Avoiding Legalism as a Parent

As parents, we need to allow for our children to learn and apply context to different situations. Rules should not be black and white.

mom and dad talking to daughter

Moral precept number six in On Becoming Childwise is to Avoid Legalism When Giving Instructions. Let’s start with an explanation of what Legalism is.

Legalism Defined

Legalism is viewing everything as either black or white. “Legalism elevates method over moral principle to create prohibitions” (page 85). This means that you value the rule more than any virtue that might require you to break that rule. 

There are many examples of being legalistic in the scriptures. Pharisees and the Sadducees attempted to catch Jesus Christ in an act of breaking the law in some way.

If he healed on Sunday, they accused Him of breaking the Sabbath.

They tried to create situations to cause him to break some law–like bringing the adulteress woman before him.

The lessons learned from these stories in the scriptures are that we should follow the spirit of the law, not the letter of the law. Sometimes the ox is in the mire, and given the context of that situation, we do some labor on the Sabbath day. 

The Importance of Context

Legalists do not consider context when making decisions. As we discussed last time, context is an important factor to consider when giving and following instructions. 

>>>Read: Evaluating and Teaching Context to Your Kids

We need to be careful about legalism with our kids because a child tends to think very legalistically.

When you say, “Don’t throw the ball in the house” the child might jump to “I can never throw balls!”

When you say, “Do not yell inside” the child will hesitate to yell even if yelling could save someone from harm. 

Avoiding Legalism

The child thinks in black and white terms, so we need to be careful that we do not teach legalistically. Avoid the words “never” or “always.” Remember to teach why and explain the context of a rule. 

Avoid legalism in your own mind. When your child breaks a rule, think before you respond.

Did your child get out of bed even though you have a rule to stay in bed? Before you respond with a consequence, inquire as to the reason your child got out of bed.

Perhaps your child needs to use the restroom or maybe your child feels sick. Wait for an explanation before you jump to your own legalistic conclusion. 

Remember, we don’t want our children to just act morally, we want them to think morally and to be moral. It will take time and teaching, but you will get there. 

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Avoiding legalism as a parent

2 thoughts on “Avoiding Legalism as a Parent”

  1. Good post, we need to always keep in mind the reasonsfor the rules that we have – i.e. the spirit of the rule not just the black and white.Just one point about your post it was the Sabbath day (Saturday/7th day) not Sunday that Jesus healed on when the pharisees accused him of breaking the Sabbath, but yes they were being legalistic about keeping the rules instead of the spirit of the day – as Jesus said "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath day" (after all He was Lord of the Sabbath – the Creator Himself)!


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