Parenting by the Book
What’s the best passage in the Bible about parenting?
Maybe some will say Ephesians 6:1-4. Others will point to Deuteronomy 6:4-9. Paul Tripp has his own suggestion about a helpful parenting passage. But he also wants us to realise that the Bible isn’t meant as a topical resource to consult when we have specific questions or difficulties. We probably sometimes wish that that’s how the Bible was organized: if you’re angry, turn to this text; if you’re lonely, read this one. And if you want good advice about raising your strong-willed kids, read this.
The Bible isn’t written as a topical study, addressing the daily issues which concern us. From beginning to end it’s a story, where God is telling us about His great work of salvation through his Son. And so nearly every text in the Bible reveals something about God, or about ourselves, or about sin, or grace through Christ, or life in this world, or our calling. This broad scope means that almost every passage in the Bible has something to say that relates to the many diverse areas of your life, including your job as a parent.
This is the kind of “big picture” perspective that Tripp teaches in his book Parenting. He doesn’t provide ten practical steps for raising nicer kids. He doesn’t share how-to strategies for the challenges of boundaries and discipline. Instead, he wants to reorient the very way that we look at parenting. What are we really trying to do in our homes? What are our chief goals? And what’s the one foundational thing that parents and children need, so much more than good manners, civilized dinner times, and open communication?
The subtitle of Tripp’s book says a lot about his approach: “The 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family.” He argues that the better way of parenting—the only way—is the “way of grace,” or the way of the gospel of Christ. That sounds vague, but then follow fourteen chapters exploring principles of how God’s grace is worked out in the parenting task. For example, Principle 1 is, “Nothing is more important in your life than being one of God’s tools to form a human soul.” Or Principle 5, “If you are not resting as a parent in your identity in Christ, you will look for identity in your children.” And Principle 11, “You are parenting a worshiper, so it’s important to remember that what rules your child’s heart will control his behaviour.”
These powerful principles give a flavour of the kind of book that Tripp has written. For each of these norms he shows that the core of parenting resides in the human heart: not just the hearts of our children, but our own hearts as dads and mums. Both their and our hearts need to be changed by the salvation that is granted through the work of Jesus Christ.
Our children need transformation because they all believe two dangerous and destructive lies. First, a child reckons that he’s autonomous, a completely independent human being with the right to live his life however he chooses, and to worship whomever he wants. Second, a child believes that he is self-sufficient, that within himself he has everything that he needs. If you pay a bit of attention, you can see these lies getting worked out in the conduct of our children, right from those aggravating moments of trying to spoon mushy peas into their mouth, to the frustrations of getting the silent treatment from your teenage daughter. Born in sin, our children desperately need help. God has placed them in our life so that we can help them, with wisdom, compassion and hope.
As a parent, reading parts of this book made me uncomfortable. This is because Tripp seems to know parents and our weaknesses so well. He knows that we often focus on changing our children’s outward behaviours (use of technology, clean language, respect for curfew, etc.), without targeting the heart behind the actions. He knows that we tend to “lay down the law” when there’s been a household infraction, instead of showing grace. He knows that in the heat of the moment we can get sinfully angry and say cruel things to our children, and then spend the rest of the evening telling ourselves that what we did was totally fair and completely justified. Uncomfortable, because it’s true.
Still, Tripp wants to encourage. He says that parents who finally admit that they’re inadequate and run to God for help actually make the best parents. When your weakness is again so painfully evident, “Know that God hasn’t left you to the limits of your righteousness, wisdom, and strength” (189), but that He is with you, and He is almighty and gracious.
Tripp insists that successful parenting isn’t about us achieving our own goals or upholding our own values (e.g., producing punctual, responsible, hard-working children), but it’s about us being usable and faithful tools in the hands of God. After all, God is the only one who can produce good things in our children, and He’s the only one who can bring them to faith in Christ. As parents, we are unfinished people ourselves, being used by God as agents of change in the lives of unfinished people.
Tripp doesn’t pretend that it’s going to be easy. I love his line on page 208, “Parenting is about the willingness to live a life of long-term, intentional repetition.” Our task as parents means that we’ll need to do the same thing, over and over. We’ll need to say the same things, over and over. That’s fine, for God is pleased to use our humble prayers and efforts and energies for the good—and even for the salvation—of the children He’s entrusted to us.
This is an excellent book. It’s a book to savour: read a chapter, and then let it simmer. Talk about it with your partner in parenting, or talk about it with other parents (whether more or less experienced). You’ll be challenged and encouraged.
Review of Parenting
by Paul David Tripp