My son, (or daughter) give me thine heart and let thine eyes observe my ways. ~ Proverbs 23:26
As parents, our primary focus in those early years of our children (0-5 years old) is to teach them to know that they are under authority. As they venture out of the home and into a more public arena – such as school, they will come into contact with many more situations than simple obedience can give them guidance for. Some parents will try to dictate their children’s behaviour by imposing a complex and never ending set of rules (I am guilty of this) but sad to say, I’ve come to realise this is not the solution.
Tedd Tripp writes in Shepherding a Child’s Heart that the problem with this approach, of course, is that it is impossible to make rules comprehensive enough to anticipate every need for direction. In addition, the adult mind is not clever enough to make rules that the child’s mind cannot circumvent.
There will be many situations when they will have no one to tell them do or don’t. So children must be taught to make decisions for themselves. But how do we teach them to make good decisions? How do we teach and build within them good character? The bible says what is said or done is a representation of where the heart is (Matthew 6:21). We are reminded to come back to the ‘heart’ of the matter – that a child’s character development starts with the heart.
A person’s behavior stems from the heart. Our behaviours can be broken down in to three parts:
a. The things said or done – the ‘what’
b. The circumstances in which the behaviour occurred – the ‘when’ c. The internal motivation for the specific behavior – the ‘how’
The ‘what’ &‘when’ are important, but the ‘why’ is of utmost importance as it stems from the heart and needs to properly dealt with if we want to raise kids with character.
Children often deny what they have done (especially after a willful or disobedient act). They must be taught they are responsible for their actions and there is no run, hide, cover-up or shift-the-blame game. If a child hits his sister, he cannot be allowed to get away with the excuse that she made me do it.
To deal with this, we should address the ‘heart’ issue – why did he hit his sister? Was it because he wanted the toy and she would not give it to him? Was it because of sibling rivalry, selfishness, envy; jealousy? Any or all these things could be the root problem. If we deal only with the ‘when’ and ‘what’ (i.e. you hit your sister, now say sorry and return that toy!), we may change their outward behavior but create a rebel who apologises and conforms grudgingly.
A child goes through different stages of moral development. Parents are often surprised to learn that kids’ moral reasoning is so vastly different from their own. At Stage 0 (Egocentric Reasoning), which usually rules the roost at age 4 (but may start to show up even sooner), kids’ moral logic is self-centered. “Not fair! Not fair!” they say, meaning, “I’m not getting what I want!” Their moral indignation comes from a real belief that whatever they want is fair, just because they want it!
At Stage 1 (Unquestioning Obedience), often dominant around age 5, kids do an about-face and reason, “Grown-ups have a right to be boss, and I should do what they say!” (I sure hope Dana can transit to this stage soon or has she skipped this stage and gone on to Stage 2?).
At Stage 2 (What’s-in-It-for-Me Fairness), kids do another flip-flop and think, “We kids have got our rights! Parents shouldn’t order us around!” Stage 2 thinkers also develop a fierce but narrow sense of fairness and look at being good as kind of a tit-for-tat deal (“I’ll help with the dishes, but what’ll you do for me?”).
One thing to note is that in the early stages of moral reasoning development, we can’t be sure of a child’s moral stage just from knowing his or her chronological age. One 5-year-old may be mainly Stage 0, another Stage 1. One 7-year-old may be predominantly Stage 1, another Stage 2. The higher the moral stage, the more variation there is in when kids reach the stage.
Since the ‘heart’ of a child is closely tied to stages of their moral development, we ought to adjust our expectations accordingly and learn to understand, even emphatise the underlying motivation behind their actions. When teachable moments surface, we must set aside other priorities and make this our priority to walk them through the process: have a heart to heart talk – have them recall what they did; guide them to reflect if their behaviours were acceptable; then brainstorm how they can behave differently in future which may please God (and us). Always end the session with reconciliation: asking for forgiveness from God and affirming them that we love them irregardless of their ill-behaviour.
It takes a lot of time, effort, sacrifices and patience to prune the heart. The process of pruning might also be exasparating, painful and long. But if we don’t do it, who will? The reason for correcting behavior is not just to have a good kid, it is to instill character and a sense of godliness in them. The formative years are all we’ve got to lay all this ground work. Let’s persevere and urge one another along in this journey of shepherding our children’s hearts.