The Problem with Shepherding A Child’s Heart – Part 1

As I am writing my book on Raising Children UnFundamentalist, I find it has become necessary to engage with conservative Christian parenting literature. Progressive Christianity has, by and large, rejected and ignored conservative parenting ideas which is unfortunate, because it remains a crucial task for us to address the problematic theology underlying popular Christian parenting literature as well as provide constructive dialogue moving forward. Unless we come to a clarity on what it is we are rejecting, it will be difficult to heal and to contemplate the way forward for Christian parenting. The mind-numbing routine of infant care, challenges of toddler tantrums, and our fears of teenage rebellion do not go away simply because we have shifted in our faith. Tired and frustrated, parents are turning to the formulaic conservative Christian parenting manuals because they supply concrete answers when there are no alternatives. 

As such, I will be taking the next two blog posts to critiquing Ted Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I chose this book because I believe it is the most mainstream out of a number of conservative Christian parenting books, having sold millions of copies to Christian families across evangelical America. I believe its success is due to the accessibility in more modern language as compared to the Pearl’s, To Train Up A Child, and more palatable than Fugate’s, What the Bible Says About Child Training. But essentially, the message in these child rearing books are the same. The two theological legs upon which they stand is what I will attempt to deconstruct in the following posts, and I hope to spark our imagination for alternative ways of parenting in faith.

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 is predicated by the framework of where the child is in relation to the parent. A good story teller (and marketer) knows to introduce the problem in order to supply the solution, which Tripp does successfully. According to Tripp, the problem begins with a child’s heart that is oriented towards evil. The solution to this problem is for the parent, acting as a representative of God, to bring the child back into the “circle of blessing.” (pp.135)

The extent to which Tripp emphasizes the sinfulness of a child is extreme. Citing Psalms 58:3 and 51:5, he says, “even a child in the womb and coming from the womb is wayward and sinful.” (pp. 21) 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.”  (pp. 106) 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. (pp. 22) Telling a story of a misbehaving child, Tripp concludes it is because of “the idolatry of his rebellion against God’s authority.” (pp. 24) The child is a sinner, through and through. 

I find this to be confusing mixed signals from conservative Christian culture who seem to prize children as blessings from God. Yet, how can children be blessings when they are portrayed as little devils, and the child-rearing environment is set up to be a “battlefield for the child’s heart”? (pp. 21)

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. Which of us, having spent more than a few moments in the presence of children, haven’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 all 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. 

Our children are not wicked to the core, and they do not emerge from the womb as sinful bundles of evil.
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 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 complexities 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, however, 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.

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Tripp believes children are sinful and the parent’s responsibility is to rescue them from evil using the rod (spanking). I disagree, and will address what I believe the role of a Christian parent ought to be. Coming up in part 2…

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  • SimplySuzi

    Thank you for this. The conservative evangelical view of children and parenting is really disturbing and cries out for a more progressive exploration. Alternative, loving, holistic guides are badly needed. I’m looking forward to part two!

    • Thank you for following along!

  • Oh, you are brave. I couldn’t bring myself to finish Shepherding a Child’s Heart when I started it about 10 years ago. I’ve also burned my copy of Bringing Up Boys (which I also could not finish). 🙂 We do so much damage to ourselves, our kids, others, when we look at them through a lens of fear believing each of us is morally bankrupt at our core. My parenting changed, my heart changed, when I began to approach them with the desire to draw out, call forth, honor their gifts, the beauty, the hope that God has planted in each of them.

    • That’s so beautiful – thank you for sharing this.

  • Elizabeth Trotter

    I dislike parenting books. (There, I said it. I’m a parent of 4 and I can’t stand parenting books.) I can never finish them, they are so tedious. So I stopped even picking them up. I have often wondered what is wrong with me that I eat up other words but not those words.

    (As an aside, I did read Babywise when I was pregnant with my 1st, thought it would create a happy mom and obedient child, and I implemented it, only to discard it at 6 months when I realized it was bad for both breastfeeding and a love relationship with my child. But because of Babywise I was introduced to Toddlerwise or whatever the next book in the series is, and I was HORRIFIED. Truly horrified.)

    Anyway, that said, I find that the best things I’ve ever done in parenting have been as a consequence of my own love relationship with God. Learning to see my children as HUMANS with valid emotions and with hearts that need care. I couldn’t do that until I realized *I* was a human with a heart that needed care. So I think the best thing we can do as parents is work on our own souls. Then we are free to give the love we have received. That love will last beyond childhood and adolescence, even if our adult children make life choices we wouldn’t necessarily want.

    (Looming large on the horizon are the books/counsel I’ve received in dealing with grief and loss, and other resources on emotional health.)

    I’m committed to loving my kids no matter their choices. My parents have modeled that for me in an amazing way (and I’ve seen it NOT modeled in other close friends and family, with devastating consequences). We have to ask ourselves, “What is going to show the love of Christ more?” I have a hard time believing that shunning shows the love of Christ. More and more I’m coming to believe that disfellowshipping/excommunicating was a cultural tool. It worked THEN, when early Christians had no other community, because they lost it all to follow Christ. And anyway, what does it mean to treat someone like a heathen and unbeliever? It means to be KIND to them, not to avoid them. But now, using those tools just makes people think Christians are hateful people, which is kind of NOT the point, don’t you think??

    So anyway, I never really think too much about deconstructing parenting methods, I just sort of wing it and try to treat my kids like human beings in need of both love and respect. I want my children to know they have a mother and father always ready to receive them, in hopes that will point to their heavenly Father who is always ready to receive them. But mostly I want my love for them not to be dependent on anything they DO. Because that’s no kind of love!

    • I hope you’ll make one tiny exception and read my parenting book when I’m done writing it! 🙂

      Thank you for sharing everything you shared here – such good words! Your kids are lucky to have you as their mother!

  • Suzanna Turner

    I hate the idea of of kids being damned before they even start. Now as a kid gets older, I think one of the best ways to teach children regarding being responsible and admitting when they fail is for parents to be able to admit to a child what they did wrong and ask for forgiveness. What happens is that the child is safe to be honest with the parent. I never confessed wrong doing to my parents for fear of being shamed again and again. Now there are limits to this depending on the child but parent’s need to admit they aren’t perfect which will allow the child to forgive themselves when they sin. Personally I confessed to God over and over again things that weren’t even sins.To set boundaries with my parents as I got older, felt like sin. At the ripe old age of 21, I should have said “No Mom you cannot go into my room and toss clothes out that you don’t like”. This may seem not related but the reason I didn’t stand up for myself was because it would be “dishonoring my parents”.

    • I was just talking about this elsewhere – how I used to search the “meditations of my heart” to be cleansed of sin, and I’d spend so much time trying to sweep through the terrains of my soul to make sure I was hiding nothing from God. So OCD!! 🙂

  • Lynn

    So, I hate to be the negative voice, but I have read part of Ted Tripp’s book (I can never finish a book!) and I agree with his theology. If we’re not born sinners,then what in the world would we need God for? I was raised in a conservative Christian home and am trying to “recover” from that. But I learned from this book that parenting IS about my child’s heart, not his actions. The focus from my parents was always on my actions, so I learned to “look” like a good Christian girl, relying on my “goodness,” instead of on God. In other words, I learned to be a Pharisee. So I do try to address my children’s sinfulness. And you know what I have learned, they already know they are sinful. That is when I am able to tell them about what God did for them..not that I always do this!!

    • Jo S.

      Dear Lynn, “If we’re not born sinners,then what in the world would we need God for?” – perhaps because becoming independent (by growing up) as an imperfect human being in a world full of bad AND good things does necessarily go along with making mistakes…

  • Hi Cindy! Hoping to gain some clarity in your stance on this. 🙂 At the core of the gospel is the doctrine of depravity … that we are born sinners in desperate need of a Savior. I’m familiar with your reference to the Lutheran faith’s focus on being both saint and sinner … the already and not yet (praise God for his grace with us in this!). But isn’t this in reference to those whom God has saved rather than all of mankind? If it’s the latter, how would that belief differ from Universalism? It often sounds so appealing to believe my precious 9 month old daughter is already destined for heaven and was not born into sin. It really does! And she is so unbelievably precious to both her Daddy and I that we sometimes fall into believing, and even hoping, for this. But then God’s beautifully redemptive word paints a different picture (Ephesians 2 is a great example of this!). I know this is an older post. Hope you are well and having a fruitful year with your ministry!

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