Many parents find parenting to be especially difficult during the teenage years, when biological changes enter the relationship dynamics. Significant changes in a teenager’s endocrinology system mean that a child’s hormones are expressed in mood swings and emotional-sexual struggles. In addition, the brain is still undergoing normal developmental changes during late adolescence and early adulthood. In fact, the brain does not reach adult capacity until the mid to late twenties (Cohen et al. 2016). Adolescents are prone to engage in risky behavior due to their inability to execute higher- order thinking such as planning for the future, controlling impulses, and setting priorities, and that inability impacts their judgment. Of course, this is a cause of concern for parents because these judgments can lead to lifelong consequences.
If that isn’t enough, the developing self-structure of teenagers means that they have an increasing desire to make their own decisions. In this struggle for independence, teenagers may strike out in ways that tempt parents to ask themselves, “Where did we go wrong?” Not only do parents need to offer more grace to their children at this stage; they also need to offer grace to themselves. In this spirit we advocate a parenting style that is relational in nature. Open communication and firm guidance are achieved in the context of warm, secure, and caring interaction.
A Biblical Model of Parenting Having summarized the social-science literature on the effects of various parenting styles, we will now present a biblical model, with the goal of integrating these various materials into a model of biblical parenting.
We believe that a biblical model of parenting can be derived from the scriptural depiction of God as parent. The nature of God is love. God cares for us, is faithful to us, bestows gifts on us, redeems and forgives us, disciplines and grows us, challenges and tests us, comforts and consoles us, and is with us through the difficult times. Taken as a whole, the Bible clearly emphasizes the love and grace that God freely gives (Gen. 6; Ruth; Matt.
9:12; Mark 2:17; Luke 19:1–8; John 3:16; Romans 3:24; 4:16; 5:1–20; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 4). Yet this unconditional love is not free of expectations and demands. God’s love includes disciplinary action for our good. God’s love as parent bears a striking similarity to the parenting style advocated in the social-science literature: a high degree of support and of inductive (rather than coercive) control.
The actions of God as parent clearly point to a model in which parental love (support) and discipline (control) intertwine to help children develop toward maturity. This model comports well with the theological basis for family relationships that we introduced in chapter 1—covenant, grace, empowerment, and intimacy. Parent-child relationships begin when the parents make an initial covenant (a one-way, unconditional commitment) of love with their child. This covenant makes demands and provides stipulations reflective of God’s covenant with Israel and us. Although the infant cannot return this commitment, as the child matures the initial covenant should grow into a mature covenant (a two-way, unconditional commitment). This maturing of the parent-child relationship is possible because the covenant commitment establishes an environment of grace and forgiveness in which parents empower their children and reach new levels of intimacy with them.
Initially, the parents need to maintain both parties’ responsibilities in the covenant. The parents provide for the emotional and physical needs of the child as is their duty in the covenant. Children in the covenant initially have no responsibilities. As children grow in competence, their responsibility grows more and more. Further, they increasingly engage intentionally in the covenant relationship. This covenant is characterized by grace—a gift on the part of the parents. Over time, children are exposed to both responsiveness and demandingness, which empowers them by communicating their value and identity in the covenant family. As children take on more and more of the family identity and develop increasing levels of competence, more and more mutual forms of intimacy occur.
This is illustrated by the story of Jesus’s baptism (Mark 1), where the covenantal relations of the Trinity are expressed physically. The Holy Spirit is there in the form of a dove, the speech of the Father pronounces love and identity over Jesus, and Jesus is being baptized physically. The covenant relation of the Trinity is Jesus’s identity—God the Son. This identity forms the basis of Jesus’s actions in ministry—revealing grace and forgiveness,
empowering others via healing, preaching, teaching, and discipling, and making intimacy with God possible (Heb. 5).
When each parent’s identity is based on Christ, we develop a differentiation of self that is based on our adoption into God’s family. Our primary calling as a Christian takes precedence over all other domains in our lives. Differentiation in Christ means that we can parent our offspring in noncoercive and noncontrolling means because of our experience of grace and empowerment in Christ. We can extend grace to our children because of our experience of forgiveness in Christ. We can empower our children as opposed to controlling them as we are discipled in a Christian community under the guidance of the Spirit. Finally, we can experience intimacy as we are fully and authentically known by Christ.
In an ideal situation, the four elements of the parent-child relationship are in a continual process of maturing: intimacy leads to deeper covenant love, which enhances the atmosphere of grace, which strengthens the empowerment process, which leads to deepened intimacy, and so on. This cycle is relational and requires reciprocity, meaning that it is based on the development of competencies in all relational partners. The foundation consists of a faithful commitment and accepting environment where children and parents can be vulnerable and open with each other. This relationship connection promotes the empowerment process in which parents and children learn to serve and to give to each other.
Empowerment is the central element in our biblical model of parenting. Exactly what is involved here? Parents and children are initially at different levels in their relationship. As Ivan Boszormenyi-Nagy and colleagues (Boszormenyi-Nagy 1987, 1996; Boszormenyi-Nagy and Krasner 1986) remind us, this relationship contains ethical obligations. That is, parents are ethically obligated to meet the needs of offspring, and children are in a position to make those ethical demands. Children are not obligated to meet the parents’ needs until they are adult peers. Good parenting is the wise exercise of parental position and ability. Empowerment is the process of instilling confidence, of strengthening and building up children to become more powerful and competent. Parents who have been empowered by the unconditional love of God and the Holy Spirit are best able to empower their children.
Jesus redefined power by his teaching and by his action in relating to others as a servant. He rejected the use of power to control others and
instead affirmed it to serve others. Using parental power to serve our children involves nurture, guidance, love, discipline, and empowerment.
The capacity to be a servant-leader to others requires a high level of maturity and unconditional love. It demands that a person achieve a maturity going beyond self-sufficiency to interdependence. Abundant life is more than a narcissistic euphoria in which all one’s personal needs and desires are met. It involves having a meaning beyond oneself. The admonitions in the New Testament to submit to one another and to love, forgive, serve, and value all of God’s people are actually a call to mature living.
The most striking example of mature servanthood is the way Jesus honored children. His example is vital to developing a proper theology of power. Like his approach to children, Jesus related to his disciples in terms of empowerment. He even provided for a continuation of the empowerment process after his departure: “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:26). Jesus wanted them to have the capacity and confidence to carry on the message. They had been prepared by his teaching ministry to be independent and by his example to be servants.
Parents who empower their children help them become competent and capable people who will in turn empower others. Empowering parents are actively and intentionally engaged in various pursuits—telling, teaching, modeling, delegating—that equip their children to become confident individuals able to relate to others. Parents who empower help their children recognize their inner strengths and potentials and find ways to enhance these qualities. Parental empowerment is the affirmation of the child’s ability to learn, grow, and become all that one is meant to be as part of God’s image and creative plan.
Empowerment, from a biblical perspective, does not entail the child’s gaining power at the expense of the parent. The view that the supply of power is limited is purely secular. When empowering the children of Israel, God did not give up power but offered it in unlimited supply. The authority (exousia) of Jesus flowed from his personhood; it was in no way diminished when he empowered his disciples. Similarly, the authority of parents, which flows from their personhood, is not diminished when they exercise the responsibility to nurture their children to maturity. The process of empowering children does not mean relinquishing parental authority, nor are parents depleted or drained of power when they empower their children.
Rather, when empowerment takes place, authority and ascribed power are retained as children develop, grow, and achieve a sense of personal power, self-esteem, and wholeness. Successful parenting results in the children’s gaining as much personal power as the parents themselves have. In the Christian context, children are empowered to love God and their neighbors as themselves. They are capable of going beyond themselves to reach out to others.
Find a more detailed account of this biblical model in Relationship- Empowerment Parenting: Building Formative and Fulfilling Relationships with Your Children (J. K. Balswick et al. 2003).
The Case for Coparenting It should be noted here that the relationship-empowerment model—our name for the biblical ideal—is most efficiently achieved if both parents bring their respective strengths to the process in a complementary way. There are two types of