Preface to Make a Long Review even Longer
I have an 18-month-old. He usually behaves pretty well. For an 18-month-old. I think. You see, I’ve never had one before, I haven’t made a whole lot of observations of 18-month-olds, and I don’t ever remember being one.
So should you take my review of this parenting book with a grain of salt? Maybe more than one grain? Sure, yes. Always do that. I try to season my words with salt already, so it shouldn’t be too hard.
But here at the outset I want to deflect the criticism that someone who’s only barely a dad would say anything, positive or negative, about a parenting book. I want to deflect that more-than-justified criticism by saying that in this review I stuck to the things I have some training and background in. I don’t know whether my method of spanking or not spanking (can I just leave it at that?) “works” yet. I don’t know what kinds of talks are best to have with a perpetually lying third grader. I don’t know what to do when a three-year-old absolutely refuses to eat something she loved just yesterday.
But I have had a bit of exegetical training in my time. I’ve at least sat in a lot of classrooms where people who knew theology talked about it in my hearing. And the book I’m reviewing is a theology book if it’s anything.
So here we go…
I recently read Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus, written by Christian counselor Elyse Fitzpatrick with help from her daughter, Jessica Thompson.
The book was basically an excuse to teach theology to people (specifically parents) who are desperate for any help they can get, even if it’s theology—and to be clear, I think that’s a great idea! I wasn’t actually familiar with Elyse’s background when I first picked up the book, but the more I read the more I knew this was someone who had training in biblical studies. Again, a good thing. She deals responsibly with the Bible. I liked this little statement, for example: “Justification is a word that simply means that our record is both ‘just as if we had never sinned’ and also ‘just as if we had always obeyed.’” And this one: “Grace is stronger than all our work and all our weakness.” I got the distinct impression several times that I was reading a systematic theology chapter whose applications were all made to parenting. And very few times she used theological jargon—“the already and the not yet,” the “covenant of works”—that will befuddle some readers. But I think these are actually good things.
Another positive came in the numbers of great illustrations of the kinds of trials moms face. All those stories rang true for me, borne as they clearly were out of a lot of mommying with kids of all ages.
The grace we are supposed to give our kids is something we should also receive from a gracious God ourselves, and that is a welcome message to a heart which wants my kid to be good:
How can we tell whether our efforts at parenting are motivated by reliance on God’s grace or on self-trust? How can we know whether we’re trying to obligate God or serve him in gratitude? One way to judge is to consider your reaction when your children fail. If you are angry, frustrated, or despairing because you work so hard and they aren’t responding, then you’re working (at least in part) for the wrong reasons. Conversely, if you’re proud when your children obey and you get those desired kudos—Oh! your kids are so good!—you should suspect your motives. Both pride and despair grow in the self-reliant heart.
Good! And so was this:
There are no promises in the Bible of salvation or even success for faithful parenting. In fact, in the story that’s normally called “the prodigal son” (Luke 15), Jesus described a good father who had two lost sons. One son was lost to immorality and the other to morality. Of course, in this story, the Father is God. If we say that good parents (as if there were such a thing!) always produce good kids, then God must not have been a good Father. You know that it’s blasphemous even to think that way. Remember also that Jesus poured his life into twelve men for three years, and one of them betrayed him and fell utterly, and another denied him but was ultimately saved. Why were Judas and Peter such failures at Christ’s hour of need? Was it because he hadn’t taught them well enough, or did God’s sovereign plan have something to do with it?
I also found it helpful when Elyse talked about how the genre of the Proverbs should adjust our expectations for how to apply them.
Another positive: the David and Susan story, mirroring the two sons in Luke 15, was artfully done. David corresponded to the prodigal son, Susan to the older brother, so this little insight helped me:
Teaching David that he and Susan and Mom and Dad are all lost, all sick, all in need of salvation is so very crucial, whereas saying things like, “Why can’t you be more like Susan?” obliterates the gospel message. It tells David that there is something intrinsically wrong with him that isn’t wrong with Susan. It destroys his hope of ever hearing God’s benediction of goodness over his life. It breeds unbelief and despair. And, it is false.
The basic message of the book can probably be summarized in the one acrostic the authors allow themselves to indulge in (which seems to me to be the appropriate number for acrostics in any given book): MNTCP—Management, Nurturing, Training, Correcting, and remembering the Promises of the Gospel. There are times when you just need to manage your kids: “Don’t touch that! Put on your shoes! Get out of the street!” But there are times when nurturing or training or correcting is the appropriate biblical solution to a given circumstance.
What Makes Me Nervous
But the focus of Mrs. Fitzpatrick’s book is on “P,” Promise: telling your kids of God’s promises in the gospel. And this is where I find myself humbly and fearfully nervous. Not condemning, not necessarily disagreeing, not sure of a better way, just nervous.
Let me be absolutely clear: I’m a man of my generation, and I have most certainly found myself talking just like Elyse Fitzpatrick over the last few years. God-centered living: check. Grace-empowered sanctification: check. Only by God’s grace can children (or anyone) do anything good: check, check, Honey Nut Chex—my favorite. And I’d like to think I came by these conclusions honestly, although certainly not without help. I remember as an 18-year-old counselor at a Christian camp arguing with a more astute junior higher that, according to Romans 8:8, unregenerated people cannot do anything to please God.
But my dissertation taught me a lesson that will take me a lifetime of grace to live out: I want to be very careful to talk like the Bible does, to try to mimic as best I can its own balance between, for example, imperatives and indicatives. Frankly, I’m afraid that in the rapidly proliferating number of Gospel-Centered books I sense a bit of a pendulum swing from the former to the latter. We’ve seen that legalism doesn’t work, so let’s swing over to grace!
I got a few hints of the pendulum swing in words like these:
- “In what ways do you use the Bible as a rule book instead of as the ‘good news?’”
- “If you believe the Bible, we are sure you realize that neither we nor our children are truly good. ‘Good girl!’ ‘Good job!’ ‘You’re a beautiful princess!’—that is the unceasing refrain as parents seek to create their version of successful, good children…. Our encouragement should always stimulate praise for God’s grace rather than for our goodness.”
- “What you need as a praying parent is a deep drink of the great love of God, your Father, not more commands to pray.”
Let me say immediately, however, that the authors of this particular book are not guilty of a full swing; they have not taken the opposite tack all the way. They do have a significant place for family rules, they are definitely conservative Christians who are opposed to worldliness, and they give a great quote from Bryan Chappell to prove all that: “Grace does not forbid giving directions, promises, corrections, and warnings. Only cruelty would forbid such help.”
But I’m still nervous. I need to be careful about saying “Good boy!” when my son puts his blankie down on command? Do I really have to say, “My son, your action is a faint picture, by God’s grace, of the character of Jesus!”? Yes, it has to be possible to puff our kids up so much that they feel they’re gooder than they really are. But—limiting my comment to my own experience as a dad and a son—I can only see the pleasure my son gets from my pleasure in his good deeds as a good thing, an echo of a born again child’s relationship to his heavenly Father. My son is not (usually?) complex enough to think, “I’m going to earn dad’s favor by being good!” Instead, when he takes pleasure in my approval, he is being driven by the best motivation at his disposal. That, in turn, should train him to be ready to delight in the smile of God on his life—right? If I meet all his efforts at obedience with a mini-theology lesson, won’t I discourage him? Can’t I just love him and delight in him as my son? It’s true that he may turn out to be a lifelong rebel against God, but that won’t be because I trained him to be motivated in part by my smile on his good behavior.
One recurring feature in the book will provide an almost visceral illustration of what can go wrong with a pendulum swing: the multiple scripted mom-to-child talks. Mrs. Fitzpatrick provides many paragraphs of gospel-centered sermonettes moms can deliver when their progeny misbehave:
Sweetheart, I will discipline you now because I love you, and you must learn to control yourself. When I tell you that it is time to go, we must leave. I know you didn’t want to go, but when we don’t get what we want, it isn’t okay to start screaming and throw yourself to the ground. There are two things you must understand: first, you were being unsafe. God has put me in charge of you, and he has told me to keep you safe. When you lie in a parking lot with cars around, you could get hurt. So, when I tell you to come, I am doing what I believe will keep you safe. Second, when you don’t get what you want, you are not allowed to start screaming and crying. You are sinning against God and against me when you disobey and complain. I understand that you didn’t want to leave the park. I know how difficult it is to show control when you don’t get what you want. And because you can’t control yourself, you need Jesus. Do you know what he did when he had to go somewhere he didn’t want to go? He told God that he would do whatever God wanted him to do. He did that for you, and he did that for me. The place he didn’t want to go was the cross. He knew the cross was going to be hard, and it would hurt him a lot. But he did what he didn’t want to do because he loved us. But I want you to know that you’re not the only one getting disciplined today. Today God showed me his love by disciplining me, too. He showed me ways that I was being disobedient in my heart, too. He showed me my pride and my anger. Discipline hurts, but I have faith that God will use it in both of our lives to make us love him more.
I have an 18-month-old and a little unborn mom-kicker, so I need to be careful not to assume I know better. But I just couldn’t find myself saying the things Elyse mapped out. (Kevin DeYoung says the same thing hilariously and gently in this post.) One Amazon reviewer pointed out that the gospel is going to sound hackneyed after a while if moms and dads use these scripts as frequently (and make them as lengthy) as Elyse seems to suggest.
Again, Elyse leaves plenty of room for merely “managing” children. Not every misdemeanor with the cookies should result in a gospel homily. But I still felt these talks were overdone.
Sheesh. It feels so awful to criticize this book. The authors sound like women straight out of Proverbs 31 whose husbands are blessed to be married to them. (“She writeth a Crossway book and selleth it.”) I do think legalistic parenting is a big problem, and I honestly and genuinely hope lots of people will read this book. I would not be afraid to recommend it to anyone but those on the antinomian extreme of the pendulum swing.
I have used this book review as a vehicle, really, to get at a broader potential problem. And to practice something I’m trying (by grace!) to inculcate into my own too-sinful life: a careful, scriptural balance. We can’t go from trusting in our rules to trusting in our accurate understanding and explanation of grace (or, worse, grace-based slogans like “Gospel-centered”). Let’s have all the right rules, all the right explanations of grace—and then trust in the God who gave us both. Jesus said, “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” God gives the increase to our labors.