Spiritual and Progressive Parenting
Not an Oxymoron
Some years ago we stumbled on a satirical New Yorker piece that read: “A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go f*cking ape shit.” It went on to describe the all-too-familiar and all-too-frustrating experience of reading popular parenting books, even when they are based on really sound psychological science.
The ideas are many: good parenting is all about supportiveness. No, wait, it’s all about grit and resilience. Nix that, it’s about nature versus nurture. Free-range kids, helicopter moms. Tiger-mothering or attachment parenting.
Does the world really need another parenting book?
We think so.
Once, Molly came to Ellen in tears. Frustrated and overwhelmed with how to parent strong-willed three-year-old Rafe, Molly had resorted to spanking, which went against everything she believed in as a parent and a Christian—but none of the other methods she used had worked. She had read lots of books and articles and watched videos, but none offered the spiritual and empirical guideposts she needed in one holistic approach to be the kind of parent she longed to be: kind, funny, and easygoing yet firm, always on the floor, playing games, doing messy crafts, singing with her children, deftly engaging their deep theological questions, providing a loving and supportive but never hovering or stifling presence as they grew. Instead, she was becoming the mother she’d always feared she’d be: repeating the same mistakes her own mother made, impatient, a yeller, a control freak with lapses into temper. How could things be unraveling so?
Until now, many of the spiritual and psychological guideposts for raising kids have been on seemingly opposite ends of the field. On the spiritual side, there are numerous “Christian parenting” books, but many of them encourage a body-negative theology, strict gender roles, and a fundamentally pessimistic worldview, not to mention a “spare the rod and spoil the child” mentality. That form of parenting doesn’t hold up to what psychological science teaches us ultimately works for our kids or families, and doesn’t fit with our experience or with the type of parents we want to be. We imagine that you, like us, have no interest in raising “real boys” or perfectly compliant girls.
And while there are plenty of great secular parenting books out there, none, by definition, gives guidance on Christian spirituality. (Why would they? They’re secular.) Popular parenting books based on the science of developmental and clinical psychology give short shrift to religion. At the far end of the field, those books tell us our kids don’t need religion and that it may even be bad for them, leading to increased risk-taking behavior like underage drinking and unprotected sex (a misread of the research that we’ll clear up in a bit). Few recognize that spirituality is good for our kids and families, and none acknowledges that parenting at its best can be a deeply spiritual experience.
So what does make for good parenting? Or what we prefer to call “good-enough parenting”? Sound psychological science on child development has plenty to offer in this department. So does a deeply rooted spirituality, because parenting is a spiritual practice, taking us to our highest highs and our lowest lows, while helping us mature alongside our kids. Our goal in this book is to curate the best of what psychology and an open, inquisitive, LGBTQ-affirming Christianity has to say about both the red-letter days and the deep joys of childrearing. A marriage of the scientific and the spiritual can help us raise whole, healthy kids who will grow up to be more fully who God intends them to be: autonomous and emotionally intelligent adults, each with their own unique personality and calling.
We don’t claim to have the magic wand. Parents often assume that Ellen has a secret weapon to “fix” whatever ails their child and family emotionally. And the parents in Molly’s church sometimes come to her as the “paid religious professional,” the only one with answers to their kids’ or their own probing spiritual and theological questions. But you don’t always have a pastor or a psychologist in your back pocket or at daycare drop-off. Even if you did, she would tell you there is no instant fix or “right” answer. Our kids and our families are complicated and messy. We have a lot of wisdom and experience to guide us, but few quick-and-easy solutions.
As regular churchgoing faces precipitous decline, this book acknowledges that more and more of our children’s spiritual learning, active or passive, is happening in the home. Our assumption in writing this book is that you are your child’s first and best spiritual teacher. You are the one they will come to with big questions about life, death, God, faith, and doubt. You are the one they will need when life throws more at them than they can handle. You are, in fact, their first God-figure (don’t let it go to your head).
You know your children better than any professional. You are the expert who has logged countless hours in discovering who they are—but to be an expert also takes humility and the ability to take a step back to get a wider lens.
As a minister who lets good research guide her pastoring, and as a clinician who is a lifelong person of faith, we want to give you a way to let both Christian spirituality and sound psychological science shape your parenting and the conversations you have with your kids across ages and stages: conversations about social concerns, sexuality, violence, generosity, justice, and issues of right and wrong in an often morally confused and confusing world. There is a way of being an informed, effective, and loving Christian parent; a way of weaving all of those things into the fabric of your family’s life; a way to talk to your kids about God and Jesus that is authentic and perfectly in tune with all of your family’s values. We know it can be done because we are living it.
And spoiler alert: even with our advice and strategies, you will never be the perfect parent. You will never have the perfect child, suitable for humble-bragging about on social media. No matter how hard you try, things will go wrong that are out of your control: learning disabilities, health challenges, unexpected losses, and hard seasons. It’s why this book is titled Bless This Mess. God doesn’t need to bless what’s already working. It is in our pain, our need, our helpless crying out that God is able to draw near and bless us and the messes we find ourselves in.