In interpreting Ephesians 5:21-6:9, egalitarians argue that the gospel erases hierarchical lines between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female. All are equal before Christ. All mutually submit to one another. And this makes sense — what qualitative difference do Jews have over Gentiles to make them spiritually superior? What do men have over women, or one adult over another?
But in the middle of all these adult equals, Paul addresses the parent/child relationship: “Children, obey your parents. Fathers, do not exasperate your children.”
Does the gospel change the nature of the parent/child relationship? Does it, in fact, elevate children to the level of equals, tearing down the authoritative hierarchy between parent and child?
I’ve thought about this. It makes no sense that the gospel would leave the parent/child relationship unaffected and untransformed, but children as equals to their parents? The parent/child relationship is the only relationship out of the three that Paul addresses here where there is a qualitative difference between the two parties.
Adults possess more wisdom and experience, and are explicitly charged with guiding their children. Children eat Tide pods, leave their chores undone, and get caught up in peer pressure. Due to their immaturity, children cannot stand alone as equals in the way a slave or a wife can. How could the gospel break down the hierarchy of parent over child in a way that still allows a parent to fully guide, care, and take responsibility for their children?
After thinking about this, I would argue that egalitarian parenting ought to treat the parent/child relationship how complementarians explain their marriages: equals with different roles, with the parents laying down their lives in service to their children and children receiving the instruction and guidance of their parents, all under the higher guidance of God.
Let me provide a contrasting example first.
A Non-Egalitarian Approach: Authoritarian Parenting
In many so-called “Biblical” parenting paradigms, the point of parenting is maintaining a strict hierarchy — even without using those exact words. Parents are unquestioningly at the top, dispensing their views and desires. Children are unquestioningly at the bottom, obeying their parents’ every word as law and meeting their parents’ every desire.
In this paradigm, the key virtues of childhood are instant, cheerful, unquestioning obedience, and respect and honor toward parents. “Because I said so” is a valid and often-repeated justification for whatever the parent requests. There is no recourse for the child beyond that — no appeal to reason, emotion, or another authority. Parents are further encouraged to make their word law and be consistent, even if their initial demand was unreasonable. After all, the point is maintaining an appearance of control at all costs.
Parents train children to come on command. Defiance or disrespect are the worst of all offenses, punishable by painful and humiliating strikes across the buttocks or other shaming tactics. Parents are encouraged to hit the defiant child until her will breaks. “Talking back,” whining, even trying to explain one’s point of view — any emotion or communication that doesn’t show cheerful compliance — is not allowed, and also qualifies a child for any sort of painful, embarrassing, or harsh punishment the parent deems necessary.
According to this parenting model, children owe parents respect and honor simply because their parents are their parents. No matter how unreasonable, unkind, or even unlawful their parents’ actions may be, children are required to respond with superhuman respect. Natural feelings of frustration, injustice, fear, or hurt are interpreted as disrespect and a threat to the parents’ authority. Maintaining the hierarchical system is what’s important here — the system of parental authority and a child’s compliance is what produces happy, well-regulated, respectful adults, regardless of the way that system is implemented or maintained.
Since the desired outcome of this parenting style is the maintenance and adherence to a strict hierarchical system, parents view their children’s actions as a direct commentary on their parenting. Since controlling another human being is impossible without utterly breaking her spirit, this inspires a constant, fearful insecurity in one’s parenting that shames parents. It also justifies even stronger reactions to their child’s misbehavior, since parents are told that their child’s behavior is something well within a parents’ control.
If their children are for the most part obedient and respectful, they feel that they have succeeded in parenting and take the credit for raising well-behaved kids. If their children struggle with emotional outbursts, defiance, or rebellion (whether real or perceived), parents feel like failures. With their own reputation at stake, parents often find amusement and vindication in seeing their child as embarrassed, disrespected, or hurt as they feel.
Even if parents feel inclined to give themselves or their kids a more generous pass, critics will blame and shame parents when their children throw tantrums in the grocery store or can’t sit still in church. And parents dare not justify these breaches of obedience with reasons like, “She was tired and hungry.” It’s expected that parents keep their children reined in and respectful at all times, no exceptions, no excuses.
It’s no wonder that many children under these hierarchical rules experience abuse of all kinds and sometimes even death. And many parents feel frustrated, defeated, and inadequate due to the impossible demands of breaking the spirit of individual little humans who have their own reasons, opinions, and feelings.
I would argue that this hierarchical structure of parenting is the most predominant understanding of the parent/child relationship today. It might take the more extreme forms of come-when-I-whistle servitude, but it most often appears as “common sense” parenting that interprets most misbehavior as disrespect, which only a strong parental hand (that is, shame, punishment, and spanking) can break.
If you take a look at some of these images, you’ll see what I mean:
This isn’t to say that respect isn’t a virtue or that children shouldn’t listen to their parents. But just as complementarians zero in on “wives, submit to your husbands” and interpret “husbands, love your wives” as authority over their wives, this hierarchical view of parenting is all “children, obey your parents” and no “fathers, do not exasperate your children.”
If we look at child development, we’ll see that many of the underlying assumptions about and responses to children and their (mis)behavior often exasperate children. I’ve used my research into child development and the theology of relationships to craft a new, egalitarian paradigm of parenting.
Toward an Egalitarian Understanding of Parenting
In egalitarian parenting, children are fundamentally human and thus entitled to the same respect, understanding, and influence adults accord to other adults. This is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and respectful parenting: while respectful parents do guide with authority, they do so not to maintain a hierarchy but to help children regulate their emotions and actions in accordance with their own beliefs and interests.
Instead of demanding unquestioning obedience, egalitarian parents foster self-regulation. This is the ultimate virtue of egalitarian parenting: self-regulation. This allows space for children’s questions, explanations, and differing opinions. This allows for parents to be wrong and children to be right about their own experiences and emotions. In short, the pursuit of self-regulation allows children to be independent of their parents rather than reflections or servants of their parents.
Since children intrinsically deserve the same sort of respect that adults do, egalitarian parenting requires the parent to follow every command in Scripture about interacting with other humans: doing unto others as we would have them do to us, responding to anger with gentle words, outdoing one another in showing honor, living with understanding, being patient with the weaker ones among us, responding with blessing when we are wronged instead of revenge.
Egalitarian parenting decriminalizes children’s — and parents’! — misbehavior. The parent/child relationship is a relationship dependent on mutual respect, not on an authoritative system to obey. This means that if a child loses her temper and shouts, “I hate you!” at her mother, the damage is relational and requires a relational — not a punitive — response.
What do we do when an adult loses her cool and says something you know she doesn’t mean? We maintain our cool. We deescalate the situation. We calmly and firmly express our hurt and/or walk away from the situation if we’re getting upset ourselves. We model the kind of behavior we want the other person to emulate, and eventually, ashamed, the other person calms down, apologizes, and the conversation often gets at the heart of what’s really going on.
And if we do respond back in anger and shout something equally rude? Well, in egalitarian parenting, we’re not trying to maintain an impossible facade of rigid authority. Our authority is maintained by mutual, organic respect, not imposed obedience, which means we can apologize or change our minds if we said something unkind or issued a consequence that isn’t fair, and not worry that our children will lose respect for us.
This relieves a huge burden from the parents’ shoulders: they are not responsible for controlling their children, an impossible task. They are merely responsible for controlling their own behavior and maintaining their own end of the relationship — a powerful, magnetic force that draws wayward children into better ways of behaving.
Egalitarian parenting isn’t passive parenting, however. In a relationship of equals, personal boundaries are key. Parents are allowed to be human and to set their own boundaries when they’re tired, annoyed, hurt, or inconvenienced. If a toddler continues to hit his mother, the mother is fully within her right to set the toddler down and walk away until he can use gentler hands. If a teenager refuses to be responsible with her tasks, her father is fully within his right to not save her from the consequences — unwashed clothes, a messy room, missed deadlines. But the consequences are natural, not punitive, and not meant to reestablish a parent’s hierarchical authority over their child or shame their child into compliance.
Again, this is the key difference between authoritarian parenting and egalitarian parenting: any consequence or parental response is meant to aid the child in regulating herself and restoring their relationship, not reminding the child who’s boss and wrestling them into begrudging compliance. In egalitarian parenting, parents are not maintaining a hierarchical system. They are maintaining a mutually respectful relationship where parents seek to serve and build up the child into mature independence.
In another post, I will break down some typical examples of authoritarian parenting and suggest more egalitarian, respectful ways to firmly and compassionately handle children’s undesirable behavior.