I recently heard a godly, well-meaning older gentleman tell a young father that raising kids was just like training dogs. He explained that you just need to develop a routine of simple, specific commands that you repeat regularly and you can train them to respond on command. While most people don’t state it in that fashion, this advice reflects a behavior based understanding of parenting that is extremely common – even within the church. As parents, it is incredibly easy to make our children’s behavior the focus of our parenting. Raising “good” kids that behave “properly” is the assumed end game for many parents. While there is nothing wrong with desiring and working toward good behavior in your children, this should not be the goal you are working toward as a parent.
The responsibility of a Christian parent, the very heart and soul of all we do, is to shape our children’s heart toward God so that they will have a thriving personal relationship with him. In a word, it is “discipleship.” The focus of our parenting should be discipling little followers of Jesus so that one day they become grownups that genuinely and faithfully follow Jesus.
It should be overwhelmingly obvious that the task of discipling a child – shaping their heart toward God – has to be all about the condition of their heart. Unfortunately, this is something that many Christians miss in their personal walk with God as well as in their parenting. We are always trying to make the Christian life about performance, rather than about identity in Christ and personal relationship with the Father. God himself spoke of this problem, condemning his own people because they “…come near to me with their mouths and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught (Isaiah 29:13) .” In this instance, the problem wasn’t their behavior – it was their heart. They said the right things and did the right things, but it was merely outward conformity to a bunch of rules.
Tragically, this outward conformity to religious standards that God hates and condemns is precisely what many parents are encouraging through parenting that focuses on behavior modification. Yes, you can train your child like a dog to follow your rules and do what you want them to do, but without a heart that is chasing after God they are no better off simply because they’ve followed the rules. Instead of always focusing on changing and curbing bad behavior, we must use bad behavior as an opportunity to look into our child’s sinful heart and shape it toward God.
The shortest answer as to how to do this is simply to give them the gospel. We must give our children the gospel faithfully, constantly and relentlessly because a man-made training program of rules and commands might change behavior, but only the gospel can change a heart. When sinful behavior presents, take a step back and remember your goal. It is not conformity; it is genuine heart change. So you need to take the time to understand why they misbehaved. You need to empathize by sharing your own struggle with sin and then explain that this is a universal problem for all of humankind. Give correction and help them understand why consequences are good and necessary. Also, make sure to share the good news that God offers forgiveness and He offers to help us have victory over sin. Over all, you should place drastically more emphasis on God’s goodness than on your child’s badness.
Of course all of that takes time – much more time than a harsh word of reproach and a swift punishment. And the results take more time to. You may not get immediate conformity, but that’s ok because the goal is not to shame them into conformity but to drive them toward God’s heart. Make this the central focus of all you do as a parent. I urge you to make your child’s relationship with God more important than their behavior. Work toward shaping their heart toward God more than you work at changing their actions. Make discipleship your aim because if good behavior is your goal, you may one day reach the finish line and find you have run the wrong race and lost your children in the process.