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.