There are two primary ways to parent kids.
One strategy is to focus behavior modification. This is by far the leading and most popular approach. More than anything else, behavior modification wants children to obey, or at least be quiet, or be still, or whatever will bring us peace. So we count to three, raise our voices, make threats or offer bribes. Whatever it takes.
Now, good behavior is not a bad thing. It is just not the ultimate or primary thing in the biblical parenting agenda.
The problem with behavior modification is that the behavior is only modified in the presence of the rule maker. For example, many of us experienced this when we left for college. No rule maker around; no obedience to be found. So, with an emphasis on behavior modification, we are setting our children up either to rebel against the rules, or maybe worse, to become like Pharisees who know the law, but not grace. As Jesus said of the Pharisees, their outward appearance had the look of holiness, but their hearts were far from God. Eventually, children raised where obedience is the ultimate and primary parenting goal will become self-righteous hypocrites or become discouraged and insecure because of the emphasis on who they are as failures.
This is why I suggest the better option is to focus not on behavior modification but on heart transformation. In this model, the parent still gives instruction and expects obedience. However, the instructions, or laws, are not seen as the goal but as a means to an even greater end.
The greater end is to help the child see his or her need for a Savior. Paul said in Galatians 3:24 that God gave his law as a means to lead us to Jesus for our justification. This is the same way that I parent can approach things like house rules or expectations of obedience at the grocery store or at a neighbor’s house.
With this approach, parents see their job as spiritual cardiologists for their children’s hearts, helping them to see why they do what they do. The problem with our children is not merely behavioral and external. It is spiritual and internal. As cardiologists of our children’s hearts, we are able to show them the source of their behavior, which will either be the sin nature or the Holy Spirit. The outward reveals the internal. But the source of behavior is internal. So it is not enough to prune the limbs of obedience. We must work at the root level of the heart, or source of behavior.
When in time and by grace God gives our children eyes to see their deep need, they are able to trust in Jesus for their justification. But more, they now are able to experience the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit for their sanctification. This means they not only have a Jesus who saves them, but also a Jesus who is able to change them from the inside out, producing good fruit by the power of his Spirit as the child continues to abide by faith in the Savior as his sin-bearer and righteousness provider.
In this way, the goal of Christian parenting is not to produce rule-keepers, but Jesus lovers, who love Jesus because they know and believe that they have first been loved by Jesus.
One way to begin shifting your parenting paradigm is to ask a few simple questions as you consider engaging with your children. Consider some of these questions as examples.
- “When you said that / or did that, it made me think that there is something going on under the hood (in your heart)?”
- “Can you share with me what’s going on? Tell me how you are feeling?” The tone of that question is not accusatory, but genuinely investigative, like a cardiologist would ask a patient. It is helpful to discuss feelings in the wake of an unpleasant behavior because emotions are like the lights on the dashboard of a car that tell us what is going on under the hood.
- “I actually can relate to that.” It may be helpful to respond with how you relate to the underlying desire or feeling, whether self-protection, jealousy, anger, a desire for acceptance, fear of rejection, etc. Remember, our children are the way they are because we are the way we are. We are peers in need of grace with our kids. We absolutely can identify with every struggle and sin they face.
- Then you may consider showing them how your own awareness of similar emotions helped reveal the source of your own unpleasant (okay, sinful) behavior. “Raising my voice in anger shows me that I am often under the influence of my sin nature (or flesh) rather than the Holy Spirit, whose influence is patience, not tantrums. What I have learned is that just trying harder to stop being angry or stop throwing a tantrum doesn’t usually work. What helps me is to know that God has forgiven me and loves me. So I can freely confess my sin and believe that I really am fully, totally forgiven. Somehow, when that happens, I feel better. I’m less angry. I actually even want to bless those at whom I was so angry. You know, grace changes everything.” Of course, you don’t have to say it like that. Use your own words. And theologically we know that the change that takes place, the good fruit, is the result of the Holy Spirit, who fills and empowers us as we abide in the vine of Jesus (ie, as we consciously believe the gospel – Jn. 15:4-5, Gal. 3:5, Gal. 5:16ff).
However you approach the process of engaging with children in the wake of their sin (which would be any rejection of your will, ways, and wisdom — like us and God), the path is always to Jesus, either for justifying grace or sanctifying grace. There are times when you may want to invite your children to pray with and for you in your struggles and then pray for them as well.
Please do not think that this has always worked at all times like a secret formula in my home. At all stages kids are kids. This is a process that takes time. In God’s design, the beauty of this process is that God not only changes the hearts of our children, but of ours as parents as well. As peers in need of a Savior, we both grow deeper in grace together and experience a deepening of the parent-child relationship as well. This is what my wife and I have experienced on the parenting journey with our children, and we are grateful.
I hope this post has made you think about your own parenting strategy and how we can move from behavior modification to heart transformation. If anything here helps, I’d love to hear from you.
By the way, if you are interested, my wife and I teach a seminar called Fruitful Parenting, which begins with the premise of working toward heart transformation vs behavior modification. Do we talk about behavior? You bet! Do we give you practical tools? Absolutely! But behavior is a result of this process, which we explain with many examples and illustrations. We are planning our next seminar for later in 2017. I’ll let you know when the dates are set.