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Parenting Is More Than Behavior Modification

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two kids fighting over stuffed animals
If we were to stop and scan the scriptures for advice on parenting, one of the themes that would stick out is that God is concerned about the state of our hearts, rather than simply behavior modification.

I think we have all been there. Your kids are playing together and then one of them lets out a blood-curdling scream. You run over to investigate and learn that Johnny hit Sally — all over a toy he wanted to play with. After making sure everyone is unharmed, your mind shifts to behavior modification and how to discipline your kids.

Often, there are several basic ways of handling these kinds of conflicts with kids. The first can be to try and determine who had the toy first and justly return the toy to its original operator. A second option would be to try and encourage the kids to be better at sharing. Or another option altogether would be to take the toy away and tell the children that since they cannot “play nice” they do not need to play at all.

Whether your default reaction to disciplining your kids is one of the ones listed above or not, I think the general tendency is to try and end the chaos as quickly as possible. And if you can do it without additional tears and screaming ⁠— even better.

But have you ever thought about how God would want you to handle that situation? How would he want you to teach discipline to your kids in that moment? Have you ever evaluated your own goals during a scenario like that? What if we were to stop and scan the scriptures for advice on parenting? One of the themes that would stick out is that God is concerned about the state of our hearts, rather than simply behavior modification. Therefore, it follows that we should care about hearts too.

3 Things To Know About the Heart

1. We Are Called To Care About the Heart

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” (Deuteronomy 6:5)

This verse is more than just an encouraging phrase to have on a piece of home décor. This is a purpose statement for the people of God. It is a call to orient your whole life, thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions to loving God. So, if God calls His people to love Him so completely, we should help our children consider whether their hearts are loving God as well.

2. The Heart Produces Behavior

“And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.'” (Mark 7:20-23)

In these verses, Jesus spells it out for us that bad hearts produce bad behavior. But the opposite is true as well. If our hearts are right towards God, our words, attitudes, and actions will be also. Our lives are a reflection of our hearts. We need to remember that is the case for our kids too. The heart is at the core of behavior modification. Real and lasting change comes when the heart changes first. It’s good to care about our kids behavior, it’s better to care about their heart and their behavior.

3. It Takes Skill To Address the Heart

“The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” (Proverbs 20:5)

Our kids are thinkers. They have thoughts, motives, desires, and reasons for what they do and say. And it is our job to wisely get them to reveal those things so we can dialogue with them about those internal intentions. This takes practice because, if you are like me, you don’t get it right every time. Or worse yet, you assume what most people are thinking. We have to remind ourselves to daily become the man of understanding who draws out another person’s heart to better understand them.

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3 Ways to Help Shape Their Heart

Here are three things to keep in mind as you seek to shape your child’s heart.

1. Ask Heart Revealing Questions

By no means can we ignore our children’s behavior but we don’t have to stop after addressing it either. We need to continue on once the dust settles and ask good questions about their motives. We need to learn about what they were thinking prior to the hurtful words spoken or the unloving interaction with a sibling. Becoming good students of our kids starts by asking good questions that give you a window into their hearts.

2. Share Heart Revealing Truths

Sharing simple truths from scripture to show your kids their heart allows them to compare what they are thinking, feeling, saying, and doing against what God wants for them. As an example, when my oldest son is being kind to his little brother, I like to remind him of 1 Corinthians 13:5 which says that love does not insist on its own way. I’ll ask my son, “Are you loving your brother right now? Are you insisting on your own way?” I try to get him to think about his own little heart and evaluate whether it is living for God or for himself.

3. Be Consistent

Hearts don’t change overnight. Be faithful to address the heart of the sinful behavior you see and over time you will find that you and your kids are thinking more and more about the heart behind the behavior. It will go easier for your kids to consider the heart behind their behavior and easier for you to point their little hearts back to loving God. And that is what God cares about the most.

As parents, we need to recognize that disciplining kids is not all about behavior modification. We are called to help shape our kids’ hearts and help them grow in a love for God. Helping our kids to consider whether their thoughts, words, attitudes, and actions are motivated by a love for God, is one of the greatest parenting techniques we can do.

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