Three Questions to Ask Before You Take My Advice
Words by Théa Rosenburg
When I was small, my dad kept a running joke about something he called The Book of Dad. “I’ll have to look that up in The Book of Dad,” he’d say, or when I put him in parenting quandary, “I don’t remember anything about this in The Book of Dad.” To me, he seemed to know everything, a fact that I credited to that book (which I never saw but still believed in).
But now, as the mother of three small daughters, I appreciate the joke in a whole new light: there is no Book of Mom, though I desperately wish on certain days that there were. My children look to me for answers, and I feel like I really ought to have them, as though centuries of parents might have had the decency to compile them for me.
The closest we parents come to having any sort of comprehensive, fool-proof guidebook to raising children is the Bible, but the Bible refuses to treat people like they are equations with a guaranteed outcome if only you enter the right input. The Bible doesn’t offer the sort of cut-and-dried answers that The Book of Mom might have. If this, then this. On the hardest days, those are the answers that I long for.
And those are the answers that authors and bloggers are all too happy to provide—the sort that guarantee success. Answers to common parenting problems are everywhere now: a quick scroll through your social media feeds will confirm that. A scan of my own bookshelf reveals titles on discipline, education, sleeping habits, breastfeeding, childbirth, nutrition, and potty training. There may not be one comprehensive Book of Mom, but there are hundreds—nay, thousands—of books out there for moms.
But every writer (myself included) sees the world in a particular way. They have certain beliefs about children—that children are basically good or innately sinful; that raising them should be our primary focus or a peripheral one—and about our role, as humans, in the universe. Though it might seem strange to leap from an article touting “Five Ways to Improve Your Child’s Attitude” to the question of whether we humans are generated by random chance to pursue our own good or by a loving God to pursue him, it’s an important leap to make: the worldview of each author will directly influence the way she approaches her children, as well as the way that she, in choosing the five bullet points of her article, encourages us to approach our own children.
As Christians, we need to at least be aware of that. We are confronted daily with information that has been neither fact-checked nor edited, and we need to approach that heap of advice with a wary eye, feeling for soft spots in an article’s logic or digging beneath an author’s assertion to find the source of her worldview. We should be quick to recognize any parts of an author’s philosophy that conflict with Christian doctrine.
This is, perhaps, easier to do with short bits of advice, like those found in blog posts or status updates, than it is with books and speakers who have come to stand for a particular parenting philosophy. Books can develop a line of thinking over a sustained period of time, and they allow authors the freedom to collect varying ideas under a common umbrella—their name—until what began with a book on baby care has become a full-fledged philosophy of parenting. We should approach these philosophies with an extra dose of discernment, because it is tempting to accept wholesale the beliefs of a single, trusted author, especially when one aspect of their method has worked well for us in the past.
How do we unearth the worldviews beneath these philosophies? What sort of tools do we need? The short answer: a few good questions and a lot of Scripture. The long answer goes like this:
How does this author view sin?
In Romans 3:23–24, Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” This is both good news and bad news for parents: we have all—our children included—sinned against God by rejecting our Creator. The just punishment for that sin is death.
But now for the good news: we are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Because Jesus died the death we deserved, taking the punishment for our sin, God extends grace to us as a gift. We have done nothing to earn it; we can do nothing to lose it. Once given, it is ours to keep.
Many parenting philosophies treat our children as beings that do not need that grace, either by assuming that children are inherently good or by assuming that children can work their way toward goodness without God’s intervention. If we follow the advice that stems from those assumptions, we will teach our children, for example, to share their toys without ever raising the issue of why it is so stinking hard to share in the first place. We will teach them to speak kindly without addressing the unkind thoughts they harbor in their hearts. In short, we will teach them to wash only the outside of the bowl but leave the inside untouched. So we must look closely at an author’s recommendations and ask:
Does this author see our child as an inherently good being who simply needs a nudge back toward the path when she strays? Or does this philosophy align with the scriptural view that we are all fallen beings—even the little ones—desperately in need of a Savior? Does this philosophy leave us alone in the dismal knowledge of our sinfulness, or does it lovingly direct us toward our Savior?
How does this author view suffering?
James 1:2 says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.”
I mentioned earlier that I own a lot of parenting books. I do. And there are few authors willing to second that call to “count it all joy” when we are all laid low by the flu at once or when we spend the evening in the ER with an injured child. I find more recipes for immune-boosting soups or outdoor safety tips than I do exhortations to rejoice in the fact that the Lord uses our illness and injury to deepen our faith in him.
When trial comes, it is tempting to fight through it until we are comfortable again. But by immediately replacing the broken toy or smoothing over the playground conflict for our children, we run the risk of obscuring the lesson that God is trying to teach them through that particular circumstance. These pint-sized examples of “trials of various kinds” may not be something that we need to shield our kids from, but may serve as opportunities to show our children how they can meet these tests of faith with joy, so that when the big trials come—the ones that we cannot control and cannot, ultimately, prevent—they will be prepared to meet them well.
I am not arguing that we needlessly endanger our kids in an effort to help them grow spiritually, only that we remember that suffering serves a purpose in their lives (Rom. 5:3–5). And so, as we read, let us look closely at the author’s assumptions and ask these questions:
Does this author consider it our primary job as parents to protect our children from every possible danger or inconvenience? Does this philosophy treat suffering as something that can and should be avoided at all cost? Or does it teach our children to face suffering with a growing trust in the Lord?
Does this author encourage us to idolize either our children or ourselves?
Romans 1:25 says, “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.” We were created by God and, as created beings, are meant to worship our Creator. Anything less than that will not satisfy us, but because we are born into sin (Rom. 3:23), we are tempted to turn our adoration away from him and toward the things he has made.
Most often, we worship ourselves and turn the creative energy that we were given to use for God’s glory toward our own pursuits, burning it out in perishable pleasures. But “the creature” can refer to anything God has created: wealth, comfort, sex, a pleasant array of possessions. We may not show our worship by singing songs of praise to our morning cup of coffee, but we do not look kindly upon the world on the mornings when we find the coffee canister empty. We offer our idols the best of our money, our time, and our thoughts. We pursue them and give them a place in our hearts that should rightly be occupied only by God.
Even our children can become idols. The temptation to worship them is strong and subtle: it disguises itself as a mock-sacrificial love that expects returns that the child, not being God, cannot make (and that the child, being a child, often refuses to make). This form of idolatry seems better than self-idolatry, but it is worse because it attempts to press the child into the shape of our own desires and corrupts both our hearts and theirs.
Many parenting philosophies quietly encourage us to idolize either ourselves or our children. We must be wary of either perspective and ask probing questions as we read:
Would adopting this parenting philosophy put our child at the center of our home and make his needs of primary importance? Would it put us there? Or would it encourage us to center our schedules, budgets, and priorities on Christ?
Raising Kids Without The Book of Mom
There are times when we just need counsel from older, wiser parents about how to feed a baby solid food. And there are times when we don’t know any older, wiser parents, and so those parenting books and blogs can be a godsend.
But most of the time, we’re too quick to look for pat answers to our questions. Those articles appeal to us because they promise formulas, but we are not meant to raise our kids by formula—we are meant to live in complete dependence upon the Lord and to train our children to live that way too. Parenting philosophies often mask our need for the Lord by making us feel as though we can face life without him.
The first place we must go when we find ourselves in a parenting quandary is not to the internet, but to God. He will guide us. He may guide us to parenting books rooted in Scripture—perhaps. But don’t start with a book. Start with him. Start with his Word.
His Word does not give us pat answers. And that is because the Lord’s aims are higher than ours: We would be content with a baby that sleeps through the night, but the Lord wants those late hours with us, to shape and refine our souls. We ask how to train our children to obey, and the Lord answers by exposing our own disobedience and allowing our child to observe as we repent of it and return to the Lord.
Dear mother, put down the parenting book, close the laptop, and listen: “The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:5–7).
This article was featured in Issue 8: Love of Deeply Rooted Magazine.