I’m still thinking about fear and parenting. It’s a big topic, which is probably why I haven’t written more sooner. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it. Long time readers already know that one of the first things I do when thinking about a topic is to try to understand what it IS. We are not always careful to define our terms well, and we’re satisfied with the mediocrity of vagueness. Even me! Blech.
Since the phrase “parenting by fear” is how I got started on this path, I’m still thinking about that particular phrase. I think it’s an unhelpful phrase, particularly because it appears precise, but is in fact too vague to mean something without a great deal of qualifying.
We all would agree that a large part of responding to danger is the ability to assess exactly what the danger is all about. This is important, and we’ll come back to this thought later.
When a mother responds to an obvious and acute danger, we would not accuse her of “parenting by fear.” A mother who pulls her child out of a burning house would not be criticized by acting out of fear. The fear is real and justified, and we admire the woman for doing what is right, in spite of that fear (in fact, this is the definition of bravery I give my children, along with Psalm 56:3).
Sometimes a mother responds to something I don’t consider dangerous, and I might smile benignly at her actions. First-time mother, I think, as she carefully cleans the pacifier that dropped on the floor. Cleaning the pacifier every time it hits the floor is certainly more work for the mother, but the baby doesn’t really care. We don’t usually hear someone accused of “parenting by fear” in these cases, although such a parent might in fact be driven by ungodly fear. At this point, we start to come to the understanding that the phrase “parenting by fear” is a judgment, a criticism, and a reflection of our own assessment of the danger another person faces. Our response to mothers like this depends on our own experience and perspective. Solidarity? Understanding? Condescension? Disgust? All depends on how dangerous I think the paci on the ground really is, and how normal I consider the fear to be.
Sometimes, a mother might respond in a way that we consider detrimental to the child, in response to a perceived danger. It seems to be in cases like these that the “parenting by fear” accusation shows up. A parent who is so fearful of germs that she doesn’t let her child play with other children is “parenting by fear.” When a parent appears to us to be irrational, or overreacting, or acting not in the best interest of her child, we say she’s “parenting by fear.”
Do you understand why the phrase “parenting by fear” is neither helpful nor meaningful? It is not based so much on truth [whether the danger is something that can or should be avoided, or what the risk actually is, or the actual motives of a parent], but on perception. It can conflate responsible acting in the face of danger with acting irrationally in the face of insignificant risk. If you see a danger that I don’t, then I’m going to react incorrectly to your actions to protect your children. If your children are in danger because of their particular personality, situation, struggle, or age, does it follow that every child is likewise in danger?
The variables are too great, and “parenting by fear” is too vague. It may be helpful at times for an individual to examine her own motives for avoiding a danger, for her to assess the risk, and for her to make adjustments accordingly. But something about this phrase makes it harder to sort out the good from the bad. Clearly, we need to think better before throwing out useless phrases such as this one.
On that note, we’ll talk next about assessing risk biblically.