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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 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

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive 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. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

BLC

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is a cultural anthropologist, public theologian, writer, speaker, global traveler, and tattoo collector. He is a two-time graduate of Gordon-Conwell with graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies, and went on to receive 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. In addition to his blog, Formerly Fundie, his work has been regularly featured by a wide array of media outlets such as TIME magazine and CNN, among others.

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  • 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

  • Icefishinglady says:

    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.

  • dave says:

    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.

  • trevoray says:

    “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.

  • lowtechcyclist says:

    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.

  • Tom Hainlen says:

    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.

  • MLord says:

    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.

  • Brandon Roberts says:

    honestly my family never tried to break my will and i was raised fundy

  • Matthew says:

    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.”

  • Herm says:

    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.

  • lollardheretic says:

    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.

  • Teri says:

    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.

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