. Many people mistakenly see such activities as “proofs” of love.
Let’s get real. If your company pays you well, gives awards and plaques, etc, does that mean you are loved? Some persons at work may love you, some perhaps better than your own kin ought to love you.
Yet there is nothing comparable to going home tired, and having your spouse or children hug you, and mean it, because they want to hug the one they love so much. You say, “But I do not get this at home” or “I wish you were correct.” Start loving them more, now. They need you. They will respond to more love from you by loving you more.
Be the living embodiment of a love that is unremitting, consistent, reliable, even when they are testy, self-centered, and preoccupied. Ignore what they do. YOU may be responsible, partly, for their current conditions. YOU have it in your power today to invest, and reinvest, new examples of living love in them.
They will notice. They may even question the changes. Tell them the truth. “I love you. I am recommitting to you to love you better than yesterday.” They may even be skeptical, if you have cultivated a long history of career preoccupation, or even self-centeredness.
Over time–and it may not take much time at all, if they are starved for your real love–all your work will be rewarded. Your children, and your spouse, will respond in more love. They will become more loving to others. You will be building in them the fruits of pleasures that will sustain you in old age. You will be building in them healthy love that will live after you are gone.
Leading at Home Makes You Better at Work
Becoming a loving parent and member of your family makes you more effective at work. You awaken happier. You go to work happier. You have deep emotional resilience during the day. You have more to give others at work. You produce more quality and quantity at work. Living in love has so many benefits you really will not be able to count them all. But I hope you will be intentional in noticing those changes and pleasures.
There is a scripture that says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). For Christians, the love of God is seen and experienced through Jesus Christ, the incarnation of divine love. How interesting it is that a theological statement about the nature of God also concurs with what we know about human nature! To love is to exist in one’s nature. To love God back–the One who gave life and breath–is also natural. I hope you know God, as I do.
We began by noting some Hebrew scriptures that were inappropriate for ethical teaching. However, I directly challenge you, Readers, to go deep into both the Hebrew Bible as well as the New Testament for great riches in ethical teaching. The atheist, Sam Harris, loves to ridicule the Bible, picking up some of the old criticisms used for centuries. However, be wiser than the skeptics and atheists.
Be braver and bolder. For if you will take the time to go deep into the Bible, there you will find more than rich ethics. You will find gentle whisperings of the God who created you, and who loves you. Love God back!, and be a great parent!