Common Grace for Parents

Common grace is an interesting theological concept.

In the words of Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof, “[Common grace] curbs the destructive power of sin, maintains in a measure the moral order of the universe, thus making an orderly life possible, distributes in varying degrees gifts and talents among men, promotes the development of science and art, and showers untold blessings upon the children of men,” (Berkhof, p. 434, summarizing Calvin’s position on common grace).      –From the Wikipedia entry on Common Grace

John Calvin taught that God lavishes His gifts on the human race, and we may therefore enjoy it wherever we encounter it, with gratitude to God (Institutes 2.2.15). I freely receive gifts of God’s common grace through science and medicine. But I’ve noted that conservative Christians are often suspicious of common grace on the topics of parenting and mental development. Two secular books have recently blessed me in my call to parent my children the way God parents His, and I thought I should share why.

Nurture Shock

This book resonated with me because it wasn’t a book of anecdotes based on the authors’ bias and personal experience. Instead, it was a summation of 100’s of studies on various parenting topics, drawing its conclusions from them. I’m a math teacher and appreciate logic and reason. I weary of anything emotionally, not logically, driven, particularly guilt-driven parenting books.

But I’m also a Christian. Scripture informs my values in parenting. Scripture sets the structure for the methods I employ to disciple my children. This book wasn’t anti-Christian, but neither was it in any way promoting Christian parenting philosophy. So why would I read it? Why would I enjoy it as a gift of God’s common grace? Some Christians won’t even give it a chance, and some who read it would immediately point out perceived biases and flaws in a self-protective manner. There are several pieces of my theological convictions that drive how I interact with such a book.

First, I am confident (Phil. 1:6). There are Christian groups that teach keeping a healthy distance from secular (worldly) philosophies. They perceive them as a threat, ready to snatch believers from Biblical faithfulness. But in Scripture, God Himself is the one who assumes the role of keeping us. It is His job to keep His own, and He promises to do it well. I’m not oblivious to the pitfalls that undermine faith, yet on the flip side, I am very confident in the One who holds me, and I am confident in His promises regarding the perseverance of my faith.

Second, I value being informed. The discerning heart, according to Scripture, seeks knowledge (Proverbs 15:14). Science is the friend of the discerning, not their enemy. Certainly science needs to submit to Scripture, but we don’t need to see it in competition with Scripture. The Word of God is tough. It can stand up to the test, and it doesn’t need me to hide behind a rock for fear it won’t stand up to secular reasoning. But I never read these things without Scripture in mind. In fact, it’s simply impossible to me.

The first chapter in Nurture Shock on perseverance/endurance and the concluding thoughts on thankfulness was worth the price of the book. It also reflected many Bible principles. It reminded me that God is the master psychologist. He understands how our minds and bodies work better than anyone, and His instructions make sense. They actually work. There were many examples in Nurture Shock of just this very thing. The authors of course didn’t acknowledge these as Biblical ideas, but it was obvious again and again.

The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children

In the comments after my article on Gospel-centered Timeouts, someone asked for resources on parenting children with anger problems. Someone else recommended this book, and I ordered it as soon as I read the subtitle, for my son is EASILY frustrated and CHRONICALLY inflexible.  The traditional approaches recommended in Christian parenting books have usually made it worse, not better. I feel pressure to get him to conform to what comes naturally for many of his peers and even his little brother. 

While some discipline issues in our home fit the traditional paradigm of sin, correction, and forgiveness, we also have another issue, developmental delay, for which I need strategies. This book was God’s gift of common grace to me. In particular, the author focused on root causes of frustration for kids with certain developmental delays (who often, like my son, excel in other areas). As he discussed the root problem, it became clear to me. When my son is faced with a problem, he can not comprehend that there is a solution. (If there is a genetic tendency in his parents that contributed to this in him, I’m pretty sure it came from me.)  A problem automatically equals an insurmountable crisis in his head, and the result is an explosion. Most times, he does not even know how to articulate the problem or break down the frustration to identify its cause. He just slams down the book and cries how much he hates reading. Or hides under his teacher’s desk and cries hysterically refusing to go to music class. It’s often way out of proportion to the problem. Or there may not even be an identifiable problem.

My first mistake is usually to dig my heals in on an issue. In my quest for my son to understand parental authority, I can become very rigid and insistent. Lots of Christian parenting resources emphasize first time obedience. But, really, the teaching that we should punish our children if they don’t immediately obey us is very much NOT like our Father in heaven. He is long suffering with me, and that long suffering does NOT undermine His authority in my life. The graceless teaching of first time obedience resulted in me rigidly placing stumbling blocks in front of my son. Thank You, Lord, for Your mercy with me when I don’t at first obey and for showing me a better way to love my son as You love me!

Instead, I am learning to ask neutral questions to figure out the true root cause of his inflexibility. With his music class at school, I finally figured out after several questions over a few weeks that he has problem with auditory processing – things don’t connect between his ears and his mouth as quickly as for some. His classmates could pick up songs much quicker than him. He felt stupid and had no concept that he could learn them with practice. He could only see the obstacle.

The point wasn’t that he was rebellious or didn’t care. He DID want to do well, but he knew he wasn’t doing well and didn’t know how to fix that. We worked through that obstacle though I won’t share all the details. He even sang perfectly with his class in his school’s Spring Sing. And we did it without either punishment or rewards. Short term problem solved!!

The author in The Explosive Child emphasizes what he calls the empathy step—figuring out the real problem behind the anger and explosions.

“Some (parents) never considered understanding their kid’s concerns or perspective on things to be particularly important. That’s why many kids—perhaps most—are accustomed to having their concerns dismissed (by adults who have concerns of their own). … If you’re busy dismissing your kid’s concerns, don’t be surprised when he reciprocates. … By the way, you don’t lose any authority by gathering information, understanding, and empathizing. Rather, you gain a problem-solving partner.” (p. 92)

If you have a child who explodes with anger at odd times over seemingly trite problems, this may be a helpful resource to you. It has helped me decode my son’s real problems and remove stumbling blocks that set him up for failure. Through it, I feel God has given me wisdom on how to help my son learn a new skill, much like tying his shoes or brushing his teeth, except this one is a mental skill—how to articulate and solve problems before they result in angry explosions.

Wisdom is truly wise only when it’s applied correctly in the right circumstances. That is the function of the Holy Spirit. May we daily press into Him to know how to deal with our children with wisdom.

Proverbs 24:3-4  By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. 

Galatians 5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.

17 Responses to Common Grace for Parents

  1. Nelle April 24, 2012 at 11:22 am #

    That book sounds very interesting! Our son has a developmental delay too – his paediatrician uses a term I love – catastrophising. He goes from issue to catastrophe in seconds and I am left staring in bemusement! I try to keep the whole catastrophe thing in mind – on the outside it's a tantrum, but he genuinely is panicking because he can't see a way out. I don't see how not knowing 4 + 4 immediately is a major life challenge, but remembering that he is genuinely anxious about this helps me to reach for empathy.

  2. Anonymous April 24, 2012 at 12:21 pm #

    Hi Wendy. I've commented on your blog before and again wanted to say thank you for writing. When I first began to read your blog, I was challenged and encouraged by your deep understanding of grace and your biblical insights. As I have continued to read, I have realized you and I have more in common than just our theological view. When you mention your son, I am always so eager to hear your wisdom, as we too have a child who has some developmental delays that sound very similar! The book, The Explosive Child has also been a common grace to us and God is rescuing us from our legalistic parenting of this special child. He is good. And your blog is one of his graces to me. So thankful for when you share about parenting-hearing such sound biblical wisdom as it relates to parenting children who don't fit the mold IS LIKE WATER TO MY SOUL. Thank you. Thank you. with love, Erin

  3. leslie April 24, 2012 at 1:24 pm #

    Thank you so much for this great discussion! It resonates because I have been so.frustrated lately at how parenting philosophies that seem both instinctive to me AND the best way I can present grace to my child seem to come only from secular sources and not to be discussed in Christian circles at all! I really like this way of looking at secular sources as “common grace.” There is so much wisdom to be found that is just sadly lacking in excplicitly Christian writings…

  4. Ben April 24, 2012 at 3:03 pm #

    Thanks for posting this. I really like your comment: “It reminded me that God is the master psychologist. He understands how our minds and bodies work better than anyone, and His instructions make sense. “

  5. Christian and Jenny April 24, 2012 at 3:07 pm #

    Just this week I read a Christian parenting article about first time obedience and since then it's been on my mind. I kept thinking that's not how God deals with me. What a blessing to read this today and hear from someone else what I was feeling in my heart. Thank you!

  6. Elizabeth Chapin April 24, 2012 at 3:22 pm #

    It's so fun to find someone else who thinks theologically about such matters and is not afraid to find God's truth and grace in uncommon places! I am a big fan of Love and Logic parenting and find it fits with my theological framework quite well. Love and Logic focuses on empathy, like the Explosive Child author you mention. One problem I have found is that some of us are empathy-challenged. While my husband tries really hard to be empathetic, it's just not the way he is wired. He's much better at the logic part of parenting 😉 I have an explosive child – or at least she used to be more explosive when she was young, it has calmed down quite a bit in her teens. Thanks for the book recommendations!

  7. Angie D April 24, 2012 at 6:47 pm #

    Wendy, I have loved your teaching since MH days! I have never commented here before though I receive all your posts via email. I am so humbled and encouraged by this post. Common grace in parenting! Duh! I too appreciate science and logic and receive that as God's common grace and yet I've been totally legalistic about parenting books. I am convicted, humbled and overjoyed after reading this today. The Lord spoke to my heart thru these words! My kids are explosive and I feel shame when I can't make them be peaceful and quick to obey. Thank you for speaking truth and adding your personal experience. I was thinking this same thing today about how God is patient and loving with me even when I refuse to be sorry. Great post! Great blog! Thank you for seeking Truth in everyday life!

  8. Wendy April 25, 2012 at 1:04 am #

    “I don't see how not knowing 4+4 immediately is a major life challenge …”

    Seriously! 🙂 Today it was reading and telling time. But it's interesting to me how much the reminder that “we can work this out” helps.

  9. Wendy April 25, 2012 at 1:06 am #

    Thanks, all, for your encouraging comments.

  10. Luma Simms April 25, 2012 at 4:52 am #

    Wendy, I so needed this. I LOVE God's common grace and so often I am blessed by it. However, I think I still have some caution when it comes to parenting tips/help from non-Christians, which I know are still mostly driven by fear. I am SO grateful for this post. We have a child who struggles in ways we just can't seem to figure out. I put the books in my iPhone book list note already. Thank you!

    By the way, I used “first time obedience for years.” Moreover, I used the oft used phrase I picked up from certain parenting books: “Slow obedience is disobedience.” What's that slang statement some people use: “How's that workin' for ya?” Yeah…well, it took me a while to wake up and realize how often the Lord in his grace and mercy toward me allows me to slowly obey. Sigh…

    Thanks again!!

  11. Felicia Strange April 25, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

    This clears up alot for me in more than just the parenting area of my life. God has graciously given me the logical insight that is His and not mine. I can't figure it out through mental gymnastics but when He gives it through a willing and humble vessel such as yourself it makes so much sense. Clearly…and I see how God has such patience with me, His explosive child who sees that solution to my problem as so elusive and insurmountable so much of the time!

  12. Melissa April 25, 2012 at 8:33 pm #

    I don't have any children yet, but I am a 6th grade teacher and could probably benefit from these books. Thanks for the logical, clear-headed reviews!

  13. Janna April 26, 2012 at 10:54 am #

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on these books! It is true there is so much common grace in the world and I'm thankful for the reminder of it in parenting.

    I had never heard the phrase “first time obedience” until reading this post and comments and now that I've done a bit of research I'm thankful for that. If I had and continued to try to practice this approach with my spirited, quirky first born it would have been a disaster. I'm learning daily, and failing at it daily, how to be a grace giving parent who tries (imperfectly) to reflect the love and grace of God to my children. Ultimately I want my boys to be lovers of the Lord and followers of Him and His ways because of that love, not just obedient, moral children who grow up to be prideful, legalistic adults.

    Anyway, now I have reserved the above books at my library and look forward to reading them. Thanks again.

  14. Sarah Guild April 26, 2012 at 10:52 pm #

    “The graceless teaching of first time obedience”… I think might be a little bit much. I think that first time obedience is widely misused and isn't paired with wisdom for different situations, but I would ask whether it would be correct to assume that the whole thought is poor? Just like many things, when not paired with wisdom, it gets misused. However, that doesn't negate some of the merits of the thought.

    When preparing for school each morning, is it helpful for my son to learn to respect his brother by getting ready as soon as he is asked to do so? I would say that yes, it is teaching him kindness. First time obedience is a way of encouraging mutual respect between brothers. When asked by his brother to stop doing something irritating, we are working on what it looks like to listen the first time someone asks so as to show them respect and kindness. To care more about them than we do our own desires.

    When “first time obedience” becomes a stumbling block is when it is used as a catch all to avoid discipling our children through challenges by just mandating obedience. Again, in trying to foster love for one another in our boys, we have lots of sibling disputes to deal with… First time obedience alone would be a failure for navigating this territory if used by itself. Many, many disciplining opportunities arise as we pray together, talk together, as I apologize for losing my patience with the arguments… these conversations and such are invaluable.

    I do think “Give Them Grace” has a helpful chart in the back that outlines different responses for the same situation given time and specifics. Sometimes we just need to manage, sometimes we train, sometimes we share the Gospel… One isn't bad by itself, it's just not good if it is used as the only tool.

  15. Wendy April 27, 2012 at 3:20 am #

    Thanks for adding to the discussion, Sarah. I would not call the situation you described between your sons as first time obedience, because your sons are not authorities over each other, but first time respect (or something like that), and I do think it is an important thing in which we need to train our children.

  16. Laura April 30, 2012 at 11:27 pm #

    Oh so thankful for this timely post – God is so good ;). My middle son is currently sitting in a time out (missing out on dinner with friends) for another explosive act (this time hitting me for not giving him a lolipop…awesome). I have read Nurture Shock, and loved it. Looking forward to checking out 'The Explosive Child'. And I really appreciated your thoughts on first time obedience. I have traveled that road, and so struggled with guilt over not continuing it – but have continually felt led to extend grace. Thank you!

  17. Luma Simms May 1, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    The books should be arriving soon. In God's mercy we were able to find a Christian counselor that specialized in this area. It was wonderful to be able to describe your child to someone and have them know exactly what you are talking about, WITHOUT attributing it all to a matter of obedience–disobedience. Learning longsuffering…. thanks again for bringing up these issues on the blog.