Does Your Parenting Suffer From Legalism?

steel balancing scale

Legalism – strict, literal or excessive conformity to the law or to a religious or moral code. Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary

Hubby grew up in a very conservative family. How conservative, you may ask? Well, his parents have each worn shorts once. In their lives. When we were first married, Hubby’s Grandma was still alive, and I found myself at the store purchasing a nice pair of slacks to wear when we visited her, because wearing shorts in Grandma’s presence just wasn’t done.

Now. You may be thinking something along the lines of “Wow. That’s really strict.” I actually never saw it that way. It wasn’t about following some rule just for the sake of following a rule. Instead, we were honoring Grandma and showing her love and respect. It would have offended her to see our knobby knees, and it cost us little to cover them.

I think that the reason I was never bothered by the rule was the intensely loving nature of Hubby’s family. It was always clear that we were doing things a certain way out of love and not out of legalism.

With my own children, I try very hard to think about that when I tell them that we do things a certain way. For example, we kneel during prayer to show God love and respect. (If there are times that we don’t kneel, then that’s okay too. Flexibility is a big part of not becoming legalistic.) If I tell them why we do things the way we do, and show them that love is the basis of our choices, then they are that much more likely to make their own decisions in life based on love.

I grew up in a particular denomination of Christianity that has a lot of form and structure to its worship service. I now worship in a non-denominational church family, and I’m thrilled to be there. I wonder, though, how much more likely I would have been to stay with the church I grew up with if they’d have found a way to communicate to me a love for the liturgy. Instead of seeing rules and restrictions, I may have seen practices based on love and respect for the Creator of the Universe.

As a side note, it’s occurring to me as I type that perhaps feminists are so offended by traditional views of women because of legalism. Have they considered that submission is a choice I make in love?

Legalism happens when people fail to communicate the reasons (and especially the love) behind the rules.

Just for a minute, take stock of your life and the way you live it. Can you justify your choices with reasoning and love?

If not, why is the rule in your life?

If so, have you started passing that love and reasoning down to your children? Ask them why you wear slacks for Grandma, or why you kneel in prayer, or whatever practice or tradition you have within your own family. If they don’t know the answers, tell them. Fill their little hearts and minds with love and understanding. You’ll be glad someday that you made the effort.

Earnest Parenting: tips for parents who want to be loving, not legalistic.

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The editor-in-chief of Earnest Parenting, Amy is the mother of two sets of twin boys. Yes, they drive her crazy, but they also make her laugh occasionally. Amy enjoys writing, quilting, reading, and working on her burgeoning cyber empire.

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  • Evan January 9, 2008, 5:34 pm

    Actually I think the feminists rebel against the arrogance and pride (not love) that is the reason for what the patriarchy does. Apart from this I love this post.

  • Craig Harper January 9, 2008, 5:37 pm

    Great post Amy!
    Sometimes people are to busy parenting to question the reasons we do and say a lot of the things we do.

  • Amy January 9, 2008, 8:01 pm

    @Evan: On some level, I think we’re saying the same thing. Legalistic behavior is part of what has caused the offense that feminists have towards men. My question about submission probably skipped a logical thought or two. 🙂 I won’t go on long, because it’s not really connected to parenting. I think it’s the generalities and broad extensions of that offense that I was pondering when I asked the question. I do choose to submit to my husband (to the best of my ability anyhow); however, he is a fantastic human being worth sacrificing my pride for. It’s not completely certain I would have made the same choice had I somehow managed to marry a boor. Although, as I grow in my faith and understanding of Scripture, I do see the wisdom of humility in any situation. Thanks very much for your wonderful review on SU. 🙂

    @Craig: Thank you so much! Glad you stopped by the blog.

  • Raymond Chua January 9, 2008, 11:08 pm

    I love it when you say that, “we were doing things a certain way out of love and not out of legalism”.

    It makes so much sense.

  • On Living By Learning January 10, 2008, 12:50 pm

    Isn’t this about respect? Respecting your children enough to explain why you choose to do things a certain way, and allowing them to respect your choices.

    Thanks for a thought-provoking article!

  • Amy January 10, 2008, 1:17 pm

    @Raymond: Thank you. 🙂

    @On Living: Yes, that’s such a great point!

  • Karen (Karooch from Scraps of Mind) January 11, 2008, 10:44 pm

    This is really thought provoking for so many aspects of life Amy. I always tried to give my daughter reasons behind the ‘orders’ I gave her and I found that it tended to work because she applied her logic to them and recognised that it was not just ‘because Mum says so’. Although I will admit to using that tactic when my back was up against the wall.