I have read my share of books about family and parenting over the years. Some have been worth my while; others have not. But even the best of the ones I’ve read left me unsatisfied, mainly because they failed to probe foundational moral issues related to parenting and family life. So it was especially satisfying to read Michael Austin’s Wise Stewards (Kregel, 2009) a splendid treatment of, as the subtitle says, the philosophical foundations of Christian parenting. Not only does Austin explore the moral dimensions of parenting, but he does so in a way that is practical, even-handed, and both philosophically and biblically informed.
Early in his study Austin considers some foundational questions regarding the essence of parenthood itself. What is it that establishes the parental tie to a child? Austin discusses several lines of response to this question—the biological account, the causal account, and the social construct account. He considers the strengths and weaknesses of each approach, introducing readers to some leading proponents of each along the way. Wisely, Austin refuses to throw his lot in entirely with any of these views but rather acknowledges the insights of all three as well as their weaknesses. In the end, he emphasizes the moral-social dimension of parenthood and the critical role of stewardship that mothers and fathers must play in the lives of their children: “The aspects of parenthood that have primary value include helping children to become flourishing individuals within a loving parent-child relationship” (43).
With regard to the parental role, there is a wide variety of perspectives among philosophers, from Aristotle’s ownership view to the more contemporary child liberation movement. Austin argues that a Christian view of the matter would fall somewhere between these extremes, affirming both the parents’ duty to guide and direct their children while also recognizing that parents do not own their children. This balanced perspective is captured in the concept of stewardship. A steward is someone who cares for something that belongs to someone else. They exercise a certain authority, but only because it has been granted to them by another. This is precisely the situation with parents, Austin notes: “Parents are responsible for managing what God entrusts to them—the lives of their children. The authority is temporary, as they must acknowledge that their children are ultimately God’s” (68). This is a simple point and one with which few Christians would disagree. But the implications are significant for an ethic of parenting, as Austin demonstrates throughout the book.
Like any significant human endeavor, parenting has a telos—an end, purpose or goal. And, as Austin observes, the telos of Christian parenting is perhaps best captured by the Hebrew term shalom. The concept suggests peace, wholeness, harmony, and integrity. As parents, we should strive to raise our children to embody shalom. This means we should train them to be virtuous people, both intellectually and morally. In the book’s fourth chapter Austin discusses several “key virtues for Christian families,” which include humility, forgiveness, patience, compassion, and frugality, as well as the so-called (by Aquinas) theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Austin’s illuminating, not to mention motivational, discussion of virtue lays the perfect foundation for his extensive discussion of practical parenting issues in chapter five. He tackles such thorny matters as child discipline, sports involvement, educational approaches, and the challenges of consumerism. With each issue, Austin manages to be informative and balanced, acknowledging the latitude Christian parents enjoy in managing their households and rearing their children, while also reaffirming the importance of making all of one’s parenting choices in light of the moral formation of their children and the end-in-view of shalom.
The final chapter of Wise Stewards explores even more controversial issues, specifically those related to reproductive technologies. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Austin brings a carefully integrated theological and philosophical analysis, resulting in wise and tempered counsel on everything from in–vitro fertilization to gene therapy to anonymous gamete donation.
At a time when the moral challenges to faithful Christian living are greater than ever, the need for Christian ethical discussions that are smart and principled, yet also winsome and compassionate, could not be greater. Refreshingly, Mike Austin’s Wise Stewards is all of these things and provides a welcome alternative to contemporary Christian parenting books that amount to “how to” manuals. While many current parenting texts are essentially (not so well) disguised applications of particular psychological theories where moral-theological themes and values are underdeveloped at best, Austin’s Wise Stewards offers a much-needed corrective. He reminds us that parenting is not only a deeply moral-spiritual endeavor, but one of the most important endeavors of all.