We meet or talk nearly every day with parents. Most of them contact us because they need help. After hearing bits of their story, we usually ask, “What are your goals as parents?” In their answers we learn much about what we think is the big problem with parenting. While every story and response is unique, a common theme shows up in the answer. It can be summed up this way: “Our goal is well-behaved kids.”
There is nothing wrong with wanting well behaved kids. But as a first priority it pits parents against kids in power struggles of all sorts. Or — and we think this is even worse — it produces compliant kids who do right things, but have empty hearts.
So try this for a few days: Stop focusing primarily on right behavior. Instead, focus primarily on right belief. For example, if a child screams meanly at his sibling, instead of just punishing him in hopes the behavior will stop, tell him he’s loved and created for a different purpose. Invite him to tell you how his behavior affected his sibling. Ask him how it feels when people treat him meanly. (Ask with a thoughtful, not incriminating tone.) Create an opportunity for him to use his powerful words more constructively. Help him to have an experience that reinforces the belief that he was created to be a blessing.
Or if a child leaves yet another mess, affirm her creativity. Tell her you love her no matter how big a mess she makes. Have fun with her making a plan about how to clean it up. Help her see that responsibility will strengthen her use of God’s gift of creativity.
After a few days of this approach, see if anything changes. Focusing on belief instead of behavior doesn’t ensure instant behavior change, but it does ensure that you will be parenting from a more graceful heart. And your children will more easily “hear” the underlying message that you are for them, not against them. When kids know you are for them, they are far more open to absorbing your values. You impact not only their behavior, but their beliefs.
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