Big Picture Parents: Ancient Wisdom For Modern Life* is a Christian critique of postmodern parenting. Harriet Connor opens with the observation that many parents say all they want is for their kids to be happy, and yet mental health issues among children and young people are greater than ever. Feeling good, she says, is short term. It’s doing good in the context of knowing your greater purpose, which brings true, longer-lasting happiness. Her book is a look at that greater purpose, namely that humans are created to honour God, and to love one another.
Big Picture Parents takes a step back from the many parenting theories of our modern world and instead locates parenting in the Bible’s framework of creation, sin and redemption, and asks what you want your family’s values to be. In a noisy world of conflicting theories and judgements about parenting, reading this was like taking a moment to breathe. Connor builds a foundation for parenting rather than telling you how to parent.
One plank in that foundation is coming to terms with imperfection. We are imperfect parents, with imperfect kids, in an imperfect world. Recognising this relieves the pressure on parents who feel anxious, stressed and inadequate. Connor talks about how being a ‘good enough’ parent is key to a child’s development, that is, that a child has the opportunity to experience difficulty, and has dealing with difficulty and failure modelled to them by their parents.
Another plank is looking to God’s parenting of his children as a model for us. God as parent:
- accepts me as I am
- provides for me
- listens to me
- expects me to grow in love
- enables me to love as He does
- gives me wisdom to make my own decisions
- values my long-term good above my short-term comfort
This is how we also are to parent. Some of these things seem so basic that we rarely talk about them, but I appreciated taking the step back to consider them in all the noise of parenting strategies and techniques. Connor points out that ‘warm and firm’ is now what secular parenting experts are also encouraging. This is the kind of ‘family values’ I can get on board with!
That said, towards the end of the book Connor also makes an argument for traditional marriage and family structures, and that was less appealing to me. She reads society as slowly degrading, and a return to Christian values which have historically shaped the west as an answer to that, though she also speaks of God’s grace in the less-than-ideal.
I’m personally more inclined to be positive towards at least some aspects of postmodern parenting, in particular its emphasis on childhood development stages. Connor touches on this, but she also sees behaviour like saying, ‘mine!’ as sinful, because it’s looking out for yourself rather than others. I agree that this is immature behaviour which needs to be guided and pruned, but I’d hesitate to call it sinful, because it seems like an important part of child development and learning about the world. The relationship between immaturity and sin is an interesting one. I wonder how two year old Jesus expressed his growing sense of self-determination as a two year old, or expressed his ‘big feelings’?
On the topic of maturity and independence, Connor conceives of parenting as nurturing a child from dependence to complete (physical and moral) independence. She speaks of a parenting goal as having your children make their own decisions and take responsibility for them. I wondered how this would fly in a less individualistic culture. Tanzanians see parenting and maturity as being able to take care of oneself physically, but children are often allowed to do their own thing, and the process of growing up and maturity is of coming to see themselves as part of a whole, with all the ties and obligations that entails, rather than seeing themselves as independent. Of course, Tanzanians are not Connor’s audience, it’s just a question that crossed my mind because of our context.
I think this book does what it sets out to in its title. It brings ancient wisdom from the Bible to parenting not by giving rules or verses about how to parent, but by providing a big picture framework for thinking about who God is and who we are and how that shapes our parenting. In particular I appreciated being reminded of how God deals graciously with us. I feel like I know this in the background, and it’s often mentioned in church sermons, but having it laid out was an encouragement to me. This book is packed with well-chosen, short and poignant illustrations which make it an accessible and interesting read.
* Disclosure: I received a pdf copy of this book free from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.