While the premise of his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart has some merit, Tedd Tripp’s biblical interpretation is flawed, his theology is not consistent with covenant theology, and his practical methods completely contradict his premise.
When it comes to good biblical parenting advice, much is lacking in contemporary Christian resources. Many of the Christian parenting “gurus” employ secular psychology and slap Bible verses on, claiming their advice to be biblical. But most of the time it is behavior modification that addresses only symptoms and not the heart. This is where we applaud Tripp. He was one of the first to suggest that changing behavior without changing the heart is pretty much useless. The sin in the heart will be masked and may come out in another way, so no real change has occurred. Tripp also rightly asserts that the only solution to this problem is the gospel of Jesus Christ, and that the parents’ goal should not be a well-behaved child, but one that embraces the gospel and continually grows in relationship with Jesus Christ. But sadly, this is where Tripp’s helpfulness ends.
Tripp’s use of scripture is not consistent with its literal meaning or with its context. After quoting a few Proverbs (Proverbs 22:15; 23:14; 29:15, 17) he concludes:
What is the rod? The rod is a parent, in faith toward God and faithfulness toward his or her children, undertaking the responsibility of careful, timely, measured and controlled use of physical punishment to underscore the importance of obeying God, thus rescuing the child from continuing in his foolishness unto death (130).
The use of the rod is an act of faith. God has mandated its use (131).
There is much debate amongst Christian scholars as to the exact translation of key words in these passages. The word for “child” (na’ar) has many uses, as does the word for “rod” (shebet). There is serious question as to the literal translation of these passages, let alone the cultural context.
Even if we decide to go with the literal interpretation that these Proverbs recommend the use of a literal rod for spanking a young child, we must consider the context of the passages Tripp uses to justify his conclusions, beginning with genre. The only text he uses to prove the absolute necessity of spanking is Proverbs. The Book of Proverbs is wisdom literature, not to be elevated to the authority of mandates from God. As with the genre of proverbs, “The proverb form, no matter the cultural background, presupposes the right circumstance for its proper application” (Longman, 48). Longman goes on to state that his grandmother when preparing dinner would say “Too many cooks spoil the broth” then when time to clean up, she would announce, “Many hands make light work.” These are both true, in the right circumstance, but are never to be taken as universal truths, or “brute facts” as VanTil would say.
If genre alone isn’t enough to demonstrate that elevating these wise statements to a direct commandment from God is unsound hermeneutic, the immediate context should be enough to show how this hermeneutic is absurd. One of the passages Tripp uses is Proverbs 23:14. Here is just the beginning of Proverbs 23 (NIV):
1 When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you,
2 and put a knife to your throat, if you are given to gluttony.
3 Do not crave his delicacies, for that food is deceptive.
4 Do not wear yourself out to get rich; have the wisdom to show restraint.
5 Cast but a glance at riches, and they are gone, for they will surely sprout wings and fly off to the sky like an eagle.
6 Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies;
7 for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. “Eat and drink,” he says to you, but his heart is not with you.
8 You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments.
9 Do not speak to a fool, for he will scorn the wisdom of your words.
10 Do not move an ancient boundary stone or encroach on the fields of the fatherless,
11 for their Defender is strong; he will take up their case against you.
12 Apply your heart to instruction and your ears to words of knowledge.
13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.
14 Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.
While it might seem obvious that riches won’t actually sprout wings and fly off like and eagle (v. 5) and that God is not commanding all people prone to gluttony to slit their own throats (v. 2), to interpret verse 14 as a commandment is equally ridiculous, not to mention hermeneutically inconsistent if you don’t interpret verse 2 as a commandment.
Another glaring misinterpretation of scripture has to do with a New Testament text.
We have always been guided by Hebrews 12:11, “No discipline is pleasant at the time, but painful. Afterward, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” If discipline has not yielded a harvest of peace and righteousness, it is not finished. On some occasions we have had to say to our children, “Dear, Daddy has spanked you, but you are not sweet enough yet. We are going to have to go back upstairs for another spanking” (174).
First of all, how does one define “sweet enough”? Is that a biblical mandate I am unaware of? And does behaving “sweetly” after a good beating demonstrate heart change?
But the real problem is that the Hebrews passage is being used as a proof-text for Tripp’s agenda. Hebrews 12 is a passage of encouragement. It is meant to bring hope to God’s children who are experiencing suffering. They are being reminded how much God loves them. The passage is not intended to be interpreted as a “How to Guide” for disciplining your children. But even if it were, if it holds some truths applicable in child discipline, where does it say that the righteousness and peace are demonstrated within moments of the discipline? And what about verse 10? “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Here there is a clear distinction created between God’s discipline and a parent’s. The parent’s discipline is sufficient to create holiness, only God’s discipline is. We can’t change our child’s hearts with repeated beatings, we have to trust that God will change the hearts in his timing.
Of course if the hermeneutic is faulty, the resulting theology is also poor. Tripp asserts, “[T]he function of the spanking is…to restore him to a place in which God had promised blessing” (173), then goes on to conclude:
The “why” is that God commands it. Additionally, spanking enables you to deal with issues of the heart….The heart is the battleground. The spanking comes only because it is God’s method of driving foolishness far from your child’s heart (175).
If what Tripp has done already isn’t disturbing enough, the fact that he equates the rod as a means of grace, actually the ONLY means of grace for a child, is in direct contradiction with the truth of all of Scripture. Salvation is by Christ alone, through grace alone, by faith alone. It is the Holy Spirit who works in the hearts of those God has saved — and he does not require physical beatings to achieve this purpose.
I certainly do give Tripp the benefit of the doubt that he does believe the truth of the gospel; I believe the mistaken emphasis on the necessity of the rod comes from his Reformed Baptist theology. He starts with the basic tenets of Calvinism (especially total depravity) but without the framework of the child’s special place in covenant community, he finds himself needing a way for the child to come to Christ. He sees the young child as unregenerate, someone who is outside of the Church family. This subtle yet insidious presupposition affects his interpretation; and churches that affirm the covenant community and the value of participation of all children of believers — as signed and sealed in the sacrament of baptism — should be wary of how this theological difference impacts his view of children, and the necessity of punishment rather than disciplining with grace. One illustration of this different approach appears when Tripp discussed the child from infancy to age four: “The most important lesson for the child to learn in this period is that HE IS AN INDIVIDUAL UNDER AUTHORITY.” (155) Sadly, there is no room for the gospel during this stage of life. In our homes we believe the most important lesson for this age as well as every other is that God loves you and sent Jesus to die for you. Romans 5:13 sums it up pretty well: “But God demonstrates his love for us, in that while we are still sinners, Christ died for us.” Why is this message not for young children? Another example of poor theology occurs just a few pages later. Tripp is discussing Ephesians 6:1-3. Interestingly he omits verse 4 — but that’s another topic.
1Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. 2″Honor your father and mother” which is the first commandment with a promise 3that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth. 4Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.
Tripp correctly points out that this passage promises blessing for those who obey their parents. As parents care about the well-being of their children, it makes sense that the rules they set up are for the best interests of those children. And the children that obey are usually much better off than those who disobey. But Tripp interpretation goes too far. “The disobedient child has moved outside the place of covenant blessing.” (157) Thankfully I know that my place in the covenant is not dependent on my obedience or my righteousness, but on Christ’s righteousness imputed to me.
Tripp’s theological assumptions are also apparent in his lack of biblical categories for understanding behavior. Yes, it is true that we all are sinners and have deceitful hearts, but that doesn’t explain everything that we do. We know from the false conclusions of Job’s friends that not every bad thing happens because we have sinned. We live in a broken world, with broken bodies. And we also are victims of the sin of others. And sometimes when we respond in a manner that is out of accordance with God’s will, we do so out of despair rather than rebellion. We need correction, but in the form of gentle encouragement, not punishment. That’s why we have Matthew 18 for guidance — not everyone gets excommunicated on the spot. Sadly the only category Tripp allows for understanding the behavior of children is sinful rebellion.
When your child is old enough to resist your directives, he is old enough to be disciplined. When he is resisting you he is disobeying. Rebellion can be something as simple as an infant struggling against a diaper change or stiffening out his body when you want him to sit on your lap (176).
Where are the other biblical categories that could be used to interpret these behaviors? Because of the fall we have broken bodies. Is it possible that the child is in pain? Gas or colic, perhaps? Or maybe the child is hungry, or tired. Perhaps there is a tag in the child’s clothing that is scratching him. Or even worse, maybe the child was spanked the last time his diaper was changed and now he is afraid that he will be hurt again? The conclusion that rebellion is the only explanation is appallingly unbiblical.
Tripp’s definition of obedience is also troubling.
It means more than a child doing what he is told. It means doing what he is told; Without Challenge, Without Excuse, and Without Delay (160).
On the following page he continues his explanation that there should be no discussion of the command, no questioning or explaining, just blind submission. Was Jacob in sin when he wrestled with God? No, he actually receives the name “Israel” indicating that he has matured in his faith as a result of wrestling with God. And God uses this same name to identify his people — a people set apart and identified with the name which means “he strives with God.” Similarly we have to ask if Christ was in sin in the Garden of Gethsemane when he asked God to take the cup from him. If the simple action of questioning, or discussing the command is disobedience, then we have an imperfect Savior. There is nothing disobedient about requesting more information, expressing feelings, or even asking your parents to reconsider. We parents know that sometimes we don’t realize the implications of what we have asked our children to do. And after hearing more about the situation, we change what we have requested of our children. If we had insisted upon obedience based on our initial request, we would have been creating a bigger problem. It is good that our children know that it is safe to question if they don’t understand or find a request unreasonable. Now if after the discussion is over they refuse to do what we have asked, that is disobedience.
If faulty biblical hermeneutic and theology that undermines the blessings of Covenant Theology are not enough to create serious concerns about the teaching of Tripp, the fact that his methods completely contradict his premise should suffice. He sets the stage in Chapter One explaining that behavior modification should not be the goal, but changing the heart (out of which the wrong behavior grows) is the Christian parent’s goal. But the two prong method he advocates is 1. communication and 2. spanking. Ironically all that spanking accomplishes is a simple Pavlovian response. Pain is to be avoided. Children quickly learn what is expected of them in order to be spared a spanking. And when they didn’t learn in time to prevent the spanking, they quickly learn how to respond once the spanking is over to prevent another one. Just because the child asks forgiveness and acts sweetly toward the parent, does not in any way demonstrate that the heart of that child has been changed. The Holy Spirit through the teaching of the Word of God is what changes our hearts, whether two weeks old or 98 years old. God can use situations in life, including discipline, to get our attention, but to assert that spanking has a direct connection to the heart is not only unbiblical, but completely illogical. For all his emphasis on heart change, ironically Tripp’s methods only accomplish behavior modification.
Although we personally do not spank my children, we do respect those who choose to use corporal punishment as one of the tools in their toolbox of discipline. We hope that we have expressed our concerns not with spanking per se, but with the faulty methods Tripp uses to promote spanking. At best his teachings are misguided, and at worst, they are quite dangerous. We trust that you do not want your flock to be shepherded in a manner that promotes poor biblical hermeneutics and undermines Covenant Theology.
The Mothering by Grace Team
Now observe that when that clever harlot, our natural reason… , takes a look at married life, she turns up her nose and says, “Alas, must I rock the baby, wash its diapers, make its bed, smell its stench, stay up nights with it, take care of it when it cries, heal its rashes and sores… ?
What then does Christian faith say to this? It opens its eyes, looks upon all these insignificant, distasteful, and despised duties in the Spirit, and is aware that they are all adorned with divine approval as with the costliest gold and jewels. It says, O God, because I am certain that thou hast created me as a man and hast from my body begotten this child, I also know for a certainty that it meets with thy perfect pleasure. I confess to thee that I am not worthy to rock the little babe or wash its diapers, or to be entrusted with the care of the child and its mother. How is it that I, without any merit, have come to this distinction of being certain that I am serving thy creature and thy most precious will? O how gladly will I do so, though the duties should be even more insignificant and despised. Neither frost nor heat, neither drudgery nor labor, will distress or dissuade me, for I am certain that it is thus pleasing in thy sight…
God, with all his angels and creatures is smiling-–not because the father is washing diapers, but because he is doing so in Christian faith.
The idea of mothering as vocation is sometimes one we wrestle with. . . individually, together. The inherent struggles related to the concept is probably why we have a whole section of the MbG community set aside to encourage one another in vocation.
It seems like new parents often have to learn to get balanced, like learning to ride a bicycle — some are comfortable with authority and wobble to the side of being too rules-oriented and need to balance that with more grace and flexibility and others are natural nurturers and wobble to the side of being too permissive and need to balance that with firmness and authority.
One nice thing about getting older is that I find I have so much in common with parents no matter which side they wobbled to early on — in the end caring parents generally are balanced out.
Did you find you “wobbled” a bit to one side or the other in your earliest parenting years? Did you find you overcompensated as you found balance? What ideas helped you find balance? What encouragement do you have for other mothers during the wobbly years?
Last spring, I attended a women’s conference with a really great speaker, Tara Klena Barthel. I was so encouraged how she kept turning back to the Word, directing the conference-goers back to the Word, and pointing again and again to the Word made flesh, Jesus.
Near the end of the last session, Tara spoke on the importance of accepting on another and serving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. (Again, based upon what Christ has done for us — accepting us and serving us.) She pointed out how easy it is to fall into the “Jesus+Plus” thinking. Theologically, we can slip into the Jesus+Plus my good works, my sound theology, my worship experience. . . Not that we would consciously form our salvific beliefs around such ideas, but that becomes our manner of living.
Relationally, we can fall into “Jesus+Plus” thinking as well. It is so easy for us as people to want to be comfortable with those who are like us. And within the Church this has often become very pronounced. Jesus+Plus likeminded families, breastfeeding mamas, cry-it-out-ers, family bedders. . .
We’ve even seen this cause strife and division in individual congregations. Difficulties in maintaining previously close relationships.
It can be hard to get past the “Jesus+Plus” thinking, both in our daily walk with the Lord as well as in our relationships. Once again, it is time to turn to the Gospel, recognizing that what Christ has done for me is what Christ has done for those who live and think and parent very differently from me.
Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. Romans 15:7
And so, my brothers and sisters in Christ. . . I’m seeking the Lord. Seeking the Lord to apply the Gospel in my life and in my relationships. In our parenting, I believe that God gave to you your children to raise to the glory of God — just as He gave my children to me. It is in that spirit of unity that we share encouragement, factual information, and our own varied experiences.
A few years ago I came across this fascinating article about The Chemistry of Attachment by Linda F. Palmer. My mother was asking me more about Reactive Attachment Disorder, and this article touches on the oxytocin/cortisol impact on infant brain development. The wonderful way God has designed mothers and babies continually amazes me.
Here are some quotes from the article, of the creative chemicals that connect us.
Under the early influence of oxytocin, nerve junctions in certain areas of mother’s brain actually undergo reorganization, thereby making her maternal behaviors “hard-wired.”
Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant’s stress-hormone responses. . . the resulting high or low level of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portion of the baby’s brain-promoting lasting “securely attached” or “insecure” characteristics in the adolescent and adult.
When an infant does not receive regular oxytocin-producing responsive care, the resultant stress responses cause elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic cortisol elevations in infants . . .are shown in biochemical studies to be associated with permanent brain changes that lead to elevated responses to stress throughout life,
Released in response to nearness and touch, vasopressin promotes bonding between the father and the mother, helps the father recognize and bond to his baby. . . It has gained a reputation as the “monogamy hormone.”
. . .prolactin is released in response to suckling, promoting milk production as well as maternal behaviors. Prolactin relaxes mother. . . so she has no strong desire to hop up and do other things.
Babies need milk, and opioids are nature’s reward to them for obtaining it. . . The first few episodes of sucking organize nerve pathways in the newborn’s brain, conditioning her to continue this activity.
Prolonged elevation of prolactin in the attached parent stimulates the opioid system, heightening the rewards for intimate, loving family relationships. . .
Once a strong opioid bonding has occurred, separation can become emotionally upsetting, and in the infant possibly even physically uncomfortable when opioid levels decrease in the brain, much like the withdrawal symptoms from cocaine or heroin. When opioid levels become low, one might feel like going home to hold the baby or like crying for a parent’s warm embrace. . .
Norepinephrine helps organize the infant’s stress control system
Newborns are much more sensitive to pheromones than adults. . . . Through these, baby most likely learns how to perceive the level of stress in the caretakers around her, such as when mother is experiencing fear or joy. . . .body odors and pheromones can only be sensed when people are physically very near each other.
“. . .the Lord does not in vain prepare nutriment for children in their mothers’ bosoms, before they are born.
But those on whom he confers the honor of mothers, he, in this way, constitutes nurses; and they who deem it a hardship to nourish their own offspring, break, as far as they are able, the sacred bond of nature.
If disease, or anything of that kind, is the hindrance, they have a just excuse; but for mothers voluntarily, and for their own pleasure, to avoid the trouble of nursing, and thus to make themselves only half-mothers, is a shameful corruption.”
Today, July 10th, marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin. Not only was he a great theologian and world changer, he was also a breastfeeding advocate and encourager to moms!
I find it interesting to note that he addressed the same issues we have in our own day — how hard it can be and how sometimes things don’t function as they were designed. That is the reality of living in a fallen world, and a real struggle for many. And yet, what a wonderful way God has designed breastfeeding to nourish and nurture our children!
For more info and encouragement on breastfeeding:
Mothering by Grace Breastfeeding Forum
One Piece of Advice for New Breastfeeding Moms
Parenting Freedom: Breastfeeding
KellyMom: Evidence Based Breastfeeding Info
this week between birthdays, the birthday of henry, the birthday of jude, is always a busy week, busy from the beginning. jude was born five weeks early, henry barely two, barely talking, barely a curl on his head. jude was white and pinkish and was very beautiful. i thought he would be a girl and am glad he was not. it’s nice to have brothers back to back, friends most days, and brothers close forever.
we were worried about you, jude. you were little and you were early and people were rushing around in the room with the whitest shiniest tiles i’ve ever seen. the special doctor came just for you and you were fine. perfect. i was so happy when you were born. i was happy even though you were born by c-section. i was happy because i didn’t need to be worried. i was happy because you were so beautiful and perfect and so very tiny. they gave you a sweet little knitted white hat to wear and i never thought i could be so happy to hold such a wonderful little thing in my arms.
for jude’s birthday we celebrated early (more pictures from this day can be seen here!) as ernie was shooting a wedding on the actual day. grammy and judson came to town and big daddy had a birthday (80!), too, the day after jude’s. so we all ate curry and walked the zoo together. we got the howler monkeys to howl. they only do this if you clap and cheer and make howling sounds for them. you have to do this for a good five minutes and then they will swing in the cage and bellow at each other. no one ever wants to make them howl with me. it’s embarrassing to stand there clapping and cheering for so long when no one knows why you are doing such a ridiculous thing. i am only mildly embarrassed. it’s worth it in the end, as are many things that make you look foolish for a time. after the zoo we went home for cake. i didn’t put a monster truck into the cake this year as last year jude was very offended by my doing just that. he reminded me several times this year to “only put candles in the cake, don’t stick any toys or anything else in there.” he is very particular. sometimes this is annoying. many times it is annoying. mostly i try to remind myself that attention to detail is something good and right. sometimes the details to which he has paid attention amaze us. his memory alone is astounding and i should, of course, for the sheer sake of his memory alone, stop myself from being unkind more often than i do. knee jerk reactions and all that, you know.
saturday, jude’s actual birthday, we went to ernie’s aunt’s house far and away and then even farther away until you think that you can’t go any farther and then a little bit farther away, then around a corner and up and down a few hills and a farther and farther and farther away until everyone in the car has asked their allotment of “are we there yets.” in the woods, they live. with a creek in which we had anticipated wading. it was not to be. too much rain and the thing was rushing away, the loud screams of it heard from the top of the hill as we got out of the car. henry ran off with the big boys (!) and i only worried a little bit. they walked through poison ivy (didn’t get any, though. amazing!) and played in milder water, though had i been there i might have said no way! there were many orange puddles and this made jude happy. it also made his sneakers too wet to enjoy wearing so he took them off. and then he came home with scratches on the bottoms of his feet and had a hard time finding shoes, even flip flops, to wear on sunday that didn’t hurt. but it was worth it, as painful things sometimes are.
tonight, jude is sleeping by the fan. he has a sunburn on his shoulders that hurts and he was sad until he fell asleep to alex giving answers and the rest of us shouting questions at the tv. he is taller than ever, long legs, skinny torso and arms. his hair needs a cut, a trim, the curls in his face, the back fluffy and weird. today he watched the neighbors we don’t know splashing in their pool and then played with the hose until it just had to be turned off. he is a light in the house, funny jokes and an undercurrent of energy that is hard to match. he is sensitive and smart and without him, what would we do? we do not know, nor wish to know.
jude, i love you more than you can ever know. i love your freckles, each one multiplying as the summer begins, continues. i love your smile, your silly faces, but especially your smile that starts and spreads across your face and makes me smile and laugh a little myself. i love your hugs, the real hugs that you give that lean all of your weight into my body. thank you for being you, for being one of the most important people i know or ever will know or ever will care to know. how did you happen to me?
thank you God, for jude. thank you for his ready smile, for his infinite imagination. thank you for making him sensitive and loving and smart. thank you for letting me be his mother, of all the women in the world, you entrusted him to me! show him how much you love him. help him understand the gift of your grace and mercy that is deeper and greater than he can ever know.
Cross-posted at Fresh Milk Delivered Daily
As a message board and online community, MbG has been present in its current form for over two years. As we serve our members and the wider online community, we are relaunching the site with updated features, functionality and look.
Mothering by Grace is a Christian, attachment parenting message board. Our distinctives include an emphasis on positive discipline, encouraging involvement in local communities and understanding freedom in Christ as a basis for making individual, educated parenting decisions. Our goal is to be both theologically sound and intellectually stimulating.
Whether you chose it or it chose you, you have all entered into the mysterious, wonderful, frightening, crazy, exquisite domain called Motherhood.
Today is your day. It’s the day when the world stops and gives you a collective nod for doing the mostly unnoticed things you do all the live long day . . . wiping snot from runny noses, taking tear-stained midnight phone calls, beaming from audiences at whatever your children are putting forth on stages, choosing to cook an actual meal rather than just sprinkling Cocoa Puffs on the ground and hoping your kids will find it there. . . .
I recently read that the things that seem to bind us the tightest and feel the most constrictive are the very things that ultimately free us. Motherhood is a great proof of that pudding.
The moment you became a mom, you unwittingly signed up to have your greatest fears revealed and potentially brought to light. You inadvertently agreed to commit to a cause greater than your own happiness. You bound yourselves forever to Life and to Love.
To my own mom, here’s my nod to your courage and to all the things I failed to really see as we bumbled along the Mother Daughter Yellow Brick Road together over the past nearly 35 years. I love you for all that you are, for all that you are not, for all that you ever wanted to be, and for all that you have yet to become. I love your green eyes framed by smiley creases, your crazy gardening wardrobe, your laugh, your perfect posture, your insight, your crooked smile, your wisdom, your deeply spiritual and intuitive nature, and your uncanny ability to get lost in foreign countries.
To all the other moms on this list, here’s my nod to your courage, to your efforts, to all the things you do everyday that slip under the radar, to all the things in your hearts that you fear, and to all the things that you love.
Your children will most definitely see every single one your faults and will frequently fail to see your many redeeming qualities, but all they will ever want when everything is said and done is your unguarded and “unguilted” love.
A Mother’s Day tribute, by Kathleen Nolan