As I am writing my book on Raising Children UnFundamentalist, I find it has become necessary to engage with conservative Christian parenting literature. Progressive Christianity has, by and large, rejected and ignored conservative parenting ideas but it remains a crucial task for us to address the problematic theology underlying popular Christian parenting literature as well as provide constructive dialogue moving forward. Unless we come to a clarity on what it is we are rejecting, it will be difficult to heal and to contemplate the way forward for Christian parenting. The mind-numbing routine of infant care, challenges of toddler tantrums, and our fears of teenage rebellion do not go away simply because we have shifted in our faith. Tired and frustrated, parents are turning to the formulaic conservative Christian parenting manuals because they supply concrete answers when there are no alternatives.
As such, I will be taking two blog posts to critiquing Ted Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I chose this book because I believe it is the most mainstream out of a number of conservative Christian parenting books, having sold millions of copies to Christian families across evangelical America. I believe its success is due to the accessibility in more modern language as compared to the Pearl’s, To Train Up A Child, and more palatable than Fugate’s, What the Bible Says About Child Training. But essentially, the message in these child rearing books are the same. The two theological legs upon which they stand is what I will attempt to deconstruct in this post, and I hope to spark our imagination for alternative ways of parenting in faith.
Undergirding Tripp’s parenting book is a theological assumption of the nature of the child and the role of the parent. All of his chapters and discussions on methods of discipline and instruction is predicated by the framework of where the child is in position to the parent. A good story teller (and marketer) knows to introduce the problem in order to supply the solution, which he does successfully. According to Tripp, the problem begins with a child’s heart that is oriented towards evil. The solution to this problem is for the parent, acting as a representative of God, to bring the child back into proper submission.
First of all, the extent to which Tripp emphasizes the sinfulness of a child is extreme. Citing Psalms 58:3 and 51:5, he says, “even a child in the womb and coming from the womb is wayward and sinful.” (pp. 21) Before a child is born, she is a sinner. “Folly or foolishness is bound up in his heart…It may be imperceptible in the smile of a baby, [but] their natural state is to have a heart of folly.” (pp. 106) In other words, don’t be deceived by any outward signs of goodness from a child, let it be crystal clear that a child is wicked to the core, whose nature is rooted in sin, is prone to worship idols of pride, lust, and evil desires. (pp. 22) Telling a story of a misbehaving child, Tripp concludes it is because of “the idolatry of his rebellion against God’s authority.” (pp. 24) The child is a sinner, through and through.
I find this to be confusing mixed signals from conservative Christian culture who seem to prize children as blessings from God. Yet, how can children be blessings when they are portrayed as little devils, and the child-rearing environment is set up to be a “battlefield for the child’s heart”? (pp. 21)
Ambivalent messages about children aside, the view that children are inherently wicked to the core is unhelpful at best, and damaging at worst. But I think this is the appeal of conservative Christian manuals, because it matches our experiences as parents. Which of us, having spent more than a few moments in the presence of children, haven’t encountered misbehavior ranging from slight mischief to full-on rebellious tantrums? And yet, to explain doctrinally that it is inherent in their psyche to disobey is setting a child up to internalize the message that she is inclined towards evil.
It also oversimplifies the nature of sin. What constitutes sin in a child? Developmentally appropriate behaviors in a toddler such as dawdling, which is inconvenient to adults eager to keep a schedule, is that considered sin? Are children sinning when they are mirroring an unhealthy environment? If a child is exposed to domestic violence and acts out by bullying others in the playground, is that sin he is held accountable for? Or is he, in fact, a victim of sin? What about mental illness in children, chemical imbalances that cause them to rage or lose control of emotions, should that be attributed to a child’s wickedness? Sometimes, in a broad brush to explain any misconduct of a child with sin, we neglect to dig deeper into valid reasons for any dysfunctional behavior.
This is not to clear a child of any responsibility for their actions. Indeed, they are autonomous beings capable of making destructive choices, even when they “know better.” To posture children as totally pure and innocent is to be naive and also unfairly strips them of their capability to make decisions according to their will.
Children are capable of immense love and delightful generosity and at the same time they can choose to hate and bully and malign. Perhaps, as Luther says, children are simultaneously saint and sinner—by the grace of God and power of the Spirit able to live a life oriented towards goodness and yet still wrestle with their dark side.
Thus far, we have only touched upon the virtue of an individual’s behavior. There is also the complexities of belonging to a world woven with imperfect systems. A child’s birthday wish for a favorite toy that is manufactured by child labor in factories of developing nations inextricably binds both innocent desire and grave injustice. The brokenness of our human condition extends far beyond our individual choices. In light of this, shepherding a child’s heart becomes so much more than spanking a kid when they disobey the parent.
I agree with Tripp when he says that the child’s heart is not neutral. Children do not live in a social, emotional, moral vacuum, they are indeed shaped by multiple influences, from their entertainment choices, to the school they attend, to peers, to family—both nuclear and extended, to their neighbors and community. But Tripp thinks the child is by default evil. Without parental intervention, the child is inevitably headed towards destruction. He fails to see that the child is an autonomous being, drawing from the multiple spheres which contain both positive and negative forces, and as they grow continue to both form and be formed by all of those influences.
Our children are not wicked to the core, and they do not emerge from the womb as sinful bundles of evil. They are, however, brought into a world that as we know, is filled with both beauty and brutality, and as soon as those tiny eyes blink wide open, they are learning to love, to trust, to mimic, to hurt and be hurt. Christian parents are called to cherish our children with our instinctive parental love not by condemning them with sin at birth, but to play our part in their very first formative influence in cultivating habits that are faithful to the Christian story. Instead of setting our children up for failure, we empower them towards redemption and beauty.