Featured Reviews

Holly Taylor Coolman – Parenting [Feature Review]

ParentingA Gift of Grace for Parents

A Feature Review of

Parenting: The Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children
Holly Taylor Coolman

Paperback: Baker Academic, 2024
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Reviewed by Wendy Kiyomi

“Parenting is so difficult right now,” my friend said, dabbing her eyes after church. “My son falls apart over minor disappointments, and every night seems like a battle. It feels horrible.”

I wasn’t used to seeing her this way. My friend was a resolute, energetic woman who had raised three kids already – young adults who were kind, responsible, and working or in college. I touched her arm, wishing I had more to offer. If someone so experienced felt overwhelmed, it boded ill for the rest of us.  

My own household was having a teenage moment at about the time I was reading the adolescence chapter in Holly Taylor Coolman’s Parenting: The Complex and Beautiful Vocation of Raising Children. My husband and I were finding that our teens needed just as much mentoring and accountability as when they were younger. Staying on top of their internet use and navigating the high school social scene often required more resources than we had to give. My friend said aloud what many parents feel: we are making it up as we go along, and the wheels just might fall off this bus.

“To be a parent is to be in over your head,” Coolman writes, but it brings unique rewards. The biblical picture of God’s parental posture indicates that in tending children, parents imitate his love and discover joy for themselves as well as for their children. As a theologian and parent of five children with unusually diverse needs, she explains that preparedness isn’t the most important qualification. She puts much more stock in parenting within the right framework, where parents are embraced by a well-knit community and open to God’s unfolding grace. 

Too often, well-meaning parents have the right intentions and even the right techniques, but act like their job is to manage children rather than relate to them. Coolman calls us to a whole different framework: children are image-bearers with their own purpose from God, and a parent’s calling is to attend them in “intense companionship and tender, relentless formation.” 

Coolman offers a model of apprenticeship for Christian parents in which they, as master craftspersons, spend their time as a calm, curious presence for their young apprentices. Children are beloved persons and never products of our efficient planning and organizing. An apprenticeship framework develops our awareness of how children shape and bless us. 

 


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At each family stage, Coolman suggests how apprenticeship can lend solidity and suppleness to a parent’s sense of direction. The question, “what am I apprenticing my child to?” is helpful. As for my own teenagers, I want to train them to be considerate contributors to our common life, pursuers of good, and humane carers for others. When they do something foolish, an apprenticeship model prompts me differently than if I felt compelled to manage their behavior. What is the purpose of my speech? What will encourage them? Which limits are non-negotiable? It provides a platform by which to notice affirmingly when my teens exercise self-control, show empathy, or choose honesty. 

I tend to be skeptical of parenting books because most do not encompass the situation of my family, formed through foster care and adoption. Parenting pays particular attention to families shaped in this way and also notes that millions of US children are currently living with relatives, adoptive parents, or in blended families. Coolman also ably addresses “parenting in survival mode,” doing us a profound service in normalizing difficulty and conflict. Loss and crisis are just as prevalent as wonder and celebration, and each is an opportunity to demonstrate love. 

No family is an island, and Coolman continually calls the church to fulfill its role, vowed at baptisms, of nurturing children. Programming for children is fine, but churches must foster rich “webs of connection” for their families. This happens through friendship, prayer, interwoven mentorship with other people’s children, meals and housekeeping for families in need, and multi-layered patterns of fellowship and spiritual companionship. Isolation is the major peril for modern families. Children and parents are healthiest when they live in a thick web of meaningful relationships of varying intensity. 

Having just had my life changed by Tim Keller’s Forgive, the mechanics of forgiveness (if such a divine activity can be said to have mechanics) within family relationships have been on my mind. We often acknowledge that spouses must have patterns of forgiveness for each other, but we rarely talk about the forgiveness that must happen between parents and children, in both directions. As a result, much goes unforgiven, leading to rifts. I wish that Coolman had spent some time describing how parents practice and teach forgiveness. 

Granted, the point of Parenting is not to exhaustively discuss every part of family life or child development. Yet, across seventeen chapters, Coolman accomplishes much, examining each stage of childhood and concerns like single parenting, education, and technology. The chapter on adoption is as thorough and nuanced as many entire books on the subject. And the section on maintaining a healthy marriage is so helpful that I am toying with the idea of giving this book to some newly engaged friends. At 160 pages, Parenting is confidently, refreshingly short. 

Throughout, this book offers the clear-eyed, gentle companionship of a seasoned parent who is also a gifted theologian. It is pastoral, giving spiritual solace and empowerment to enthusiastic, bewildered, and despondent parents alike. I have found myself in situations with my own family where I thought, “What would Holly say?”

You are beloved by our one true parent, she would say. He rejoices over you and your children with singing. You are full of dignity as you nurture and apprentice these young ones. He will use even your mistakes for the purposes of love. 

That is good news indeed.

Wendy Kiyomi

Wendy Kiyomi is an adoptive parent, scientist, and writer in Tacoma, Washington, whose work on faith, adoption, and friendship has appeared in Plough, Image Journal, and The Englewood Review of Books. She is a 2023 Zenger Prize winner.

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