Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Awaken Their Hearts

My husband and I were listening to the Christian radio station today. He mentioned that he did not much like Third Day because the lead musician sounds like he is trying to copy the lead musician in Creed. This is a matter of opinion, of course, but my hubby and I don't care for most Christian music: to us it sounds canned, like food that was once tasty but has been processed so much that it has lost its original flavor. And that leads to the question: If we Christians have been redeemed, given a new heart; if our relationship with our Creator has been restored, then why does our music sound like yesterday's leftovers? Shouldn't we Christians, restored human beings, be the ones creating new and beautiful songs? Forgive me for saying this, but I think that Christian literature is canned also (though there are some exceptions). It seems to me that for so many Christians, their creativity, their sense of self, their ability to stand out in a crowd as something unique and indeed, a reflection of the divine, is masked, smothered somehow.

Where do we develop our sense of self? I believe that our sense of self develops as we grow from babyhood into adulthood, and is greatly influenced by our families, because, let's face it, no matter what sort of personality we have, we begin life looking up to the people who clothe and feed us. If family so influences the way we think about ourselves, it is vital that parents step back from their parenting practices, and take a long, hard look at what those practices are communicating to their children. If you observe most recommended Christian parenting practices today, you might be surprised to discover a secular influence: behavioral psychology. Now, this sad fact is laughable in some ways because most Christian parenting gurus scoff at modern psychology, citing it as the reason why parents choose not to spank, and therefore have hell-bent children (though I do see psychology, the study of the mind, as important, I do find it ironic that Christian parenting is so reliant on one "stream" of psychological thought).

Let me share with you some of the tenants of behaviorism as found on a web article by Saul Mcleod, a psychology lecturer at Wigan and Leigh College ( 

  • Behaviourism is primarily concerned with observable behaviour, as opposed to internal events like thinking.
  • Behaviour is the result of stimulus – response (i.e. all behaviour, no matter how complex, can be reduced to a simple stimulus – response features).
  • Behaviour is determined by the environment (e.g. conditioning).
Behavior is the result of stimulus...hmmm....doesn't this sound like Christian parenting instruction? Reward good behavior, punish negative behavior. Follow this formula,and, lo and behold, you will have a good person, a quality kid. Oh, and just for good measure, use a few poetic Proverbs (wise sayings) literally, apply them as promises, and you have the perfect parenting philosophy, one that teaches that if you punish your children when they misbehave, with the rod, they will be saved from eternal punishment.

The problem is, however, that the core of the behaviorist approach is decidedly anti-biblical. Here are two central tenants of behaviorism(quoted from Saul Mcleod):

People have no free will – a person’s environment determines their behavior

When born our mind is 'tabula rasa
' (a blank slate).

This is absolutely NOT what the Bible teaches. The Bible teaches that all our innermost parts were formed in our mother's wombs. The Bible teaches that we all inherited a nature from Adam that is messed up, bound to sin; but it also teaches that each person is given a will, the ability to make choices. If the foundation of so much Christian parenting philosophy is behaviorism, then we need to take a fresh look at our parenting techniques, and ask whether or not they are truly biblical.

Did you know that behaviorist techniques are used, effectively, to train animals? If you are trying to teach your dog to sit, for example, you will reward him with a bone each time he sits, until he learns to sit on command. Interestingly, as I have mentioned before, science now shows that punishments should not be used to train animals, as it will cause them to lose heart and become angry. The problem with using behaviorism on people is that it deals only with outward behavior. There is a sad misconception among many Christians that if they force their children to comply with their commands, then it will also change their children's hearts.

Let me take a shot at explaining what behaviorist techniques do to a child raised in a Christian home. Christian parents use God's law as their standard of right and wrong behavior (nothing wrong with that). The problem arises here: children are externally motivated to do right and to avoid doing wrong. They learn, early on, to only behave in an acceptable manner. If you, as an adult, knew that someone would inflict pain on you when you did something he/she did not want you to do, wouldn't you avoid the pain-inflicting behavior at all costs? So, when we look at the externals, it would appear that we are creating model citizens by applying behaviorist techniques. Again, the problem arises because behaviorism can only deal with the externals. 

As Christians, we believe that children are born with a soul, with a personality, an identity, unique to them. They are also born with a sin nature, though in the Bible children themselves are never labeled as "devils" or as "ugly rotten sinners" who need to have the sin beaten out of them. When we reward our children for "good" behavior and punish them for "bad" behavior, we are not getting rid of the "bad" behavior; we are forcing it underground. Our children, like us, will at times experience jealousy, greed, selfishness and envy, etc. By punishing the outward expression of these inward vices, we are teaching our children to hide them, to pretend that they do not struggle with things. We are teaching them that they are good as long as they behave well. We are also instilling a deep shame and self-loathing in them, for they know that though they do not outwardly display certain behaviors and feelings, they experience them within. The only way they know, then, to deal with these things, is to mentally flog, berate and shame themselves. They inwardly yell, "I'm so stupid! I hate myself! Why can't I do better?"

These children are not offered the freedom that comes with knowing Christ, with understanding that He came to make their hearts new, clean, free of charge. Their parents teach them the gospel, but the children have been instilled with a lethal dose of shame, believing that at their core, they are evil, worthy of the worst of punishments. The children struggle to grasp the truth that when they put their trust in Christ's death and resurrection on their behalf, they are given a new, perfect, clean identity because they believe that their very personalities, their selves, designed in them by God, are ugly and wretched. If you believed this way, wouldn't you struggle to express yourself creatively? If you believed that you, at the core, are wretched, wouldn't you have trouble knowing who you are; wouldn't you, indeed, try very hard not to even find out who you are? After all, your parents carefully trained you to only display the side of you that was acceptable to them. You were shaped by your parents as though you were a tabula rasa, a blank slate waiting to be written on. The only truth you know about yourself is what you have been trained to believe, which is really that you are a disgusting, vile person who deserves punishment.

What if God was a behaviorist? This is how the Garden of Eden would have looked: God would have told Adam and Eve that if they touched the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then he would spank them hard enough to really hurt. He would have used fear of punishment to keep Adam and Eve away from something that would, indeed, harm them and the entire human race. Would it have worked? More than likely. But God gave man free will. He wanted man to follow Him by choice; not because he was forced to. He wanted man to be internally motivated to choose Him; not externally. 

Forgive me if I am making too great a leap, but I suspect that many Christian children grow into adults who, believing their very selves to be evil, hide those selves, failing to realize that God designed their unique personalities. At the cross, he freed them from the influence of sin, thus enabling them to freely express their true selves, which are not, and never were, evil. 

As Christian parents, it is our challenge to discover who the unique person God created our child to be is; to awaken the core of them, to inspire them to be who they are free of shame. Yes, we call sin sin. Yes, we teach our children God's law. But we do not label our children as evil; we do not teach them to hide themselves in fear of retribution, as though they are somehow too ugly for us to accept free of charge.  We do not teach them to cower in shame whey the do wrong, because, indeed, Jesus has died for them, to redeem and restore them. God, after all, made no mistakes when He created them as the individuals that they are; punishment instills a child with a deep sense of shame and a desire to hide any part of her/himself that may be unacceptable. Perhaps, if our children grow up without shame, they will more freely express themselves in a multitude of ways that bring glory to the God whom they represent and reflect.


  1. With utmost respect, I would have to disagree. I work in the field of behavioural psychology. I am also an attached, gentle, connected, Christian parent.

    Behavioural techniques do generally concern themselves with the observable functions of measurable behaviours, but rarely will you find even a behaviourist who takes these ideas to such an extreme that it would negate an inner world, or spirituality or internal motivations for actions.

    Unfortunately, many, many writers are using the term behaviourism to be synonymic with punitive approaches. Actually, most behavioural practitioners shy away from aversive consequences as a way to teach, and rely on methods of shaping and modelling, which are very much in line with the role of Christian parents to guide and lead by example.

    Please don't misunderstand. You make good points here, such as "I suspect that many Christian children grow into adults who, believing their very selves to be evil, hide those selves". But don't blame detached, punitive models of parenting on the evils of behaviourism. It simply isn't so.