Freud & Faith: Part 5, The Best Parents in America

We live in an culture, in America at least, that is both child-centric and nurture-obsessed. Interestingly, American Christianity has fully embraced these cultural emphases. American Christianity has made the parental nurture of children its defining witness to the world. This is a strange move to make given Jesus's consistent marginalization of family love. That is, Jesus doesn't place storge (love of family) at the center of his Kingdom vision. Rather, Jesus's focus is on what the Greeks called xenia (love of the stranger/outsider; hospitality). This downplaying of storge in favor of xenia is clearly illustrated in Jesus's teaching. Two examples:

Matthew 5:
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons 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. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Luke 14:
Then Jesus said to his host, "When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous."
As we reflect on all this, we might ask: Given Jesus's clear and consistent teaching, how did Americans and American Christians come to place so much emphasis on family love?

Some of the answer has to do with Freud.

As noted above, American culture is child-centric. This is a unique cultural stance, historically and globally. Most cultures have tended to place adulthood at the center of culture, especially the elderly. Americans, by contrast, have inverted this widespread emphasis. The elderly in America tend to be marginalized and discounted. The elderly are not deferred to or respected the way they are in other cultures. Rather than respecting old age and wisdom, Americans idolize youthfulness and childhood. The children are our future. They are the prized possessions. Babies are our idols.

Freud was significant in this shift of focus (from Jesus's culture to our own) in that Freud was the first influential thinker to devote significant attention to the role of childhood upon adulthood functioning. Freud's detailed theory of the psychosexual stages of development was unprecedented. Further, Freud detailed the way family relationships between parents, siblings and children can affect development, for good or ill. For Freud, the secret to who I am today is to be found in the past, in the early experiences of family and childhood.

This idea--the child is the father to the man--is so widely held that we fail to note how revolutionary it was when Freud began placing family life under the microscope. True, prior to Freud many acknowledged the importance of childhood. But Freud's analysis and theory revealed just how much could get screwed up during those years. Suddenly, childhood became very, very fragile. Parents could really mess things up. Kids could get ruined very easily.

Overnight, parenthood became a minefield. One had to tread carefully. Kids won't spontaneously recover from bad parenting. Thus, great skill was required. The Better Parenting obsession and industry was born.

Into this mix a uniquely Christian spin was created: Perhaps, in this post-Freudian parenting milieu, Christians could distinguish themselves from "the world" by showing that they love their kids more than anyone else loves their kids. By loving their kids more, by being the best parents in America, Christians might become a witness to the world.

Now, this isn't intrinsically a bad notion. I think it's great that Christians try to be wonderful parents. I know I try. But I think there are some risks to this strategy.

First, it's lopsided. The mass effort to love our kids more and show the world that we are the best parents in America is routinely done at the expense of, well, loving the world. We've replaced xenia with storge. That is, by having Norman Rockwell family meals we often fail to invite the people on the street to our tables. Family life becomes an idol.

Second, by priding ourselves upon being the Best Parents in America we come off as holier-than-thou. That is, on purely pragmatic grounds, the goal of loving our families as a witness to the world just isn't working. We look selfish, self-interested and self-absorbed. Instead of washing the feet of the world we read parenting manuals and pride ourselves on reading bible stories to our kids at night. All good, but annoying to outsiders. We need to do more than this.

In short, Freud was integral in creating new modern emphases, concerns, and neuroses about family and childhood development. We've all, the church included, imbibed these cultural trends. Thus it is important to step back and ask again, "What is the truly counter-cultural move?" How do we, in this post-Freudian climate, embrace robust and healthy families while opening ourselves to lives of hospitality and service to others? How does xenia as well as storge come to typify Christian living?

Because Freud has affected us far more than we've realized.

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3 thoughts on “Freud & Faith: Part 5, The Best Parents in America”

  1. I have a lot of trouble with this, but I don't think it's so much that I'm trying to generate some sort of wonderful Christian witness. I think it's mostly because I like my kids, and I don't like lots of other people, and it's very easy for me to say, "Screw all you people, I don't have any obligations to you. I'm going to be very insular and Norman Rockwell, and I'm going to enjoy it."

  2. Matthew,
    I understand and am in strong sympathy. I enjoy, truly enjoy, being with my children. I've never read a parenting book in my life and have never called myself the "head" or "leader" of my family. I just enjoy my children as people. I wish I was like them in many ways. Not in their generic childhood, but in the concrete specifics of their distinct personalities. I wish I was as kind as Brenden and I wish I had Aidan's quirky take on the world.

    But morally I try, through Herculean self-reflection, to remember that I'm tempted to narrowness. That, to take an example from yesterday at the pool, all those children I see need patience and kindness and love as much as my children do. I don't like the look of many of those kids. Too loud. Too rude. Ill-mannered. So it's hard. But I try. I try.

  3. Listening to a couple headed to Thailand last week, a couple in their 20's with a new child, they commented that they would have a hard time being missionaries to older people, since the culture is paternal. Although the future is in the children the stories reside in the elderly. The "wisdom" the manual for living. How do get things done?
    How true this is, in relation to how people chose churches. In some cases the a church "home" is chosen by the kids, the kids tell the parents where they are going. Unless the theology is beyond a level of tolerance for the parents, they will "Submit" to moving, changing churches. I wonder if this is a southern trend?

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