Raising children is a complicated business, one with no sure-fire route to success, however the parent or the culture define success. Amazon carries about 100,000 titles on the subject, with the subset of Christian parenting accounting for nearly 8% of them. One only needs to look at the recent election cycle to see that issues of families remain at the forefront in many states, and to a lesser extent nationwide.
As a parent with nearly 30 years of experience and one child, a kindergartner, remaining at home I still have questions about how to raise my children well. Answering those questions is at the heart Gospel-Powered Parenting: How the Gospel Shapes and Transforms Parenting, by William P. Farley (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2009).
Farley’s approach is a bit different than most parenting books, as is clear from his title. Rather than presenting a particular developmental theory or a how-to manual to address specific behaviors, he grounds his approach in the bedrock of Christian belief, which is that through the death-and resurrection of Jesus the world is fundamentally a different place to live for those who call on Jesus in faith. Because of whom Jesus is and what Jesus did, everything the Christian does is affected, and perhaps nothing more so than parenting.
Farley believes that the parent’s primary focus in raising their children should not be on behavior modification or developing productive members of society, but on developing the heart of each child to embrace the Good News of Jesus. That means that focusing on the heart of the child to know deeply and personally the love of Jesus for them, the work that Jesus did for them, is the goal of parenting throughout each stage of the child’s life. We should parent in the present, but always with one eye on eternity, working to guide our children towards a heavenly destination.
Farley believes strongly that fathers are vital in shaping the lives of their children. As a pastor he knows full well that there are many families where fathers are absent, or where they just plain do a poor job. However, recognizing that the presentation of the Bible is families led by fathers, some of whom he admits are pretty poor role models, he holds up the model of a two-parent family, led by the father, as the best model to emulate whenever it is possible. He spends several chapters talking about the ways in which God is presented as a father figure in the Bible and how those images can shape the leadership given to families by modern fathers.
A corollary to a strong father in parenting is for the father and mother to jointly model the Gospel within their marriage. This does not mean that he advocates things like blind submission, as may be found in a caricature of a Christian marriage, but he encourages couples to look at their roles in marriage as being complementary to each other. He notes how clearly children can sniff out hypocrisy in marriages where God is followed on Sunday but ignored during the remainder of the week. A child’s heart is drawn to God when the child sees God at work on a daily basis in the life of his or her parents.
Farley has written an organized and focused approach to parenting, one which I find much that I agree with. His writing is easy-to-read and it is evident that he has read widely. His recommendations are not just from his own experience or observations but are synthesized with the perspective of many other Christian pastors, counselors and theologians.
One area where I had persistent disagreement with his suggestions was in the area of discipline, where he seemed to suggest that in certain stages of a child’s life that immediate corporal punishment was the proper, perhaps even the only, appropriate way to change behavior. My opposition to this approach is two-fold.
First, in my own experience, with my older children as well as the youngest, was that time-out can be used to very good effect. The root meaning of discipline is “to teach,” which can be done in more ways than just punishment. Secondly, the notion that all infractions must be punished, as a part of teaching a child obedience, which embracing the Gospel calls all Christians towards, denies a fundamental truth of the Gospel, which is that every sin a Christian commits is not punished directly. The sin is indeed punished, but the punishment is not born by the Christian but by their Lord and Savior, Christ Jesus.
I recommend Farley’s book, particularly with its emphasis on shaping the heart as the primary goal of parenting. Read it, read your Bible alongside it, and perhaps read some of his references as well. Children are indeed a gift from the Lord and perhaps our greatest way of receiving that gift is to shape the child to pursue and embrace their Creator.