Adversarial parenting vs Advocate parenting Part 1

“It is the kindness and mercy of God that leads to repentance.”

Many of you who have read our books know that Clay and I are very relational based in our approach to children. I think that because so many parents want to do it right, they become susceptible to whatever parenting book they get their hands on and seek to find a formula for disciplining children. (Heartfelt Discipline, by Clay,  will hopefully be back in print this summer.)

Most books and materials on the market and in the Christian realm in the past few years have focussed so much on formulas and law and this is what parents long for–”just give me the rules and tell me how to do it right and how to pop out a perfect child and that is what I want.”

Then, often these very materials add human wisdom and opinion to the formulas that sound very inviting, but are just from human beings. These Christianese statements are like the hundreds of rules that the Pharisees added to the law or torah and they put people under fear–that if they don’t do everything right, it might be their fault if children do not turn out well and if they go astray. So they diligently correct every little immaturity and misbehavior of their children and become the authoritarian parent because someone said that if they didn’t correct every little behavior, that they were teaching their children to get away with sin and that this would certainly lead to rebellion.  And so they become policemen–watching for the “sin” and bad behavior and treat their children harshly. And instead of enjoying their children, they feel stressed, angry that their children insist on whining and doing things to irritate them all the time.

This is neither Biblical or productive. I am so very glad Jesus does not treat me this way or I would be disheartened. So often in my 50′s, I still sin, act in an immature way, but He gently leads me, continues to teach me wisdom as I seek His word, gives me understanding through the Holy Spirit and little by little, my sanctification process leads me to become more like Him–Holy as it describes the process in Hebrews, “He disciplines us that we may share in His Holiness.” He does this through training, in our circumstances, over a life-time–but never, never seems harsh with us in our immaturity if our heart is turned toward Him. 

I think it is to the honor of a godly woman to cultivate civility, justice, wisdom, grace, patience and unconditional love, life-giving words in all of her relationships–including those with her children. 

Why is it that we diligently teach our children the golden rule, and then we neglect to use it as a basis for raising our children? I would not like to be treated harshly and have a voice constantly raised and be corrected all the time. It would dishearten me. I would seek to get far away from that kind of critical spirit and corrective voice. I am a person who needs grace, encouragement, help, training to become righteousness.

I am so thankful that the whole of scripture tells us to live by faith. This means we can pray that God will lead us in His wisdom and that we can discern personality (extraverts are louder) but this does not mean they are more sinful. Boys have more testosterone and usually mature socially a little more slowly–that does not make them evil. And sometimes we want our boys to behave like girls and we rob them of their masculinity–want them to be quiet all the time–because it is convenient for us. But I want my boys to be warriors, so I seek to understand the differences between them and my girls. There are many other such factors, but a wise woman will pray and consider and ask for guidance from the Holy Spirit to know what to do to lead, guide, discipline their children.

If a child is autistic or adhd or has some other mysterious issue, we know that by treating them with graciousness, patience, love and gentleness, we receive more growth and self-control. But I have found that the same principles work with all children, all people.

Often parents have overstimulated their children and they just need to have a more peaceful, at home environment and be at home more–because the nerves of very young children cannot be developed in the company of lots of activity and other children. Sometimes children misbehave because of low blood sugar and need to be fed–or they are exhausted and need to be put to sleep. 

But, overall, I see that a heart attitude is what will set the stage for gracious parenting. I will write more about this next week, but love an article that I think you will enjoy. I have copied part of this article here and it is by Virginia Knowles, who has an magazine called the Hope Chest emagazine.


Tenderness is a special character quality for mothers, but it comes from God. He leads us with gentleness so that we can lead our children with gentleness. 

Isaiah 40:11 says, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” 

1 Thessalonians 2:7-8 also talks about the gentleness of motherhood when is says, “As apostles of Christ we could have been a burden to you, but we were gentle among you, like a mother caring for her little children. We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.”

And so our children become dear to us, and we are delighted to share our own lives with them — but only as we are filled with God’s tender compassion for us. As we live in the lavish love of God, we can learn to listen and respond to our children, rather than react at them. We don’t need to be tyrannical dictators anymore. We don’t need to feel like we must dominate our children, to use our own self-effort to make them holy, as if we expect a bunch of outward rules to change their inward hearts. Josh McDowell once said, “Rules without relationships reap rebellion.” We’ve all seen the tragic results of teens and young adults who have walked away from their family and their faith because life was all about legalistic rules, without any warmth or grace.

GRACE! Our own grace toward them will lovingly point them to Jesus, the source of God’s grace. On the other hand, our bitterness will only drive them away from God. We need to let go of the bitterness and anger of daily irritation or unmet expectations of how mature your children should be by now. Hebrews 12:15 says “See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled.” Many people think that our children will only be defiled by the TV, by bad friends, or by the Internet, and yet one of the worst ways they can be defiled is by bitterness in the family! This will alienate them from you and your values faster than anything. Anger just doesn’t work. As James 1:19-20 exhorts us: “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Proverbs 15:1 reminds us that “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

The issue of child discipline can be rather tricky at times. Yes, we must deal firmly and directly with issues, rather than being in denial. However, we must do this with right motives and with self-control. We don’t need to shame or guilt-trip our kids into doing what is right, but teach them a better way. 1 Corinthians 4:14 sets the standard for parenting when Paul says, “I do not write these things to shame you, but to admonish you as my bel
oved children.” 

So instead of coming against our kids to inflict vengeance on them when they disappoint us, we come alongside to restore them with grace and to gently teach them the right way to live. So we can say, “I care so much about you that I want to see you succeed in life. This kind of behavior is going to bring you down, so I want to do whatever I can to help you choose better in the future. Now let’s talk about it…”

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  1. says

    Hi Sally! Thanks for including this and e-mailing me this morning about the link to the full article. Your readers can find it at
    My main blog is at I also have a preschool elementary blog at and a middle school blog at
    Grace and peace,
    Virginia Knowles

  2. says

    Horray! Wonderful post this morning and so timely. :) God’s timing is always so wonderfully perfect. :)
    I am so excited that Clay’s book is going to be put back in print. I LOVED it the first time.

  3. Coby says

    Thanks so much for this Sally. I’ve been looking for ways to be more gracious toward my children, and this was so encouraging!

  4. says

    Sally, I’ve just encountered your books this year via “Homeschooling Methods” – a book that reviews a slew of homeschooling approaches. And I have been enjoying everything you have to offer. I love that you have written so much for parents, to shepherd us in the process of raising our children. Thank you! I praise God for getting me to your stuff very much “by accident” – when I requested that methods book from the library, I didn’t even know it was Christian!
    It’s never really occurred to me to keep up with you on your blog. I think I will regularly now. I look forward to attending a training with you sometime soon.
    Thank you for writing.

  5. meda says

    I Corinthians 13:4 (the way to show/practice LOVE chapter)-
    “Charity SUFFERETH long, and is kind;”
    oh how much that tells us…, in ALL relationships- PATIENCE and LOVE go hand in hand…and I fall so short…I think I’m going to paint this on the crown of my is so good to be reminded of these great verses (James 1:19 and Proverbs 15:1) !

  6. says

    Thank you so much Sally. From the moment I read Heartfelt Discipline years ago for the first time, I knew that’s how I wanted to be. Even today, I still struggle with not reacting and barking out rules, but I guess it is a process. thank you for your encouragement.

  7. Heather says

    I was just pondering that verse (Romans 2:4) last night and how it related to my parenting, specifically my relationship with my wayward teen. This article was very timely for me, thank you!

  8. says

    Thank you for speaking & writing on being an advocate instead of an adversary. It’s a message that desperately needs to be heard!

  9. Rébecca says

    I read recently your book The Mission of Motherhood and started reading your blog since. Though I’ve definitely been encouraged to focus more on the hearts of my children, leading tenderly them with grace and love, I also wonder “how it works” practically speaking. Now I can understand “talking things through” with an older child (elementary age), but what do you when your children are too young to unerstand everything ? And what do you do when no matter how much you have told them and gently explained to them to not touch things in a store, they run around wildly and do touch everything ! Or when you have one arm carrying the baby, grocery bags in your other hand, and you tell your 2, 4 and 5 year olds to stop instead of rushing into the busy street, and they don’t obey ? (the 5 year old is mature enough to listen to my instructions, but the 2 yo deosn’t understand dangers too well yet, and the 4 yo is quite a dreamer)
    Or when you walk by the neighbours house, and the kids ruch to the toy tractors, get on them and refuse to get off when it’s time to go ?
    In those cases, I have a hard time finding other solutions than disciplining them, for their own safety. I would definitely like to hear of another way to deal with those cases. Thank you !

  10. Jenny Anderson says

    To Rebecca who needs practical help…I’m right there with you girl! Read Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp. He also is for coming along side the child as a fellow sinner and gently leading them, but he is a great help in the area of disciplining as God in the Proverbs has instructed us to do. He is so Biblical in his approach. I have not read this book, it looks really good, but there must be discipline in a child’s life.

  11. says

    Oh, Sally, I NEEDED to read this tonight! I was just wondering how to “sweeten” one of my children, and I realized while reading this that it’s MY attitude that needs sweetening!
    Your words are always so gracious and seasoned with just the right amount of salt, and I never, ever come away without being touched. Thank you again for your ministry to moms! My kids are someday going to thank you!!

  12. says

    Rebecca, you might find Clay Clarkson’s Heartfelt Discipline useful. Also, the 100+ year old book Hints on Child Training, which is very practical. I think the thing that we as mothers have to be very cautious of is formulaic or one-size-fits-all edicts on how to discipline children. There’s nothing one-size-fits-all about discipline, in my opinion. It’s more like seeking wisdom, getting some ideas and using some trial and error. What works for one child may very well not work at all for another! The thing I tend to use a lot with my own nearly-three-year old active boy is getting down on his level, getting him to look at me and stating clearly and simply what we can and cannot do (in the instance of being in the store). I’m amazed at what my 2 year old can comprehend when I get down on his level and speak simply. And offering juicy alternatives is a big help as well (for the toy tractor situation)!
    I think it depends on where your children are developmentally. A 2 year old cannot exhibit the same self-control as a 5-year old, so it’s about mom trying to be consistent is guiding them into that. It’s hard!

  13. says

    Sally, you never cease to encourage me. I have been turning thoughts such as these over in my mind lately, and found it so refreshing to have you touch on it here. I have been so disappointed by the focus on “behaviorism” of children within Christendom, and although practical training is still necessary, it cannot take the place of reaching the heart. Thank you for blazing the trail of relational parenting. In moments when I wonder if I am failing as a mother when I do not approach my children as their disciplinarian, I remember your example and find strength to carry on. Thank you!

  14. Spring says

    I am reading this post four years later and saying, “AMEN!!!” For those that are in need of practicals for young children and especially danger discipline, PLEASE, I do NOT recommend the book, Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp because I think it does not align with the hearts and ideals that the Clarkson’s encourage in their books and especially their book, Heartfelt Discipline. I certainly cannot speak for the Clarkson’s and do not want to be presumptuous, but the fact is that book claims to seek to teach you to reach the heart and claims to be biblical, but it does not promote a spirit of freedom in your parenting choices. Clay did an incredible job with providing research breaking down the 4 or 5 verses in Proverbs used to promote “the rod” and it dismantles the idea their is a commandment to spank our young children- that is just not biblical truth and that is why I struggle with Tripp’s book and others that tell parents there is NO other way. That promotes a spirit of fear in parents and in my humble opinion, promotes a spirit of legalism, trusting in a method and formula. Please forgive me for critiquing a specific book here, I just had to share based on the recommendation, urgent need for parents in these tough circumstances and the recommended book being contrary to the parenting ideals and philosophy encouraged on this site. I certainly do not want to offend. We must cry out for wisdom, discernment and a fullness of the Holy Spirit as we walk out each moment with our children- For some practicals with danger discipline, please read the following by Dr Sears:

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