This post is not a full description of theories about child rearing on the part of conservative parents, but starts with a vignette from one particular family with a fiercely evangelical background in the 20s and 30s. This comes from a description of the family of Broughton Knox (b.1916), the formidably influential Australian evangelical teacher whose ideas have such a strong influence in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney even today.
Broughton’s mother, Doris, was well groomed in the Scriptures and the children were brought up to believe that the stories of the Bible applied to them. Both father David and Doris had been much buffeted by numerous family tragedies, including the death of several of their children. David, although a successful evangelical Anglican rector, and well respected for his preaching, seems to have shut down emotionally and was thus unavailable to his youngest daughters. They looked to their mother for emotional sustenance but again there was little available. In their memories of their upbringing, these younger daughters recall the Bible stories on which they were reared. The one thing the parents could not handle were whining and outbursts of childish emotion. So the particular stories told and remembered were ones lifted from the account of the wanderings in the desert by the Children of Israel. The narrative records how Moses had to cope with what the Bible calls ‘murmuring’ The people murmured and complained and so, the Bible tells us, the snakes came and killed them. The constant telling of this particular tale by Doris was able to suppress childhood emotion and complaining all too easily. It succeeded by introducing a state of constant fear in these younger Knox children. These younger sisters were never psychologically able to leave the desert for the joys of the promised land.
It does not take a childhood psychologist to see the way that Scripture was being used in a very cruel way to try and repress the process of growing up . Of course children will have tantrums from time to time. These will be allowed to blow over and be quickly forgotten. The idea that whining and outbursts of emotion are to be likened to ‘murmurings’ in the desert is a terrifying take on a scriptural passage, one that has certainly never occurred to me. One wonders whether this interpretation is to be found in a long-forgotten book on child rearing, or whether the mother made it up for her own purposes.
The classic text that is brought forward from Scripture on the subject of child-rearing is one lifted from the Book of Proverbs. It is a verse that single-handedly has probably caused more suffering to children than any other. The verse, referring to a father and his sons, reads thus: ‘If you take the stick to him yourself, you will preserve him from the jaws of death’ (Proverbs 23.14). There are other passages in similar vein and in 1 Samuel, God is likened to a father chastising a son with a rod for his iniquity. The common saying, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child’ is not actually a quote from Scripture but the sentiments of this saying can be extracted from the Bible if one has the mind to do so. No doubt physical beating was felt to be inappropriate with regard to young girls but the effect of a constant referring to the punishments of the Israelites who ‘murmured’ was equally cruel.
The issue of Protestant nurture of children is not simply a matter of the way some evangelicals choose to understand a number of biblical texts. There is a fundamental theological reason for bringing these texts to the fore. Calvinist theology taught as one of its key themes the utter depravity of humankind. In order to emphasise the glories of salvation, John Calvin made sure in his teaching that this idea of the utter powerlessness and depravity of human beings was well and truly emphasised. Thus in traditional Protestant thinking, the selfishness and self-centered behaviour of children is an outward example of their innate wickedness. Even babies of a few months old were beaten in some Evangelical households in centuries past to drive the devil out. I would not accuse anyone today of these excesses of corrupted child rearing, but the norm of 18th and 19th century ‘respectable’ homes is terrifying to read about. The point needs to be repeated that it was a theological idea that gave justification for this terrible cruelty. Even if no one, outside certain cults, behaves like this now, this tendency to behave barbarically towards children in the name of God is something that the present generation should acknowledge and repent of.
The younger Knox sisters who grew up with the legacy of emotionally damaged parents and a atmosphere of fear are just one small example of the way that Christianity has been bad news to many people over the years. Hopefully society mores, the law and a general recognition of the emotional needs of the young has meant that this particular example of gross cruelty would not be found today. But the potential of people in every age to corrupt the good for evil ends is something we must ever be alert for.