As a new mom, play dates saved my sanity. I craved connection in those early years, so I often invited other moms to my house to bring variety to my day. Even though I looked forward to our time together, 15 minutes before each play date, I’d suddenly feel overwhelmed and start running around my house like a mad woman shoving all the excess papers, toys, unfolded laundry, and books into drawers and closets. Secretly hoping no one would find the mess behind the scenes.
I’m laughing about it now because I looked ridiculous frantically cleaning, and it only brought a temporary solution. When my friends left, the mess remained. I’d just hidden it. But there was still junk to sort through and drawers to clean.
The other day as I explained to my children why I wanted them to stop yelling at each other, I thought, isn’t the same true with life sometimes? We tend to only focus on the outward appearance. We want our children to behave so we aren’t embarrassed by their tantrums in Target, and we want them to get along, so people don’t look at us when they argue at the restaurant.
But if we only care about how things look on the outside, we’re missing a massive piece of the puzzle. God knew we’d struggle with this, for in 1 Samuel 16:7, we read, “People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart (NIV).”
As parents, we can tell ourselves that if our children sit still and listen well in class, we’ve done our job well. Our parenting must be great if our kids do their chores and get good grades. Yet when we look at parenting through a biblical lens, we have to ask ourselves: Are we paying close enough attention to inward heart transformation, or are we defining success in parenting by outward appearances? What will we find if we look deeper into our children’s lives? Behind the closed doors, what does their heart look like?
We must consider what happens in our children’s hearts if we want lasting change and genuine transformation in our children’s lives. We miss out on a massive part of the transformation process if we focus solely on teaching our kids how to behave.
While desiring an organized house or a polite child isn’t wrong, we should also desire for God to penetrate the hearts of our children and change them from the inside out. Because when their hearts align with God, their actions and reactions naturally shift to being more like Jesus.
One way to dig deeper and focus on shepherding our children’s hearts well is to give our kids the “why.” Now I should note that we may not always be able to explain the why to our children. For example, if our two-year-old child runs out into the street, in the moment, we can’t stop everything and explain why they shouldn’t run into the road. There will be times when our kids need to trust us and obey our instructions without questioning why.
Yet at the same time, it’s helpful to include the “why” when possible in our everyday conversations. The “why” allows us to point our children back to Jesus and intentionally nurture their hearts.
Let me give you an example of parenting with the heart in mind: It’s developmentally normal for kids to get into arguments from time to time. Kids may say things that hurt each other’s feelings, like “You can’t play with us!” or “That’s babyish! You like baby things.” Kids also occasionally do things that aren’t the nicest, like roll their eyes or huff loudly when a friend asks to share a toy.
When we notice this behavior, parents typically say something like, “That’s not nice. Apologize to (name of child). You need to use kind words with your friends.” We should tell our kids to be kind to one another. But we can take it further and explain why we expect them to use kind words and treat their siblings and friends with respect. We want our kids to be caring because Jesus tells us in Mark 12:30-31 (NIV), “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Now we don’t have to stop everything and have a formal Bible study every time the “why” comes up. In our example, having a short conversation where we share our thoughts on what God means by “love your neighbor as yourself” can be very effective. We can also ask our kids what they think the scripture means and if the behavior they just exhibited lines up with the scripture. “What you just did to your friend, do you think that was loving?” Incorporating God’s Word into your daily life and parenting opens the door for heart transformation.
At the end of the day, we shouldn’t ask our kids to behave so they are seen as “good kids.” We should ask our children to be kind, respectful, and loving because Jesus tells us to love God and our neighbor. And because our words have power. Life and death are in the power of the tongue (Proverbs 18:21). Do our children understand why we want them to speak kindly to one another?
Life is busy, but it’s valuable to pause occasionally and reflect on what our parenting methods are teaching our children. We may not always get it right, and that’s okay. But with intentionality, we can help our children change from the inside out.
When kids understand the “why,” their hearts begin to change. God doesn’t just want our kids to be on “good behavior,” He wants to commune with them, walk with them, and use them for His good works! The next time you correct your child’s behavior, I encourage you to pause and look toward Jesus to show you the heart of the matter.