Parenting as Discipleship

The title of this Reflection may surprise some, especially parents. You may be wondering, “what on earth has parenting to do with discipleship?

We often associate discipleship with the Navigators, Campus Crusade or IDMC (Intentional Disciple-making Church), or think of it in terms of an older, mature Christian mentoring younger ones. The mission of many churches has discipleship as a key element. Mine (The Bible Church, Singapore) has it explicitly stated: To glorify God by being disciples in a disciple-making community of Jesus Christ.

But parenting as discipleship? Hmm. Disciplining our children, certainly; but discipling them? What does it mean? How do I do that?

The words, “disciple” and “discipline” stem from a common Latin root, discipulus, meaning “learner.” A world renown child psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim (Austrian-born American), underscores the theme of “learning through an intimate personal relationship.” In parent-child relationships, he argues: “discipline (an area many parents seek input in) should be understood not as punishment but as ‘teaching self-discipline, an internalization of values based on a relationship of discipleship. This kind of teaching is done by example, not by coercion or force.’”

An implication is that parents who think of discipline in terms of punishment or behavioral control are focusing on primarily what the child is doing. The pragmatic goal is finding a way to stop the behavior. Parents who think in terms of discipleship, however, will focus more on what their child is learning in relationship to them. Thus, parents must learn to see the educative goal which underlies an externally-imposed discipline.

Even if a disciplinary action gets children to comply, they may not have learned what parents would wish. For example, consider the father who shouts and sends his son to his room for hitting his baby sister. The immediate goal of stopping the hitting may be achieved, but what has the boy learned?

The father probably wants his son to internalize the value that hitting is wrong. However, unless he intentionally considers how best to teach this lesson, the child may learn instead such lessons as, “It’s OK for dad to shout and be angry but not me,” or even, “he likes her better than me.” To put discipline in the discipleship context requires that parents thoughtfully consider what unintentional lessons their children are learning from them and how they might be more intentional about their teaching.

A 2nd aspect of “parenting as discipleship” focuses on the aspect of modeling. This motif is appropriate in the light of the New Testament call for us to imitate Christ. Our Lord knew His disciples intimately, lived with their weaknesses and failures, and provided them with a living example of what He taught. Discipleship is not simply the reproduction of behaviors. It is the ordering of one’s entire life, and thus also one’s conduct, on the basis of a presupposed relationship.

Bettelheim further states: “The idea of discipleship implies not just the learning of specific skills and facts but acquiring these from a master in whose image one wishes to form oneself because one admires this individual’s work and life. This usually involves sustained, close personal contact, one’s personality being formed under the impact of the other.” In the same way, children orient their lives according to deep personal relationships with their parents.

In that context, they learn not only skills and facts, but behavioral limits, values, perceptions of self and others, and how to deal with emotions. Discipleship calls on parents to set the pace, knowing that our children are most likely to absorb the values they see lived out in our lives. We can teach them skills, but we need to show, not tell, when it comes to what we say is important.

How can (intentional) learning and modeling take place? The simple (and yet not so simple!) answer is … making time for our children! There is just no cut to this. Speaking as a fellow-parent (not an expert), I cannot but reiterate that parenting is a process of a day-to-day interaction with our children. It has very little to do with techniques or methods or know-how.

Here’s something to deliberate further from a favorite author of mine (Paul Tournier): “The time that a mother or even more so a father gives to his children – the walks he takes with them, the explanation he gives on nature, on his own life, his confidences – these are the priceless gifts whose memory forever remains engrained as the most beautiful of all childhood.”

As a parent then, discipleship is not optional. Your children are your disciples, for better or for worse. You will teach, by word or example, through every interaction you have with them, whether you do so intentionally or not.

Parenting as discipleship is also in the context of our discipleship to Christ. This is a humbling reminder that we must first be disciples of Christ, and that parenting is but a dim reflection of God’s (loving, yet firm) treatment of us.

[PS: Not to worry – as a discipling parent you don’t have to wear baggy tunics and leather sandals (unless you want to!). You don’t have to trade in your MPV or SUV, Mers or Lexus for a pair of donkeys. Discipleship isn’t just for 1st century Christians of the Middle East. It is for high-tech urban and sub-urban families who have never seen a camel or a donkey!]