Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

Dear Christian Parent: Please Don’t Try To Break Their Will

Christian parent, please don’t try to break your child’s will. If you do, you might actually succeed, and the long-term outcome of that could be a disaster– the very thing you’re trying to avoid.

I get it– you want a well-behaved child who makes good choices. We all do! But this dangerous idea that achieving the best for our children involves “breaking their will?”

Yeah, that’s a dangerous idea. In fact, it’s one of those ideas where if you’re successful, you’ll actually get the opposite of what you wanted.

Why this idea is so prevalent, I’m not quite sure. As a teenager I remember being taught this in my fundamentalist circle to the point where I believed it and regurgitated it myself. I remember looking around at all the children I thought were unruly and thinking, “their parents sure do need to break their will.”

While I left behind that way of thinking prior to becoming a parent, in my adult life I’ve seen many other Christian parents continue in lock-step with that toxic paradigm.

For too many Christians, children are seen as insurgents or resistance fighters who need to be soundly defeated in order to become happy, healthy, and well-adjusted adults. For some reason we don’t believe it’s enough to teach our children how to make good choices and to hold them accountable when they make poor choices. Instead, we think the key is defeating the unseen fight inside of them.

But defeating the unseen fight, the spark, the umph, the drive, their je ne sais quoi, or whatever one wants to call it, is the last thing we need to defeat.

In fact, their will– the unseen fight inside of them– will be critically important for their success and safety as adults.

For parents who attempt to break their child’s will, the worst thing that can happen is success. I’ve seen it– children who are so totally defeated and so demoralized, they lose that spark inside of them. Yes, they might be kind, polite, and compliant, but inside they have become programmed robots, group-thinkers, and line-walkers, instead of unique creations of God.

You see, success in defeating your child’s will creates an easy child to parent– but it will also create an adult who is easy to manipulate, abuse, and control.

Creating a child who has no will to question authority, creates an adult who will be abused and oppressed by those in authority.

Creating a child who has no will to self-direct, is to create an adult who might be easily directed by others.

Creating a child who has no will to challenge, and never objects to real or perceived injustice against them, is to create an adult who won’t do that, either.

Breaking your child’s will is the absolute worst thing you could do to them, because they are going to need it.

Once our children leave our fold they’re going to discover a lot of things about the world they live in. While I hope they discover mostly beauty, there will be plenty of other things they’ll discover as well– things that will test what they are made of. They’ll be dealt some bad cards, have some bad breaks, and even encounter some really, really, bad people.

Mixed within experiences of beauty, their lives will have unavoidable of moments of hurt and injustice– and some of those experiences will be so painful that it will have the potential to completely defeat them.

And you know what they’ll need during those most difficult moments?

There going to need that will you’re trying to break, that’s what. 

In fact, having an unseen fight inside of them might be the very thing that saves them.

Instead of breaking their will, celebrate it as a gift that will be valuable to them in life. Help them harness it and use the fight for good. Help them learn how to fight not just the right battles, but to fight the right battles in the right way. Help them see that their will can be good and beautiful when it is set in opposition to the things that goodness and justice demands we must oppose.

But whatever you do, Christian parent– please don’t try to break their will.

Because you *might* actually succeed at it, and that would be a tragedy.

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Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  • Many of us have seen the results of this sort of upbringing firsthand. I believe that it manifests not only in those who are (outwardly, at least) overly submissive, but in those who harbor an inner rage that leads to violence, prejudice, and a myriad of other issues later in life.

  • one cannot teach what one does not know IMHO. if one’s own spirit has been broken & one is not in recovery one will project that pain of having a broken spirit onto one’s children. in the song by randy newman the line: ‘i just want you to hurt like I do’ is a very real consequence of the hell of living w parents w unresolved trauma fr their own childhood. *\]:-0

    • I can sure see that happening Charles. But I also think I see in a nephew’s wife, a spoiled adult “child”. One who thinks they should always have their way and that right now. I see how that works out with this young women and her three young children and I sure don’t like that. Yeah, two of those children can get rowdy at times; 🙂 but the way I see it, it is the Mom who has the biggest problem. She reminds me of one of my older brothers and his children. In his mind, he was always right and they were always to jump and do exactly as he told them to do. And really, as best I see it, that’s just one form of child abuse. That is, when a parent is more childish acting, than the children.

  • We are watching this first hand right now. Sad but it is pretty hard to prevent when it’s happening to children other than your own.

  • “Breaking a child’s will” is not a familiar expression with me. And there are no examples in this article. Can someone please give me perspective on what this means? It seems the article was only written for people are already coming into this fully aware of this type of discipline.

    • I saw this take place first hand. A young child (3 y/o) was taught that he needed to stay on the small blanket the parents had placed on the floor for him. It was a regular sized baby blanket that lots of kids carry around at that age. If he stepped over the edge, he was paddled with a wooden spoon. I observed this child over several hours while his parents were in my office. He stayed on that blanket, standing on the edge watching everything that was going on, and never once stepped over the edge. He also had the saddest, loneliest little face I have ever seen.
      What the parents found out after his new sister was born, was that he had a very easy going personality and was easy to “train”. His baby sister? Not so much and the parents began to realize what a mistake they had made with him.

    • It can take on a variety of different looks, but the general philosophy is that you have to crush any desire within the child to resist whatever it is you want until they consistently and blindly obey whatever you tell them. They don’t do it because they want to necessarily do what’s right, but because they have had the spirit inside them crushed to the point where there is no willingness to resist. Honestly, it’s like we’ve seen in some long-term hostage situations where the person gives up, and remains captive even though they are no longer tied up.

    • My family cited Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles Wesley, for this idea. It is of course much older in principle (see Augustine’s discussion of crying children early in the Confessions, for instance). The idea is that children (like adults) are sinful and that the core sin for all people is pride–the desire to dominate others and follow one’s own will rather than God’s will. Hence, in order to help children become virtuous the parents must train them to accept that they won’t get everything they want. That’s the mildest and most innocuous way of putting it. But it often goes farther than that, with the idea that the child will obey automatically and unquestioningly and will essentially be psychologically incapable of rebelling against the parents. To understand why good people would engage in this kind of brainwashing, you have to understand that many conservative parents see a simple alternative: either the child will grow up to be rebellious and arrogant, worshiping his/her own will and tyrannizing over other people, or the child will learn to submit his/her will to God’s will and live a life of humility and love. The idea that our own will might be a good thing in moderation is hard to fit into the theology of many conservative Protestants.

  • Thanks for reminding me, once again, of how glad I am, how blessed I am, to have grown up outside of the fundagelical world.

    I have an eight year old son, and one day he will go out into the world on his own. My duty to him is to see that when that day comes, he is ready to do so.

    I will always be there with my love (and advice if he should want it), but ultimately he will need to spread his wings and fly, and undoubtedly fall on his face more than once and have to pick himself back up and continue.

    He will need to have a certain basic self-confidence for this – not a belief that he can do it all just yet, but that he can do enough, that he can learn as he goes, that he can right himself after stumbles.

    Breaking his will wouldn’t help a bit with that. Breaking his will would just make him less able to have faith in his own ability to fly on his own. Screw that.

    And completely aside from what, though said with feeling, is still basically a utilitarian argument, it would be a sin to break his will, to destroy his sparkle and his spirit. That’s what makes him alive, that’s what makes him wonderful.

    And I say that, knowing that the day-to-day stuff like getting him out the door in the morning can be a struggle half the time, and that fact is routinely inconvenient and often downright difficult. Sure, I want him to behave better, to do what I tell him the first time rather than the fifth. But if I have to break his spirit to make that happen – forget it.

    I love my son, as the person he is. That’s how God loves me. End of story.

    • My parents, at least, wouldn’t have seen themselves as “breaking my spirit” or taking away my “sparkle.” And I think most people who know me now or knew me as a child would say that they certainly didn’t do that. (Compared to some adherents of the “break the will” philosophy, such as Mike and Debi Pearl, my family were very moderate. But they did use that language.) Rather, they saw it as their job to ensure that I became a person willing to put what was good and right over what I wanted. Unfortunately, they did contribute, I think, to making me a very indecisive person. I am intellectually aggressive but in any practical decision find it extremely hard to assert myself or to push for what I really want, because that feels “willful” and “selfish.”

  • As a clinical psychologist I agree completely with this. I have seen way too many adults who were broken and never recovered a vital self. My alternative is to observe that what we call misbehavior is actually a rudimentary form of what we want to see in them as adults. Anger when well directed becomes assertiveness; slammed doors become the ability to create effective boundaries; hiding away can become the ability to engage solitude. Our call in scripture is to train up a child, not break them down. I would rather see parents model the positive than simply do the negative they don’t want better (worse) than the child does it. It is not simple to redirect these behaviors but it is well worth it.

  • Once again we all must be reminded that there are many different children in this world of all dispositions. Some children need to have their will broken, but not their spirit. Some will need some medication. Others will simply never be compliant and will go off and do their own thing regardless of what you as parents think. If you are blessed with kids with balanced disposition, then yay for you. However, for those with one or more strong-willed children, well there are books for that because this blog holds nothing supportive for you to deal with those kids who need more structure, boundaries, and discipline.

    Just as with the Christian life, there is a balance of grace and truth. Some people need more truth than grace and others need more grace than truth. So before everyone comes down hard on the people who teach their children a deep level of compliance (truth), that is ultimately the individual set of parents responsibility, not the village to scold those in different circumstances into compliance.

    • Well, we need to clarify what “breaking the will” means. I think it’s at best unfortunate language. I prefer the classical language of mastering the passions by reason. That’s what children need to be taught to do, and insofar as their wills are governed by destructive passions, it’s the job of the parents not to let them get away with that in ways that harm themselves and others and teach bad habits. If that’s what “breaking the will” means, then OK. But it’s a misleading way to describe it, I think.

      I have found, as a parent, that while negative consequences are sometimes necessary, positive reinforcement is _far_ preferable and more effective most of the time. Parents need to make it clear that they respect the wills of their children and want the children to learn how to love and pursue what is good for themselves.

    • What does compliant mean? What is a compliant child?

      Thing is, no one can know what is truly right for anyone but themselves and a lot of people haven’t even figured out that much. So unless your child is engaging in behaviours like stealing, deceit, or bullying, then they’re okay so far as the rest of the world goes. If they also manage to avoid self-destructive behaviour then they’re okay so far as they go.

      What they believe in, what they aspire to do, whether they prefer camping in the woods or reading books, talking to friends or being by themselves, whether they believe in your God or another God or no God at all, who they wind up voting for and who they want to have a relationship with are all going to be their decisions and all you can do is help them find what’s right for them without imposing on them what you feel most comfortable with.

      A parent is the first authority figure any child will know. How they deal with authority for the rest of their life is down to how you carry yourself in the first eighteen years of their life. If you want a man or woman to spend the rest of their life being fearful of authority, then make your child afraid. If you want a man or woman prepared to stand up to abuses of authority then accept that you are the first authority figure they will rebel against.

      And know this. That first time they rebel is not a sign of your failure but a sign that you have raised a human being.

  • We must be very aware of the theology we cling to for it works itself out in the most intimate parts of our lives.

    In this case, the fundies are normally so focused on the depravity and sin they often forget to recognize and embrace the Imago Dei in the child. This one sided approach wreaks the kind of havoc I think Benjamin is alluding to in his article.

  • Corey, thanks for this excellent article on child rearing. The concept of breaking a child’s (even and infant’s) will is a terrible thing, yet it is taught with such confidence and authority. I agree with you that we need healthy wills to be best prepared for life.

    Thankfully, we raised our son, not by breaking his will, but by cooperating with him to develop a strong sense of himself along with the ability to think, explore, and arrive at good decisions. When he inevitably failed at times, we supported him and helped him learn from it. The result has been very satisfying. He respects us but no longer depends on us; he is his own person.

    I really liked your statement: “Yes, they might be kind, polite, and compliant, but inside they have become programmed robots, group-thinkers, and line-walkers, instead of unique creations of God.”

  • When we do not raise up our children to be free to understand this …

    If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

    Luke 14:26 (NIV2011)

    … then they are dependent upon our will (from our perspective) that is infinitely more inferior to Jesus’ will (from His perspective).

    If our children are dependent upon our limited and selective truths they are truly unable to live within the sum of the law and the prophets …

    So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.

    Matthew 7:12 (NIV2011)

    … because they cannot accept in love all their other merciful neighbors (from different perspectives than us) as themselves.

    “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    Matthew 22:36-40 (NIV2011)

    If our children don’t grow to love all their neighbors equally as themselves how can we expect them to love their enemies …

    But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

    Matthew 5:44-45 (NIV2011)

    … enough to carry their cross for them?

    And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

    Luke 14:27 (NIV2011)

    Knowing, comparatively successful long and late within my carnal life, what I know that I know today I prefer my children, whom I love without merit enough to readily give my life for, become Disciples of the Messiah Jesus than remain disciples of me and/or their mother.

    • Isn’t there also a verse that basically says, “Parents, do not aggravate your children” or something like that?

  • The other danger here, that Corey didn’t mention, is, I think, equally terrifying. A “broken willed” person grows up to inflict that on others. He or she becomes a bully–they delight in seeing others “broken.” This kind of thing can lead to really scary lessons about power. Not “I need to submit my will to God, and, at times, to others,” but “When I get older, I’ll have the stick!” I wonder what happened when the parents of kids of did this got old and sick and had to be taken care of by the “broken will” child? I wonder how many of them suddenly saw the effects of breaking a will–esp. if it wasn’t every really broken, just waiting, like a trapped animal, for the chance to last out.

    Well, that was cheerful. But seriously, why do you think these things perpetuate? It isn’t the fear of God (alone). It is the horrible, horrible pleasure in breaking someone to your will.

  • So true. James Dobson has been one of the most prominent proponents of this dangerous and unhealthy style of child rearing which sees the child almost as the enemy of the parent and in need of breaking in order to comply with the parent’s will. In contrast to his antagonistic view of child-rearing is Rudolf Dreikurs. “Children: The Challenge.” Dreikurs’ work demonstrates how parents can build trust and love rather than fear and antagonism, preparing the child to be a caring, responsible adult able to enter into trusting and loving relationships.

  • I disagree. As the mother of 4 grown adults with 1 grandchildren I think I can speak with some degree of authority in this area. But I think some of the problem is semantics. It IS important to break their will. Their will is tied to their pride which is the original sin. But you should NOT break their spirit which is their personality, zip and charisma! God hard wired our children and us in a way that will be a blessing to others if we choose His way. But if our will or our children’s will gets in the way then we are less likely to choose God and more likely to choose our own path. Our own path will not bless others ultimately or bless God. Pride comes between us and God. Whether my children embarrassed me at any given point is a) part of parenting and b) irrelevant because it is part of my own pride.

    • AS the father of 4 grown children, six grandchildren and one great grand child you are speaking nonsense.

  • This post ties in well to your more recent post about cults. In Tracy’s case, she was born into it, but many of the adults (or young adults) that wind up in cults (high-control, destructive religious groups) were “broken” as children. I speak from personal experience.

  • I’ve known Christian parents who believe they’re being liberal by allowing their kids to paint their nails, engage in social media and generally believing they were ‘cool’ parents, when, in actuality, they still ‘broke’ their kids down by isolating them, exposing them only to those within their neighboring churches, putting down public school kids with regular mean-spirited insults, being OK with sarcastic digs made at those outside of their Christian community, constantly reinforcing an us vs. them mentality which will definitely not serve them well and has already damaged them by turning them into mean girls and bullies. Christian ones.

  • Thing is, no one can know what is truly right for anyone but themselves and a lot of people haven’t even figured out that much. So unless your child is engaging in behaviours like stealing, deceit, or bullying, then they’re okay so far as the rest of the world goes. If they also manage to avoid self-destructive behaviour then they’re okay so far as they go.

    What they believe in, what they aspire to do, whether they prefer camping in the woods or reading books, talking to friends or being by themselves, whether they believe in your God or another God or no God at all, who they wind up voting for and who they want to have a relationship with are all going to be their decisions and all you can do is help them find what’s right for them without imposing on them what you feel most comfortable with.

    A parent is the first authority figure any child will know. How they deal with authority for the rest of their life is down to how you carry yourself in the first eighteen years of their life. If you want a man or woman to spend the rest of their life being fearful of authority, then make your child afraid. If you want a man or woman prepared to stand up to abuses of authority then accept that you are the first authority figure they will rebel against.

    And know this. That first time they rebel is not a sign of your failure but a sign that you have raised a human being.

  • I was not born or raised Fundy, but I know all too well about “breaking the will” of a child. Any sort of independent thought or action different from the “family plan” was deemed unacceptable and was treated as such. I can never thank my husband enough for his role in getting me away from that life and the horrible repression (and oppression) that comes with it. Though it has been some years, I still find myself struggling to be assertive and independent. I’ve come a long way, but I still have a long way to go.

    When my child was born, I vowed that I would not subject her to the sort of upbringing I had. My job as a parent is to love her for the unique creation of God who she is and to teach her the skills she needs to be a functioning adult. One day she is going to leave me and start her own life. She’ll need all the lessons she learned growing up about emotions, people’s character, etc. if she is going to become a productive member of society at large.

    The way I see it, a broken spirit in a child creates a broken adult who will do anything to fix the pieces and be “whole” again. The results vary widely and range from the criminal to the celebrated with everything in between. It’s not easy to patch up a life torn up from terror and oppression.

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