Many parenting books promise fast results for raising children who always obey, toddlers who never talk back, and teens who keep the faith. The marketers of such books get that we consumers will buy almost anything if it promises speedy outcomes and comes in a tidy list of dos and don'ts.
In their new book, Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus (Crossway), mother-daughter writing team Elyse Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson write to challenge the assumption that if we raise "nice" kids, our parenting task is complete (17). They believe God has something far greater for parents than raising the most moral kids on the block. Writing from the experience of a mother whose children are grown (Elyse) and a mother currently parenting young children (Jessica), they offer a reflective look back at what should have been, and a helpful look forward at what parenting can be, by God's grace.
Give Them Grace is divided into two sections: foundations of grace and evidences of grace. In the first, Fitzpatrick and Thompson present the gospel story and its implications for parenting. They assert that we often spend our time parenting by rules alone rather than reciting the story of redemption, which provides our children a way to follow the rules. They emphasize that salvation is all of God, which is a parent's only foundation as they raise children:
Raising good kids is utterly impossible unless they are drawn by the Holy Spirit to put their faith in the goodness of another. You cannot raise good kids, because you are not a good parent. There is only one good Parent, and he had one good Son. Together, this Father and Son accomplished everything that needed to be done to rescue us and our children from certain destruction (50).
While our primary goal shouldn't be raising obedient children, teaching obedience is still a large part of parenting. The authors list four types of obedience (initial, social, civic, religious) and show how to differentiate this obedience from true Christian righteousness (30-32). By weaving in examples of how to respond to children when they disobey, they teach parents the importance of pointing children to Jesus, the only Son who obeyed perfectly. They call this "gracious parenting."
The second section, evidences of grace, explores the nuts and bolts of applying grace to parenting. While the authors steer clear of a simple cause-effect parenting strategy, they provide tools for parents in light of the grace-filled framework already established. They provide a chart for parents to use as they think through parenting "of the Lord" (taken from Ephesians 6:4). The chart has five distinct categories: management, nurturing, training, correction, and promises (89-92). Each category includes an example for the believing and the unbelieving child.
For further study, the book includes an in-depth look at this chart in Appendix 2. This section includes a chapter of everyday examples parents encounter, ranging from children with unbelieving friends to a daughter who wants to dress up in princess attire. They provide grace-filled responses for parents coupled with thought-provoking questions intended to help parents grasp this grace for themselves.
We all know the kid in our church or family who is the meticulous rule follower. He is always obedient, always respectful, and often pleading with siblings and peers to do the right thing. We also know the kid who throws fits, says "no" for every command, and doesn't like talking to adults, or anyone for that matter. As much as we believe in grace and the sinfulness of all people, including children, the truth is that we actually like the first child better. He fits the model of goodness. He is easier to manage.
Fitzpatrick and Thompson shatter the notion that the best Christian child is the one who follows all the rules, the one who displays external righteousness. Instead, they write, we need to teach our children that any righteousness they possess is a precious gift from God, not of their merit. This approach will not only serve a parent of the seemingly compliant child. It will also help the parent whose child falls into the category of a sinner in more obvious need of mercy. Both are on an equal playing field (75).
The task of Christian parenting is not an easy one. It's certainly harder than following a list of tips. Fitzpatrick and Thompson, while careful to not take an overly pragmatic approach, provide a steady stream of hope and simplicity for the weary parent. Each chapter includes questions for reflection, intended to aid the reader in applying the gospel to their own parenting and their life. They are a breath of fresh air that is often polluted by legalistic and list-based approaches masquerading as Christianity.
Parental love and training give children a glimpse of what God is like. Heavy-handed law will not help them drink of the flowing fountain of grace that comes down from our heavenly Father. Neither will a cheap grace that skirts all rules or sense of authority. It won't help us as parents either. The truth is we all are in need of being dazzled by the matchless grace of Christ, and that is what this book sets out to do for both parent and child.
Courtney Reissig is a pastor's wife and freelance writer/blogger. She has written for the Gospel Coalition's book review site, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. She blogs regularly at In View of God's Mercy.