Shepherding a Child's Heart: Wise advice and one key error

August 01, 2009

Like any father I have always found parenting to be both challenging and rewarding. When I came to faith as a 31 year old with two daughters aged 3 and 5 years I was confronted by a new challenge, how would I raise my children to know God and be obedient to him? As an academic with interest in child development, learning and how families structure learning in the home, I also have more than a passing interest in parenting. As a new Christian, I quickly learned that the Bible was our family's key resource and that this was where I was to seek God's wisdom on how to be a wise parent. It took many years before I even realised that there was a large market for Christian parenting resources and that many of the books published evoked varied responses from Bible believing parents.

Tripp's Error

After hearing many references to Ted Tripp's Book, 'Shepherding a Child's Heart' in recent years from young parents, I decided that I needed to read and review it on this blog. I see this as a very helpful book with some excellent and biblical advice written by a godly and wise Christian, but it has one major flaw. The error is signalled on page 59 when Ted Tripp suggests that:
"We cannot be indifferent to [parenting] methodology. Biblically, the method is as important as the objectives. God speaks to both issues. He is concerned not only with what we do, but also with how we do it."
I believe that the second sentence in this short paragraph is false. The first sentence is difficult to dispute, yes we should give careful consideration to how we parent; we can't be "indifferent to methodology". And perhaps, God has spoken through his word in places to give some pointers to methods. But I don't believe that God is concerned with how we do parenting in the sense that he might favour specific methods, let alone one main method of discipline as we see argued in Tripp's book. Of course, we should use the Bible to inform our practices, but to claim that the Bible offers clear guidance on disciplinary method has little biblical justification. God is certainly concerned that we act as godly parents who seek to honour him and bring glory to his name as we care for and lead our families. Like many authors of parenting books before him, Tripp allows his own methods, which he suggests worked well for his children (and I have no reason to doubt that they did), to become the yardstick by which he assesses the appropriateness of other approaches, before using the Bible to justify his approach while dismissing others. Suggesting a single method ignores key variability in children and parents. For example, not all fathers are capable of controlling their anger and avoiding the warnings that Tripp gives about abuse of punishment. Furthermore, all children are different, even in the one family! They have different personalities and psychological make-ups which cannot be ignored. I believe that slavish adherence to one method will make it harder to avoid the warning of Ephesians 6:4, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord".

Tripp's wise advice

I find Tripp's emphasis on 'the rod' all the more frustrating because the first half of this book lays out a sound biblical framework for the basics of parenting. Until I reached p.59 I found little that I could question and much that I would applaud. For example his comments that:
The gospel is the central focus of parenting.
Far too often parents focus on changing children's behaviour; instead we need to look beyond behaviour to the rebellious heart that produces it (Luke 6:45).
Our every effort should be to ensure our children internalise the message of the gospel.
There are many influences that shape children, including family values, the structure of the family and its history, family practices like conflict resolution, how roles are defined, and how families deal with failure.
Children like adults are covenantal beings that must choose who they will worship and serve - from the womb we are wayward and can go astray (Psalm 58:3).
Parents have the critical task of 'shepherding children's hearts' to be oriented towards God.
Punishment must always be corrective not punitive and be an expression of love of wanting what is good for your child - Discipline must not be in anger, for revenge or just to punish.
Our goals for parenting are always to see God glorified in our lives, in our children's lives and in our family.
Communication is all about dialogue (not monologue) and is vital to good parenting.
It is important to regularly diagnose our children's relationship to God (Tripp offers a helpful strategy for this) that gives biblical focus to parenting.

The Rod

While I do see a place for occasional physical punishment (e.g. a slap on the legs, or a tap on the hand of a toddler who defies my instructions and verbal prompts) as a parent, I don't see much biblical evidence for the major priority that Tripp gives it in this book and his claim (in effect) that 'the rod' is the most biblical of methods, trumping threats of punishment, withdrawal of rewards and privileges, isolation (e.g. the 'naughty chair') etc. Like several high profile books on parenting in the past, this one is in a sense a corrective to overly permissive and unbiblical parenting, but it goes too far. This is a blog post rather than an essay, so I won't go into great detail about my objections to the priority given to 'the rod', but I'd like to simply list some of these objections to the emphasis given to corporal punishment and Tripp's dismissal on biblical grounds of some other parenting methods.

There is no question that Tripp is correct that the Bible supports his advice that parents need to be concerned primarily about their children's hearts, not their behaviour. Parents need to help their children understand that they are sinners and that the cross of Christ should be the central focus of childrearing. He is also correct that parents must discipline their children to curb these rebellious hearts and to train them in obedience - obedience to parents, obedience to other authorities and above all, obedience to God. But how we do this is less certain and there is very little biblical justification for 'the rod' being the primary tool for training your child alongside communication (p. 150). Because 'the rod' is spoken of in Proverbs there is certainly justification for considering it as one method, but exactly what form 'the rod' should take is debatable. Even Tripp's use of Proverbs is open to question, for not all the references necessitate a reading that physical punishment is intended, and certainly there is doubt about the form it should take today. In my view it is unclear whether 'the rod' need only refer to physical beating, spanking, hitting etc. For example, I'm not convinced that Hebrews 12:5-11 (a passage he uses) provides justification for Tripp's thesis that physical punishment is what is intended - let alone his brand of spanking - as the key biblical method. This passage speaks of a father's discipline as being for a child's good and that it leads to the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:11). But it hardly provides justification for Tripp's form of discipline; that is, pulling down a child's pants and paddling them a sufficient number of times to hurt them, from any age when they show resistance to you (p. 151). This he suggests can be as simple as resisting a diaper change. While we must help our children to recognise their sinfulness and rebellion, we need to be careful that we do not lose sight of the fact that we also need to help them to grasp an understanding of God's mercy, forgiveness, grace, patience, love and ultimately the possibility of redemption as sinners in Christ. I'm not suggesting that Tripp makes this error, but over-use of 'the rod' may well leave less room for children to learn these things about God.

In contrast to Tripp's justification of 'the rod' is his quick dismissal of many other forms of discipline as unbiblical. While I agree with him that far too often parents appeal to 'pop psychology' for answers, other criticisms are unjustified. For example, he dismisses what he calls 'punitive correction', that is, the threat of punishment to control children (p.64). But surely as a form of discipline a biblical case can be made for it. The Bible has many examples of God warning his people of the consequences of wrong behaviour, and often links punishment, wise behaviour and blessing (e.g. Deuteronomy 28). The pattern for warning of impending punishment is set in Genesis 2, with the ultimate warning that if Adam were to eat of the tree of knowledge that he would "surely die". We must also remember that there is a two way relationship between 'the heart' and behaviour. Yes, our behaviour reflects our heart, but repeated uncorrected behaviour begins to set patterns that influence the heart.

Summing up

There is so much good material in this book that is sound biblically, but its impact is reduced as Tripp embellishes this with his advice that physical punishment is the key tool for discipline. He is right in suggesting that parents should talk to their children when they rebel and that they should appeal to their consciences, but why must this be followed so regularly from a very early age by physical punishment? I would encourage parents to heed Tripp’s encouragement to use the Bible as the key resource in guiding our parenting and not expect to find biblical support for a single method to train our children in godliness. This book is one of the few books to offer a sound biblical framework for parenting, it's a shame that the section on method (which also has much good advice) is flawed due to Tripp's preoccupation with 'the rod', and a very narrow interpretation of what it means in practice.

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