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.
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 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!
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.
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, 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.
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.