Is the idea of “gentle parenting” compatible with biblical doctrines?
That is the question at the heart of a debate between a Gospel Coalition author and Christian proponents of the increasingly popular parenting method, highlighting a growing conversation about discipline, love and theological interpretation in the realm of parenting.
In an article for The Gospel Coalition, Bernard M. Howard, a pastor at Grace Church in Birmingham, Alabama, critiqued the gentle parenting approach, which seeks to “raise confident, independent and happy children through empathy, respect and understanding, and setting healthy boundaries,” according to a definition from the Cleveland Clinic.
“If gentle parenting were just a mood board for solving parenting difficulties in nonconfrontational ways, I’d have nothing to say against it,” he wrote. “But when you dig more deeply into the underlying concepts of gentle parenting, you find at least two that stand opposed to the Bible’s teaching about parenting.”
Howard emphasized two main points of the practice he considers "unbiblical": the belief that children's challenging behavior is caused by external factors and can be mitigated through emotional validation without the need for punishment; and the notion that rewards and punishments are ineffective at addressing the underlying feelings behind behaviors.
The author contends that gentle parenting overlooks the inherent sinfulness of human nature, as outlined in Scripture, and fails to acknowledge the necessity of punishment as part of godly discipline. He contends that painful punishment, when administered in a loving context, is vital for conveying the seriousness of sin and guiding children toward righteousness.
“From the Bible’s point of view, it’s impossible to shape a child’s character without demonstrating the seriousness of wrongdoing through retributory punishment. Words aren’t enough, because they’re so easily ignored (see Prov. 29:19). Painful punishment, administered by loving parents, drives home the message. I distinctly remember thinking, one time when my father was disciplining me, Oh. What I did really must have been wrong,” he wrote.
"If a child’s folly remains, it will produce harmful outcomes, and the Bible assumes folly will remain without discipline’s rod. If we want to produce gentle children, we’ll need more than gentle methods—we’ll need biblical ones."
In a lengthy response on Instagram, David Erickson, who with his wife, Amanda, founded Flourishing Homes & Families, which seeks to “equip and empower Christian parents to lead their families with grace and gentleness through parenting principles that are rooted in the teaching of Jesus and backed by modern neuroscience,” offered a counterargument.
Erickson, also a former pastor and seminary theology professor, criticized Howard for allegedly misrepresenting gentle parenting as "permissive" and failing to distinguish it from authoritative parenting, which balances guidance with empathy.
“The central thesis of their recent article is that children must be punished, but the author acknowledges there's a theological problem with that stance because the Bible is very clear that Jesus took all our punishment,” he said.
“Well, how does he evade this? Well, he just argues that the world just doesn't work that way. The world punishes, therefore, Christian parents need to punish … if we believe we live in a sin-soaked, sin-infected world, why are we taking our cues from the world around us about how to treat our children rather than looking to God and His desire for how followers should treat their children?”
Erickson posited that the true measure of gentle parenting's compatibility with Christianity lies in whether it reflects the character of Christ and His teachings on love, forgiveness and redemption.
The author also criticized Howard's reliance on specific interpretations of biblical terms related to discipline, arguing that such interpretations can lead to a narrow and potentially misleading understanding of Scripture.
“[The TGC article] boldly sets up Pilate as a positive example for parents; Pilate beating Jesus,” he said. “When the villains are your model, not the Savior of the world, something's gone deeply, deeply wrong. And you've lost the plot in the attempt to be biblical. You stop being Christ-like.”
A Christ-centered approach to parenting, he said, inherently aligns with the principles of gentle parenting, which seeks to nurture and guide children in a manner that is reflective of God's love and grace.
“When Christ is the center of our parenting, it comes out looking not that different from gentle parenting,” he said.
In a lengthy response on YouTube, Christian author Kelsey Kramer McGinnis also contended that Bernard misrepresented "gentle parenting" in his article and reflected a "caricature" rather than a nuanced understanding.
Christian author Marissa Burt also voiced frustration with Christian parenting teachings that attempt to differentiate between discipline and abuse without clear parameters, insisting that such teachings are unhelpful and potentially dangerous to vulnerable children.
"This is so irresponsible, and so dangerous from a pastor, from someone publishing materials because this essentially hands license to anyone," she said. "This is not helpful to families, this is dangerous for vulnerable children."
The debate over "gentle parenting" underscores a broader conversation within the Christian community about the nature of discipline, the interpretation of biblical teachings and the application of Christian doctrine to contemporary parenting practices.
Recent statistics on spanking reveal a decline in its prevalence among U.S. parents over time. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics found that the prevalence of spanking among parents with children aged 2 to 12 years old declined from 50% in 1993 to 35% in 2017.
Danny Huerta of the prominent Colorado-based national Christian ministry Focus on the Family said in a 2019 piece that child spanking could be either “appropriate” or “inappropriate.”
“Used correctly and infrequently as part of a comprehensive parenting toolkit, a spank can be that last resort discipline method you use when you need to create attention and a clear understanding why the behavior should never happen again,” he wrote.
“Used inappropriately, spanking can be dangerous. I’ve found some parents who use spanking as their main discipline tool and, many times, use it when they’re frustrated or angry. I’ve also noticed some parents spank and move on, skipping the important teaching element.”
Last year, TGC was forced to issue an apology after posting an excerpt from a book by Joshua Ryan Butler, a pastor in Arizona, in which he offered graphic descriptions of sexual intercourse in spiritual terms, describing sex as a man bestowing a holy gift to a woman and comparing that to the relationship of Jesus and the Church.
In the excerpt, which was widely criticized by prominent pastors, including Kevin DeYoung and Rick Warren, Butler, after confessing that he used to “look to sex for salvation” before realizing that “idolizing sex results in slavery,” recounted a series of failed romantic adventures and stated that, in fact, “sex is an icon of Christ and the church.”
Amid the fallout from the article, Butler resigned from both the leadership of his Arizona megachurch and as a fellow with the Keller Center for Cultural Apologetics, a project of TGC.
TGC also faced criticism in 2013 when three key members, Don Carson, Kevin DeYoung, and Justin Taylor published a statement on TGC website in defense of C.J. Mahaney, the founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries.
Originally published by The Christian Post