God has graced Dr. Ted Tripp with keen insight into what the Scriptures teach about biblical parenting. Additionally, God has granted him years of experience as a father, pastor, biblical counselor, and school administrator. Being a wise steward, Dr. Tripp has combined these gifts of insight and experience into a ministry for equipping Christian parents. The core teaching of this equipping ministry is contained in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, which is the subject of this review.
Ted Tripp divides Shepherding a Child’s Heart into two parts. The first and longest part of the book focuses on the foundations of biblical parenting. Tripp begins his teaching on foundations by unpacking Scripture’s declaration that all human behavior comes from the heart. Therefore, parenting must focus primarily on the heart rather than behavior. Since only God can change the heart, and only does so through the gospel, parents must continually point their children to Christ.
Tripp continues part one’s teaching on foundations by stating that children are the product of all life’s shaping influences, and who or what they worship. Hence, wise parenting requires providing the best shaping influences possible and shepherding a child’s response to those influences by teaching them to know and honor God. God has assigned parents with this very important task. In order to carry out this assignment parents must have biblical goals and methods.
Tripp say the biblical goal is to teach one’s children to glorify God and enjoy him forever. The biblical methods are wise communication and the rod of correction. Wise communication, according to Tripp is more than instructing your child. It is a two-way process where you seek to build a relationship with your child and truly understand them. In addition, wise communication must help one’s children reflect on the contents of their heart, and discern their need for God’s grace and mercy, which is only available through Christ.
In the second part of the book, Tripp gives specific instructions on how to apply the biblical methods unpacked in part one. He reviews what the Scriptures teach about spanking, discusses when to begin and end spanking, and teaches parents how to spank biblically. In addition, he outlines training procedures and desired outcomes for infancy, childhood and adolescence.
Shepherding A Child’s Heart is indeed a rare book, because it has no easily discernible weakness. Clearly, Dr. Tripp has based the book on sound biblical wisdom, hermeneutics, and theology. These facts alone make it unique among contemporary Christian books, which are too often theologically lite, and hermeneutically flawed. In what follows, we will focus on some specific characteristics that distinguish Shepherding a Child’s Heart from the majority of Christian books on parenting available today.
Dr. Tripp’s book is exceptional among parenting books because rather than concentrating on behavior modification, or constructing a positive environment, it focuses on the absolute necessity of doing as its title describes, shepherding a child’s heart. Why is Tripp’s focus superior? Scripture teaches that behavior flows from the heart, for example see Prov. 4:23, Mark 7:21, and Luke 6:45. Therefore, behavior modification is an ineffective means of parenting because it fails to address the source of all behavior, the heart. If parents focus on behavior alone, it is very likely that they will raise children who learn to be outwardly obedient while remaining inwardly rebellious. What is worse, their children may view themselves as righteous, and thus fail to recognize their need for a Savior. As Tripp warns, parenting by behavior modification can result in producing modern day Pharisees.
Tripp warns that parents often deny the connection of their child’s heart to behavior. He gives an excellent illustration to describe this foolish denial. In the illustration, he likens what parents often do as stapling good apples on bad trees. Parents train their children through emotional appeals, rewards, shame or various other forms of manipulation to do the right behavior, but for the wrong reasons. Unfortunately, parent’s fail to recognize that what they train their children with is what their children will become. In short, if parents manipulate their children they will become manipulators.
According to Tripp, rather than succumbing to behavior modification and manipulation, parents should seek to bring their children to the place where they long for heart change. Parents need to understand that their children’s hearts are not neutral. Their children will worship either God or idols. Like all people, children are prone to idolatry. Therefore, parents must teach their children to cry out to God for a changed heart, and repeatedly emphasize that a changed heart is only available through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. As Tripp says, only a renewed heart is capable of pleasing and enjoying God.
Another insufficient method of parenting is constructing a positive environment, because like behavior modification, it also fails to address the heart. Tripp does emphasize the importance of a positive and biblical environment, but he warns against the danger of seeing it as the determining factor in successful parenting. If a positive environment were enough to produce heart change, the Fall would have never occurred. After all, no one has ever lived in a more perfect environment than Adam and Eve. They had everything they needed, including face-to-face communion with God, and yet they still chose to rebel against him.
In addition to the focus on the heart, Tripp’s stance on parental authority makes Shepherding a Child’s Heart unique when compared to other contemporary parenting books. Once again, Tripp returns to the Scriptures to make his point. He reminds parents that God has called them to act on his behalf. Therefore, parents are never free to shape their children how ever they choose. Rather, they have a responsibility before God to parent in ways that in are keeping with his plan and purpose. Their assignment is to teach their children to walk in God’s ways by doing what is just and right. Parents must recognize that their children are a stewardship from the Lord, and he will hold them accountable for their fidelity. Tripp does a skillful and thorough job of unpacking this truth.
Closely related to the concepts of parental authority and stewardship, is the matter of goals. Tripp astutely argues that too many parents have unbiblical goals for their children. For example, some parents view their child’s worldly success in education or sports as tantamount, rather than focusing on godly character. Others, as mentioned earlier, focus primarily on having well behaved children. Still others see their primary goal is to get their child saved. These parents often become obsessed with getting their child to pray, “the sinner’s prayer (42).” As Tripp notes, wanting a child to know the Lord is a worthy objective, but saying a particular prayer does not guarantee that outcome. Parents need to do what God has called them to do, and trust God for their children’s salvation. Only God can give a child a new heart, and he will do it in his timing, not ours. Anyway, a child’s salvation does not change the primary goal of parenting, which is to teach one’s children to glorify God and enjoy him forever. As Tripp wisely states, “This goal is the only one broad enough and flexible enough to cover every stage of a child’s life (45).”
Another characteristic of Dr. Tripp’s book that makes it stand out is its simplicity. As referenced in the summary, Tripp says that parents must combine the biblical message with biblical methods. The biblical message, of course, is the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ, and the biblical methods are wise communication and discipline. According to Tripp, being a godly parent is not complicated. That is not to say parenting is easy. In fact, parenting is impossible and utterly overwhelming apart from the wisdom and grace of God.
Finally, the most controversial and distinctive characteristic of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, is that Tripp advocates spanking as the primary means of discipline for children. He demonstrates that the Scriptures command spanking, and declares that parents who fail to discipline their children scripturally are in fact disobeying God. Tripp goes into great detail describing why, when, and how to spank in a way that honors God, and communicates genuine love to the child. Wise parents will carefully consider Tripp’s instruction on discipline, as well as the rest of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, and then carefully apply it.
Shepherding a Child’s Heart is a book I wish I had read many years ago. Regrettably, I have learned most of its truth and wisdom the hard way, with much trial and error. Apparently, that was God’s plan. Nevertheless, I am grateful to have read Tripp’s book because now I have a trusted resource to recommend to parents. Perhaps, I will have the privilege of helping them avoid some of the pain and unnecessary mistakes that I have made. More importantly, I can aid them in nurturing children who bring God glory and enjoy him forever.