Parenting in a Fear-Based World

I recently wrote a post for the Center for Congregational Ethics about good parenting in a world where fear, bullying, and intimidation can sometimes overwhelm our media feeds. Spoiler alert: I don’t always get it right, but I’m learning that I don’t always have to.

Question: My husband and I have three school age children. We are struggling with how we can rear them in the cultural context in which we find ourselves now–where fear, intimidation, win-at-any-costs are the driving dynamics–with a sense of better values shaping them. Any suggestions you have would be deeply appreciated.


Yesterday, I found myself yelling at my kids again. We were running late — a common occurrence with three children — and I yelled at one of them for playing a game instead of getting dressed. One person’s actions, I told my child, could mean that everyone in the family was late. But, as I looked at my child and the ears budding in their eyes, I was forced to examine my own actions. What was I teaching my child by shouting my point?

When I see the raging, bullying actions of others in the media, I shake my head in disappointment. But when I truly examine my actions, I see that I too rely on fear and intimidation. It’s easy to do. After all, intimidation has often served as a way for societies to reign in chaos. Fines, jail time, and public shaming are all methods used to cultivate order. These methods can be effective, because they present consequences for negative or dangerous behavior.

Is it any surprise, then, that we parents use similar methods to maintain order in our households? Docking allowance, enacting time outs, and shaking our disappointed heads are time-worn methods of parenting. Though such methods may work at a societal level, they don’t always create the values we want on a familial level. In fact, we may inadvertently communicate to children that threats and punishment are the only ways to encourage desired behavior, and that avoiding punishment is the only reason to act kindly.

If we want our children to have more intrinsic motivation for their actions, we can start by modeling our desired values at home. This way, maybe our households and actions can serve as alternatives to the shouting and name calling we see on television shows and in the news.

Whenever possible, we can choose to explain our decisions, and to teach empathy. Instead of angrily yelling at my late child, for instance, I could have calmly expressed my disappointment and explained the importance of considering others. When I eventually did this, and apologized for yelling and losing my temper, I hoped to demonstrate that a person could be disappointed, and even frustrated, without resorting to blustering and shouting. This lesson was just as important as the one I was shouting about considering others.

We don’t have to be perfect. I’ve already evidenced that I am not. Still, despite our imperfection, our children often learn to choose a righteous path. Recently, I was at a pediatric clinic with one of my kids because of a broken wrist scare. The clinic was implementing a new computer system, and major delays resulted. After about 15 minutes of waiting to check in, and with no end in sight, I could feel my expression harden and I found myself taking several audible sighs of exasperation. Then, my child — the one with the hurt wrist — helped me remember what my values are.

“If we’re frustrated,” she said looking toward the frazzled administrative assistants, “just imagine how frustrating it must be for them.”

Her words reminded me to choose the path of kindness and empathy whenever possible. They reminded me that rudeness and bullying aren’t qualities I want to embody. Most importantly, though, her words also helped me remember that we parents don’t have to raise our children perfectly, and we don’t have to be perfect ourselves. If we model our values, our children can help us remain attuned to them — even in a society that sometimes doesn’t.

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