We all know people with “external morality,” or “situational morality.” These are people who make behavioral decisions based on who is around at the time and what the personal consequences will be. Many of these people actually believe that there is no moral standard; there is only what works for me personally in the moment. “As long as no consequences or harm comes to me personally, I can do anything I want.” “I am not concerned with the basic rightness or wrongness of it.” Does your child have an internal moral compass that does not allow him or her to sin, even when no one is looking? That’s what “getting to the heart” is all about. We can think that we are doing well because our kids fear punishment, but training is not about fearing punishment, it is about loving what is right. How can you train your child to look at the moral reasons before she looks at the practical reasons when making decisions? How can we show them that pleasing God is more important than feeling good?
Passionate Legacy Principle #3: Aim for the heart. The goal of parenting is to instill a desire and ability to love God and obey Him. Our primary job is to motivate our children to obey God out of a love for God and a love for what is right. Our secondary job is to equip them with the tools to be able to accomplish this with success. We must be careful not to train children only in the “avoidance of punishment.” That’s not reaching the heart. We want them to be motivated by love for God. A child who loves to do right will love God, and a child who loves God will love to do right.
The primary consideration in early parenting is the child’s heart and not simply outward behavior. The heart is the center of who we are and the director of our behavior. Psalm 139:23 tells us that the heart is the part of us that God looks at and searches. Jeremiah 17:9 says that the heart is deceitful above all things and beyond all cure. Proverbs 22:15 says that a child’s heart is filled with foolishness. If we as parents are going to reach our children for Christ, we will have to find a way to reach their hearts.
Ways to Instruct the Heart
- Introduce children to a love relationship with God. Our love for God is motivated out of gratefulness for His sacrifice for us. Obedience to God’s commands (which includes loving others and obedience to authority) is motivated by love for God. So, our children first need to experience God’s forgiveness and restoration, then they will have an internal heart motivation to please Him, out of love and gratitude.
- Be passionate in your own love for God and His ways, and be consistent in your obedience to His ways. Example motivates the heart.
- Be an example of good authority rather than corrupt authority. By only giving children commands with pure motivations and good reasons, we teach our children that God has good reasons for His commands and that He is trustworthy. It is hard to follow rules when the people who made them seem to be untrustworthy, arbitrary, inconsistent or incompetent. It is even harder if they are rude or even mean. By treating children with respect as we lead, we teach children that God is loving and good. We need to be an authority that is easy to follow, because we want our children to find it easy to follow God. We want to make our children’s first experience with God’s holy law a good one. We want them to be internally motivated to see authority as good and right.
- Explain the reasons for rules. Help children understand that rules are not just arbitrary, but that they are there because of safety, love for others, or purity. They are there for the good of all people. There is a difference between knowing what is right and knowing why it’s right. Young children who know what is right may only be motivated to do what is right when they know there will be a consequence, but as they get older, children will need to understand why it is right in order to be internally motivated to do the right thing regardless of who is watching. Knowing why it is right motivates the heart.
- When children disobey, help them to see the problem in their heart and help them to mend relationships with God and others. Be willing to spend time with them as they explore their motivations, wrong actions, guilty feelings, and desire to make it right. Be on their side as they fight against their sinful natures. As we discipline, we need to make sure we are not doing so in anger. Discipline is for the purpose of developing the self-control children need to bring their behavior in line with God’s holy standards. It is not for the purpose of making our lives easier or because their behavior makes us angry. Anger causes the tension to be between ourselves and the child, but the tension needs to be between the child and his wrong action which was born out of a foolish heart. Discipline should cause the child to be internally motivated to follow God’s law in the future, if the discipline is not causing this then the methods need to be reexamined.
- Give lots of instruction in how to live according to biblical standards. In Proverbs 4:20-27, Solomon instructs his son to guard his heart, to keep perverse and corrupt talk away from his lips, and to stay on the path of obedience to God. Holy living does not come naturally, it has to be taught. Our culture is doing a great job teaching us how to live according to our sinful nature. Training our children how to live according to God’s standards is a sacrifice of our time, but it must be our highest priority. Our children’s hearts must be instructed, before they can live out the heart-knowledge of God’s moral principles.