Discipline, grace and the godly family

Grace-Based Parenting
Tim Kimmel
Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2004, 240pp.
Disciplines of a Godly Family
Kent and Barbara Hughes
Crossway, Wheaton, 2004, 256pp.

When asked to review two parenting books, I reacted as if I’d been asked to swim across a crocodile-infested river. The subject of parenting is fraught. Parents have conflicting views, and many hold them strongly. Moreover, parenting books often express themselves in ways that leave parents with a sense of guilt or failure. Perhaps this is the source of the popular advice to read no more than one parenting book a year!

But on seeing the title of Tim Kimmel’s book—Grace-Based Parenting—I felt relieved. If any parenting book would be safe to read, this must be it! Even the cover is reassuring: happy children nestled in the cocoon of their mother’s arms.

Kimmel writes from the background of a ‘legalistic’ upbringing (p. 127f), and the parenting style he advocates is a reaction against this. For Kimmel, a person’s parenting style comes from their theology. He says that legalistic parents “live to keep score of their good deeds. Their children are supposed to help them stack up ‘brownie points’ with God” (p. 17). Kimmel lists several styles of parenting that he thinks are formed by the attitudes of legalism and judgementalism. For him, fear is at the heart of all of them (p. 16).

Instead, Kimmel advocates ‘grace-based parenting’. He sees this as parenting based on the knowledge of sin and God’s forgiveness, which enables freedom and flexibility in dealing with our children. Rather than setting rules to gain acceptance from God and others, grace-based parents are confident of God’s favour, and so set standards for “the right reasons” (p. 20).

Given the description above, I’m sure most Briefing readers would happily describe themselves as grace-based parents. However, Kimmel is quite harsh in assessing which parenting styles stand under his umbrella of approval. I think most Christians would seek to reflect God’s grace in their parenting, although the style may vary with different personalities. However, Kimmel’s list of unacceptable styles includes: families who follow a certain ‘evangelical style’ of doing the ‘proper things’, families who don’t plan much, families who are very strict, and families who don’t think much but follow what other families do (pp. 12-16). It seems simplistic of Kimmel to assume that these styles are based on legalism rather than grace, and this attitude continues throughout the book. Later, he implies that parents who follow a strict feeding regime necessarily lack grace (p. 100). I couldn’t help thinking that Kimmel’s strictness on these questions was ironic given the title of his book.

For Kimmel, fear-based legalism results in the overprotection of children through rules against certain ‘actions’ and ‘things’ judged as evil. In contrast, “grace-based” parents know that sin can’t be kept out by rules, but only by increasing trust in God. This results in allowing important freedoms. Kimmel describes legalism as building an “exoskeleton” that aims to stop children falling by creating an overly safe external environment. Grace, however, knows children are already fallen, and so builds an “endoskeleton” aimed not at outer protection but inner growth (p. 217f). This image, and his criticism of the “safety zones” Christian families put around themselves, is worth pondering. However, I’m sure some will disagree with the amount of risk he advocates in certain situations (pp. 117-119).

Kimmel moves on to describe what his grace-based style of parenting will mean. He divides this into two sections: the goal of our parenting efforts and the delivery system for those efforts (p. 22).

For Kimmel, the goal of parenting is to meet the “three driving inner needs”: security (met by love), significance (met by purpose) and strength (met by hope). His view is that if these needs are not met by parents, children will be led by Satan into meeting them in counterfeit ways (pp. 23-25). Kimmel devotes a chapter to each of the needs, with warnings and advice to help parents meet them. Although Kimmel is not unique in his valuation of these needs, there are some helpful suggestions here. One is his reminder that gracefully administered discipline fosters purpose in our children because it teaches that their actions matter.

However, there are also some problems. Firstly, he falls into the ‘parenting book trap’ of exaggerated claims. When discussing love, he implies that if his principles are followed, your children will develop a “security that keeps them from doubting” (p. 54). Regarding hope, those who don’t follow his methods are open to the charge of negligence (p. 97).

Another problem is his emphasis on developing children’s abilities in order to bring success and fulfillment in society (pp. 67-70, 83-89, 110-122). While this may have some benefit, deep purpose and hope for any Christian must spring from God’s love shown on the cross. Here alone is surety. This lack of emphasis on the cross is a strange omission for any parenting style based on God’s grace.1

The remaining chapters on the “delivery system” are the strength of Kimmel’s book. They are a strong reminder to focus on important issues so as not to frustrate our children with unreasonable standards. Kimmel concentrates on four areas of freedom the gracious parent will allow: the freedom to be different, to be vulnerable, to be candid and to make mistakes. In parenting, it is hard to walk the line between reasonable and harsh expectations. It is easy to let our mood, circumstances or friends determine our standards, rather than God’s word. Particularly when our children are teenagers, the line of reasonable behavior can become blurred. These chapters are an encouragement to be Bible-centred and gracious as we seek to help our children in their struggle against sin, and I found them challenging. For instance, when discussing the freedom to be candid, Kimmel describes planned nights when his children can air grievances with an assurance that they will be heard. While some may baulk at this, his intent is admirable and his ideas in this section are thought-provoking.

Grace-Based Parenting is not the safe read it looks. It falls into the trap of many parenting books, making exaggerated claims for its own ideas while harshly criticizing those who don’t fit into its prescribed views. However, the book does encourage gracious parenting, and warns against turning negotiable freedoms into moral issues. Anyone living by God’s grace knows about legalism—that inexorable tendency to control ourselves and our world. This book, despite its faults, gives a timely warning against this in the management of our children’s hearts. For this, it is definitely worth a read.


In contrast with Kimmel’s book, the title and cover of Disciplines of a Godly Family does not relax the reader; it presents a stern image. This book comes in the context of the other Hughes ‘Discipline’ books: Disciplines of a Godly Man and Disciplines of a Godly Woman (which I’ve never quite had the discipline to read!). Disciplines of a Godly Family is basically the same as their earlier Common Sense Parenting with the theme of discipline worked in.

Disciplines of a Godly Family is not so much a parenting system as a series of suggestions. These suggestions concern things they see as important and enriching in family life, and are grouped into three categories: ‘Building a Family’, ‘Spirituality’ and ‘Everyday Living’. The Hugheses have a very high view of family. They see its purpose as to glorify God (pp. 15-17), and they write with large doses of warmth and enthusiasm. Reading the book, you enter the lives of the authors, and sense that they want you to have the same joy in your family life that they have had in theirs. To this end, there is a massive appendix filled with a large variety of ideas and resources—recipes, lists of good books and movies, holiday destinations, prayers, hymns and so on. The book is wonderful for its encouragement about the value of family life and its many great suggestions.

However, I did have a couple of concerns. Readers outside the US should be advised that there are definite cultural differences, particularly in areas such as family traditions and methods of showing affection. One example concerns the time their son was receiving his high school diploma. To communicate support, the family yelled out loudly “Way to go, Kent!” and showered the “sedate audience with confetti and streamers”. The Hughes describe the audience as “loving this”, but I’m pretty sure audiences in my part of the world would not take to it so well!

Alongside this, there are times when their activities felt to me, as an Australian, a bit ‘Brady Bunch’. They engage in many wonderful activities, have wonderful family celebrations, teach wonderful manners, have wonderful prayer habits, and so on. The combination of all of these might leave readers feeling like failures in their own family life. To her credit, Barbara Hughes recognizes this and warns readers against it, saying that the book describes the experiences of a lifetime, and should not be held as a standard (pp. 152-153).

The Hugheses are also not immune from the ‘parenting book trap’ of implying that other ways of parenting don’t measure up. The book’s opening paragraph speaks in strong terms about building a family heritage. It is described as a “vital element” and “one of the disciplines of a godly family”. These words sound non-negotiable, and while much of the chapter refers to godly attitudes to family, other aspects are definitely matters of personal choice. Implying that every godly family will do them feels rather pressurizing.

I felt this pressure most keenly in the chapter on Family Traditions. The Hugheses make a valid point that because our society is “rootless”, there is benefit in cultivating tradition and memory. Regarding memorials, they take this further by saying that God’s word “dramatically recommends” that we do it (p. 44). They base this on God’s command to Joshua to build the ‘stones of remembrance’ after crossing the Jordan River to enter the Promised Land (Josh 4:1-9). For the Hugheses, building memorials is of the highest importance in personal spiritual formation and in raising children (p. 45). They do this by recording memories (in a book or on tape) of special ways God has cared for them or answered their prayers. These memories (“stones”) are shared at family occasions. The Hugheses call on readers to follow their example, because “God considers remembering essential to spiritual health” (p. 45).

Of course, this comes down to Old Testament interpretation, and here is not the place to explore this in depth. However, it must be said that for many evangelical Christians (myself included), the very physical dimensions in which God dealt with his people in the Old Testament are fulfilled by Jesus in the New. Our worship is now in “spirit and in truth” (John 4:23), and is not centered on physical things such as land or temple (or stones). The focus of our remembrance now is Jesus’ death and resurrection, and we look to his coming. In light of this, is God’s command to Joshua a word to us about building memorials in our family life?

The problem here, as in so many parenting books, is not the advice but the force of its imposition. As wise advice from godly and experienced parents, the material on building family traditions is very helpful. As a biblical imperative, it is much less convincing, and puts an unnecessary degree of pressure on the Christian conscience.

Despite these concerns, I have no hesitation in recommending Disciplines of a Godly Family to parents. It is a very positive, engaging book, with many good ideas and lots of encouragement to godly family living. Their wisdom, coming from raising a family in Christ, is worth heeding. The book is particularly helpful in its discussion of the important topics of discipline, family ministry and prayer.

However, having read both books, I’m a bit worn out from the stress of swimming with the crocodiles. I won’t be reading another parenting book for at least a year or two.


1 Ironically, on page 134, Kimmel describes all of our deep needs as being met in God. However, in his extended discussions in the book, he fails to emphasize this.

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