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Mixed-Faith Parenting- Do No Harm: Intellectual Abuse vs. Intellectual Nurturing

The goal of this blog series about mixed-faith parenting is to give you some possible frameworks from which you can parent that will allow you to unify in your parenting approach even with your different beliefs. Having a parenting framework that you can agree upon and unify around, even if you have fundamental belief differences, can both ease parenting conflict and increase family well-being. Within all of these frameworks, core differences actually are to your advantage as parents!

To briefly review from previous blog posts in this series:

Focusing on “good" parenting is one framework that might help you use your differences to provide more expansive nurturing, guidance and limits than you could otherwise do if you had the same belief system. Focusing on elements of nurturing, guidance, and limits can also help you zoom out to find where you do agree as a couple instead of getting stuck where you don’t agree.

Focusing on nurturing the whole child is another framework that can utilize the beliefs, views, and values of both parents in ways that can greatly benefit the greater wellness of the child/children in the long run.

The framework that I want to introduce in this post is that of Do No Harm

Do No Harm

The “do no harm” oath comes from the medical profession. It is an oath that medical providers adhere to that means that they have to uphold certain ethical standards, and that they should also try to not cause more harm by any intervention they are doing in their efforts to help their patients.

Although we don’t have to take any oaths or sign anything saying we agree to do no harm, I think most parents of course naturally also try to adhere to a “do no harm” oath in their parenting approach. Of course no parent wants to intentionally cause trauma or damage to their children in any way in their efforts to raise their chileren well.

Culturally we have become much more aware of the big ways that parents can cause trauma and damage to their kids, such as physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Thankfully, we have become much more educated as a society about those harms.

Unintentional Harm: Intellectual Abuse

While we are aware of many of these ways that parents can harm their children, there are some other big ways that parents can unintentionally harm and damage their children’s lives in ways that they might not even realize because we don’t talk about them as much. Intellectual abuse is one way children can be unintentionally harmed by the parents. This type of harm simply isn't discussed and we don’t receive education about it as parents. However, when it comes to mixed-faith parenting, intellectual abuse becomes a very relevant parenting topic to be aware of.

When I first read about intellectual abuse by Pia Mellody in her book “Facing Codependence,” I was so surprised by how little we talk about it, especially in conjunction with topics such as religion and parenting. Since I initially read about it, I have thought about it so often since. Just like physical, emotional, and sexual abuse can create lasting trauma and damage all areas of a child’s life for years to come, intellectual abuse also can create very lasting damage. It can lead to problems related to sense of self, relationships, boundaries, communication and more.

Let me explain more about what intellectual abuse is.

Intellectual abuse vs. Intellectual nurturing

“Intellectual abuse occurs when children are not allowed to do their own thinking, or they are not supported when their thinking differs from the parents at any point. This often happens when the parent is so rigid there is no room for the child’s ideas. A functional family supports children's’ thinking by giving them the message that their ability to think is sound and complete even though there is much that the children do not yet know. The children are also allowed to query the thinking and the ideas of the adults and their questions are treated respectfully. It doesn’t mean the parents always agree with the children's thinking or vice versa, it means each individual in the family can do their own thinking and it is encouraged...

Intellectual abuse also happens when children are not taught having problems is normal and how to solve them….The functional family provides a system of problem solving to teach the child how to approach the problems and work them through. In a dysfunctional family, the parents either jump into the children’s decision making process and make the decisions for them, or they back away totally and leave the children to make do with whatever immature and incomplete decisions they can come up with.” -Pia Mellody

Functional families, or intellectually nurturing families, do these two things:

  1. Support the children’s thinking

  2. Provide a philosophy of life and problem solving strategies

If both parents are committed to a “do no harm” parenting framework, then instead of sharing beliefs with the intent to persuade their children or teach them WHAT they should think, each parent is modeling and sharing HOW they tend to think about things and HOW they problem solve. They are sharing these things in order to model for their kids ways to navigate complexities. And then they are letting their children practice, within reasonable limits, their own ways of thinking and solving problems. The main difference between intellectual abuse and intellectual nurturing is:

Intellectual abuse= sharing what to think in order to control the outcome, not allowing any different outcome than the outcome you would like.

Intellectual nurturing= sharing how to think and ways to problem solve and then letting go of the outcome and letting children practice (within appropriate limits) by letting them do their own thinking, questioning, problem-solving, and choice making.

Intellectual nurturing in a mixed-faith family:

The beauty of a mixed-faith marriage is that parents might naturally be sharing different ways of solving problems. One parent might use the strategy of data gathering and research to better understand more in order to help them make their decisions related to their faith or how they want to live their life. The other parent might have a more values-based approach where they weigh their choices according to their internal compass, values, or feelings to make their choices. Neither is right or wrong, both are simply different strategies to solve problems or navigate complexity. There are numerous strategies to solve problems. When it comes to intellectually nurturing your kids, having two parents that have approached problems in different ways is an advantage! What a gift you can give your kids by sharing and modeling different approaches to tacking problems and different approaches to life and then allowing them space to practice their own thinking, problem solving, and approaches to life.


Sharing how you think about things and how you solve problems is intellectually nurturing instead of abusive because you aren’t telling them what to think, but you are instead modeling an approach to thinking and problem solving. There are numerous great ways to approach and solve problems and numerous philosophies of how to live life. The more that children are exposed to different approaches, different philosophies of life, and different problem solving strategies, with space to try out these processes on their own, the more intellectually nurtured they are and the less harm they will incur in their lives due to intellectual abuse. When children are intellectually nurtured, the ripple effect will last long into their lives in ways that will allow them to thrive individually and relationally. Focusing on intellectual nurturing and doing no harm is one very helpful parenting framework for mixed-faith families!

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