When tired and frustrated, many parents turn to formulaic conservative Christian parenting manuals because they supply concrete answers when there are no alternatives. Which is unfortunate, as it remains a crucial task for us to address problematic theologies underlying popular Christian parenting literature.
Unless we progressive Christians come to a clarity on what it is we are rejecting about conservative parenting literature, it will be difficult to heal and contemplate a way forward for Christian parenting.
As such, I am here going to critique Ted Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I hope to spark our imagination for alternative ways of parenting in faith.
I chose this book as one of the most mainstream of a number of conservative Christian parenting books, having sold millions of copies to Christian families across evangelical America. But essentially, the message in many such child rearing books are the same.
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 are predicated by the framework of where the child is in relation to the parent. A good storyteller (and marketer) knows to introduce a problem in order to then supply the solution, which Tripp does successfully. According to Tripp, the problem begins the fact that a child’s heart is oriented towards evil. The solution to this problem is for parent to, acting as a representative of God, bring the child back into the “circle of blessing.”
The extent to which Tripp emphasizes the sinfulness of a child is extreme. Citing Psalms 58:3 and 51:5, he writes, “even a child in the womb and coming from the womb is wayward and sinful.” 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.” 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, and is prone to worship idols of pride, lust, and evil desires.
Telling a story of a misbehaving child, Tripp concludes it is because of “the idolatry of his rebellion against God’s authority.” The child is a sinner, through and through.
I find this to be confusing, a mixed signal from a conservative Christian culture that seems to prize children as blessings from God. How can children be blessings if they are portrayed as little devils, and the child-rearing environment is set up to be a “battlefield for the child’s heart?”
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. Who of us, having spent more than a few moments in the presence of children, hasn’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 more true to the human experience, like the Lutheran doctrine, children are simultaneously saint and sinner. By the grace of God and power of the Spirit, they are 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 complexity 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 brought into a world that as we know, is filled with both beauty and brutality, and the moment 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.
Tripp believes children are sinful, and the parent’s responsibility is to rescue them from evil. I disagree.