Bad Therapy

A young well-heeled mother was struggling with her recalcitrant six-year-old son. ‘Please be a good boy,’ the woman said to him. ‘If you are good for just five minutes, when we get home, I’ll let you do anything you want. What do you want?’ The little boy looked his mother straight in the eye. ‘I want to punch you in the face,’ he said. Woah!

This is an extreme but true story.  It is one which, in her latest book Bad Therapy,[1] US journalist Abigail Shrier would say illustrates the direction of likely outcomes of non-confrontational parenting which has all but taken over the Western world. Note, by the way, that it was reported recently by the BBC that there is to be yet another attempt to ban smacking in England – following Wales and Scotland. If Labour wins the next election, I would be most surprised if this is not among their proposals for legislation. 

Setting boundaries

No-one of any sense believes in brutalising children, but youngsters do need measured discipline of various kinds for their own good. Discipline sets boundaries and boundaries actually make children feel secure – they know where they stand. Without boundaries children feel lost, alone and without a guide. Parenting which avoids any kind of sanctions for infringements (i.e., punishments) has disastrous outcomes for the family, society and the children themselves. Children will always try to push the boundaries but when they find that if they push hard enough there are no enforced boundaries, they become anxious and in some cases you will end up with youngsters who want to punch their mothers in the face. 

Sadly, ignoring the many commands in Scripture that children do need discipline – just as God the Father disciplines us his children for our own good (Heb 12:7-11) – many Christian parents have bought into ‘always be nice’ parenting. It seems so loving, but it will produce a harvest of trouble. It seemed obvious: How do you produce gentle, calm kids? With gentle parenting. But in a fallen world, in which we are all born sinners, it doesn’t work like that. We would all like it to work like that. But it doesn’t.

Therapy culture

The apostle Paul foresaw times in the last days when people would be ‘lovers of themselves’ and ‘lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God’ (2 Tim 3:1-5). Among the outcomes he lists are people (including young people) accustomed to being ‘abusive, disobedient to parents, ungrateful…without self-control, brutal…’ 

To become a lover of pleasure is to prioritise ‘feel good’ throughout life. We want to feel good, and we want others to feel good too. This is the ethic. We abandon a moral view of reality in which there is a good and right way, outside ourselves, to which we should train ourselves and our children to live up to. All that matters is feeling okay. This is therapy culture.

Whereas previous generations brought up their children to be decent citizens, to ‘do justly and to love mercy’, the aim in ‘therapy land’ is for your children to feel good about themselves. But with this new priority for parenting, how can a parent know if their child feels okay? Only if the child tells them. So, who now is in control? The answer is the child. The child’s emotions will call the shots. In other words, therapy culture turns parenting upside down. Whereas it used to be that parents were in charge, now it is the kids, with frequent unhappy results. The last thing a parent must do is upset their son or daughter. If they do, they are bad parents. Therapy culture makes parents afraid of their children. 

Experts against discipline

Shrier quotes an ‘expert’ who says the consequence of even mild discipline to the child will be to bring catastrophe. The expert sees anger in a young child as normal and acceptable. ‘When you repress healthy anger…then they suppress their anger all their lives. That represses the immune system. Now, the immune system turns against you or it cannot fight off malignancy.’ Really? Shrier comments with irony, ‘Send a kid to his room, wreck his immune system for life’.[2]

Her book is a much-needed reassessment of what we have swallowed as a society. It is in many ways a discerning but full-frontal attack on therapy culture, which is well worth pastors reading.

Discipline in the church     

Therapy culture has, of course, rewritten the meaning of the word ‘abuse’. It is not just a physical attack or even a verbal attack but anything which makes the hearer feel uncomfortable or ‘unsafe’. And churches are buying into this.

In some churches, a pastor must not be strident or forceful in his preaching. He must always be gentle and encouraging, never too challenging. The word of God must always be sugar coated, whether in the pulpit or in counselling. Indeed, a pastor can get into trouble with some sensitive souls for saying or doing nothing. For example, unless the pastor himself buys into the latest drama with an overflow of emotion and hugs then they say he is being heartless and even making them afraid of him. Whatever happened to the NT virtue of sober-mindedness which is sympathetic but thinks carefully and refuses to be swept along on a wave of emotion?

And if we press further into the NT we see just how far therapy culture is moving churches away from its apostolic roots. According to Paul the Cretan Christians were to be ‘rebuked sharply’ so that they would be sound in faith (Titus 1:13). Elders who have transgressed were to be ‘rebuked publicly’ (1 Tim 5:19). Therapy culture would hold up its hands in horror: ‘You can’t do that – it would damage the person.’ Now, the last thing I want to do is to endorse a harsh spirit in churches. But do we know better than Paul? Isn’t it true that sometimes we need a sharp word to make us change our ways? 

And think of our Lord Jesus rebuking Peter with the words, ‘Get behind me Satan!’ (Matt 16:23). Imagine the trauma of Jesus linking him with Satan. And yet Peter was not scarred for life by that, but went on to be a courageous leader of the apostolic band.

We need to warn the churches of the direction of therapy culture for the good of children, families and churches. Tough love has its place.

[1] Abigail Shrier, Bad Therapy: Why the Kids Aren’t Growing Up (Swift Press, 2024).

[2] Schrier, Bad Therapy, 175.