Christian-valued Parenting vs. Science-based Parenting: A Discussion on Differences and Integration
First of all, the term parenting is a pretty funny term! We would never say husband-ing or child-ing yet we don’t blink an eye when we use the term parenting as a verb. Psychologist Alison Gopnik has pointed this observation out which says a lot about our current culture’s perspective on being a parent which is more about doing something rather than being someone. Lately, I have been listening to different podcasts about the subject matter and realize there are two very different schools of thought. Obviously, there are more parenting philosophies but I wanted to discuss these two in particular!
As a disclaimer, I believe every family is beautiful and unique so there is no one-size-fits-all formula for doing family. I present these ideas as a way to spark a discussion in your family so you can decide as a family how you would like to create your family culture. As I often say in my Kaiser Permanente DBT multi-family group, “Keep the ideas that work for you and toss the ones that don’t.” That being said, I am a psychologist trained in the behavioral sciences so I have an understanding of parenting from that point of view. I am also a Christian and deeply believe in those values which can also be incorporated in parenting as well.
So what are the differences? Let’s first talk about the general thought behind science-based parenting. As you can guess, science-based parenting has a lot to do with behavior modification. Simply put, the question that science-based parenting tries to address is “How can we help our kids DO the healthy thing?” The assumption is that parents know best given their years of experience (or advice from books or loved ones) so kids need to conform to our ideas of good behavior. There are many techniques that try to encourage good behavior. The most common one is behavioral therapy which is some variation of rewards and punishments depending on the behaviors. Good behaviors get rewards and bad behaviors get punishments. There is the token economy perspective where these rewards can be earned like money so that it can be exchanged for desirable things which are given immediately after the desired behavior is performed. To prevent punishment out of anger, the science suggests coming up with a menu of pre-selected punishments that fit the crime which is communicated and agreed upon with the kid (usually the middle to high school aged ones). There is also the 1-2-3 magic parenting by Dr. Thomas Phelan or counting techniques that encourages kids to pause and think before they act coupled with non-violent consequences if the parent counts to 3. The idea is to make positive associations with good behaviors so that kids will eventually make good choices based on intrinsic motivation though initially it begins with a type of “bribing” or extrinsic motivation. This is also true with negative associations that are connected with bad behaviors so that kids will avoid poor choices on their own.
Recently I heard a podcast by Andy and Sandra Stanley around their experiences with Christian-valued parenting. What was really shocking to me was that the ideas they presented were counter-intuitive with the science-based parenting! The Christian-based parenting perspective on parenting primarily revolved around honor and relationships rather than behavior modification. This is something that the Bethel Church in Redding with pastors Bill Johnson, Kris Vallotton, and Danny Silk have been preaching about for many years! These ideas are much more simplified but require more time and creativity when it comes to punishments. The main idea around Christian-valued parenting is “How do we develop kids who honor their parents and relationships?” The perspective around punishments is NOT taking away privileges or desirable things when a rupture in a relationship occurs. Instead the punishment is geared toward relationship reconciliation and restoration. For example, Sandra Stanley shared a story where her kids were being really disrespectful to their babysitter one evening. Her punishment for them was to write apology letters, have them use their own money to buy flowers, and she took them to the babysitter’s house so that the kids can give the babysitter the flowers and apologize in person. The main measurement of success in parenting from their perspective is that kids will choose to be in relationship with their parents and siblings even when they no longer have to as adults.
If I were to summarize these two different approaches, the science-based parenting is geared toward behavior modification in hopes of developing good values while the Christian valued parenting is driven by values and the behaviors will then align with those values. Personally, I believe there is room to integrate both ideas. Starting with identifying values such as honor and relationships can be at the core of where the behavior modifications occur.
Every child is different and some kids may need more extrinsic motivators at first to get the momentum rolling. I remember as an elementary school student, I used to get very average grades and poor citizenship grades due to my talkative and inattentive behavior. One day my uncle offered to give me $1 (yes, that was a large amount of money for me at the time!) for every A that I received as well as every outstanding citizenship grade that I got. He sweetened the deal by saying he would double my money if I got straight A’s and perfect citizenship grades. To my mother’s amazement, I began getting straight A’s and perfect citizenship grades because apparently, I was a money-hungry child! By the time middle school rolled around, my parents were sweet enough to continue with this encouragement but I realized that the good grades began mattering to me as a person. It would feel weird whenever I did not do well in school because now, I identified myself as a person who strived for excellence. By high school, I wanted to do well simply because it was important to me and the money was just a bonus at that point!
I believe being a parent is the highest calling and role that any one person can fulfill in their lifetime. There can be many CEOs or leaders but there can only be one father or mother in their child’s life. So, my hope is that you take that privilege seriously as a parent while trusting God to take care of the rest! For more entries like this, please visit me on my blog.