Some counsel for young parents...
Not long ago, I received an email from the father of a young family who's a former member of Clearnote Church, Bloomington. He and his wife were getting ready to read Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding a Child's Heart and wondered if I had any other book recommendations or counsel to offer?
Knowing the couple, I knew reading good books alone wouldn't cut it for them. So I wrote them a long e-mail instead. Here's a modified version of my response.
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For many young couples, telling them to raise their children to be godly is like telling them to make bricks and not giving them straw. Giving them good resources on parenting is the equivalent of giving them a big pile of straw to work with. Which is a good thing. But the problem is actually much deeper than that…
The real problem is they’ve never seen a good brick before, much less been shown how to make one. They’ll do better with good resources than without, but you might be in for a surprise when you see the finished product.
So the first thing I’d say to you is this: when it comes to parenting, there’s absolutely no substitute for good examples. Some things can’t simply be taught. They have to be caught. There’s no substitute for growing up in a godly home. And apart from that privilege, there's no substitute from spending time around godly families in your church.
If you’ve not grown up in a godly home, you can't help but be twisted in your understanding of what a healthy Christian home should be. You've not seen healthy before. Dysfunctionality is the only 'normal' you know.
As it happens, twisted sinners have a tendency to twist sound biblical principles and see them only in the strange light of their own twisted sinfulness. And that's true whether they read those biblical principles in books or hear them in sermons. They’re missing the filters they need to help them translate and apply what they are taught properly. That's why they need shepherds and brothers and sisters in the faith to help them.
Which is not to say that the Word of God preached and taught and illuminated by the Spirit isn't powerful to change people. But it is one of the many reasons why that same Word calls us to be part of a healthy local church. And it's why the Apostle Paul is so insistent throughout his epistles that the people of God imitate him and the other good examples God has placed in their midst. You simply can't get this kind of instruction when you're off in your para-church bubble or when you're holed up in your mom's basement reading books and blogs. Data downloads don't cut it. But more on that some other time.
All that to say, as much or more than you need to read and pray and study (and you need to), you need to spend time in the homes of families in your church that are worthy of imitation—that offer you something to aspire to. Because as good or bad as either of the homes the two of you grew up in were, what you’re aiming for is something altogether different, something you never had. You need to seek out as many opportunities to “catch” godly parenting as possible.
And I don't mean that you should get out your camera and observe a few hand-selected and idealized families from a distance while doing your best David Attenborough impersonation. I mean you should live life together.
Invite yourself over to the home of a family you respect. Have entire families over for dinner. And try not to worry too much about appearances—let them see the glorious mess of your home. Let your failures be as evident as your successes. Then ask questions. Let them tell you what they've learned and what they'd do differently. Let them correct you.
And don't be too proud or precious or protective to receive correction from others who have been there before. Accept the lot God has given you and realize that building a godly home from the foundation up is hard work. You need help from the family of God and that's okay.
There’s one last thing I’d say: the bedrock of Christian parenting is a happy and holy marriage. It doesn’t matter what you read or think or apply about parenting if you don’t love your wife and if she does not honor and submit to you. If your marriage isn’t healthy, if you’re not consistently working toward being a better picture of Christ and the Church, there will be no health in your parenting. The very first priority in raising godly children is cultivating a godly marriage.
Take another analogy: If your home is a garden and your children the plants, your marriage is the soil. You can have the best tools in the world, the best seeds, the right amount of sun and shade and water, but if the soil isn’t rich and fertile it’s hopeless. And most modern American homes are like gardens planted in the wake of a Chernobyl-level meltdown. The marriages (on the off-chance they remain intact) are radioactive and the children grow up with two heads, glowing in the dark, and thinking that anything approximating godliness is an exotic monstrosity.
So healthy kids start with healthy marriages. Which, among other things, means your wife needs to feel more like a wife than a mom. It means that you have to be making sacrifices to provide and protect her and the kids. It means you need to lead and act in your home as the authority that God has called you to be. It means that your wife’s respect for you and submission to you must be real and evident, obvious and sweet. And it means there needs to be a whole lot of visible repentance and forgiveness and trust in the mercy of God.
I can’t say it enough: a healthy and happy marriage is the seedbed for happy and holy children. It provides the security and the freedom they need to flourish. And it establishes the reality of the Gospel in your home in such a way that your kids can’t escape it.
Marriage is meant to be a picture to your children and to the world of the Gospel. It's meant to be a demonstration of Christ and His love for the Church. And your marriage is the best indicator of how much you actually believe the Gospel. Don’t lie to your children. See to it that they’re not growing up in the home of hypocrites.
Of course, there is much more that can be said here. But having said all of that, there are some helpful resources I’d like to point you to. You’ve already mentioned Shepherding a Child's Heart—which is a good place to start. Let me add a couple more books to your list (while confessing that I'm not sure I've read any of them in their entirety).
When Pastor Tripp came and did his seminars at Clearnote a couple years ago, he told us Instructing a Child's Heart is just as important, or more important, than Shepherding a Child’s Heart. One of the very important things that Tripp does is draw a distinction between formative and corrective discipline. Shepherding a Child’s Heart emphasizes corrective discipline. Instructing a Child’s Heart emphasizes formative discipline. So it’s helpful to have the two of them side by side.
Doug Wilson’s Standing on the Promises is also a helpful book that makes a good companion to his Reforming Marriage. He’s more to the point than Tripp, focuses more on parenting in faith, trusting God’s promises for your children, and creating a family culture that honors God—what Tripp calls “shaping influences.” Helpful.
Ginger Plowman’s Don't Make Me Count to Three is another good book. I haven’t read it, but Amanda likes it a lot. She says the strength of the book is that it’s written by a mom for moms, and is much more focused on being practical: what does it actually look like to work out the principles of Shepherding a Child’s Heart? Plowman also has a chart of discipline issues, helpful Scriptures to apply, and good things to say to your kids called Wise Wise Words for Moms. We know a lot of moms that keep this in the bathroom or wherever they most frequently discipline their children.
Finally, Rachel Jankovic has an excellent book called Loving the Little Years. It’s not really a practical book on parenting. It’s just an encouraging read for moms of small children. I did read this one and I loved it. It helped me grow in my appreciation of Amanda and all her hard work. And Amanda was greatly encouraged by it. Jankovic is Doug Wilson’s daughter and she’s written some good articles on motherhood that you can find here.