The Dangers of Negative Parenting

by Chris Pennington

Woman looking sad and holding her hand against her forehead

Having worked with teenagers for nearly 15 years, I routinely field questions from parents about decisions. Should I give my child a phone? or Is it right to make my teen attend a religious event? or Should I let my child fail?

These real questions often come with a real background. Usually parents will follow up with, “My parents did such and such and it was/wasn’t good for me.”

Of course, no home is perfect, but some homes have particularly large defects. Perhaps you grew up in a home void of love, respect, and care. As a dad, how should your childhood affect your parenting? Should it dominate it, inform it, have nothing to do with it, or something else?

Choosing Your Authority

When a parent’s own childhood experience looms too large, it becomes the source of authority in the home (what I’m calling negative parenting). What’s “right” ends up being whatever your parents’ didn’t do and what’s “wrong” is any action that smells of your childhood.

The trouble is, your experience isn’t authoritative; the Bible is! When making parenting decisions, devote yourself to the Bible’s authority. It is, after all, the “only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him”1 and God breathed it out for “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Your childhood—even if it was good—is not authoritative.

Focusing on a poor childhood holds at least two additional dangers. First, focusing on it will harm your kids. They didn’t have your childhood, so don’t make it such a focus that they experience it second-hand.

Another danger exists: focusing on your parents’ shortcomings will almost certainly make you less aware of your own. No matter how godly you live or how carefully you parent, you will leave your children with a legacy of imperfection—all the more reason to keep pointing them to the Bible as the only faultless authority!

Correcting a Wayward Home

The question still remains, how do you correct a wayward home? Let’s say your home growing up lacked grace. Your parents were cruel, demanding, and you could never live up to their expectations. How should you correct that error?

Imagine you’re flying a plane that’s veering hard right. I’ve never flown a plane, but I did play some flight simulator games as a kid. My game had two joysticks: one for turning left and one for turning right. While you may need to make a quick overcorrection to get back on course, once you find your heading, you’ll need to push sticks both forward to stay on course. Otherwise, you’ll overcorrect and have a new problem.

With the authority of the Bible as your guide for choosing the right heading, you may need to dramatically adjust in the short term—showing more forbearance with your kids than would otherwise be natural or even appropriate in the long term. But eventually, you’ll need to press the joystick called “discipline” forward or you’ll overcorrect and create a new error.

You can see how important it is to have an authority outside of your experience!

How do you avoid overcorrecting? Let me offer two suggestions that will overcome any in-born error you have:

1. Teach the whole Bible

The Bible, the whole Bible, holds all of God’s teaching in perfect balance. The best failsafe is to trust the Bible without fail. If you consistently teach the whole Bible to your children, you will be properly balanced in your parenting.

2. Attend a healthy church.

In Acts 20:27, the Apostle Paul declares that he taught the Ephesians the “whole counsel of God.” This is one of the key symptoms of a healthy church and a faithful pastor.

No matter how carefully you teach or how fully you explain the Bible, you will need help. Surround your children with a church environment that focuses on the Bible over programs and activities, and on God’s truth over political or social opinions.

Concluding Encouragements

Your past can reach out and grab you like a zombie from the grave, but it doesn’t have to hold power over you. Your children didn’t have your parents, your youth environment, or the other failures of your past.

I’ve met so many parents through the years who can hardly make a decision for their kids without saying, “I just want to give my kids all I never had.” That is not a north star worth following and is impossible to fulfill.

What your kids need is not the opposite of your childhood, but the full, warm light of the Bible filling all your decisions for your home.

Let me end with three final exhortations:

1. Know the Bible yourself.

Your home will only be Bible saturated if you are! It’s no accident that Deuteronomy 6:4–9 (the famous guiding light for Hebrew homes) starts with an exhortation to parents:

And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart (Deuteronomy 6:6).

2. Appreciate God’s kindness to you.

If you’ve recognized genuine errors in the way you were raised, it’s because of God’s kindness to you. Have you ever taken the time to thank God for his insight? God has graced you with a better understanding of His will than your parents had and He deserves your praise.

Like David says, “I have more understanding than all my teachers” (Psalm 119:99). Why? “for your testimonies are my meditation” (emphasis mine).

Nurture humility, submission, and confession.

It’s possible to see the truth, but to grasp at it with pride. “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). But for God’s grace, you will leave your children with your own weaknesses. Cultivate humility.

Second, pattern submission to God’s Word in front of your children. Your kids need to know that God is “your boss.” You don’t get to say or do whatever you want because you answer to The King.

Finally, pattern confession. Many dads undercut all their intentional teaching with an arrogant refusal to admit wrongdoing. You will fail—probably today and probably more than once! As the leader, be the leading confessor and the leading forgiver.

Parenting has a goal: to send your children out for God like arrows from a bow (Psalm 127:4). That positive goal shouldn’t be muddled by negative, fear-based, backwards-looking parenting. Strive forward for Christ with your family and avoid the dangers of negative parenting!


  1. This famous line is from question 2 of the Westminster Catechism.

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