Only a few days before writing this review, my wife got a call from our 23-year-old daughter and her husband. My daughter said, “I’m pregnant!” My wife put the phone on speaker mode and joyous sounds and tears exploded as this was news of our first grandchild!
Reading Douglas Wilson’s Why Children Matter naturally raised the question of whether this book would be a good resource for my daughter and her husband? Would it guide them as new parents? Would I send it to them? Or as a pastor, would I encourage families to read it and use it as a source for a study?
As to readability and approachability, Why Children Matter is easily digestible as a parenting theology book. Its starting point is the biblical definition of marriage (one man and one woman), contra the Obergefell decision of the United States Supreme Court (2015), and the fact that family “is not something that mere creatures get to define” (p. 3). The confident tone of Scriptural sufficiency pervades this straight-talking book. The fourteen brief chapters of only a few thousand words each are arranged in four sections: (1) Why Children Matter, (2) Discipline Basics, (3) Nurture and Admonition, and (4) More Like Christ. The last section of the book is an appendix of 29 more specific questions and answers with both Douglas and Nancy Wilson (who have three grown, married children and, at this time, sixteen grandchildren).
The book does not address popular parenting concerns, such as vaccinations, allergies/diets, scheduling for breast-feeding, home vs hospital birth, doctor vs midwife, special needs children, ADD, medications, etc. It does not pretend to be either a “Parenting for Dummies” manual or the “Encyclopedia of Parenting” or a self-help book with several magic steps to ideal children. Instead, the book concentrates on presenting the gospel as the foundation of parenting. Some might see this as a deficiency—particularly if they’re assuming the book should be anything like the “Biggest Book Ever on Parenting”—but, arguably, Wilson has taken us to the heart of the matter.
The explicit intention of the book, then, is to provide gospel-shaped counsel. Indeed, Wilson asserts that the book is nothing less than “a proclamation of the gospel as embodied in family life” (p. 5). As such, the theological concepts of adoption, justification, and sanctification are woven into discussions on the atmosphere of the home, parental roles, and discipline. Gospel principles, rather than a specific set of rules, is the refrain.
The appendix, however, is a subtle admission that parents who understand the answer to (say) “What is justification?” nevertheless need specific advice, examples, and practical help. Hence, the appendix addresses questions on (actual) security blankets, television, boys sitting still in church, the “mechanics” of dad not bringing work home, homeschooling vs private schooling, and more. This kind of parental advice comes in the disarming but effective form of an interview, rather than via a definitive methodology presented as dogma or inspired therapy.
Some will still find this book problematic. The explicit message (gospel principles only) may seem incongruent with some of the practical teachings. For example, on the one hand, it eschews methods and specificity, yet, on the other, it advocates such specific actions as spanking. Wilson dismisses “lame theories on the ineffectiveness of spanking that … circulate on Facebook” (p. 26). However, one can reasonably inquire whether the “rod” passages in Proverbs actually refer to “spanking” young children or to the corporal punishment of mature “fools” who are “beaten” on the “back” as law-breakers. (Think here of a past era’s penal systems with stocks and caning.) To my knowledge, Douglas and Nancy Wilson’s several helpful books on family do not provide a thorough examination of the modes of discipline, but rather assume a traditionalist-spanking model for little children.
Wilson emphasizes the gospel-only basis for parenting, but insists that fathers must provide a Christian education (schooling or home-schooling) for their children using Ephesians 6:4. But does the gospel require schooling in an organization with an explicit Christian affirmation? Here Wilson seems to be preaching to his own choir (of which I am a tenor) and does provide some rationale for his view (“The Necessity of a Christian Paideia,” ch. 8). But for a more sustained and persuasive argument, the readers will need to look elsewhere—e.g., to Wilson’s, The Case for Classical Christian Education (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003).
The answer of the title question may also be jolting. Wilson asserts that “God is after a lineage, and He’s been after a lineage from the very beginning. Why did God make them one? He was seeking a ‘godly seed’ (Mal. 2:15). That’s why children matter” (p. 28). Children matter because God’s purpose is to raise up a godly seed to inhabit and have dominion in the world. This may be a very unpopular “gospel truth” for the aging, “professional” couple who heartily embraces the gospel, but is intentionally without progeny. Is the normative expression of the gospel in the life a family with father, mother and children? If so, we are seeing many deviations from this norm of the gospel in contemporary western culture.
Readers may also find themselves challenged by Wilson’s thought that “theology comes out your fingertips” (p. 31). This is a phrase and theme that he has used repeatedly over many years. It characterizes his decades of writing and teaching on family matters. Your theology manifests in your family. Anger, a lack of joy, legalisms, gracelessness, pride, etc. in parenting are the test of one’s actual theology. “Regardless of what you say you believe, your theology of justification and sanctification is enacted in microcosm in your relationship to your children” (p. 31).
Back to my opening question: Would I give this book to my own daughter as advice on parenting? Yes. Why Children Matter will point parents to Jesus and help them think about parenting in a gospel-centered fashion. Wilson’s emphasis is right, even if his treatment lacks comprehensiveness or incisive relevance to a number of current questions. The gospel is to be applied and lived out in our homes. This matters most, beyond methods and specific practices.