If you’ve ever looked down into a well, you know how difficult it is to see what lies below. In fact, the only way to know what lies at the bottom of a well is to drop a bucket to the bottom, scoop up whatever’s below, and pull it back to the top so that you can investigate.
The Bible says that our hearts, including our children’s’ hearts, are like that. Proverbs 20:5 says, “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out.” The best way to get to a child’s heart is to lovingly look them in the eye, ask heartfelt questions about what they are feeling, and ask the Holy Spirit for discernment to both hear their words and understand their heart.
As parents, we see our children’s behavior much more easily than we see their hearts. Because of this, it is common for parents to focus on behavior modification rather than heart transformation. If our parenting focuses solely on behavior and not on the heart, we could actually do great damage to the character development and godliness of the child.
To help you understand the relationship between your child’s heart and behavior, here’s a list of four types of kids:
1. Bad heart bad behavior
These are often referred to as strong-willed children, bad kids, or troubled kids. Some years ago when our children were little, a group of kids was playing and one of the children complained to the adults that they wanted to play with a toy truck. One of the parents asked which child had it first and was told that the other child had the toy first. The parent simply said, “If they had it first, then you cannot play with it.” Before long, a small parade of children came to the adults saying the same thing: one kid apparently took all of the toys and was not sharing any of them. We went to investigate only to find that one child had hoarded all the toys and stacked them in a pile. He was not playing with them, would not allow any other child to play with them, and stood on guard like a soldier defending them. The child had a bad heart that did not want to share or allow anyone else to have fun. The child also had bad behavior that was selfish and unloving.
2. Bad heart good behavior
These are religious kids who are self-righteous and proud. They sneakily act moral when adults are looking, but do awful things when no one is looking. They have learned the benefits of being the teacher’s pet or momma’s favorite. Jesus speaks of people like this, saying in Matthew 15:8, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me…” These kids look good outwardly with obedient behavior when adults are looking, but their motive is selfish and ungodly.
3. Good heart bad behavior
Sometimes, we run the risk of crushing our child’s heart if we only focus on the ‘what’ of their behavior and not the ‘why’ of their heart. Some years ago, a single mother we knew had a long stressful day and apologized to her daughter that dinner would be very late because she had to take an emergency phone call from work. The mother went upstairs to have the business call in privacy, while the young daughter made an absolute mess of the kitchen trying to make dinner for her mom. When the mother came downstairs to see half the items from the fridge and cupboards scattered around the kitchen, she was understandably exasperated. Her first instinct was to discipline her daughter for making a mess. She instead gathered herself and asked what the little girl was doing and why she was doing it. The little girl smiled proudly and explained that she was sorry that her mother was so busy, so she was making dinner for them both. In her heart, the little girl was trying to lovingly help her momma. Her behavior, although not sinful, was anything but helpful. Grasping the teachable moment, the mom thanked her daughter for trying to help, explained that she needed to ask before trying to cook, and spent some time teaching her daughter how to actually cook a meal. This is an example of how to direct a good heart even when behavior is bad.
4. Good heart good behavior
No child is continually godly, but a godly child has a generally good heart from which comes generally good behavior. Some years ago, we could hear the faint cry of one of our young sons in the middle of the night. When we got up from bed to investigate, our hearts melted as we watched an older sister with her hand on her little brother’s head lovingly praying over him and asking Jesus to take away his bad dream and help him to sleep well. She clearly showed her good heart through loving actions.
As a child, which of these four kinds of kids would have most accurately described you? Which would most accurately describe your child?
This blog series is based upon a five-part sermon series called Parenting on Point that you can listen to for free at markdriscoll.org