Book review of Give Them Grace by Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Crossway, 2011
Review by David Potter
Do we really need another book on child rearing, especially one that seems from the title to give children liberty at the expense of discipline? Especially when one of the authors lists as credit on the back cover that she is a member of an Acts 29 church?
A friend of my daughter Hannah, who has just begun rearing our granddaughter, recommended the book and Hannah was impressed with it. To my surprise, the book does make some valid points and judicious use of the advice would probably benefit many Christian mothers. In addition to the benefit, some cautions are also in order.
Rather than give a synopsis of the contents of the book, let me just point out some highlights. The authors challenge us to ask if we are demanding responses and behaviors from unregenerate children that are impossible apart from the indwelling Holy Spirit. If and when they are born again, are we making little Pharisees out of them? Do our children grow up thinking that they can buy God’s favor by doing good works apart from grace? What makes Christian parenting distinct?
To illustrate this last point, they begin their introduction with a hypothetical mother teaching her children the story of Jonah. The mother asks her children what lesson we should draw from the story of Jonah. The children reply that if you don’t obey God you might get swallowed by a whale. Leaving aside the fact that the main message of the book of Jonah is the mercy of God on a wicked city and a disobedient prophet, we find that the story about the mother teaching her children comes from a source by and for Mormons. While we certainly want to raise obedient children, is that all there is to Christian parenting?
The authors advocate emphasizing the gospel from the start, interweaving the message of grace along with discipline. Rather than tell your unregenerate children that they are good based on some behavior, just thank them for the good behavior. Once they are saved, focus on the display of God’s righteousness, first in justification and second in progressive sanctification. God demands perfect righteousness of which none of us are capable, even parents. Be honest with your children about this. As parents, we are missionaries to the little pagans that God has placed in our homes. We need to think, act and pray like missionaries.
Does this mean that we do not demand obedience and discipline our children before they are saved? Not at all. The authors list four kinds of obedience that we should require right from the start.
- Initial obedience. Get them to respond to “Come to me” and “Stop!”
- Social obedience. They need obey the norms of courtesy.
- Civic obedience. They must obey the law.
- Religious obedience. They must sit reverently in church, close their eyes during prayer, etc. This kind of obedience is not true worship of God, since only a regenerate person can offer true worship, but the child must learn to respect God and all that pertains to true worship.
Good parenting does not automatically equal perfect children. Following a formula does not guarantee success. Not even the advice in this book, which the authors refuse to call a formula. The book’s focus is on salvation and discipleship. All parents would do well to follow this advice.
Reflections and Cautions
According to the authors, they are consciously reacting against the self-esteem movement. They do not like using charts and stickers. While I am ambivalent about the charts and stickers, I totally agree with them about self-esteem.
On page 100, immediately after quoting five passages from the Bible which clearly teach physical discipline of children, the authors say this: “Every parent has to come to his or her conclusion about physical discipline. Although many sincere Christians disagree, we believe that the Bible clearly teaches that corporal punishment is a sign of a loving relationship.” While I agree with every word in this statement, I believe it does not go far enough. Many readers will look at this and think that there may be other ways to show love sufficiently that avoid physical discipline. Yes, we all must decide whether or not we will use physical discipline. But when the Bible makes a clear pronouncement, our choice is between obedience and disobedience.
Biblical child rearing rests on two pillars: “Give me thine heart” (Proverbs 23:26) and “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him” (Proverbs 21:15). We neglect either one to the detriment of our children. Children must learn at an early age to accept no for an answer. Absent corporal punishment, few if any children will learn that kind of obedience.
The dominant philosophy of “discipline” today is distraction. When children behave in a bad manner, parents direct their attention elsewhere so that they do not continue the objectionable behavior. Parents fail to confront the child’s disobedience, self-will and selfishness. Children grow up being appeased rather than disciplined. They never learn self-denial. When two selfish twenty-somethings marry each other, the frequent result is divorce.
The corollary to the above is that selfish parent raise selfish children. Parents who pursue happiness by gratifying their own selfish desires raise children who do the same.
The book discusses how to decide doubtful issues and makes some good recommendations, but, as one would expect from someone with Mark Driscoll in her background, the conclusions may not always be sound. Nevertheless, the discerning reader can gain some help by wrestling with these issues.
The authors are not theologians, and occasionally their hermeneutic gets a bit allegorical.
I recommend that pastors read this book, if for no other reason than self-defense. Mothers in their churches may well be reading it and the wise shepherd will pay attention to what his sheep feed on. Discerning reading of the book could help shape views on child-rearing in a positive way. The chief fault of most Christian parents is the failure to teach their children to accept no for an answer while convincing them that the parents are acting in the child’s best interest. I am not sure that giving this book to the average Christian mother will promote that end without supplemental help.
David Potter serves as a missionary in Hungary with Baptist World Mission.