Book Review: “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” (by Tedd Tripp)
Reviewed by Todd Schoepflin
If you’re like me, becoming a father has involved a lot of spiritual and character growth. Like the Grinch, my heart capacity for sacrificial love grew 2-3x as soon as I held my own baby for the first time. That little bundle of joy grew and matured rapidly, first crawling and then walking. At one level, the honeymoon continued as I reveled in being close and doing new things together. Yet my child also discovered their own will and it did not always want the right things. I was quickly faced with the challenges of discipline that I knew would last for years to come.
If you are reading this, you probably want to give your child the best possible spiritual upbringing. If you could wave a magic wand and make them a disciple, you would! You are probably determined to develop their relationships in the church, take them to every teen camp, and make sure they study the Bible. I am right there with you. I want all those things for my kids too.
Yet I also have many fears. What if it doesn’t work? How much sin will they need to get into before they understand their need for God’s mercy and grace? What if Christianity becomes too familiar and they treat it with contempt? What if they know all the right answers but don’t get the heart of Jesus’ crucifixion for their sins?
By way of introduction, I bought “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” by Dr. Tedd Tripp after hearing him speak at a parenting conference at Mars Hill Church. This book is no magic wand, but I believe it provides an incredible Gospel-based framework for parenting. It encompasses both discipline and the Gospel. What if every disciplinary session with your child could also teach them about God’s grace, mercy, and their inherent need for God? What would you give for your child to already understand God’s grace and their need for it when they study the Bible as a teen? I cannot claim that I have fully integrated this book into my parenting, but I am convinced that its approach aligns well with the Bible and enables even toddlers to start understanding the Gospel.
Before covering the topic of discipline, Dr. Tripp spends the entire first half of the book “training the trainers” (that would be you and me 🙂 with the proper Biblical framework. He first establishes that all behavior first comes from the heart (Mk 7:21, Lk 6:45) and that the heart is what parents must shape and mold. Next, he introduces the concept of “idol worship.” All humans—including children—worship something. It could be something physical (toys, cars, houses, money) or intangible (having control, self, etc.).
The succeeding chapters establish a philosophy of parenting where the parent is God’s agent in the child’s life. Dr. Tripp challenges the reader to be accountable to God and reevaluate their parenting goals. I found this refreshing and empowering. It appropriately challenged my natural tendency to get my kids to behave well on the outside for my own convenience and to look good to others.
Chapter 7 (“Discarding Unbiblical Methods”) was difficult reading for me. It forced me to face some of my poor parenting habits. It set the stage for “Biblical Communication Methods” where Dr. Tripp outlines 10 types of communication. In our church culture, we are very familiar with the first three (rules, correction, discipline). I found that I had much less experience and/or ability with the other seven (encouragement, rebuke, entreaty, instruction, warning, teaching, prayer). This section of the book was replete with rich examples of how to communicate with a child. I just wish I could speak spiritually, naturally and sincerely like Dr. Tripp! Check this out example of an appeal to the conscience.
“After a worship service, a man approached me…. He had observed a young boy stealing some money from the offering plate…. A few minutes later the boy and the father asked to me in my study. The child produced $2 and said he had taken it from the offering plate. He was in tears, professing his sorrow and asking for forgiveness. I began to speak to him. ‘Charlie, I am so glad that someone saw what you did. What a wonderful mercy of God that you did not get away with this! God has spared you the hardness of heart that comes when we sin and get by with it. Don’t you see how gracious he has been to you?’ He looked me in the eye and nodded. ‘You know, Charlie,’ I continued, ‘this is why Jesus came. Jesus came because people like you and your father and me have hearts that want to steal. You see, we are so bold and brazen that we would even steal from the offerings that people have given to God. But God had such love for wicked boys and men that he sent his Son to change them from the inside out and make them people who are givers and not takers.’ At this point, Charlie broke down in sobs and drew another $20 from his pocket. He had begun this brief conversation prepared to go through the motions and give back two of the dollars he had taken. Something happened as he heard me speak of the mercy of God to wicked sinners. There was no accusation in my tone. Neither his father nor I knew there was more money. What happened? Charlie’s conscience was smitten by the gospel!”
Dr. Tripp also took some time to explain the importance of communication to understand the child’s heart. It can take great patience, many questions, and a baseline of trust to draw them out. I found this concept has already born a lot of fruit in my relationship with my children. Rather than being primarily concerned with their outward behavior, I am now concerned with their heart behind the behavior. For example, the past two weeks Jade has been annoyingly wakening before 6am and could not go back to sleep. I finally learned this morning that she was excited about the Mary Poppins show coming up this Thursday at “one o’clock.” She thought it was 1:00 at night instead of 1:00 in the daytime and didn’t want to miss it!
With the foundation of communication firmly established, Dr. Tripp then introduces the concept of the “rod” and its role in disciplining and shaping the heart of a child. God is the authority behind the rod, which is administered by the parent. When children rebel and consciously disobey their parents, they have also broken their relationship with God. The rod is actually a rescue mission to bring the child back from a spiritually dangerous position into a “circle of safety” where they receive long life and things go well (Ex. 20:12, Eph 6:3). What parent would not undertake such a rescue? Dr. Tripp does an amazing job of establishing the heart behind the rod and its Biblical basis. He then goes into great detail on misconceptions and misapplications of the rod. Along the way, he gives many examples of the appropriate words that go along with the rod. In sum, it is the best explanation of discipline I have ever read, making it obvious that the rod (when properly applied) always works.
Allow me to provide another example of Dr. Tripps’ powerful wording while disciplining a child. “If the discipline [after 2-3 attempts] has not yielded the harvest of peace, I must signal to the child that something is radically wrong…. ‘I love you son, I have disciplined you as much as is appropriate at this time. My desire is to see you submit to Daddy. My goal is total restoration of our relationship and closeness. I am going to pray for us. I am going to pray that I will be a dad who is wise and kind. I will pray that you submit to God’s order for family life and will honor and obey Mom and Dad.’” If only I could think so clearly and spiritually during such challenging times!
The remainder of the book covers a great deal of ground by addressing heart and obedience issues as they might occur chronologically (infancy, childhood, teenage years). Dr. Tripp addresses character development and imparting a Biblical world view to your child (“Who God is” and “Who I am”). A wonderful nugget I learned is the importance of not giving your children a “keepable standard,” which leads to Phariseeism. Dr. Tripp writes, “You cannot, with integrity, tell your child that if he tries hard enough, if he is good enough, if he really wants it, he can be what God has called him to be. He can’t. It is not native to him apart from God’s grace and enablement…. If you don’t call him to be what God has called him to be, you end up giving him a standard of performance that is within the realm of his native abilities apart from grace. It is a standard that does not require knowing and trusting God. In other words, you either call your children to be what they cannot be apart from grace, or you reduce the standard, giving them one they can keep. If you do that, you reduce their need for God accordingly” (pp176‑7). I found this insight very powerful, given my own sinful tendencies toward pride and a performance orientation.
Reading between the lines, I would not be surprised if Dr. Tripp’s beliefs tend towards Calvinism. He believes that children are not born “morally neutral,” but that in fact their hearts are biased to sin and rebellion. At a behavioral level in toddlers, I can see his point, but from a salvation perspective, I have difficulty reconciling this viewpoint with Ezek. 18. Though I may not fully agree with some of his fundamental assumptions, I can wholeheartedly endorse the spiritual methodology he uses with children.
More than any other, this book has fundamentally challenged my parenting and called me much higher to be the parent God wants me to be. It is a book that my wife and I plan to read every year so we can impart the Gospel to our children on a daily basis. If you do not already own a copy, you can get one at a local Barnes and Noble or any online retailer.