Breaking the Chains of Legalistic Parenting

Parenting proves challenging in the best of circumstances. Even the healthiest, most well-adjusted parent faces crises of doubt, exhaustion, and failure.


via Brian Smithson, Creative Commons

But most of us aren’t completely healthy, are we? Most of us carry baggage from our own imperfect childhoods, adolescent traumas, and adult heartaches. And for those of us who grew up in rule-based churches or families, the roots of legalism can run deeper than we imagine. Unaddressed, they can wrap around our children and their children to the third or fourth generation.

The Rule of Law

We all want to believe that we would never do anything terrible in this world, nothing to hurt the ones we love, nothing to be ashamed of when we sit wrinkled and rheumy in our rocking chairs with our lives spread out behind us. We all wish for our lives to go unendingly from strength to strength.

We don’t all get what we wish for.

I spent most of my life in a Bible cult. When that church fell apart six year ago, I had to come to grips with my own distorted view of God, my legalistic worldview, and a brittle sense of self which relied heavily on rule-following to feel secure.

Though outwardly I appeared normal, inwardly I was wrapped in chains.

I also had to live with the pain I had caused family members and friends as a result of shunning them in our church’s misguided belief that all who were not part of our tiny fellowship were guilty of apostasy. I vowed that I would never hurt anyone like that again.

Progress, though slow, seemed steady. Over time, I laid aside many of the most destructive beliefs from my former church. But one area remained deep-rooted and surprisingly resistant to change. It was the idea that God is fundamentally a rule-maker and that his love is conditioned primarily on my ability to do what is right. I felt like a child always cowering beneath the upraised hand of an angry parent. This conception of God expresses itself through a worldview of legalism.

When Legalists Become Parents

I thought marriage and family would provide a sanctuary from my own legalistic past. I wanted to believe that my own hurtful church background would soften me as a parent. In some ways it has. But I also found that parenting seemed to catalyze my inner legalist. Small children—besides being cute—are messy, needy, and brilliant at provoking adult areas of weakness.

Here are some of the legalistic chains which can make me feel locked-up in my parenting:

  1. Overreaction to disobedient or defiant behavior, evidencing a deeper well of hurt and insecurity in my own life.
  2. Expectation that my children should behave as tiny adults, rather than in developmentally appropriate ways.
  3. Ascribing moral significance to accidents or disorder, which results in intolerance for messiness, noise, or chaos.
  4. Paranoia which expresses itself in an unreasonable fear that my children will get hurt and results in a visceral need to control my surroundings.
  5. Easily scandalized by mistakes, accidents, or spills, with the understanding that someone is always at fault and it is important to ascribe blame to balance the moral ledger.
  6. Believing that there is only one right way to do something. This results in me being inflexible and feeling defensive when my wife suggests alternative ways to parent.
  7. Focusing on efficiency rather than on quality of time spent together.
  8. Task-oriented approach to each day, rather than a joyful focus on relationships.
  9. Feeling guilty, incompetent, and ashamed of my abilities as a parent.
  10. Expecting my children to obey unwritten rules, then disciplining them when they transgress these unstated expectations.
  11. Lecturing young children at a theological and psychological level far beyond their ability to comprehend.
  12. Using spiritual terms to justify harsh behavior.
  13. Believing that obedience is the most important job of children, rather than learning and growing.
  14. Believing that creating moral, obedient children is the most important job of a parent, rather than modeling Christ-like behavior and providing a safe place for children to feel loved, to learn, and to grow.

It’s a pretty miserable list, isn’t it? When you read it, does it make you feel safe, loved, and accepted? Or does it make you feel fearful, hesitant, and driven to perform?

Breaking the Chains of Legalistic Parenting

My own parenting is a work in progress. I don’t have all the answers. But as a recovering legalist, certain truths have helped me start to break the chains which once bound me.

  1. Understand that my parenting is a mirror of my relationship with God. I will treat my children largely in the same way I feel God treats me. Do I understand that I am fully loved and accepted  by God through Jesus Christ and his finished work on the cross? Or do I feel I have to earn his approval every minute of the day?
  2. Nothing comes out of me which isn’t already inside of me. When I overreact or have fits of rage, it is not an anomaly. It is rooted in fundamental misconceptions I have about God and about my place in the world.
  3. Transforming my worldview takes time and regular attention. Worldview is a muscle which can be exercised or atrophied. What I read, what I watch, who I talk with, and my own self-talk provide the background noise to my life. Are these channels based on grace and truth, or lies?
  4. Listen to my spouse. Parenting is a partnership, not a dictatorship.
  5. Apologize to my children when I sin against them. Admit that I was wrong. Tell them why I was wrong, and why I need Jesus to help me. Ask for their forgiveness. Do it as many times as I sin against them, even if it feels humiliating. Even if I cry. Tears are the most honest apology.
  6. Write down the behaviors or circumstances which trigger my internal legalist. Identify them clearly, then look for them in real life and come up with alternative ways to act. This preparation allows me to respond to situations rather than reacting with my legalistic defaults.
  7. Realize that my primary job as a parent is to keep my children safe and to model Christ to them. Love covers over a multitude of sins.
  8. Seek out resources which can help me understand developmentally appropriate activities, tasks, and disciplines for my children. Look at both Christian and non-Christian resources.
  9. Consider what my child’s primary perception of me must be. Is it of a father or mother full of the joy of the Holy Spirit, fun-loving, consistent, self-disciplined, and humble? Or is it of a brittle dictator, prone to fits of rage, rigid adherence to rules, and an unsmiling view of life?
  10. Accept God’s grace for me. I am learning to parent just as my child is learning to be a child. We all make mistakes. God planned to put my children in my home. He wanted them to have me as their parent. With Christ’s help, I am the best parent for God’s purpose in my child’s life.


Legalism is a joyless worldview whose roots run deep. It is a spiritual stronghold which we can overcome only with God’s help. But there is hope for legalistic people who become parents. Our faulty worldview does not have to curse our own children or their children after them.

By recognizing our problem, seeking God’s help, rehabilitating our thinking, and humbling ourselves before our spouse and our children, we can break the chains of legalism and live the free and joyful life that God intended for our blessing.

10 comments on “Breaking the Chains of Legalistic Parenting

  1. Oh, boy. Thanks, Steve. I resemble those remarks.

  2. Thanks Steve, as a parent who is now a year out of an Abusive Church Culture, this article has hit home at a very opportune moment.

  3. Thank you for that. It resonated with me in an alarming way. Awareness is a good place to begin, I’d say.

  4. I am 30 years out of the abusive church I grew up in but only now realising how much it has affected me and how much of it I carried into my parenting 😦 I’m glad I found this blog. Thank-you

  5. sounds like you may be an estj.. this sounds strikingly similar to my dads legalistic parenting behavior that has really destroyed me to ever trust him or god as loving.

    • Well, I’m actually an ISFJ, but legalism tends to look pretty much the same no matter what your natural personality type.

      • interesting, I guess I thought that due to their very critical nature it was the same thing, I hadn’t distinguished it, now i see it is two separate things. thanks.

  6. Apologize to my children when I sin against them. Admit that I was wrong. Tell them why I was wrong, and why I need Jesus to help me. Ask for their forgiveness. Do it as many times as I sin against them, even if it feels humiliating. Even if I cry. Tears are the most honest apology.

    be careful with that… if someone did that to me as a child I would feel like their burden and their problems are mine.. its really seems a bit inappropriate, you should probably explain what “why I need Jesus to help me” means, because they are are a child.. they don’t need to be burdened with the why you need Jesus.. that puts a bit of guilt on them, seems manipulative crossing the line.

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