What Makes My Child Who He Is?

by Kristopher Schaal

child holding up map of a trail while hiking

Have you ever asked yourself, “Why do some children ‘turn out well’ while others do not?” Sometimes, two siblings will choose radically different life directions. We see this dynamic in the Bible with Cain and Abel and Jacob and Esau, just to name a couple of examples.

Many Christian parents are looking for a formula to ensure that their children trust Christ as Savior and please Him with their lives. Unfortunately, such a formula doesn’t exist. The hard fact is that nothing you do guarantees your children’s success. How should a Christian father respond to that truth? Should he throw up his hands and do nothing?

In his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Tripp explains what makes children who they become and what parents should do in light of those things.

Your children are the product of two things. The first–shaping influence–is their physical makeup and their life experience. The second–Godward orientation–determines how they interact with that experience. Parenting involves (1) providing the best shaping influences you can and (2) the careful shepherding of your children’s responses to those influences.1

The rest of this post will expand on that paragraph.2

Shaping Influences

The first factor that makes a child who he is is shaping influences. What kind of home did the child grow up in? Were his parents believers? What kind of church did the family attend? Was their family wealthy or poor? What major events marked his childhood? Who were his friends? Did he receive a good education? All these factors and many others make up a child’s shaping influences.

It’s easy for parents either to underemphasize or overemphasize the significance of shaping influences.

Psalm 1:1 instructs us not to ignore shaping influences; “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners.” Romans 12:2 also warns “don’t be conformed to this world.” Instructions regarding shaping influences are all over Scripture!

Christian dad, do not ignore the significance of shaping influences on your children’s lives. Granted, there are some circumstances you cannot control. However, it matters where your kids go to school, who their friends are, and what they watch on TV. Be intentional about what influences you allow into your children’s lives.

However, at the same time, do not overemphasize the significance of shaping influences. There is a common misconception among Christian parents that if we just give our kids all the right shaping influences (the “right” school, church, internet filters, etc.), they will turn out well and that any less-than-ideal experiences will ruin them. This idea overemphasizes the significance of shaping influences and is refuted by stories of Bible characters such as Joseph, Daniel, and Naaman’s slave girl, who walked with God even though they were exposed to horrible situations as children.

How can you tell if you are overemphasizing shaping influences? Here are three indications.

  1. You make excuses for them. “She’s just tired.” “It’s because he had sugar.” “She’ll grow out of it.” These are all excuses that parents will often use. But failing to see our kids as sinners will only hurt them. I saw a mom at the park once who yelled for her son to come, and he ran to the opposite side of the park. He knew he was in trouble for throwing mulch in a little girl’s eyes, but he refused to apologize. Finally, his mother apologized for him. She said, “I’m sorry he did that to you. He’s not normally like that.” I thought to myself, “Of course he’s normally like that! He’s a sinner!” The problem with making excuses for our children is that, while immaturity may be outgrown, sin is never outgrown.

  2. You fail to engage in heart-level communication. If you can ensure your child’s success simply by controlling his environment, heart-to-heart talks can seem like an unnecessary waste of time.

  3. You tend toward arrogance, depression, or blame-shifting. If everything truly hangs on your ability to control your child’s life, you either pat yourself on the back when he is doing well, or you despair or blame-shift when he is doing poorly.

Shaping influences are important, but they are not the whole story. The second piece that determines who your children become—something that matters even more than their experiences—is their Godward orientation.

Godward Orientation

Godward orientation is the condition of one’s heart in relation to God. Is He first place in your life?

Perhaps the primary battlefront in the Christian life involves the question, “Whom will you worship?” The fight to worship God alone and to desire Him above all else is perhaps the most important fight you will ever face. You must help your children fight this battle too.

How do you shepherd your children’s hearts toward the Lord? Here are a couple examples of what this might look like.

Example #1

Your teenage daughter Jessica is consumed with her appearance. She takes hours in the bathroom every morning, and she spends all of her money on makeup and clothes. You notice that Jessica is becoming harsh in the way she treats her siblings. Recently, she snapped at her brother when he asked to use the restroom. In addition, Jessica seems to be growing in pride. She is embarrassed by her sisters because they don’t wear the right clothes, and she almost had a meltdown when Dad asked everyone to wear matching shirts for family vacation.

How can you help Jessica with her Godward orientation?

First, you must help Jessica determine what she wants more than anything else. What does she think she needs in order to be happy? In this case your daughter probably craves the approval of others. Second, you must ask yourself, “What idol has made Jessica that promise? What does she value and worship rather than God?” In this case, it is the idol of appearance. Third, you must determine how Jessica is worshipping that idol. She is making sacrifices of time, money, and relationships to pursue it. Finally, explain how true satisfaction is found only in Christ. Seek to show her that the approval of people is fickle and that God’s approval is all that she really needs.

As you seek to help your daughter, remember that one of the most pernicious aspects of sin is that it blinds us to our own blindness (Jer 17:9). Jessica may not recognize the dynamics described in the preceding paragraph on her own. That is why it is your responsibility to gently show her those things and shepherd her towards repentance.

Example #2

Your four-year-old son Billy loves movies and TV shows. He would watch them all day if you let him. But Billy’s love for TV is beginning to seem unhealthy. His favorite Netflix show is almost all that he ever talks about. He asks to watch TV frequently during the day and becomes frustrated when you tell him he needs to do something else.

What is Billy’s problem and how can you help him?

Like the teenage daughter in the preceding example, Billy’s fundamental problem is idolatry. Some people think that a four-year-old is too young to be an idolater. However, David testifies in Psalm 51:5 “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.”

That said, the way you deal with a young child is much different than how you deal with a teen. The same basic questions still apply (What does Billy want? What is his idol? How is he worshipping it? How are the things he wants found only in Christ?), but your conversations with Billy about these issues will be much simpler than your conversations with Jessica. Explain to Billy that TV is becoming an idol for him because it is more important to him than God and is causing him to disobey his parents. Tell him that true joy is found in knowing God and doing the work He gives us to do. (You may also choose to say that we won’t be watching as much TV for a while and that if he asks, the answer will be “no.”)

Sometimes Christian parents get the idea that the best thing they can do for their kids is to create the perfect environment and then hope (or pray) that their kids will turn out alright. But there is so much more to it than that! Besides simply shaping your kids’ environment, you must also tend to their Godward orientation. Seek to shepherd their hearts toward loving and serving the Lord.


  1. Tedd Tripp, Shepherding a Child’s Heart, p. 122.

  2. The material in this post is based on chapters 2–3 in Shepherding a Child’s Heart.

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