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Shepherding a Child’s Heart

Shepherding a Child’s Heart is one of the single strangest books I’ve read in quite some time. The good parts are fantastic, some of the best material I’ve ever encountered on child-rearing. The rest of it left me scratching my head, or wanting to bang it on a table. I rarely have so bipolar a reaction to a book; but then, books are rarely so apt to be described as having multiple personality disorder.

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The good

The first chunk of Tedd Tripp’s book is outstanding. He opens with the proposition that parents’ goals for their children are usually wrong, and accordingly that most parenting is wrong. A bold statement, to be sure, but he’s correct. Most parents, even Christian parents, spend most of their time focused on behavior, rather than the heart. This is to be expected: parents, like everyone else, are selfish and changed behavior at least makes a parent’s life easier. Too: changing behavior is much easier than changing hearts, seeing as the latter is simply out of our reach.

However normal it is to focus on fixing behavior, though, it is ultimately counterproductive. Children simply learn hypocrisy. The aim, instead, must be to point the child to his need for Christ, to highlight her idols, to expose his inability to fight his sin, to show her that Christ is better than her sin. Easier said than done, of course, but as a thesis goes, it’s one I can get behind – it fits Scripture’s teaching.

We are all of us desperately broken and wicked and we all begin miserably ignorant of our state. Thus, when Tripp argues that parents need to find ways to help their children recognize their sin and their need for Christ, and when he suggests that parents need to help their children see Christ as gloriously better than anything else, I couldn’t agree more strongly. I was regularly reading aloud to Jaimie from this section of the book. His applications to parents’ hearts and to our approach to discipline expressed things I’ve thought but been unable to clearly express for quite some time.

And then he started diving into methodology, and everything just went to pieces. There is some good content scattered throughout the latter two thirds of the book, but it’s mixed in with quite a mess.

The bad

The weak points of the book break down into two broad categories: Tripp’s views on discipline, and his view of authority.

A strange fixation

Tripp has a fixation on spanking. He finds a way to dismiss every other form of discipline a parent might use with a child as unbiblical, ungodly, un-gospel centered, and unhelpful. He then proceeds to delineate very carefully how spanking must occur in very specific ways to avoid falling into the traps of abuse, parental anger, and so forth. These qualifications are good and right (and a necessary guard against abuse). However, he seems to miss that the same sorts of constraints can be applied to timeouts, grounding, and so forth. Equally, despite his own many constraints on spanking, he misses his own point that spanking is just as susceptible to misuse or misleading the child as the vast majority of the other forms of discipline he denigrates.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Tripp emphasizes that spanking is not only a valid form of discipline; it is the valid form of discipline. More, he says: God has commanded parents to discipline their children in the form of spanking, citing the several references to the “rod” in Proverbs in the context of parental discipline (see, e.g. Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15). Because his exegesis is lacking (more on this below), his application of these passages goes astray as well. Even if these passages include a command to spank, they certainly do not forbid the other sorts of discipline Tripp dismisses.

Thankfully, Tripp argues that spanking should be coupled with clear communication, and in fact his chapters on communication between parents and children are some of those bright points scattered throughout the latter parts of the book. I particularly appreciated his note that communication must be two-way: not merely the parent addressing the child, but the parent listening to and seeking to understand the child. This is good, and I wish many parents paid more attention to their children. Certainly this is something Jaimie and I will seek to do well with Elayne!

Authority issues

The second major issue in the book is Tripp’s focus on “authority”. While parental authority is very real, Tripp makes it the single most important aspect of parenting. Mentions of parental love are rare and nearly always coupled with references to authority. Nor is this merely limited to the parent-child relationship; Tripp makes constant reference to the authority of employers over employees and husbands over wives. More, he makes much of people’s need to be under God’s authority and very little of God’s love.

I agree with Tripp that American culture in late modernity has thrown off all healthy views of authority. If a corrective is needed, it’s here, no doubt. But as is so often the case with evangelical responses to failures, Tripp spirals off in another unhelpful direction. Whenever we fixate on correcting a problem, instead of aiming more directly at the Biblical picture, we run the risk of ending up in another quagmire. So it is here.

Because Tripp’s framing the parent-child (and in fact many other) relationships primarily in terms of authority – and the fact that he builds this on his view of God – is a recipe for massively unhealthy relationships. To be sure, Tripp recognizes that authority can be abused. He does not seem to recognize that his emphases and omissions will push people toward unhealthy relationships. Yes, authority is a significant part of parent-child relationships, and of each of our relationships with God. But it is not ultimate.

The ugly

Why does Tripp go so wrong? It seems to me he has imported quite a few cultural notions on top of the Scriptural text, to his own very great detriment. Both of the problems I outlined above seem to me to spring from hermeneutical failures on Tripp’s part: he simply does not read the texts he uses carefully.

The shape of a relationship

As I noted above, Tripp is right to critique our culture’s antiauthoritarian bent. However, he imports in its place a pro-authoritarian bent, and I find no more warrant for that in Scripture than the hyper-egalitarianism so dominant in our day. It is true, as Tripp says, that we are under God’s authority and that we are called to obedience. Likewise, children are called to obey their parents, and I will even grant that this is the only command given to children explicitly. Authority is important. It is not, however, ultimate.

We know this because the parent-child relationship is modeled on our relationship with our heavenly Father – and while obedience is certainly enjoined of us, God has done much more than simply command us. He has identified with us, poured out love to us, shown us his character gently and graciously, and born with our disobedience long and patiently. We are called into perfect submission to him, yes, but we are called into a relationship that is much more than mere submission. So, too, the parent-child relationship includes submission, but it includes much more as well – though Tripp mentions none of these other components to the relationship.

In other words: what he says about authority is correct; it is simply, woefully, incomplete.

Proverbs, not…

Proverbs, as it turns out, is a book of proverbs. Not promises, and not, generally speaking, commands. Proverbs are observations on life, on how things generally work. The “commands” Tripp emphasizes so often are nothing of the sort, and while we would be deeply remiss to skip over them as a consequence, his application fails precisely because his hermeneutic is so poor.

When Tripp reads these passages on discipline and interprets them as commands, he misses the point of the proverbs he cites. The author is not giving an explicit command as to how parents should discipline their children; he is simply saying that they must discipline their children. In fact, the only place in the Proverbs where physical discipline is explicit (as opposed to merely implied by the use of the word “rod”) is Proverbs 23:13-14, which is an encouragement to parents that discipline is good and that using a rod will not kill someone. It is not, however, a command to refrain from any other forms of discipline, Tripp’s insistence notwithstanding.

A “rod”

This question of “the rod” bears further examination. It is plain that in every case but one in Proverbs, “the rod” is being used as a synecdoche: a representative image that carries a broader set of meanings than simply the word itself. This is actually quite common in our day-to-day language: we might say, “Nice wheels,” using the wheels to represent the whole of someone’s vehicle. That the various authors of the proverbs are using the rod this way becomes apparent when we consider the pattern of the proverbs involving the rod.

In every case, an exhortation to use the rod is immediately followed with an exhortation to discipline the child. In several cases, the rod is mentioned in one half of a couplet, while discipline is mentioned in the other half. In several case, the two are joined in a single phrase: “rod of discipline” (Proverbs 22:15) or “rod and reproof” (Proverbs 29:15). In several cases, discipline is mentioned without any mention of the rod (Proverbs 19:18, 29:17).

When Tripp goes so far as to use Hebrews 12:11 to justify his arguments about spanking, it has already become painfully obvious that his beliefs are driving his interpretations, not the other way around as it should be. The rod in Proverbs is primarily an image for the overall picture of discipline, as is evidenced by the basic structure of each proverb and the language used.

Literally. But not too literally

Tripp’s other problem is that he wants to take these passages on the rod literally – but not too literally! As it turns out, his hermeneutic isn’t even self-consistent. Tripp wants to insist that these passages in Proverbs demand the use of spanking, because “rod” suggests corporal punishment. But as he discusses how to spank, it is clear that an actual, physical rod is never in the picture. Children are to be spanked with the hand.

Why, I wonder, is the passage to be taken only just as literally as Tripp wants it to? Why is corporal punishment good and fine, but the use of an actual rod out? The answer is that, in practice, Tripp rightly recognizes that the so-called “commands” he cites have to do with discipline – not with the specific means by which that discipline must be implemented. If only he had taken this hermeneutic farther!

My view of spanking

Lest anyone mistake me: I am not opposed to spanking, used judiciously and wisely (indeed, used in much the ways Tripp suggests). To the contrary, I think it is a valid and useful part of the parental disciplinary repetoire. I differ with Tripp in that it is only a part of the disciplinary repetoire, not the entirety of it.

Putting it all together

Shepherding a Child’s Heart is thus a very strange mix of very good and just plain bad. I can’t recommend it wholeheartedly by any means; neither can I dismiss it out of hand. There is a lot of good in Tripp’s parenting philosophy, and some very good material in his applications of that philosophy, especially as it relates to communication. But there is equally bad material in some of his application, and unnecessarily so. Were Tripp to be a bit more self-consistent, he would have a much better book.

Should you read it? Yes, actually – but you should read carefully. Tripp is absolutely right about the aims of parenting, about the way discipline should be used, and even about how spanking should be implemented. He is wrong in his interpretations, and in his extrabiblical limitations on the means available to parents in disciplining their children. Don’t let the brilliantly biblical parts of the book blind you to the mistakes elsewhere – but don’t let those mistakes, however significant, prevent you from taking away the good, either.

Addendum: on book reviews

Some of you may be wondering why I took so long to critique Tripp the way I did here, especially seeing as much of the book is very good. I could write a lengthy post on that topic alone, but I will content myself with a brief summary; and there are basically two reasons.

First, I have no doubt that many people, impressed with the thoroughly biblical character of Tripp’s philosophy of parenting, will simply take him at his word when it comes to details of implementation – and the more so because some of those details are also quite good. I don’t want people doing that; I want them taking the good and straining out the bad. In other words: my conclusion sums up my reason for doing book reviews at all: I want to help people learn to think carefully about books, so that we can value what is good and set aside what is not.

Second, I am passionate about the right handling of the word of God, and I am nowhere more concerned about this than in my own camp. This book is a mainstay of conservative parenting, especially in the “new Reformed” crowd in which I find myself. While we can spend time critiquing those outside our camp, and this may be profitable to a greater or lesser extent, I firmly believe that we should also exert a great deal of effort to correct our own thinking – more, even, than we spend on correcting outsiders.


  • Ame thought to say:

    wowza … your assessment is spot on, and i know well his audience. your wisdom far exceeds your age, and that especially shows over and over in your post here.

    how wise to learn to sift through what we read and hold it only to the standard of the Word of God. and how wise to discern that we need to look at ourselves moreso than we look and critique others.

    i have experienced great liberty – how my parents raised me … and fierce legalism – my ex and his retired-pastoral parents. i have been harshly judged and convicted and sentenced by both sides. God is not in either camp. God is in His own camp, and that’s where we need to strive to be.

    on spanking – i couldn’t agree w/you more. those who are legalistic about it totally miss the point. also, the personality of each child needs to be taken into consideration. spanking, for both my girls, was by far one of the least effective means of correction/discipline/or whatever you want to call it (i’m not going to argue about what people call it, though i could).

    creating means of discipline simply for the sake of creating them is pointless. one example … my youngest and special-needs daughter just completed 6th grade. her last few weeks of school turned into a nightmare, a cause-effect snowball of events, most of which the school created, and for which they determined she needed discipline. this school also gives detention for not turning in homework on time, and they give homework everyday (i won’t argue that insane practice, although i certainly could). given her special needs and learning disabilities, daily homework is sometimes not possible, yet they continued to ‘discipline’ her for it. detentions became nothing to her … she learned to decide between doing the homework or taking the detention … the latter did not encourage the former. the school continued to insist they ‘discipline’ her. they did cross a line at the end, and i had to step in – wasn’t pretty. but they totally miss the point.

    discipline is to bring one into line with God. that becomes much more individual as we know our children. usually, with my oldest (14 years old), i only need to look at her and ask, “how far do you want to take this?” she’s always been one to need little guidance to mold her in the right direction (although she’s also extremely stubborn and defiant in her heart, and i’ve had to work on that with her over the years, too).

    my youngest is not extremely stubborn or defiant, but she is much more challenging b/c of her special needs.

    i think i’m rambling … but your point that it is a matter of the heart could not be more correct. there are some things from the last few weeks that i saw in my youngest that reveal areas where she needs work. they weren’t significant to the school b/c they don’t operate on a biblical worldview. but they were to me. i wrestled and struggled intensely over this for many days, praying and searching my heart and pondering the direction to go with her. and i realized that it’s a heart-issue. so we began reading proverbs together (proverbs is good for her b/c it’s packs a lot into short passages – works well w/what i want her to learn and her ability to absorb certain amounts of info at one time).

    we can teach our children to behave a certain way b/c we demand it, or we can teach them that their heart is critically important to Holy God.

    btw – it’s rather comical sometimes … there have been times the behavior of my girls overwhelms me, and i cannot believe they’re behaving that way! one day when they were much younger, i told them, “I don’t know what i’ve done wrong for ya’ll to be acting like this, because my children should not be behaving like you are! i must have done something wrong. so i’m going to spend time reading my bible and praying about it to learn what God would have me do differently … cause this behavior is not acceptable!” my girls did not skip a beat, not even to breath … almost in unison they cried, “NO, Mommy! you’re doing a GREAT job! you don’t have to do THAT! we’ll behave, we promise! you’re a GREAT mom!” i laughed and laughed! they know that God is THE final authority, and they know that i have to answer to Him. and they know that when they disobey, it’s because they are choosing to do so – they own it. i’ve used that from time-to-time over the years, and i really do re-evaluate with God often … b/c i need to … and b/c they grow and change, and what they need at one age is different than what they need at another age.

    one other thing that i think is imperative to teach our children is the difference between Truth and lie … and that Truth never changes. i’ve always taught them this, and i teach them that they get to choose what they want to believe – the Truth, or the lie. this works for every area of their lives, including bullying, including discipline, and for girls – self esteem. they can believe the Truth that God states, or they can believe the lie that satan tries to sell them. i cannot choose this for them; they must choose it for themselves.

    i will add one more thing, although i know i’ve rambled quite a bit … i am SO thankful that God doesn’t have as many rules as legalistic christians, and that He is much more forgiving. God cares about our hearts, for it is from our hearts that everything else flows. legalistic christians only care about our behavior and appearance. they miss the whole picture of who God is and His character. this, too, i ingrain into my girls.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • I would also argue the insane practice of daily homework. But that is another post for another day. :p

      The strange thing about this book is that Tripp would agree with every single thing you said starting with “discipline is to bring one into line with God.” So much of this book was so good. His stuff on the why of discipline was fantastic: point your children to God and the gospel! And as I noted, even the ways he said to approach spanking were eminently sensible. It was mind-boggling how he’d go from smart to headdesk-inducingly frustrating in just a page.

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  • Kaitlin Martin thought to say:

    Before I write my lengthy comment, I’ll just start by saying I have not read this book in its entirety. I’ve read the first part and the beginning of the second part. That being said, I have watched the Heart of Parenting videos done by Paul David Tripp. He has also written books on parenting older children in various stages, so perhaps it’s better to take the brothers together, as in a series type of thing. So, because I’m assuming the brothers have similar philosophies on parenting, I think the videos might be helpful in addressing the book’s seeming preoccupation with authority and spanking.

    First, the videos outline age groups with a focus for the parents and possible outworkings of each stage in terms of behavior and discipline. Ages 0-5 deals with authority. God is the ultimate authority and has given some to parents for teaching and training children. Parents are to explain and demonstrate this to children. You can also point out where others have authority such as church, work, etc. Win the authority issue in this age group so that other things can be dealt with later. Yes, to some extent this struggle is always ongoing, but the more a child is taught that early on, the better. This age probably requires spanking more than the rest because of limitations in discussion capability and because direct disobedience is very common, which is one of the stipulations for spanking that Tripp outlines (maybe both outline it that way, but I don’t remember; Paul David Tripp outlines spanking for willful disobedience only). But even that is to be followed up by communication, affirmation of love, etc.

    Second, the multiple types of communication that Tedd Tripp outlines in the book sort of lends itself to other types of discipline, such as grounding or timeouts, but these might be more useful in older children. Paul David Tripp talks about how in ages 6-12 and 13+ you are focusing on character development and allowing more adult-like responsibilities while offering a safe place to recover from failure respectively. As I read the book, I sort of thought he was focusing on spanking because it is seen as so destructive on our culture. I recently read an article online about cultural morality that basically said spanking your children is what leads to domestic abuse in his/her later life. Since I haven’t finished the book, perhaps I haven’t picked up on his lack of discussion on other discipline types?

    Finally, I’m not even going to touch his use of Bible verses. I’m not really the authority on exegesis or hermeneutics. That being said, I recommend the videos over the book simply because Paul David Tripp addresses all of the ages in the series rather than a focus on one age group, which is kind of how I understood Shepherding to be. I will say that Paul David Tripp uses verses to support his parenting philosophies, so it will probably be similar if not identical to Tedd Tripp’s exegesis. Personally, I like the principles involved but discipline might look different from child to child, especially as they get older.
    Good review!

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Kaitlin, thanks for your thoughtful comment.

      As I noted, I don’t have a problem with spanking or with authority, and I think our culture needs a correction in both areas. And Tripp’s stuff with older children was definitely better. But! The thing that really blew me away was that in his chapter on other forms of discipline, he labeled grounding and timeouts as unquestionably unbiblical. That’s just silly.

      Your concluding comment sums up a healthier, more well-rounded philosophy well, I think: discipline will look different from child to child. Period. There is no rule that spanking is a must for every child at a given age. Consistency? Yes. Clear expectations and consequences? Yes. The importance of obedience? Yes. The legitimacy of spanking as one means to those ends? Yes. But it’s a long step from there to where Tripp ends up, and my concern is that too many parents won’t think through it – clearly you have, and that’s as it should be. Parents, as Ame noted above, have the freedom to discipline their children in the way that seems wise to them; Scripture gives us far more leeway than Tripp would say. That’s my main concern.

      I’ll reiterate: I actually agree with the ways he pushes back against culture in the areas of authority and spanking (articles of the sort you mention makes me want to bang my head against something hard). I just don’t think his conclusions are ultimately Biblical, and that’s still a problem, you know? In correcting against culture – which we should do – we need to make our aim point what Scripture says. No more and no less.

      Thanks again for the thoughtful response!

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • Eric Dorbin thought to say:

    Very interesting, I had already wanted to read the book for myself, and got the book for the Jeffers a couple years ago after hearing it recommended and hearing sermons based on it by a pastor I like. Thinking back on it, all the stuff he preached on was from what you described in the first section of the book, all about the why’s and the focus of discipline, I think he mentioned spanking, but he didn’t go into the erroneous details you highlighted.

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  • Ame thought to say:

    “I just don’t think his conclusions are ultimately Biblical, and that’s still a problem, you know? In correcting against culture – which we should do – we need to make our aim point what Scripture says. No more and no less.”

    this is where i am strongly in agreement with you … passionately in agreement with you. i have a dear forever friend. we’ve been friends since high school. her parents speak all the time, and they are 90% spot on … but they fail in this one area. they take their opinions and make them out to be biblical. and it just infuriates me because (1) they really do have SO much good and necessary things to say that people need to hear, but (2) they have to add this stuff that makes you feel totally guilty when it doesn’t work, and it’s unnecessary guilt b/c it’s opinion, not biblical.

    and this is where i get totally frustrated with many christian authors and speakers. my late Mentor would always say, “don’t just take my word for it, prove it against scripture in three different places. let the bible prove itself.” she would elevate the bible above herself.

    when people start following another person rather than following God, my heart sinks. it comes out like, “he said …. so therefore that’s what it right.” and people then refer to that one person over and over like he/she is god. it’s just not right. there’s a difference between being the authority and being an authorative figure through whom God speaks to reveal His truth. we must be very, very careful the advice we share. we need to define clearly our opinion.

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  • SJ thought to say:

    Its unfortunate that the author seems unable to apply a principle universally. That while the heart of the child is put, rightly so, in priority of mere behavior, the parent’s actions are not. The behavior of the parent falls into such a small box of compliance I think the same downfalls of overt child behavioral training will still befall the family. This seems to be a really common pitfall in the the more fundamental church circles because the massive confusion between what is taught about the bible and what the bible “actually” means. The age old “the bible is the play book for life” tagline, while once understood with the footnote *it positions our hearts to understand God’s will for our lives in all things* I’m becoming more and more convinced that Christians are no longer educated enough in their own religion to understand this.

    I would really be interest to hear your review of the book “Loving Your Kids On Purpose” by Danny Silk. A very different spectrum of the Christian parenting literature. I think they would be an interesting contrast.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • SJ, thanks for commenting. I think your analysis is pretty accurate. The author got a lot of things absolutely right, but then proceeds to tell parents there’s only one way to discipline. Exactly counter to other things said in the book!

      I’m curious about the other book you mentioned, so I’m adding it to my Amazon list. Maybe sometime I’ll be able to read and review it as well!

      Offer a rejoinder↓
  • jordan thought to say:

    I don’t know about you. But I am just glad he is not my father. Jesus said treat others as you wish you were treated. Spanking doesn’t seem to obey that command. Because unless you are a masochist, chances are you don’t like to be spanked.

    Offer a rejoinder↓
    • Jordan, thanks for commenting. I don’t quite agree with you, though: while I think Tripp goes a bit far, I think throwing out spanking entirely is equally a bad idea. We can’t use one part of Scripture to throw out another; there are lots of things that others do that are good for me that I don’t necessarily like — people offering correction for sins generally fits in that category in my experience. With a small child (like our 13-month-old), corporal discipline is the only kind of discipline available, and it is absolutely necessary at times — for her good!

      Scripture exhorts us to treat others as we would wish to be treated; it also exhorts us to discipline (even with a rod!). We should be careful not to see these two as conflicting, and instead to seek to understand how to reconcile them. In this case, I think reconciling them is fairly straightforward: just as you and I might not enjoy correction but want to be corrected when we need it (rather than stay in our sin), the same is true of our children. Disciplining appropriately is part of that.

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