Your Family and Child Liberation Theology

Author note: this is the third article in a multi-part series I am writing in 2022 providing an overview of child liberation theology. You can read the previous installment, “Why Your Faith Community Needs Child Liberation Theology,” here. The next installment, “The Nuts and Bolts of Child Liberation Theology,” will look at the “technical” aspects of what makes child liberation theology a liberation theology, including the issues of Hermeneutics, Christology, Eschatology, and Orthopraxis.

If I had to articulate the two most important principles of child liberation theology, I would say they are: (1) that children must be involved in it and (2) that it cannot remain academic. It must be something that parents and other caretakers of children—and children themselves!—can access and find applicable to their lives. 

Accordingly, child liberation theology cannot remain silent about something that impacts children on such an intimate, powerful level as parenting itself. Parents stand on the frontlines of the fight to create a kinder, more just future. What they model in their families will reverberate and replicate throughout society. So we must involve parents in the conversation and we must discuss parenting as part of the theology itself.

There are many diverse types of parenting and disagreements around the world about how best to parent. Amidst all this diversity and disagreement, researchers have identified four general types of parenting: authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and uninvolved. Here is a brief summary of these parenting types: 

  • Authoritarian parents use power as their main tool. They value obedience in children the most and devalue independence. 
  • The main tool of authoritative parents is respect. They value structure in a family the most and devalue punishment. 
  • Permissive parents, in contrast, value friendship and devalue authority, using influence as their main tool. 
  • Finally, uninvolved parents employ encouraging self-sufficiency as their main tool, valuing freedom for their children and devaluing structure.

These are not static categories. A parent can be authoritative one day and permissive another. Or a parent can swing from uninvolved to authoritarian. No parent is perfect and each of these types of parenting have strengths and limitations. While many researchers identify authoritative parenting as superior, the reality is that parenting is complicated and difficult and messy and even authoritative parents make mistakes.

The traditional American family model, influenced significantly by white evangelicalism, is marked most by the principle of authority, or power. It is thus authoritarian in nature. In its most simple form, this is a family model based on parents saying, “Because I said so,” or, “Because I am the adult.” But in its most naked form, this family model harkens all the way back to Roman times, invoking the Roman idea that parents—usually the father specifically—have supreme power over their families. You see this more extreme form in pictures like the ones below, which come from now-disgraced homeschool leader and accused sexual predator Bill Gothard and his Institute in Basic Life Principles. Gothard and his followers call this image “The Umbrella of Protection,” or ” The Umbrella of Authority”:

The family model in the above images are all grounded on the idea of authority, on the idea that protection for your family comes from obedience to authority. That authority, of course, is first and foremost God. But not just any God. It is God as Father and Patriarch. It is important to emphasize the gender and role of this God because patriarchy—the rule of adult men over everyone else, including women and children—is at the core of this parenting system. This is why this family model always favors authoritarianism in parenting. Patriarchy revolves around power and thus parenting within that system does, too.

“We have all been socialized to embrace patriarchal thinking,” wrote bell hooks, “to embrace an ethics of domination which says the powerful have the right to rule over the powerless and can use any means to subordinate them.”

But is domination the only tool in a parent’s toolbox? Clearly not, as the four types of parenting already indicate multiple tools are available. So we must imagine parenting that moves beyond domination by adults over children and towards something very different. Something more like working together, or collaboration. And this is where child liberation theology has something to say. Child liberation theology challenges us to rethink the authority model—as well as authoritarian parenting—and to consider a model of guided partnership through an altogether different, fifth method of parenting instead.

Guided partnership assumes equality between adults and children in a family. Think of this as age egalitarianism. We are all—adults and children alike—children of God and spiritual siblings through Jesus. Adults are just further along on the path of life. But we all walk the same path. We are all adventurers on the same adventure. We are all specks of conscious stardust flying around the same burning star.

To model one’s family around guided partnership, parents must give up the tools of control and punishment. They must lay down every parenting tool that they wield as a weapon—everything from emotional abuse to gaslighting to manipulation to physically striking their children. If parents would not use the same tools to convince another adult considered an equal to do something, those tools should not be used for parenting. Children are made in the image of God as much as adults are—why do our parenting practices so often ignore this most basic and important fact?

Within the confines of the four parenting types outlined above, the family model of guided partnership lends itself most to an authoritative style of parenting. Authoritative parenting is based on respect and comes closest to the model of parenting I will suggest in a moment. Authoritative parents place significant emphasis on structure in family life not because they like imposing their will (like authoritarian parents do) but because children thrive in structured environments. Structure ultimately is what replaces punishment in the authoritative parent’s tool box. Instead of coercing children to obey them, authoritative parents lean on the organic respect they have earned from their children in order to encourage their children to behave in healthy ways.

In short, authoritative parenting maintains the power differences between adults and children but it does not exploit them like authoritarianism does. Rather, it respects children enough to base obedience on mutual respect rather than fear and punishment. It also gives children the space to self-differentiate, or individuate, from their parents. Much of this is good. As Cindy Wang Brandt writes in Parenting Forward, “Our job as parents isn’t to shape our children into people who conveniently situate themselves in our world, but to afford them the liberty to grow into who they are. We are climbing the uphill battle to switch from an authoritarian to an authoritative mode of parenting.”

But I would even go a step further here than Brandt. If we are limited to the four types of parenting, then yes, I agree with her that authoritative parenting is the most empowering type of parenting for children. But I think there is a fifth option: collaborative or liberative parenting. Such parents use collaboration as their main tool. They value partnership with children and devalue control of children.

Where collaborative or liberative parenting differs from authoritative parenting is on whether “the adults are ultimately in charge.” Authoritative parenting says yes, absolutely, adults are in charge and they should be in charge. Collaborative or liberative parenting, on the other hand, both recognizes that society is structured in such a way that adults are in charge and at the same time acknowledges that children also deserve to be in charge

Children should not be confined to the status of “follower” for their entire childhood. Children can be leaders, too, in so many beautiful, diverse ways. The Bible is full of stories of child leaders who changed the world.

In collaborative or liberative parenting, parents see this potential in children. Parents see every child as revolutionary in their own unique manner. So they are intentional about undoing the power differences between adults and children in age-appropriate ways. These parents want their children to be the best versions of their own selves and thus empower their children to discover their own voice, their own likes and dislikes, their own sense of justice and injustice, their own place in the world, and their own relationship with God. So they guide, not dictate. They scaffold, not neglect.

Collaborative or liberative parenting also makes space for children to disagree, disobey, and rebel in healthy ways. That is not a priority in authoritative parenting. When your priority is preserving adult authority, you do not actively think about how to undermine it. But we need to. Not all authorities are good. Not all authorities have the best interests of children in mind. Children need to understand this and be empowered to advocate for themselves when they are in unsafe or unjust situations. 

While I am using words here like “liberative” and “revolutionary,” do not be misled: I do not think this is radical or extremist. To people used to authoritarian parenting, who cannot imagine anything outside the authority model of the family, this will sound like chaos, anarchy. But this is not even a new way of parenting. It is as old as time. It is a simple matter of treating children as fellow human beings made in the same image of God as adults are. This is merely extending the Golden Rule to parenting. Think about the way you parent and ask yourself: would you feel respected and supported if another adult treated or talked to you the same way? Or would you feel hurt and unsafe? 

Why do you think children would respond any differently if they are as equally human as you are?

Both liberation and oppression begin in the family. What parents model for their children regarding the use, misuse, and abuse of power and authority in the context of the family sets the tone for how power and authority can be used in other contexts. By breaking from the authority model of the family and the authoritarian parenting tools, and investing all that energy instead into self-healing and finding entirely different, more empowering methods of guiding children, parents stand on the frontlines of the fight to create a kinder, more just future.