We might think about parenting styles as being on a spectrum. One extreme is “permissive” parenting: few or no rules, minimum expectation from the parents about performance, open two-way community. On the other hand is “authoritarian” parenting: strict discipline, high expectations, and one-way communication. Most people will agree that parenting in Africa is typically closer to the latter. Typically, African parents tend towards being authoritarian rather than permissive.
African parents tend towards being authoritarian rather than permissive.
I can remember a personal example of this difference in parenting from when I studied in Europe. One day, while I was with a Western classmate I received a phone call from my father. After the call, an incredulous classmate asked me: “You call your father sir?” While I couldn’t believe anyone would call his father by his first name, he couldn’t understand why anyone would be so formal in addressing their own father! I had been brought up with deep respect for my father, readily deferring to his authority. My classmate grew up in an environment emphasising equality between parent and child.
Cultural Challenges & Generational Shifts
For many Africans, parenting is a very sensitive topic these days. We feel overwhelmed with how quickly the cultural expectations around parenting are being influenced by Western culture and how traditional practices that were accepted across the continent just a decade ago are being challenged by a younger generation.
Traditional practices that were accepted across the continent just a decade ago are being challenged.
This sensitivity is greatest amongst African emigrants living in the West. Their greatest fear is of losing their children to social services due to a cultural difference in understanding how children should be brought up. This is encouraging an attitude that sees any attempt to question or change any traditional practices as “selling out” to the West.
How Do We Strike The Right Balance?
However, as African Christians, we should be Christians first before being African. What I mean is that we must not take our lead on bringing up our children solely from the traditions we have received. Yes, we should fight against the influence of secular Western culture. But that does not mean we cannot question our traditional practices. We must measure both by Scripture.
Parenting Advice In The New Testament
Therefore we must ask: what does the New Testament teach on parenting? You will very likely struggle to answer this question, for Paul made just one statement which borders directly on parenting advice. It appears twice: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Colossians 3:21); “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
This exhortation is an essential principle for Christian parents.
This repeated exhortation is striking, for the two churches addressed were in very different situations. Paul planted the church in Ephesus and pastored it for three years. He knew them well. In contrast, Paul had never visited Colossae. He only knew of them through what the church planter Epaphras had told him. Yet he gave the same parenting advice to both. Therefore we might conclude that this exhortation is an essential principle for Christian parents.
A Warning For African Parents
Paul did not ask fathers to love or discipline their children. His readers were likely aware of such principles. Rather, Paul warns fathers about what to avoid when dealing with their children.
The Greek word translated “provoke” has a wide lexical range. Other translations have: embitter (NIV), aggravate (NLT), antagonise (NASB), exasperate (NASB 1995), irritate (AMP), and don’t be hard (CEV). The Greek–English Lexicon BDAG defines the word: “to cause someone to react in a way that suggests acceptance of a challenge”. Thus Paul is encouraging parents to raise their children in such a way that they avoid triggering a rebellious posture.
Paul is encouraging parents to raise their children in such a way that they avoid triggering a rebellious posture
This point is further explained by the second half of the exhortation in Colossians 3:21, “lest they become discouraged.” Paul does not want the children of Christian families disciplined to such a degree that they lose heart. Commenting on Ephesians 6:4, Andrew Lincoln says: “What Paul is ruling out here is excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensitivities.”
A Plumb Line For African Parents
It is worth using the comment above as a plumb line to measure many of our cultural practices as Africans. Are we using the authority that God has given us for the good of our children? Do we understand that it is a limited authority? Do we believe that our authority as parents is meant to be exercised for the good of our children?
Authoritarian parenting is likely to exasperate children and leave them chafing at our authority.
Every style of parenting has its own benefits and disadvantages. One of the major disadvantages of authoritarian parenting is exactly what Paul points out: it is likely to exasperate children and leave them chafing at our authority. It is fine for your child to call you “sir.” But your relationship with him cannot be the same as the relationship he has with his principal in school.
Healthy Relationships Grow
A common problem for many African parents is that they are unable to transition towards a more balanced relationship with their adult children. Again, it is okay to give orders to a 10 year old. But if you still want to be giving orders to a 40 year old, do not be surprised if you only ever see him a few times a year, while your relationship remains distant and formal.
Parenting is hard work, but thankfully God has not left us without advice on how to proceed. We are Africans, so we should celebrate our traditions for raising children. However, our traditions must not be idolised. Finally, we should never be afraid to break with traditions where they are leading us astray and damaging our children’s faith.