Yesterday, the online edition of WORLD Magazine published an article entitled “The Risks of ‘Redshirting,’” written by John Piper’s son, Barnabas. It discusses the practice of redshirting, that is, intentionally holding a child back a year in kindergarden to let him develop socially and physically and give him advantages later on in middle school and high school. Mr. Piper makes the claim that such a practice is “discordant with the heart of the gospel” and bespeaks “inherent selfishness,” because the parents of “underprivileged” children are unable to do the same.
First of all, it must be pointed out that placing children into the public school system is a fundamentally indefensible act for Christian parents. This has already been covered at length at F&H, so I will not re-introduce that argument. But it is important to note at the outset that we already discussing a bad situation for the children.
The premise of Piper’s article is summed up by the following quote:
There is an inherent selfishness to such practices. While a parent may say, “I am simply trying to give my child all the advantages she deserves,” there is a subtle (or maybe not-so-subtle) attempt to get a leg up on other children.
Say what? This is not a zero-sum game. It is not as if there is a fixed number of As, Bs, and Cs being given out while everyone else fails, and trying to ensure that your own child has the best shot at an A most certainly does not take an A away from another child. Trying to get the most for your children out of an educational system is not attempting “to get a leg up on other children.”
Secondly, 1 Timothy 5:8 specifically says that those who do not take care of their own families are worse than unbelievers, and myriad Bible verses deal with the primary parental responsibility of raising their own children to the best of their ability. While this is a good argument for homeschooling, it also applies in general to other situations as well. Based on these verses and this scriptural principle, we must take the position that anything parents do to take care of their children and give them every advantage they can is good and godly until it is clearly shown to be sinful (such as stealing money). This is exactly contrary to the position Barnabas Piper takes in this article, in which parents must prove that their actions do not disadvantage others before they are allowed to take care of their children and give them advantages.
Thirdly, when you take his arguments to their logical conclusions, it is clear that his own point is frankly absurd. Let us go back to Piper’s premise, that something which some parents can do is selfish so long as other parents are not in a position to do the same. But if this is true, then what about private schools and homeschooling? Both of these practices give children distinct advantages over public schooling and require resources that some families do not have. Is it “inherent selfishness” for families to homeschool or private school their children, simply because the parents of “underprivileged” children are unable to do the same? Schools in small towns and middle-class areas are generally better than schools in the inner cities and poor areas. Families often factor “good schools” into where they choose to buy a home and live, but homes in these areas are generally more expensive. Is it “inherent selfishness” for families to buy homes in good school districts because the parents of “underprivileged” children are unable to do the same? Families with more financial resources are able to afford aids like tutors and study guides for their children. Is it “inherent selfishness” for families to purchase these services, simply because the parents of “underprivileged” children are unable to do the same? While you may think that Mr. Piper at first glance has a point, when you take a better look at it, it is in actuality either self-righteous, pietistic foolishness or unbiblical, hardcore egalitarianism.
Fourthly, let us take a step back and look at education more generally. Why do some families not pursue every advantage (like redshirting) for their children? There are certainly those families who, through no fault of their own, lack the resources to do so and might legitimately be termed “underprivileged.” However, there are others who lack resources because of sinful lifestyles: alcoholics, druggies, criminals, and the like. Also, there are a good number of students who are simply unmotivated and uninterested in pursuing the advantages open to them if only they were to apply themselves. Is it “inherent selfishness” for parents to take advantages which the last two groups cannot or will not take? If yes, then this is no longer about the privileged parents’ selfishness, but about penalizing them for making good decisions and being good stewards. If no, then how are we supposed to differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate “underprivileged” children without sticking our nose into other people’s business on a massive scale? What if there is a mix of all the groups in a single school? Mr. Piper puts parents in the position to choose among three options: engaging in sinful “selfishness,” crippling their children down to the lowest common denominator, or being unbiblical busybodies. Now, there is certainly room for Christian compassion and assistance for children in bad situations; however, crippling one’s own children so that the children in those situations do not lag behind helps no one and is a clearly sinful violation of 1 Timothy 5:8.
Finally, Piper makes some very contradictory claims in his article regarding the sinfulness of the practice of redshirting. On the one hand, it is “discordant with the heart of the gospel,” an instance of “inherent selfishness”, and involves being “willing to gain the whole world for our children while forfeiting our souls—and theirs”; yet on the other hand, “[he does] not mean to cast aspersions on those parents who do it,” and “redshirting is not itself a damnable offense.” Well, which is it? This is like the person who opens a conversation with “no offense” and then proceeds to thoroughly insult you. If you make a claim that something is against the heart of the gospel, a sin, and puts you in a position of forfeiting you and your children’s souls, then you are most certainly casting aspersions on the parents who do it and saying that it is a damnable offense, for all sin is damnable. If, on the other hand, you do not need to cast aspersions on parents for a specific practice and say something is not a damnable offense, then it most certainly is not a sin or discordant with the heart of the gospel, and you and your children’s souls are not in danger. So, once again: which is it? The two are mutually exclusive. Either Mr. Piper is mistaken on one of the points, or he is being disingenuous. After all, you did not think that so-called conservative Christians would outright “Fight Familism“; they have to move towards that position gradually.
Thus, while redshirting may or may not be a bad practice for other reasons, it is certainly not a bad practice for the reasons Barnabas Piper lays out in his article. If Mr. Piper thinks that the “heart of the gospel” is the unitarian-Marxist-egalitarian notion that we must lop off the heads of the corn which grow taller than the others, so that all the stalks are equal, then he has fundamentally misunderstood the gospel. 1 Timothy 5:8 is godly, not selfish, and so are the parents who try to give their children every advantage they can.