Ten years ago this month, I became a primarily stay-at-home mom. Three kids later, I have encountered another huge life change—my youngest child entered kindergarten. The pre-school days have come and gone for me. Some of those long days are a blur, but I remember well the anxiety I had about being a new mom. I did not feel prepared to adequately handle the job, so I asked a lot of questions to those more experienced and set out to read books. The first two I read were written by acclaimed Christian authors about taking care of a newborn. The content and practical application of those two books were completely opposite of one another, with bible verses to support each author’s philosophy.
I knew several families at the time who were very familiar with Babywise. That book alone helped some of my friends have a peaceful and restful life. That book also led some families down a path of tremendous heartache, like my dear friend whose child nearly died because of the counsel and the content of that book and the teachers/support group who taught it.
I was so confused. Which way is right? How can one philosophy bring both help and heartache to its readers? Since that time, I have read a lot of books, but I think being an avid reader is both helpful and dangerous. It’s helpful when authors teach us how to think. It’s borderline dangerous when they tell you what to do about anything not clearly laid out in Scripture.
Here is my attempt to help those who like to read know what to look for while they are reading. Parenting books generally fall into one of three categories:
Child-centered parenting or child-directive approach:
Within this philosophy, children’s bents, personalities, schedules, and the children themselves become the focal point of the home. Much secular behavioral psychology stems from this philosophy. Followed to its end, this philosophy gives license and creates entitlement.
Parent-centered parenting or parent-directive approach:
Within this philosophy, the parents set the schedule and the expectations. The parents’ personalities and bents are more central than the children’s. Many Christian parenting books written in the 70’s and 80’s were written to combat the child-centered parenting philosophies, but the solutions were written from a parent-directive approach. Followed to its end, parent-centered parenting promotes legalism and creates exasperation among the children.
Gospel-centered parenting or Bible-based parenting:
One has to be very careful with putting books in this category. Not every Bible-claiming book is Gospel-centered or Jesus-loving. No matter how hard an author tries, he or she has a bent toward a child or parent directive approach. However, with a Gospel-centered approach, the starting point of the philosophy lies neither with the child or parent. Jesus’ expectations set the tone and schedule of the family. Jesus is the Boss and the head of the home.
The Bible is the final authority in our home, we strive to keep Jesus the center, and apply the Gospel to every-day parenting. With that being said, I have found other books written by Christian men and women to be helpful. I read them with a critical eye, picking and choosing what I want to incorporate in my own home. I'll admit, I am bent towards child-centered parenting. I don't agree with that philosophy, it's just when I err, it is usually in that direction.
The Gospel for Real Life by Jerry Bridges:
The book has nothing to do with parenting. The practical application of this book has everything to do with parenting.
Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp:
I found 80% of this book to be what I wanted my parenting to look like. I disagree with his stance on spanking as the only physical discipline. I hold many things in my “toolbox” of discipline. No discipline is executed in our home without communicating, but I find time-outs, gracefully executed, have their time and place.
Don’t Make Me Count to Three by Ginger Plowman:
This is a great follow-up to read after Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Tripp and Plowman share the same parenting and counseling models, but Plowman gives more practical illustrations as a mother who has been there.
The Duties of Parents by JC Ryle:
This is not really a book, it’s a short pamphlet. It’s old-school and a bit legalist and rigid in my opinion, but really good for thinking through the responsibilities of parenthood.
Sacred Parenting by Gary Thomas:
This book doesn’t focus on how to train your children, but rather how God uses children to train us. I identified with Thomas’ struggles as a parent, and found the tension he described just as humorous in my own life.
Parenting: From Surviving to Thriving by Charles Swindoll:
I am ¾ of the way through this book so I can’t critique it well. I can tell Swindoll has a child-centered bent but he uses the Bible as his starting place. He encourages the parent to be a good student of the Bible and his or her own children.
A caution on James Dobson:
James Dobson has good things to say in every book he writes. He is a brilliant man and I wish I had his brain. However, readers just need to know that he himself claims not to be a theologian, but a psychologist. Dobson starts with behavioral psychology and applies the Bible to it, not the other way around. If you have a good Gospel-centered foundation, his tips are awesome and can help with short-term training. But know that his teaching is about behavior modification, not heart change. Followed to its end, his teaching can create robots or rebels.
Think of the Gospel as the leafy green things that are the base of your salad. Any author’s methods are meant to be croutons or bacon bits or dressing. They add great flavor. Some think you can’t have a salad without these toppings. That’s okay, but if your salad is primarily croutons, your children will have carb overload. If you have a bowl of dressing with a couple of spinach leaves, your children can grow up to be fat diabetics with no nutrition.
Read. Think. Pray. Scrutinize all teaching under the authority of Scripture.