Book Review: Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus

give-them-graceYou might wonder why I would read a book on parenting when my children are all grown. I read Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus by mother-daughter team Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson partly to see where they were coming from and whether or not I could recommend it to young moms. I’d heard this book mentioned quite a lot a few years ago, and, in fact, where some people took the principles they said they got from the book raised an eyebrow for me, so I also wanted to see what they said vs. what people think they said.

Areas of agreement:

The basic premise is one I agree with: our children aren’t saved by keeping rules, and though there is a place for rules and law, they need the gospel, not more rules heaped on them. Kids (and adults) can keep all the rules perfectly and still be unsaved (and, in fact, can be blinded by their need of a Savior because they’re considered “good kids”). Only Jesus kept all the law perfectly, and once we believe on Him, His record is transferred to our account, so to speak. And no parenting method is an ironclad guarantee that our children will become Christians and live for God: only the grace of God working in their hearts and their response to it will accomplish that.

They illustrate this in the introduction with Jessica’s son, Wesley, fighting with his little brother. When she separated them and told Wesley, “You must love your brother!” he responded, “But he makes me so mad! I can’t love him!” Elyse says that when she was raising her own children, she would have responded, “Oh yes you can, and you will! God says that you must love your brother, and you better start – or else!” Years later she realized that the better response would have been to tell him that he is exactly right, that we can’t obey God’s laws on our own, that Jesus died because we can’t, and that when we believe on Him, His great love for us will enable us to love others.

They warn that it is dangerous to tell children they are good, because “there is none good but God” (Mark 10:18), plus it will confuse them about their need for a Savior if they think they are already good. I wrestled with this when my sons were small. It was so easy to say “Good boy!” to encourage them when they did something right, but I wasn’t entirely comfortable with that for those reasons. I started saying “Good job!” or something similar instead, or, as my sister-in-law suggested, commented on what “big boys” they were getting to be, as kids aspire to be more “grown up.” But I think these authors take that concept way too far (more on that in a moment).

They assert that the Bible is not just a book about moral stories, and I’d agree there. It’s about God. The main point of Jonah, for instance, isn’t that if we disobey, God will send a whale (or something comparatively awful) after us, so don’t be like Jonah. The point is God’s gracious provision both for the Ninevites plus his unloving, recalcitrant prophet.

But we are instructed to discipline, warn, correct, train, etc., our children. “Discipline proves relationship. Instruction demonstrates love. Grace is not averse to training. In fact, one of the functions of grace is training in righteousness (Titus 2:11-14)”. “Grace does not forbid us from correcting our children. But gospel correction reminds us to bring correction to them in the context of what Jesus has already done for them and his great love for them.” They make a distinction between management (basic instructions like “Don’t run in the street,” chore charts, etc., that aren’t necessarily meant to “get to the heart,” but are just a part of child training), nurturing (telling and demonstrating God’s love and care for them), [gospel] training (pointing them what Jesus has done to take care of their sin and enable them to live for Him), correction, and reminding him of God’s promises. They discuss ways to know what a situation calls for and how to apply gospel truth to their situation.

They have a fairly good section on striking a balance between interacting with other families and kids yet guarding against worldly practices influencing your children through others. I agree that we shouldn’t have homes that are monasteries or pack up the family to the prairie 50 miles from neighbors to keep them from “the world,” but sometimes those interactions can be tricky to navigate.

I thought these quotes were quite good:

The one encouragement we can always give our children (and one another) is that God is more powerful than our sin, and He’s strong enough to make us want to do the right thing. We can assure them that his help can reach everyone, even them. Our encouragement should always stimulate praise for God’s grace rather than our goodness.

We are always to do our best, striving to be obedient and to love, nurture, and discipline (our children). But we are to do it with faith in the Lord’s ability to transform hearts, not in our ability to be consistent or faithful. Seeking to be faithfully obedient parents is our responsibility; granting faith to our children is his.

The only power strong enough to transform the selfishly rebellious and the selfishly self-righteous heart is grace. The law doesn’t transform the heart of either…it only hardens them in pride and despair.

Grace teaches us to rest in what Christ has done for us and to live lives of godly gratitude.

The chief end of our parenting is not out own glorification as great parents but rather that we glorify God and enjoy him forever.

It is a kindness when [God] strips us of self-reliance, because it is there, in our emptiness and brokenness, that we experience the privilege of his sustaining grace.  It is only when we arrive at the dreaded place of weakness that we discover the surpassing power of Christ.

Areas of disagreement:

They give a plethora of examples of how to apply the gospel to our children’s everyday needs and issues, but most of their examples are impossibly long. They say that, of course, you wouldn’t say all of this every single time. Still, some real life examples of these truths in short bursts would have been better than lengthy paragraphs that no parent would probably ever say. (BTW, Kevin DeYoung’s example of trying to have such a conversation with his child is hilarious – and a lot more realistic).

One of their examples is how to talk to a child who made the last out in a ball game which caused his team to lose and is understandably unhappy. They list about 4 pages of what to say to him (at least it’s 4 pages in the Kindle app – I don’t know how many in the physical book). Some of it is good, like instructing that throwing his bat when angry is harmful and wrong, and that he can congratulate his teammates even though he doesn’t feel like it because Jesus set aside His desires for him. But then they go on to suggest saying things like, “Losing a baseball game is not the worst thing that could ever happen. Losing Jesus is” and “I  understand why you’re mad about not winning. It’s because winning is all you have.” They assert that the child “needs to repent not only of his anger and desire to approve of himself but also of desiring to be perfect on his own and of ignoring the perfection Jesus has provided for him in his justifying love.” Well, there’s truth there, but maybe he just needs to be encouraged to practice more or to be comforted with the reminder that even the pros strike out sometimes, that no one performs at 100% capacity all the time.

In a section on the grief of rebellious children, they make the point (rightly, I think) that God can be glorified just as much when everything seems to have gone wrong, because His grace shines through our fallenness and need for redemption. But I was astonished to read these two sentences:

Because the Lord always acts for his glory, and because he predestined the sin of the Romans and the Jews in his Son’s cruel execution, their sin glorified him. It was the means he used to demonstrate his mercy, justice, and love…”

Everything God does is for his glory, and he is completely sovereign over everything that occurs. He uses our sin and the sin of our children to glorify him. If he did not, we would not sin.

While I agree that God works “all things together for good” (Romans 8:28), and I agree that his mercy in the light of our sin glorifies him, I have a real problem saying that God predestines us to sin. I am not of the Reformed persuasion, and the authors are, so that may be where that difference comes from, but I have never heard anyone say something like this before.

I mentioned before that I felt that the authors took the point about not telling children they are “good” way too far. They say it is always wrong to tell a child that God is pleased with them, because “God’s smile,” as they call it, is only bestowed upon us because of Jesus’ record of righteousness in our place. While it is true that nothing we can do pleases God in the sense of counting towards earning points with Him, there are several verses that talk about God being pleased. Hebrews 11:6 says, “without faith it is impossible to please him,” so all of these must be considered within that context. 1 Thessalonians 4:1 says, “Furthermore then we beseech you, brethren, and exhort you by the Lord Jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please God, so ye would abound more and more.” Hebrews 13:6 says, “But to do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased.” Part of the prayer in Colossians 1:9-11 is that we might “walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing.” Even children obeying their parents is said to be “well pleasing unto the Lord” (Colossians 3:20). 1 John 3:22 says, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of him, because we keep his commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in his sight.”  None of these is meant in a way to work up righteousness but to work out righteousness: to live out what God has done in our hearts. I pondered this point a lot while reading this book. Positionally, yes, when we’re saved, our sins are forgiven, and God sees us through the lens of Jesus’ righteousness and not our own. Our own doesn’t count for anything. But what we usually call our sanctification is a growth process. God is constantly convicting and directing us away from what displeases Him and towards what pleases Him. Just like earthly families, children don’t earn parents’  love or belonging by their behavior: the child will always be a part of that family by birth or adoption. So the parents’ guiding and disciplining a child isn’t a matter of making that child fit to become a part of the family or keep his place there: it’s a matter of helping him grow to maturity, and part of that is letting him know what is pleasing and what is displeasing. (I found this post right about the time I was thinking through these things. Though he is coming at the idea of pleasing God from a different angle, he brings out many good points and helped assure me that I was thinking along the right lines.)

I also disagreed with them in saying that “Every time someone was mean to [Jesus], he fought to love” and He had to “work every day at not giving in to sin.” It makes it sound like Jesus had a sin nature to grapple with. He had a human nature, but not a sin nature. He battled Satan, so perhaps they mean these things in that way.

I thought the authors’ tone was somewhat condescending sometimes.

I couldn’t recommend this book unreservedly, but someone with some discernment might be able to use the best parts and disregard the rest.

Genre: Nonfiction Christian parenting advice
Potential objectionable elements: Some areas of theological disagreement.
My rating: 5 out of 10

(Sharing at Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books and Literary Musing Monday)

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10 thoughts on “Book Review: Give Them Grace: Dazzling Your Kids with the Love of Jesus

  1. I have had some of the same concerns, and agree with what you’ve said. I once knew a principal who loved this book. He excused some grievous behavior at his school, in the name of grace. The perpetrators needed to know some justice – they came and apologized simply because they knew that doing so would “let them off” in the name of grace. The school paid for that decision for years after that particular principal left, in the unruly behavior of the students who hadn’t had their “wings clipped” when it was needed.

    • The authors do advocate discipline. I mentioned in the first paragraph that I had heard some say some things based on this book that raised an eyebrow, and most of that was the idea of letting things go in the name of grace rather than dealing with them. But I think some mistook what they meant by encouraging grace rather than more law or rules. They meant rather that the gospel needs to be applied to every situation – a reminder of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection, the fact that that’s what our sin cost, and the necessity of His grace not just for forgiveness but also for help to do right.

  2. Glad to see your thoughts on this book. I have not read it either (because I also thought, my time has passed) but I’ve been curious about it nonetheless. It’s good that you read it so you can know whether or not to recommend it. It sounds like there’s some good and some not-so-good parts in it. I clicked on your link to Kevin DeYoung’s post and it was indeed hilarious. 🙂

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  4. So interesting. I saw this post come through my feed reader the other day and wanted to pause on your post. Then I had to go back and read my review (from 2011: http://www.readingtoknow.com/2011/06/give-them-grace-by-elyse-m-fitzpatrick.html) which made me laugh a little bit to myself because I only had 3 kids then and now I have 5 and I thought it was a challenge THEN. 😀 Haaa..perspective. Mostly I enjoyed reading through everyone’s comments in response to my post (We use to have really fun conversations in blog land! Speaking collectively!)

    I have to confess that I gave this book away a year or so ago because it annoyed me. Mostly because with a (little) bit more experience under my belt I have more firm opinions and I feel the book is a bit lopsided in the area of grace vs. law. But I might also just be more annoyed with it now because more of our children are adopted than biological and the way we parent has changed as a result. I think that, on the whole, I feel about 50% happy with this book and 50% unhappy– same as your 5 out of 10 star rating. It has some good points to argue but it’s not the Be All, End All book.

    I don’t, generally speaking, recommend this title to others for the simple reason that I think there are better ones — not necessarily because I think this one is BAD. Obviously, it gives people food to chew on and think about and that’s a terrific thing! It’s just not my favorite.

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