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Is Gentle Parenting Biblical? An Open Letter from a Dad to Dads

This is an open letter to dads who are in the midst of parenting. Your job as leader and shepherd, provider and protector of your family is incredibly important.

In Ephesians 6:4, God addresses us as fathers. Fathers, do not exasperate your children but bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. 
 
It is true that moms are some of the most important and hardest working disciple-makers the church has. They bring unique strengths we as men don’t have. But even as Scripture calls women to be the primary heart-makers of our children, we as men are called to lead our households well (1 Tim. 3:4-5).  We are ultimately responsible before God for the direction we go and the policies we implement as a family.
 
For that reason, this letter is addressed from a man to men. It is a call for you to lead and shepherd your family well. I’m writing to warn you about a pernicious teaching that may threaten your family in the future. It travels under the label of gentle parenting.
 
Gentle Parenting
What is gentle parenting? It is both a popular philosophy sweeping the country and hard to define exactly.  It has been made popular by books like Gentle Discipline, by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, founder of GentleParentingInternational.com and Good Inside, by Dr. Becky Kennedy. 
 
What seems to have confused Christians is that there are a few applications that all of us might find helpful. For example:

  • There is an emphasis on building a heart connection with your child. This isn’t just building closeness, but also getting to the source of a behavior (or pattern of behavior). 
  • We want to attack the problem, not the person, and partner to solve problem together.
  • Parenting is to be with a goal in mind, instead of managing (or reacting to) behaviors.
  • We do not want to parent from anger.

While these ideas are good, they also depend upon the age of the child. I seek to build deeper heart connections as my children grow older. We work to solve problems together as they move into the preteen and teen years. 

While gentle parenting is difficult to define, I continue to hear about numerous unwise applications. Practically it means moms negotiating with their three or four-year-old. It also means a refusal to implement any sort of direct commands or negative consequences. And even further it means so strongly disagreeing with other philosophies so as to leave a church.  Unfortunately, gentle parents tend to have not so gentle (e.g. wild) kids. Why? Because underneath this style of parenting are unbiblical foundational ideas. 
 
For example, Danielle Sullivan, a parenting coach and host of the Neurodiverging Podcast based in Lafayette, Colorado states, “Gentle parenting, also known as collaborative parenting, is a style of parenting where parents do not compel children to behave by means of punishment or control, but rather use connection, communication, and other democratic methods to make decisions together as a family.” 
 
Dr. Becky Kennedy writes, “Let me share an assumption I have about you and your kids: you are all good inside. When you call your child ‘a spoiled brat,’ you are still good inside. When your child denies knocking down his sister’s block tower (even though you watched it happen), he is still good inside. And when I say ‘good inside,’ I mean that we all, at our core, are compassionate, loving, and generous. The principle of internal goodness drives all my work. . .”

One would think that such obvious anti-biblical ideas would set off alarms for those who follow Christ and believe the Bible. Bernard Howard wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition that is even more accepting than I would be but still points out the significant wrong thinking. Instead of agreeing with this, The Christian Post reported that the article “sparked debate” among “Christian parenting experts.”
 
A Half-Truth
The late J.I. Packer famously said, “A half-truth masquerading as a whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” This is exactly what gentle parenting is – many deceptive half-truths presenting themselves as whole truths making their way into the church through loving moms.
 
Let’s examine some of the ways this teaching is harmful.

1. It prevents us from affirming a full understanding of sin. “Our children are good inside” we are told. The Bible would affirm that our children are precious to us and God. They are made in his image. Sin has not had as much time to develop as in adults. Children are held up in Scripture as examples of trust (Luke 18:16-17). However, they are also examples of ignorance and instability (Eph. 4:14, 1 Cor. 14:20 ). Children, like all of us, are both made in God’s image and sinful. Children, like all of us, want to go their own way and don’t want anyone else to rule them (Is 53:6). Children, like all of us, are sinful and need a Savior.
 
2. It prevents us from calling our children to obey us and honor us. In Ephesians 6:1-3, God says that children are to obey and honor their parents. Who said that? God. What does he say to your children? Honor and obey Mom and Dad. A child obeying his parents pleases the Lord (Col. 3:20).  If God commands children to obey, then it means they can obey and they should obey. And if they should obey, that means that it is OK for parents to wisely give commands and have house rules.

Our goal as parents is to lovingly train our children in obedience. That is “bringing them up in the training of the Lord.”  God calls our children to submit to our loving authority. God’s way is not “collaborative parenting.” As our children grow older we will certainly seek their input. But in the end, our home is a loving, caring, kind, thoughtful dictatorship. We are the parents. 

If we believe our children are fragile and we will mess them up if we don’t listen to their feelings, then we will be hesitant to require obedience.  But the truth is that our children come messed up already. They have sin on the hard drive of their heart. Filled with love, the way we call them out of their natural self-centeredness is by training them to love and obey us.  

3. It prevents us from imposing painful discipline. We are told many things around this point. “Since they are inherently good we collaborate or distract.” For the Christian, so-called parenting experts have added another lie: “Since Jesus took our punishment and God wants us to treat our children the way he treats us, we don’t punish.” I assume they are better parents than theologians because at best this is a misunderstanding. At worst, it is conflagration of two unlike things. 

Their view (and the growing view of other naive parents) simply does not match the way God our Father treats us nor how we should love our children. God’s goodness and his use of pain for his children are not mutually exclusive. Hebrews makes clear that a human father imitates his heavenly Father by using painful consequences to train a child in righteous living (Hebrews 12:7). And the result of properly applied negative consequences is peace. Proverbs, on the other hand, says a child left to himself will disgrace his mother and father (Prov. 29:15). Jesus himself shows us what true love is and states,  “Those whom I love I rebuke and I discipline” (Rev. 3:19). When some argue that Jesus has taken our punishment therefore we should not punish, they forget that God first placed his son, Israel, under the law. The law prepared the way for Christ (Gal. 3:24). Similarly the “laws” of our home help our children realize their need for a Savior.

Gentle parenting equates loving and negative consequences to train with harsh punishment. Harsh punishment as revenge is wrong. Negative consequences to train is right.
 
A False Dichotomy
Perhaps the biggest untruth is in the title – Gentle Parenting. Gentle in contrast to what? Implied is that gentle parenting is in contrast to harsh parenting or punitive parenting.
 
Of course, Christians are called to be gentle. Gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Harshness should have no place in a Christian family. But this title obscures the full biblical truth.  
 
What type of parenting has a correct biblical balance? Biblical parenting is about authority and affection. Those two qualities are seen throughout the Scripture as they relate to our heavenly Father. Even sociological studies have shown these types of homes nurture children who flourish. These are homes where there is high warmth and there is high authority. The children know they are loved and they know they need to obey Mom and Dad.
 
Dads, Shepherd Your Family
The reason I write this to men, and not to women, is because the deceptiveness of this teaching plays on the strength of the women we love. Paul, describing himself, speaks of the motherly love he showed the Thessalonians. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children (1 Thes. 2:7).  However, just a few verses later he recalled how he treated them as a father. For you know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to walk in a manner worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory (1 Thes. 2:11-12). Did you notice the contrast in Paul’s mind? He was merely assuming what we all know. In general, mothers and fathers tend to relate to their children in complementary ways. Both are important. Neither is dispensable.
 
Unfortunately the lies of gentle parenting imitate the satanic strategy of Genesis 3. The devil spoke half-truths to Eve while Adam stood passively by (Gen. 3:6). As a result, the human family fell into sin.
 
Men, don’t let this happen in your family. Do not passively delegate the parenting philosophy to your wife. Though she is your greatest helper, you are to lead your family. Ultimately, you and I will stand before the Lord as to whether we shepherded our family well.  Get biblical teaching on the family and on parenting. And while valuing your wife’s great contribution, stand against this destructive teaching.

Blessings on your family discipleship. 

Want to think more about this topic?


1. Read Chapter 7, Preparing Your Children for the Gospel, in The Disciple-Making Parent. Or listen to those chapters on the free audiobook. Email us here to get your free audiobook if you don’t already have it. 

2. Listen to these short (5-8 minutes) podcasts on our audioblog.
– Kids Need Both Affection and Authority – An explanation of the twin principles of how a godly home is high on affection and high on authority.  Apple Spotify
– Is Something Missing in Our Gospel-Parenting?  – A further elaboration on the need for “law” in the home before “grace.”  Apple Spotify

3. Check out these other posts on 
– TGC on Gentle Parenting – A deeper dive into this topic. The author is more sympathetic than I am.
– A Negative Response to that article.- The quotations by Christians will help you see how far this has penetrated into the church.

4. Order Parenting with Confidence. This is our parenting foundations material that spells out these ideas in more detail. We give away the videos for free when your purchase the workbook. Order it for yourself or your small group. Click here to see sample videos or to order.