white washed tombs and other parenting strategies

posted in: on being a mom | 2

Some of my first exposure to parenting philosophies came when Hadley was about to turn 3. Some friends boldly and lovingly informed me that she was running the show. And that she was out of control. So they sat me down in front of Michael Pearl and gave me his book To Train Up a Child. Drawing on what they label as the “promise” of the Proverb, “Train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he won’t depart from it,” the Pearls present a parenting strategy that works “every time with every child.” They say that you must instill unquestioning obedience to authority in your children by systematically setting up training scenarios and conditioning them to obey in every situation. There is no claim as to heart change – in fact Pearl states that the heart is not even relevant at this point – instead the goal is obedient, pleasant children who are a joy to be around because you’ve dealt with such undesirable attributes like whining, interrupting, complaining, tantrum throwing, not sharing, etc.

(Lest you think in any way that I am endorsing the Pearls’ technique, please follow the links I posted and read the reviews. I suggest some WAY BETTER resources below. But in case you stopped reading here, I had to get that out. :))

What resonated with me so directly when my friends started talking parenting with me was the emphasis on authority. I knew I had serious authority issues, and it felt like this little present to give Hadley, to give her a beautiful picture of God’s loving authority over us. I wanted to teach her humility and submission to authority by reminding her often that she’s the kid (and I’m the boss) and then by lovingly leading her and teaching her to trust me – that authority is GOOD – it’s the way God set up the world to look – that instead of asking questions, she must obey, trusting that I am doing what is best for her.

So this became the basis of any parenting endeavors. And to some degree, it was quite effective. Hadley’s will began to bend to mine. I enjoyed her more because she wasn’t spending the whole time demanding her will be done and throwing tantrums when I refused to acquiesce. And throughout this time, my time at home with her became more about being her mom and less about building a successful business. And she gained a wonderful father. The results were generally looking good.

As Hadley would struggle to obey, Jordan began pointing her to the Gospel and her inability to obey. We started to realize that there was something really missing in the Pearls’ approach. Additional beneficial resources like Chip Ingram’s, “Effective Parenting in a Defective World,” and Ted Tripp’s parenting seminar, “Biblical Parenting” offered an emphasis on the child’s heart that I had been neglecting.

Then a friend recommended Give Them Grace by Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson. Here’s what I will say about it: don’t read it unless you want your neat and tidy parenting world turned completely upside down. As Jordan and I started making our way through it, we struggled to reconcile this radical grace-based approach to parenting with our authority and obedience-centered approaches. Fitzpatrick and Thompson say in their opening chapter:

Most of us are painfully aware that we’re not perfect parents. We’re also deeply grieved that we don’t have perfect kids. But the remedy to our mutual imperfections isn’t more law, even if it seems to produce tidy or polite children. Christian children (and their parents) don’t need to learn to be “nice.” They need death and resurrection and a Savior who has gone before them as a faithful high priest, who was a child himself, and who lived and died perfectly in their place. They need a Savior who extends the offer of complete forgiveness, total righteousness, and indissoluble adoption to all who will believe. This is the message we all need. We need the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel. Children can’t use the law any more than we can, because they will respond to it the same way we do. They’ll ignore it or bend it or obey it outwardly for selfish purposes, but this one thing is certain: they won’t obey it from the heart, because they can’t. That’s why Jesus had to die.

The next line says, “We understand that right about now you might be getting a little uncomfortable with what we are saying.” Um, yes. Isn’t the emphasis on obedience? What about obeying? She still has to obey me, right? Because I don’t want to be the one with the bratty kid that everyone stares at and reflects on my parental failure. And if I’m really going to tell the truth, I don’t want to hang out with my bratty kid while she’s being bratty. Can I be that honest?

One morning in my reading I came across Acts 15. In it, the apostles and elders are meeting to discuss how to advise new Gentile believers in Christian living. Many people want to call them to adhere to elements of the Hebrew law, to which Peter replies, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will” (vs. 10-11). My heart sunk. Isn’t that what I do in my parenting? Try to make Hadley follow rules that I know I am not capable of following myself? I tell her to obey with a happy, unquestioning heart, while my heart screams at the Lord for calling me to do something I deem too hard, too uncomfortable, too sacrificial.

Jordan and I came across this video, and in light of Hadley’s recently renewed defiance, it reinitiated this conversation about parenting that had long been tabled. In the video, Paul Tripp and Elyse Fitzpatrick talk about modeling God’s sacrificial love to our children. Sacrificial love? Don’t they mean unquestioning authority? What about being the boss? Within days I read Jesus’ comments on authority in Matthew 20:

“But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (vs. 25-28)

As I continued to make my way through Matthew in the days that followed, I was struck over and over by Jesus’ teachings directed towards the Pharisees and his rebuke of their behavior.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28)

Once again, my heart sunk. This is my plan for Hadley. I don’t care what’s on the inside. Just obey me so you will be pleasant to be around and won’t embarrass me in front of my friends. I was convicted of my own Pharisee behavior, implying my righteousness before my family while neglecting the sin still making its residence in my heart.

So I picked up Give Them Grace once again, remembering a chapter entitled, “Jesus Loves All His Little Prodigals and Pharisees.” In it, Fitzpatrick and Thompson look at the story commonly referred to as “The Prodigal Son,” and tell the story of two children who mirror the prodigal son (“David”) and the older brother (“Susan”). And then they say, “If your parenting is moralistic, like most of ours is, children like David will break your heart, but children like Susan will make you proud. It is only when you parent with grace that the destitution of both children becomes apparent.” They point to “the astounding lesson of this parable…that an utterly good father welcomes two wicked sons who were outwardly very different but inwardly exactly the same…The father’s loving welcome extends to both sons although neither is worthy or deserving in any way.”

Am I teaching Hadley that her good behavior warrants any favor before God? Or reminding her over and over again that it is only on the merit of Christ that she can have favor?

So what do they suggest?

“Only sinners who know that they are sinners will hear the word ‘mercy’ spoken over them. Susan and David need to know that they are sinners – that the gospel is for sinners – and that there is a rescuer who loves pouring out mercy on those who cannot help themselves. 

Give grace to your children today by speaking of sin and mercy. Tell Susan that she can relax into God’s loving embrace and stop thinking that she has to perform in order to get her welcoming Father to love her. Tell David that he can have hope that even though he really struggles, he’s the very sort of person Jesus loved being around. Dazzle them with his love!”

Sometimes I just sit here and cry – remembering how quickly I fluctuate between being a lazy prodigal and a self-righteous Pharisee on any given day – and realizing that this grace that my children need is the very grace I must cling to every second of every day.

So what about teaching obedience?
What about authority?
These questions still linger.

It’s an uncomfortable idea to think of focusing less on behavior and obedience and instead setting our sights on giving Hadley the Gospel, over and over and over again, as we pray that the Spirit initiates saving faith in her little heart, so He can begin to truly transform.

Are these jumbled thoughts?
It’s because they’re still jumbled in my mind too.

We are mid-conversation in our house. But I thought I’d share where we are now nonetheless, because there may never be a conclusion. I think many of us would say we want to be Gospel-centered in our parenting, and yet we couldn’t say how our parenting is any different than the moralistic principles offered by so many people who do not proclaim Christ. I hope as I process incomplete thoughts that we would all be driven to Christ, because it is only by His power that our children have any hope at all.

2 Responses

  1. Wow, you articulate what I’ve felt with raising Samuel. I bought Strong-Willed Child and quickly felt that this is not what I’m dealing with. I got a hold of Grace-Based Parenting by Tim Kimmel and though it was a little formulaic, the principles got me focused more on grace as a parent. It’s a daily struggle.

    You said that your thoughts are jumbled. I think when they stop being jumbled, you probably became Pharisaic or apathetic. Trust and Grace require jumbled thoughts. Jumbled in no way equals faithless.

    While pursuing the mission field I kept getting a little frustrated with the feeling that the agency wanted near-certain guarantees of success in order to attempt something of virtue. I told them if it was God’s will for us to go and fail publicly (which I believe it is at times), then I was up to that. I believe success, neatness and control is not the goal in life. In fact, it can be a distraction and an illusion. What the Xhosa need to see is a God that is big enough to overcome my weakness, merciful enough to forgive my rebellion, and wise enough to direct my failing efforts.

    So it is with parenting. I don’t want my son to see a father that has it all together. That’d be a lie. Instead, I want him to see a daddy who helps him, loves him unconditionally, and guides him in “his” pursuits (not my own unmet dreams).

    I don’t know if you remember the quote I liked to keep next to me on my desk (it’s still on my desk here in IL):

    “It has been well for me to remember, when speaking to others, that I am a dying man speaking to dying souls.” – T.J. Bach (1881-1963), Missionary to Venezuela


    “I am only a hungry beggar telling other hungry beggars where to find food.” – Chuck Colson

    That’s how I like to teach, pastor and, not least of all, parent.

    I’m sorry for the lengthy comment, but your thoughts triggered a lot in me.

  2. I’m so glad you are seeing these things now while your children are young, Kendra. May the Lord bless your parenting, just stay centered on him. 🙂