Are you a legalistic parent?

I sure hope you’re not! And I’m pretty sure you hope you’re not one, too! None of us wants to be legalistic. Most of you reading my blog l want great, authentic and God-honouring relationships with your kids.

This week I’ve been talking about legalism–being in a legalistic church; having a legalistic view of marriage. But nowhere can legalism hurt more than in our parenting.

I think the reason that so many of us veer that way is because we’re taught in church that children are bad and they need to be taught how to be good. So kids are seen as these evil creatures that will get out of hand if we don’t teach them to obey.

But while it’s true that we are all born in original sin, it’s also true that we’re all created in the image of God. And, honestly, I think kids are pretty great! The person who has done the most research into this, though, isn’t actually me. It’s my daughter Rebecca, whose book Why I Didn’t Rebel came out last October. She looked at what parenting practices were most likely to result in kids having a genuine and authentic relationship with Christ, and which ones would push them away.

And one of the commonalities that pushed kids away? Legalism in our parenting! When we focus on the outward rather than the inward, we cause a lot of problems.

The good news? It’s actually pretty easy to solve. So I’ve asked Rebecca to join us today and share a few quick signs that you’re moving towards legalism–and some quick ways to come back to authentic relationship!

How do you tell if you’re a legalistic parent?

Like my mom said earlier, I did a ton of research when I was writing my book, Why I Didn’t Rebel, and I found that legalistic parenting styles that seemed to follow a lot of popular Christian teaching actually made kids less likely to follow God, and more likely to rebel!

So how do you make sure you’re NOT being a legalistic parent? I’ve put together 6 of the common differences for you to see where your parenting style falls:

Legalistic Parent: 6 signs you're being too strict and not focusing on character issues.

1. Legalistic parents focus on obedience; non-legalistic parents focus on character.

When a kid does something wrong, how is the behavior framed?

  • If the child is late for dinner when they were called, was the problem that they put their own wants over other peoples’ schedules, or that they were disobedient?
  •  If a child didn’t clean their room, what’s the real issue? That they didn’t live up to their responsibilities, or that they were disobedient?
  • If a child won’t play with a sibling, is the problem that your child is being unloving, or that they are being disobedient?

In other words, are you addressing character issues, or just getting your kids to do what you say?

What is the lesson you really want your child to learn here? Because if the lesson is “do what mommy says,” that isn’t going to help them when you’re not around. The goal isn’t obedience–the goal is the ability to make good decisions. Teaching obedience is part of that, but it’s not the final goal.

2. Legalistic parents can’t be questioned; non-legalistic parents are excited by questions.

“Why do we have to go to church every Sunday? Sammy gets to sleep in!” isn’t a question that should be punished–it’s an opportunity for conversation (and a really amazing one at that!)

Legalistic parents get frightened or angry at questions that counter their belief systems. Non-legalistic parents get excited because it gives them an opportunity to talk to their kids about the important things.

3. Legalistic parents often don’t have reasons for their rules; non-legalistic parents will throw out a rule if it doesn’t make sense to them.

In legalistic families, kids can rattle off all the rules that their parents have. And often the rules don’t make sense (or at least haven’t been explained). They can’t always answer, “Why?” if someone asks why they have to follow a certain rule. Their parents use the phrase “because I said so,” or “because I’m the parent.”

Non-legalistic families, however, see rules as “guidelines” more than laws set in stone. If a kid questions a rule and has a good reason for why he or she shouldn’t have to follow it, the parents are happy to throw out that rule. For example, when I was growing up we had a no video-chatting with boys rule. But then I met some people who lived in the US, that rule got scratched because it wasn’t fair that I couldn’t talk to my friends (and my parents knew they were good guys, too!).

4. Legalistic parents won’t give up control, even in petty issues; non-legalistic parents try to find a middle ground.

Legalistic parents see arguments as power-struggles; it is paramount that they never give in or apologize, because they might lose control. Most fights are very heated and the child walks away not feeling heard.

Non-legalistic parents, on the other hand, don’t try to control their kids. Instead, they voice their concerns, fears, and hopes for their child and hear their child’s point of view. The goal is to come to a decision together–not tell their kid what they must do.

5. Legalistic parents focus on punishment; non-legalistic parents focus on discipline.

Punishment is about adding something negative that makes the child sorry for what he or she has done. Excessive spanking, groundings, or heaping on punishment after punishment for minor infractions like not cleaning their room, for example, would fall in this category.

Non-legalistic families rarely, if ever, punish. Instead, they discipline. Discipline is about teaching kids what to do instead, and doesn’t heap on excess hardship, but allows kids to feel the natural repercussions of what they did.

They didn’t clean their room? Well, then they have to clean their room and the living room later because they inconvenienced others by leaving their smelly socks all over the house. Texted more than their plan included? They have to pay for the balance themselves. Wouldn’t hurry and come when they needed to leave the house and made sister late for a party? Then they have to do sister’s chores the next day. They stole time from her, so now they have to give it back. (My mom’s got a great article on 10 alternatives to spanking that lists a ton of ways to give consequences rather than punishments!).

6. Legalistic parents don’t allow their kids to make their own decisions; non-legalistic parents encourage personal responsibility.

Legalistic parents control their children’s decisions because they are afraid their kids will make mistakes. They’re scared, so they clamp down. What will people think? Do we have it all together? What if it all goes wrong?

Non-legalistic parents, on the other hand, have faith that their kids can make good decisions and so encourage personal responsibility. If their child does something wrong, it doesn’t cause an identity crisis for the parent. These parents use the teenage years to train their kids to make good decisions on their own and take responsibility for their actions–not just do what they’re told.

The common thread here is the focus on inward character rather than outward behaviour. Legalistic parents try to make sure the child conforms to expectations and to rules. Non-legalistic parents try to help the child develop inner character so that he or she can make good decisions all alone!

What would you add to this list? Did you grow up in a legalistic or non-legalistic family? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!

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