As a toddler, my son would often lash out at other kids for no apparent reason, causing incidents at daycare, at home, and in the church nursery. At times, he would even hurt himself in his distress. After more than a year of trying to encourage the “right” behavior, I felt like this was more than age-appropriate tantrums.

We sought an evaluation, and our son received multiple diagnoses that confirmed he’s neurodivergent, a term that commonly encompasses brain-based differences such as ADHD, autism, learning difficulties, and more.

One way to consider how my son experiences the world is to think of his brain like a highly sensitive smoke detector. A typical smoke detector on your kitchen ceiling will alert you to a potential emergency in the room. However, one that is highly sensitive might alert you to a neighbor smoking a cigarette as he walks by your window on his way to the store.

My son’s nervous system makes him similarly sensitive. He’s hyper-attuned to potential threats in the world around him, and sometimes the most typical everyday interactions can become extremely distressing for him, even resulting in acute anxiety attacks.

As first-time parents, we did our best to follow conventional advice about establishing routines and maintaining authority. We disciplined him with consequences, withheld privileges, and rewarded any display of self-control. Any physical discipline only succeeded in making us seem like a threat and triggering his fight-or-flight response.

Traditional forms of discipline were not working, and my husband and I knew we needed to change the way we parented. Yet I still wondered if this was compatible with my faith. I could not escape the maxim “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”

One Sunday, our pastor preached on the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11–32). He encouraged us to put ourselves in the shoes of a first-century Jewish father—to imagine being effectively disowned by your child and the emotions of having them eventually return.

Citing Kenneth E. Bailey’s work, our pastor explained that a first-century son who demanded his inheritance would be ceremoniously rejected, cut off from his heritage and his family. Our pastor described the father running to his son in order to reach him before the community noticed his return and cast him out forever. I pictured villagers running after the father to see what he would do, stunned that he embraced his wayward, reckless child instead of condemning him and casting him out.

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Our pastor asked us to try to comprehend how unbelievable the forgiveness, grace, and protection the father extended to his son would seem to the rest of the village, who would at best despise the son and at worst excommunicate or stone him.

I tried to grasp the tenderness the father must have felt toward his son to be willing to forgive and find a new way forward that integrated his child back into the family and the community, regardless of what others thought. I wondered how to reconcile the discrepancies between this particular illustration of the love of God the Father and the parenting advice I continued to receive from other Christians to be firm, to shepherd and steward my child, and to let my child know I was the authority.

When I was encouraged to “shepherd” my children, I would jokingly respond that my lack of agrarian experience left me uncertain how to move forward. As I pored over the multitude of sheep and shepherd imagery in the Bible, I didn’t understand how a shepherd could brandish a rod against his sheep and still refresh or comfort them (Ps. 23:3–4).

So I did what many millennial parents might do: I searched the Internet for how to herd and tend to sheep, specifically looking for references to rods and staffs. I discovered that a rod would likely have been used to fight off wild animals who may come after the sheep—not against the sheep themselves, and that the staff was probably a shepherd’s crook, used to guide sheep and even retrieve them should they find themselves in a precarious situation.

I also learned that “Spare the rod, spoil the child” isn’t actually what Proverbs 13:24 says. The phrase likely originated from a 17th-century long satirical poem, Hudibras, and Samuel Butler’s words convey an explicitly sexual meaning.

Meanwhile, as we sought out strategies that would be effective for my son, I discovered secular experts who recommended mindful parenting that focuses on compassionately building skills—what is popularly called “gentle parenting.” I later found a number of Christian experts who encourage an approach to parenting that centers on connection, respect, and gentleness, including Flourishing Homes and Families, Connected Families, and Grace Based Families.

Both Christian and secular critics denigrate it as an overly permissive, boundary-free style of parenting that can have detrimental effects both in childhood and adulthood.

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At the same time, proponents of gentle parenting don’t always agree on what discipline should look like. There are similar approaches called positive parenting, responsive parenting, and peaceful discipline, and some experts have even suggested abandoning the name “gentle parenting” altogether.

The words discipline and disciple both derive their meaning from the Latin word for instruction or teaching. As language has evolved, there continues to be an implication of order and instruction, but the concept of chastising or punishing didn’t become part of the word’s meaning until the 11th or 12th century, when it became associated with military instruction.

Gentle parenting, rather, allows my family to focus on instruction—on discipling our children in such a way that we model the Father’s love for them, so that they may grow to trust and know God.

Whatever you choose to call this style of parenting, the common thread is that parents are encouraged to be authoritative (often contrasted with authoritarian parenting), to focus on respecting and understanding the child, to emphasize cooperation between parent and child, and to encourage independence within appropriate boundaries.

At the end of the day, all parenting requires wisdom and discernment, and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Gentle parenting offers one set of tools and strategies that enable us to model Christ’s love and to equip our children with the self-control, order, and grace required to navigate the fallen world we are all born into.

My husband and I believe that children are a blessing from God (Ps. 127:3), and we parent in a way that focuses on compassionately guiding and empowering our children (Eph. 6:4). We encourage autonomy, independence, and abiding faith by remembering that adults and children are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27).

We don’t harshly punish our children, because we seek to love them as the Father loves us (1 John 3:1), and we endeavor to model discipline, grace, and faith in a way that we hope reflects that love (Prov. 3:11–12; 1 John 4:11–12). At every step, we consider our children’s development as well as their needs for support and accommodation.

When we punish our children, we are inflicting suffering for their past behavior with the hope of changing their future behavior. There is no shortage of ways to teach and instruct a child about wrongdoing—and how to prevent it—without causing them to suffer. Forgiveness, mercy, and grace are not opposed to discipline, good stewardship, and experiencing the real, felt consequences of our actions.

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My husband and I have both the privilege and responsibility of working together to help our children develop skills and to offer support as they navigate the world with increasing independence. We allow our children to experience the consequences of their actions, and we discuss what we could do differently to achieve a different outcome. Most importantly, we teach them about the incredible grace and mercy that is offered to each of us.

We parent the way we do as a humble reflection of what God is offering to all of us. Throughout his ministry, Jesus went out to people and met them where they were. He didn’t insist on a standardized process of redemption, and there is ultimately no checklist we can follow. We can only follow him. To put it another way, Jesus wants us to follow his lead, and we ask the same of our children.

And when we inevitably fall short—or our children do—my hope and prayer is that we’ve cultivated the kind of love and grace that would allow a child to return in humility and trust or a father to sprint through town to greet his child, no matter the time apart or the circumstances of that separation.

A few months ago, we began to have similar concerns about our daughter’s development, and we sought an evaluation for her as well. As I discussed this with my mother and the psychologist, I realized that there are many similarities between my daughter’s behavior and how I was as a child. I decided to pursue my own evaluation, and we confirmed that both my daughter and I are also neurodivergent.

A recent CDC report found that nearly 1 in 10 children between ages 3 and 17 are diagnosed with a developmental disability, an increase from previous years. If this trend continues, the church will need to develop new tools to love and support our children. I imagine this will also include accepting and accommodating styles of parenting and forms of discipline that, while “new” to many in the church, are both rooted in Scripture and respectful of our children.

When the disciples stopped people from bringing children to receive blessing and prayer from Jesus, he admonished them (Matt. 19:13–14). We have no reason to believe that the children who came before Jesus were without disabilities. Throughout the Gospels, people came to Jesus for healing and prayer for themselves, their children, and their loved ones.

I deeply desire for adults to remember this before asking a seemingly disruptive child to leave a service or to refrain from participating in a church activity that would allow them to experience the love of Christ. “Do not hinder them,” our Savior says, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (v. 14).

Sunita Theiss is a writer, communications consultant, and homeschool parent based in Georgia.

[ This article is also available in español. ]