William P. Smith is a pastor and former faculty member of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation (CCEF). His new book, Parenting with Words of Grace, is a call for parents to build lasting relationships with their children through gracious conversations. The book offers theological depth with a warm and personal tone. This book would be most relevant to parents of older children and teenagers.
Each of the short chapters of Parenting with Words of Grace begins and ends with the gospel. Smith shows how God has spoken graciously to us, how we ought to reflect that same grace to our children, and how we can rely on God’s ongoing grace when we fail. Along the way, Smith pieces together a basic theology of speech. Speech reveals the character and commitments of the speaker: as God’s image-bearers, our speech will either communicate the truth about our Creator flowing from a heart of worship or echo the lies of his enemy flowing from a heart of idolatry.
The first part of Smith’s book sets out his vision: “Parenting involves countless interactions through which you invite potential future peers to an ongoing relationship if they should so choose” (p. 19). Smith encourages parents to understand their role in relational terms: parenting is not about finding formulas that “work,” but about having interactions that “woo” our children into a lasting relationship with us and with God.
Smith illustrates this kind of gracious speech using Jesus’ words to the seven churches in Revelation, along with some shorter examples. He concludes: “God pours out his kindness by speaking the words people need to hear even when he knows they will reject him. He now invites you to join him by giving yourself to conversations with others—especially your children—with that same exhausting, profligate abandon that’s more interested in love than it is in guarantees” (p. 47).
Smith devotes a chapter to explaining why parents have to talk to their children so much. He writes, “By God’s intent, we enter life knowing nothing, then are slowly brought to understand our world and our place within it through the very ordinary medium of people talking to us. With their help, over time, we mature into contributing, responsible members of society who in turn can support and nurture others” (p. 64).
The second part of Parenting with Words of Grace is called “The Hope.” These chapters consider why parents sometimes fail to speak graciously to their children, while reassuring them of God’s willingness to forgive. Smith illustrates this with an extended example from the life of Abraham. He urges parents to keep running back to Jesus, who intercedes with the Father on our behalf. We need to take words of repentance to God and need to listen to God’s gracious words to us in Scripture; only then can we speak graciously to our children.
Part Three of Parenting with Words of Grace focuses on the skill of encouragement. Smith teaches parents to search for the positive in seed form: “It’s too easy to focus on the goal and ignore the process by which someone is moving toward it. Learn to see the process with its countless steps and stages and you’ll quickly see many things you can encourage” (p. 145).
Part Four addresses the skill of honesty. Smith argues from Scripture that the goal of honesty is rescue: “God doesn’t confront to break relationships. He speaks honestly to restore them” (p. 156). Smith then draws from the wisdom of Proverbs, urging parents to think before they speak. Next, he encourages parents to follow the example of Jesus: our conversations should seek to uncover our children’s deepest needs, rather than just address the presenting problem.
The book finishes with a healthy dose of realism: we should expect our children to make mistakes. Smith writes: “Don’t wish those moments away. Don’t sigh or frown or look surprised when they come up. Don’t long for low-maintenance kids who never need you to step in and say anything. Stop wishing you were raising Pharisees—kids who look good on the outside but are in deep trouble inside” (pp. 195–96). In our imperfect human families, we need to develop a “lifestyle” of forgiveness (p. 201).
Parenting with Words of Grace has much to commend it. Smith uses Scripture well in developing a theology of speech that is illuminating and, over the course of the book, surprisingly comprehensive. Smith’s years of experience as a pastor and counselor have also given him deep insight into how people work—he understands the particular weaknesses and temptations that parents face; he gives wise advice on interpersonal communication and conflict resolution.
Smith’s basic message to parents is powerful: we should be careful to use words that strengthen, not weaken, our relationship with our children.
The book, however, is not without its weaknesses. One is that it does not adequately define the unique relationship between parents and children. Smith defines parenting as “the sum total of interactions between two human beings whereby I regularly invite a slightly younger person to a relationship that increasingly closes the maturity gap between us” (p. 24). This definition could equally apply to my relationship with the twenty children in my Sunday School class or soccer team.
Smith’s definition does not take into account the unique responsibility that parents have for their children’s maturity, and the unique authority that this entails. Smith does not use the concept of authority positively until chapter 26; even then, the idea is simply presumed, rather than explained. Likewise, Smith does not address the issue of how children ought to respond to their parents’ words. And yet, the Bible places great emphasis on the value of children honoring their parents by listening to and obeying them (e.g. Prov 1:8; 6:20–23; 1 Sam 2:25; Eph 6:1–3).
The Bible also describes many different kinds of parental speech (especially throughout Deuteronomy and Proverbs). These include recounting salvation history, answering questions, teaching, instructing, commanding, warning, and correcting. Parenting with Words of Grace does not look in detail at these different categories of speech .
Smith might also have drawn on the rich Scriptural paradigm of God as Father and Jesus as Son. Smith’s examples switch between God and Jesus indiscriminately, even to the point of referring to us as Jesus’s children (p. 162). Perhaps it would have been more helpful to examine how God speaks as the Father and how Jesus responds as the Son. Smith’s main example of gracious speech comes from Jesus’s words in Revelation, but here he speaks as the Bridegroom to his Bride-to-be. This typifies the book’s failure to distinguish clearly between different types of relationships, and the different types of speech that might categorize them.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Parenting with Words of Grace is a welcome book that offers parents some very helpful and challenging ideas. It is simply not a comprehensive parenting book. It should be read alongside other books that offer a clearer explanation of a parent’s unique role in the lives of their children.