The following is a critique by Bill Edgar of Tedd Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart that was published in the RP Witness in 2005.
It includes responses and rebuttals from Tedd Tripp and Bill Edgar.
Tedd Tripp’s book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, continues to be used by Christian parents looking for guidance in raising their children. Is it a good guide?
I read Tripp’s book several years ago while our adult class was reviewing authors such as James Dobson, Gary and Anne Ezzo, and John MacArthur. I even went back and read Benjamin Spock’s Baby and Child Care, the American standard for raising children after World War II. Tripp won my approval at the very beginning by taking a clear stand rejecting any reliance on modern psychology. “Good,” I thought. He won’t look to Sigmund Freud for understanding, as Spock did. There will be no borrowing from the behaviorists. He won’t try to baptize Abraham Maslow or cite study after study to confirm some point he is making. He will work from the Bible alone. So I began reading Tripp’s book with high hopes that I could recommend it to Christians wanting help in child rearing.
For an hour I read uncritically, but with an unease that I tried to ignore. Then I came to Tripp’s discussion of wrong parental goals for their children: star athlete, music career, scholar, popularity, and so on. He correctly exposed the limitations of these goals, then proceeded with suggestions about how to reorient those interests. Sports, for example, he wrote, have value since we are stewards of God’s gifts. Sports moreover can help unify a family. Finally this: “strenuous activity is valid to keep the body in excellent health. You must be concerned with strength and stamina for a life of service to God.” (p. 70-71) That was it! No hint that a game is good because it is fun. Or that the joy of playing brings glory to God. The Presbyterian missionary Eric Liddel in the movie Chariots of Fire ran because running is good. He explained that when he ran he felt God’s pleasure. But for Tripp the arts, sport, all of the graces of human life are only instrumental goods, means to proper spiritual and ethical goals, but not good in themselves. He will teach parents and children to ask of something beautiful or fun, “What is it good for?” rather than first to exclaim, “How good it is!” I went back to the beginning and read more carefully.
Early on, I came to this: “Picture the process this way: he [your child] holds the claims of the Gospel at arm’s length, turning it in the hand and determining either to embrace it or to cast it away.” (p. 16) No Calvinist, no believer in the covenant, no one who understands Original Sin, ever portrayed a child as Tripp does. The “picture” he invites you to hold of your child places him outside the covenant. But the Bible teaches that our children are “holy.” (I Co 7:14) In the quotation cited, Tripp also pictures your child as a neutral observer who will evaluate the Gospel, deciding for himself whether he will embrace or cast away Jesus Christ. But no sinner is ever neutral about Jesus Christ. (Lk 9:50, 11:23) All men are either dead in Sin or regenerated in Christ. Finally, consistent with his view that children are born outside the covenant, Tripp gives the church, not to mention grandparents, virtually no role in raising your children. How ironic! Even Benjamin Spock in the midst of the Freudian advice that bore such bad fruit advises parents more than once that if they need help they can ask their minister.
I read further. What advice does Tripp have for dealing with quarreling children? “Deal with their hearts,” he writes. He gives an example. Two children quarrel over a toy. A parent must intervene. How?
“The classic response is, ‘Who had it first?’ This response misses heart issues. ‘Who had it first?’ is an issue of justice.” (p.21)
Tripp will have you declare both children guilty at the heart level, the one for selfishness (not sharing), the other for taking what the other one has, both for trying to please themselves. The trouble with Tripp’s approach is that the possessor of the toy is as guilty as the taker of the toy. He dismisses ”justice” as merely a surface issue. In that family a child can never appeal to his father for justice. He’ll always be told, “You’re wrong too.” There goes the Eighth Commandment! Imagine that someone is taking your car and you call 911. A policeman comes. And he deals with your hearts! “You are both wrong, you for not sharing, he for taking what’s not his.” How wrong headed! When one child is breaking the law (stealing), the wronged child should expect that he can appeal to authority (parents) and be defended, not told that his heart is guilty.
What is Tripp’s advice for children who are being bullied at school? Parents, he notes, tell children to ignore the bully. “Or worse, parents tell them to hit others when they are hit first.” (p. 16) This advice, he writes, is “nonbiblical.” Is it really? Is it always? A pacifist ethic crops up more than once in Tripp’s book, but the Bible does not teach pacifism. I am glad that when I was six years old in the Bronx, I was allowed to defend myself. It was necessary. This is not the place for a discussion of pacifism except to note that our Confession of Faith rejects it. (WCF, 23.2) Even children can defend themselves.
Finally, I began wondering, “Does the Bible compare parents to shepherds? Do we shepherd children’s hearts?” Maybe trying to shepherd their hearts is overreaching. Yes, out of the heart comes sin. (Mk 7:21) Yes, we are each one of us to forgive from the heart. (Mt 18:35) Yes, it is a weakness of man that he looks on the outward appearance, and not as God does, on the heart. (I Sa 16:7) But can finite man overcome that weakness? Only the Lord sees the heart. Indeed, only he understands it. (Je 17:10) “For what man knows the things of a man except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (I Co 2:11) Only when someone reveals himself to us can we know what is in his heart. God can discern hypocrites, we cannot. That is why our church admits people to membership on the basis of a credible profession of faith, not on the basis that we can discern who are truly saved.
A parent trying to shepherd his child’s heart may well end up being spiritually oppressive, bearing in on his child’s heart motives with question after question. The questions may or may not be on the mark; often they will be “leading” questions. Will they get to the heart of the matter? Often not, because even an honest and willing child will not always know what specifically in his heart led him to sin. We adults don't always understand our own behavior either. "For what I am doing, I do not understand," Paul wrote concerning his own sin. (Ro 7:15) A child of a shepherding parent had better learn early to say the right words and mouth the right platitudes, or he may be in for a long question and answer session. Constantly probing our children with questions, even when their hearts are repentant, will lead to frustration and rebellion. How can we know how repentant they are? After requiring repentance and restitution, parents should only proceed further when the child seems especially teachable.
Instead of trying to uncover your child’s heart, let the Spirit of God working through His Word in family worship and in church do His work. “I, the LORD, search the heart.” (Je 17:10) “For the word of God is living and powerful...,a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” (He 4:12) It is better to be just and consistent in disciplining our children, answering their questions and loving them wholeheartedly while instructing them in God’s ways, than to try to shepherd their hearts. We can’t see that deeply. Only God can deal with the heart. Such an approach will set you free as a parent to be who you are with integrity before God and your children, rather than trying to be a shepherd of what you can neither see nor fully fathom, someone else’s heart.
Tripp achieves his goal of writing a book without obviously borrowing ideas from unbelieving psychology. But there are other and older errors than those of Freud or the behaviorists. For example, the error of excluding children from the covenant. For example, the world-denying error of holding life’s pleasures and joys at arm’s length while esteeming them only for their utilitarian value. For example, the error of attempting to do more than one truly can, dealing with a child’s heart rather than simply with the child.
Despite some good things in Tripp’s book, I regretfully find that I cannot recommend it. Its advice will not bear good fruit over the long run and may well provoke rebellion. What do I recommend? Of the books that we reviewed in our adult class, I liked best John MacArthur’s book, Successful Christian Parenting. But what I recommend most is this: Pray for your children, love them, teach them the Bible, love them, include them in the church from their baptism on, love them, live your faith before them, love them, hope in God’s word: “For the promise is to you and to your children.” (Ac 2:39) If you need help with specific issues, go for help to older people in the church whose children you admire. Study the book of Proverbs. Ask your pastor. Pray. Fear not. Your child’s heart is in the hand of the Lord.
To the Editor:
Since the publication of my review of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, I have received several inquiries concerning my assertion that children of believers are holy. Does that mean no profession of faith is necessary as children mature? Since this matter is a vital issue, let me state clearly that every Christian, including the covenant child, needs to profess publicly his faith in Christ. The Church, in fact, must be constantly evangelizing not only neighbors and distant lands, but also its own children. We pray for faith in Christ. We want our childrens’ hearts! My critique dealt with our inability as humans to see the hearts of others, and with the consequent danger of parents provoking their children by constant intrusive questioning, asking them to reveal motives that even adults can’t articulate well. Nevertheless, by the Word, by our advice, by our example, we aim to address the minds and souls and hearts of our children.
As to Paul’s assertion that our children are holy (I Co 7:14), consider two of Calvin’s comments on that verse: “For this same reason, the children of Christians are considered holy; and even though born with only one believing parent, by the apostle’s testimony they differ from the unclean seed of idolators.” (Institutes, IV, 16.6) Again: “As Paul testifies, although those who are born of believers may by nature be lost, they are holy by supernatural grace.”(IV 16.31.4) Therefore, unlike Baptists, we baptize infants and consider them part of the covenant People of God, while we pray with confident hope that they will profess faith in Christ.
- The response from Tedd Tripp -
I am thankful for the opportunity to respond to three objections from Bill Edgar’s review of Shepherding a Child’s Heart. The first two objections represent misunderstandings or misrepresentations rather than substantive disagreements. The final objection is a challenge to the central thesis of Shepherding a Child’s Heart.
The first objection is to the discussion of the inherent goodness of sports, music, and scholarship. In the context in Shepherding (Chapter 5), the emphasis is not on the goodness of such activities, but rather on their limitation as a final definition for success. Denial that these things define success for a child is not a denial of their inherent goodness. The Redeemer of mankind, embodied in flesh, demonstrates and validates all lawful human activity as intrinsically valuable and God glorifying. The issue under discussion is not the validity or goodness of the arts, sport, and all the graces of human life, but their value as ultimate goals. Final success is found in knowing God. The graces of human life are excellent and should be appreciated as a gift from God; Chapter 5 of Shepherding is not designed to challenge that truth, but rather to warn against making those things the final goal of parenting or a definition of human success.
The second objection is from a sentence in the introduction. The child is pictured as examining the gospel and choosing to accept it or reject it. Pastor Edgar concludes that I consider children spiritually neutral. First, the sentence being quoted is not in any way an assertion that I consider children spiritually neutral, but simply an observation that as children grow in maturity and cognitive sophistication they reach a point of self-conscious acceptance or rejection of the gospel. The child is always either keeping or breaking covenant with God, but a very small child does not have the cognitive skills to examine the syllogistic claims of the gospel and say, I affirm or I deny that truth. My words are not a denial of the covenantal relationship each child has with God. The material in Chapter 3, pages 19-22, of Shepherding makes this clear, saying:
The figure below represents the child as a covenantal being. I use that expression to remind us that all human beings have a Godward orientation. Everyone is essentially religious. Children are worshippers. Either they worship Jehovah or idols. They are never neutral. The continual, covenantal, non-neutrality of all human beings is explicitly stated again eleven more times between pages 20 and 23. The central point of this section is that children are never morally neutral.
The third objection challenges the concept that the Bible expects or requires parents to shepherd their children’s hearts at all. This issue is substantive and is central to the thesis of Shepherding. Pastor Edgar takes exception to the example of the children who are fighting over the same toy, pointing out that the parent who addresses the heart issues behind the fighting in both children is ignoring justice. He likens it to a policeman who deals with the hearts of a thief and the one from whom the thief has stolen. Policemen, though, do not have the same role as parents. A parent who understands his role in childrearing as essentially the same as the job of a policeman does not have a biblical understanding of parenting. Similarly, a policeman who understands his role as essentially parental toward civilians does not have a biblical understanding of his role. The role of a policeman is fundamentally different from that of a parent, and cannot be understood as analogous. A policeman does not have the responsibility or authority to nurture citizens in the fear and admonition of the Lord. His primary concern is law enforcement. A parent has the role of establishing equity in a household, and should judge fairly between his children. If a child is stealing, the parent needs to address that issue. The emphasis in the example, however, is not on justice. This does not mean that justice has no place in parenting; this is simply not the emphasis of the example. One of the responsibilities a parent has in interacting with children who are fighting is to help them see the selfishness that often lies behind such episodes. The point is not that stealing is fine, or that justice does not matter. The point is that one of the responsibilities of a parent is to address the heart issues behind the fighting.
This leads us to the more general question: Are parents called to discern the issues of the heart, and address those issues with their children? Pastor Edgar’s answer is no. Two reasons are given: First, God alone can know the heart. Second, parents who try to discern what they cannot, (the intents of the heart), will likely exasperate their children. It is better to discipline, instruct, and love children, and leave their hearts to God. At the outset, these are valuable cautions. Issues of the heart are very difficult to discern. The Proverbs say that the issues of a man’s heart are deep waters (Proverbs 20:5). God knows our hearts perfectly; we do not. Parents can be overbearing, especially if they are not careful and humble in their interaction with their children. In the end we have to recognize that we cannot change the hearts of our children.
Having said that, should parents interact in heart-oriented ways with their children? The second half of Proverbs 20:5 above reads, but a man of understanding draws them the deep waters of the heart out. God gives parents wisdom and understanding for parenting, and we have the responsibility to understand and draw out the issues of the heart in our children. In fact, the author of Proverbs continually exhorts his son in terms of the heart issues behind behavior. The father exhorts his son repeatedly to keep his commands in his heart, not to let his heart envy sinners, not to lust after the adulteress in his heart, not to despise discipline in his heart, not to be proud in his heart, to keep wisdom in his heart, not to have a deceitful heart, to trust in the Lord with all his heart, not to fret against the Lord in his heart, to apply his heart to understanding, just to name a few. The father in Proverbs exhorts his son in terms of the heart. This is not surprising. The Bible teaches that the heart is the well-spring of life, the treasury from which men bring forth good or bad treasure. Children need to be taught to understand their behavior in terms of the issues of the heart that drive that behavior. Naturally, this must be done with care, humility, reliance on God, and recognition that God alone knows men’s hearts perfectly. Using the wisdom that God gives, parents need to teach their children the truth of Proverbs 4:23, Above all else, guard your heart, for out of it flow all the issues of life. Children need to be taught to diagnose their hearts, and in that context they need to be taught to lay hold of God, who alone can make hearts new.
- The response from Bill Edgar -
I thank Ted Tripp for responding to my critique. I am glad that he thinks music and sports are innately good. Unfortunately, his book did not say so. In Chapter 6, “Reworking Your Goals,” he praised them only for their utility in furthering good things like family solidarity and health.
Tripp does not teach that children are spiritually neutral. I apologize for suggesting that he did. I relied too much on his illustration. Nonetheless, the picture of a child holding the Gospel at arm’s length, pondering whether to accept it, dramatically fails to capture the spiritual position of a baptized child in a Christian family. Such children are “holy” (I Co 7:14). Trusting in God’s promises, we expect them to love their Heavenly Father long before -- and long after -- they “have the cognitive skills to examine the syllogistic claims of the Gospel.” Some ungrateful covenant children rebel, but many cannot recall a time when they held Christ at arm’s length.
Parent and policeman. Every parent has felt like a policeman. Rightly so. Father and mother in the family, like police in civil society, hold a position of authority which requires them to uphold law and order. The Westminster Larger Catechism (#124) derives rulers’ authority from the Fifth Commandment. Yes, parents have further duties: to feed, educate, pray with and for, and play with our children. But when confronting stealing, the main parental response should be justice. What kid wants his heart examined when his crayon was swiped? Such a response would exasperate me at any age. Are there any children it would not exasperate?
The father in Proverbs exhorts his son in terms of his heart. So should we! We should aim to understand what is going on inside him as well as we can. The issue is not mainly, as Tripp writes in his reply, whether “parents are called to discern the issues of the heart and address those issues with their children.” The issue is how to deal with our children on a regular basis. The father in Proverbs does not ply his child with searching questions to teach him “to diagnose” his heart. “1. What were you feeling when you hit your sister?...3. Help me understand how hitting her seemed to make things better?...6. How do you think your response reflected trust...in God’s ability to provide for you?” (Tripp, ch 8). Such an approach -- as opposed to the general pattern of 1) rule broken, 2) punishment imposed, 3) go and sin no more -- brings the counselor’s office into the home. Children lack the mental maturity of an adult coming for counseling, but the child of an earnest parent resolved to shepherd the heart is liable to such questioning every waking hour.
A further danger in Tripp’s approach: the sin can get lost in the shuffle. Parents can end up dealing with the malefactor not primarily in terms of his wrongdoing, but only in terms of his sick heart. (See C.S. Lewis, “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment,” God in the Dock for a similar danger in modern criminology.)
The Bible has no examples of extended parent-child interactions, but it does reveal how our Heavenly Father deals with his children through human agency: primarily by the foolishness of preaching. God’s Spirit searches the heart. If a parent probes the heart more than occasionally, he will overreach and provoke. We need to respect our children as those who also deal directly with their Heavenly Father, raise them in the fear of God, and love them.