Should Our Children Submit or Subvert?

Progressive Christian parenting is exhausting. 

On the one hand we want to raise social justice warriors—kids who champion against inequality, care for the vulnerable, and subvert the power systems in our world by embodying the prophetic ways of Jesus. We want to activate their imagination and hope they do better than we did. Whether we admit it or not, we want our children to reflect the values close to our hearts. I know it’s tricky business imposing our own dreams on little autonomous human beings, but if I’m honest, I want my deepest convictions to become theirs. I want to partner with them in paving the ways of peace and righteousness.

We need our children to have an inclination towards subverting authority. In order to create change, they would be required to push back against the status quo with critical thinking and a skeptical eye. We must develop in them the ability to challenge, to advocate, and to provoke. 

Um… wait. I think I just described a two year old.

Herein lies our dilemma. As much as we want to breathe fire into their souls, we also must nurture a foundation of respectability. We need to parent beyond toddler-level maturity, so we place boundaries on their behavior, defining and teaching what is acceptable behavior. We ask them to submit to cultural and social conventions (don’t pick your nose in public, don’t eat spaghetti with your hands, etc.), painstakingly teach them self-control and the discipline of delayed gratification.

This process is messy, and for those of us who grew up in strict, authoritarian households, when rattled by mischievous toddler behavior, our reflex is to demand submission and respect for authority, perhaps a bit more harshly than we would otherwise like.

At what point are we crushing their spirits, stripping the very rebellious spirit we need from them to grow into adults who push the limits of traditional boundaries and move us forward as a society? How do we teach them to learn the rules, abide by the rules, and then launch them into the world and say, go break them?

I think sometimes people mistake progressive parenting for permissive parenting. Perhaps as an overreaction to overly fundamentalist control, some parents allow their children free reign in order to ensure their autonomy isn’t breached. And as much as I also want to respect the power dynamic between adults and children, and even erring on the side of empowerment of children’s choices, I think it is a lot harder to learn self-discipline and submission when those habits haven’t been instilled at a young age. 

How do we teach them to learn the rules, abide by the rules, and then launch them into the world and say, go break them?

Everything I have learned about social justice, reconciliation, and liberation work is how much it requires laborious grind. We can’t avoid having to work within the imperfect systems of this world. For now, at least, we don’t live in utopia and we do need to jump through hoops. Which means that as much as we want to raise our children to be dynamic world changers, we also have to teach them how to jump hoops like a circus monkey.

I think we have to keep both goals in mind in our parenting. Do we let our four year old color outside of the lines? Or do we say, honey, I love your enthusiasm and energy and these beautiful colors but let’s practice to see if we can draw within the lines? Should we let our teen choose a debate out of passion and conviction or encourage him to first learn to defend the status quo?

Perhaps these are false binaries, that our children can be both submissive AND subversive, or at least learn to discern what is appropriate. But I think when it comes down to the concrete realities of parenting choices, we are having to choose between demanding one or the other. Like I said, it’s exhausting.

However, I believe it is the unique calling for those of us who grew up conservative evangelical but are breathing the fresh air of a Christianity that matters in the right-now world, to hold in tension both solid discipline and creative expression in our parenting of the next generation. We know how to teach the rules because we held them religiously growing up. But God knows we have also come to bristle at them.

Let’s show our kids how to do this, to develop grit and perseverance, to submit to one another, to roll with circumstances that cannot be changed—but also, to channel their fiercest toddler tantrum in the adult world and protest against forces that oppress the marginalized. May they become bearers of Good News that is true for the most vulnerable. May they draw for themselves the most vibrant of pictures out of their own imagination because we took the care to teach them how to draw inside of the lines and venture beyond.

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  • Paul McNeely

    This makes me think parenting is a lot like raising poets or composers. For them to makes something truly earth shattering and amazing, they have to defy tradition and break the rule. But without a firm understanding of the rules, they won’t understand which they can break, which they need to challenge, which can be defied to create something beautiful instead of chaos.

    • Yes! That was what I was thinking too. Exactly.

  • Alethia

    This is one area in parenting where living cross-culturally or having deep relationships with families of cultures other than your first culture can be very helpful. My kids see that many cultural rules (of both/all cultures) are arbitrary while simultaneously learning to roll with the rule that happens to be in effect at the moment. They have the opportunity to learn that love and respect are the key for deciding when to comply with a rule and when to push it aside.

    • Good point, Alethia. It is remarkable how they can navigate that complexity.

  • I think Love and boundaries are absolutely essential to one another. We’re raising our kids to go out into the world with the ability to be responsible for themselves while also respecting the boundaries of others, and being concerned about how boundary violations lead to injustice in the world, and being people who invite others to Love–which means living within your own boundaries and respecting the boundaries of others. Some of those early rules that we want our kids to follow are manifestations of respect for others, and if we frame it that way, they’ll understand it, I think. We lived among many cultures when our kids were young and they were able to grasp the concept of going with cultural norms out of respect for others, while sometimes having other cultural norms yourself. It hasn’t stopped them at all from understanding Love and justice and working toward those things as they’re getting older.

    • So wise, Kay, thank you so much for weighing in.

  • Craig Anderson

    Good post, as usual. i beg to differ, however, on colouring within the lines, at least when this is meant literally, not figuratively. I think that kids will learn to colour within the lines when and if it is beneficial. I suspect our need to have them colour “properly” earlier than this almost always reflects OUR need, not legitimate concern about teaching them to colour.

  • Camille Nordwall

    I have 7 kids between the ages of 9 and 24, so I have made a lot of mistakes, made alot of apologies, prayed alot of healing prayers. If anyone thinks they have it down please feel free to write another book. I have read most of them. In my humble opinion (it gets more humble every year) boundaries are important. I always tell my children that if they can’t listen and obey our voice that how will they ever hear and listen to the voice of the Lord. We are a training ground for spiritual life. The one thing I wouldn’t ever want is to give them my vision, or make a mini-me. I want them to take it to the next level, way above what I have attained. I had a new experience with the adoption of my late friends little boy. He was 4 when he came to us and had experienced a bit of parenting neglect , my friend was single and had to work. He also was a bit traumatized by her death. He is 9 now and he still struggles with self-control. Self control is more easily impressed “into” not “onto” (we are talking about the heart, no the behavior) a 1-2 year old than a 4 year old. When the bible talks about “training” a child, it means quality AND quantity time helping them to overcome the self and replace it with the Holy Spirit’s guidance. It’s the “quantity” that folks have a hard time with. I’ve been told how wonderful my children are but then that “my kind of parenting” is too expensive….. as in it takes a huge sacrifice in time and energy. Well folks, why do you have children? The bible tells us to go out and make disciples, but if we cannot even do that in our own home and we face Jesus in the end and say ” I went out and made disciples for you” ! Jesus said, “Not one that You have given Me, have I lost.” Blessings in your journey.

  • Jodie

    Cindy, This is a great thought-provoking topic. It made me think about what is at the core of rebellion. In a two year old tantrum its “I want my way.” In an adult fighting for social justice its “I see what’s wrong in the world and I want to change it. Out of concern for others and love for God.” So I think one of our big goals in parenting is how to help our kids take their focus off of self and to be God and others focused. How to open their eyes to the hurting world around them and to help them develop the compassion and passion to make a difference, even when others tell them what they want to do can’t be done.

  • Jo S.

    This is so true… and it’s really difficult… sometimes I’m so fed up with dealing with my children’s expression of their perception of social justice (still a little bit too self-centered if you ask me) that I sometimes end up shouting at them like my parents probably did when I was young, plus one or two swearwords (very unlike my parents I suppose – they tended instead to putting a lot of moral/spiritual pressure on me). And then I’m telling myself “there you go, making quite the same mistakes” on the one hand and “but my relationship to my kids is different – and better I hope” on the other hand…

    This said – I’m with everything you wrote – I’m a little bit concerned that by stressing too much the aspect “we want to raise social justice warriors” we dig ourselves a pitfall. I mean with parents that expected me to become something like a “dogmatically correct warrior for Jesus” I might make the same mistake as I want my children to become “social justice warriors” – that is to place two much of my own expectations into them when pushing too far. My children might end up revolting against my “social justice thing” because they feel they are constantly falling short of my high expectations.
    I try to remember myself now and then that my children are CHILDREN and that they have to find their OWN way, NOT my way… and that I should try to stay cool and just try to be a good example (most difficult task I must say…)

    — after reading again what I wrote here I don’t know if I managed to express my thoughts in an appropriate way, but I post it anyway :-/

    • totally makes sense! I worry about that pitfall too of subjecting too high of expectations on them to care about the same causes I care about. Thanks so much for sharing in my angst!

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