By: Scott O'Malley
May 28th, 2021
When parents are looking for counseling for their child, it is almost always because a particular behavior is disruptive or concerning. Our privilege at Twelve Stones is to come alongside these parents and help them apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the heart of their child. Last week we discussed how every child’s greatest need is salvation. We then touched on four guiding principles to keep the gospel central in parenting. This week, we want to demonstrate how using those four principles can help parents target the heart of their child rather than just try to change or control behavior.
Foundation #6 – The heart is the target of our parenting.
The heart must be the target of our parenting because behavior change motivated by rules and consequences will not last. In addition, behavior change that does not come from heart change is not God honoring. Matthew 15:8-9 says, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me.” We do not want any part of helping our kids look good on the outside while worshipping God in vain.
Years ago I worked in a group home for troubled teens and we used a point card system that was based on behavior modification. If the teen behaved in desirable ways (like following instructions) he would receive positive points on his point card. However, if he behaved in undesirable ways (like complaining, not following instructions, or disrespecting authority) he would receive negative points. If the teen had enough negative points he would have unpleasant consequences: extra chores, an early bed time, or no video game time. At the time I was an eager young man longing to make a difference in these troubled lives and honor God by doing what my supervisors asked of me. As a result, I was faithful to use the point card system with the teens. I quickly learned I could control their behavior because I had the power to issue negative points that would wreck their evening. As time went on however I became increasingly discouraged by this method of “parenting” because I literally never saw a kid grow and change. I could manage their behavior temporarily but as soon as I was out of sight their behavior reverted back to their old patterns. I worked with approximately 400 adolescents and teens using these behavior modification techniques and I never saw lasting change even one time.
This realization is what led me to leave secular based social work and become a biblical counselor. I was desperate to learn how to help people change, and only the gospel of Jesus Christ can make a person brand new (2 Corinthians 5:17). As I was coming to these realizations I was introduced to Tedd Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart. His book started me on a journey of learning to apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to the heart of a child. So let’s consider the following scenario and then what each of the four guiding principles mentioned last week look like in action.
Imagine with me you have a 16-year-old daughter named Kelsey who just got her driver’s license. She asks if she can use your car to go hang out at her friend Emma’s house for the day. You say yes, and your daughter agrees to be home by dinnertime. But late in the afternoon you receive a phone call from a friend and find out your daughter is not where she said she was going. How do you proceed as a parent? Do you ground her for a month? Do you yell at her for her lying and deception?
If you want to reach her heart, it would be wisest to begin by giving your daughter a chance to tell you what happened. It is possible there is an explanation for her not being where she said she was going. So you might ask, “So how was your time at Emma’s house?” When she sticks to her original story it is becoming clear she is seeking to deceive you. At this point you interject and tell her about the phone call and how you know she was not at Emma’s house. This is a critical moment in the conversation for a parent: is your goal to punish her bad behavior or is it to help her to see her own heart and call her to repentance?
If you choose anger and punishment I can almost guarantee you the results because I have seen parents try this type of parenting hundreds of times and I have never seen it be helpful. The parents respond in anger, the child gets mad at the parents, the parents issue a lengthy consequence, the child resents the parents for the punishment, and their relationship grows more distant and cold.
Instead of walking down this well-worn and destructive path, let’s consider how to engage the heart and bring sightedness to your daughter.
Help Discern Heart Issues
You can’t know Kelsey's heart without asking her questions that will help reveal it, because out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks (Luke 6:45). Asking questions is also vitally important because sin blinds, and as a parent a primary goal in this moment is to help her to see herself accurately (Hebrews 3:12-13). This is an excellent time to ask the five questions we mentioned last time – and her answers follow.
What happened? She said she was planning on going to Emma’s house with some other friends but just before leaving she found out they wanted to go to a park where some guys were hanging out and drinking.
What were you thinking and feeling as it was going on? She responded by saying she was struggling, she wanted to go with her friends but she thought you would say no.
What did you do in response? She decided to go and figured you would never find out.
What did you want? What were you hoping to accomplish? She didn’t want to be alone or the only one against going. She said, “I wanted to fit in with my friends.” She also wanted you to know that she did not have any beer with them.
What was the result? What was the fruit? She concluded, “Well, I got to spend time with my friends, but it hurt my relationship with you. It made it harder for you to trust me. I disobeyed you and God.”
Address the Heart with Scripture
With the information above we are armed as parents to address the heart with Scripture. Nothing has the power to pierce the heart like the Word of God (Hebrews 4:12). We want to connect the Word of God to the heart issues she was experiencing. Note the reason or the “I want” of why she chose to go to a different location than what she asked. She wanted to fit in, she wanted to belong. This desire to be liked and to fit in so much she would sin to get it is the primary heart issue that needs to be addressed. Therefore there are a number of Scriptures we can choose from to weave into the conversation with her. Here are a few possible options:
Proverbs 29:25 – fearing what people think of you will trap you in many difficulties. It is vital that you trust in what God thinks of you. John 8:44 – lying and deception are never God’s plan for you. When you lie you speak the devil’s native language. Proverbs 1:10-16 warns against the dangers of giving in to peer pressure and going along with a crowd. John 1:12 and Ephesians 1:3-14 – your deepest identity is not in your friend group but being a child of God/being united to Christ (if you are a Christian). The purpose of these Scriptures is to bring about conviction and an invitation to trust that Jesus Christ not only forgives but also is the only one who can satisfy her thirsty soul (John 4:13-14; John 6:35). As you are trying to bring conviction you might say something like, “Honey, from what you’ve shared, it seems like you wanted to fit in so badly with your friends that you were willing to hide the truth from me because you thought I might say no. Can you agree that was deception; a form of lying?” After she answers, “Yes, I can see why you say that” you might continue: “Proverbs 29:25 says, ‘The fear of man lays a snare; but whoever trusts in the Lord is safe.’ Can you also see that what you did was being more afraid of what your friends thought than what God thought? And that is what led to the deception.” These questions are meant to help her feel the weight of her sin – conviction (John 16:8). But, it must be done without being condescending or condemning (Romans 8:1). Holding out the glorious riches of God’s grace is a powerful motivator to turn from sin (Titus 2:11-14); far more effective than parental anger (James 1:19-20). Let’s transition now to what it looks like to share the gospel with Kelsey in this situation.
Moving to Themes of Redemption
As parents, we can sinfully make Emma’s deception about us and become offended and angry. But, moving to themes of redemption reminds us that we are fellow sinners who also struggle at a heart level in the same ways our kids do. Therefore, we want to humbly point our child to Jesus as a faithful High Priest who sympathizes with weaknesses and provides grace and mercy to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:15-16). With those biblical truths on your mind, you can then have a conversation with Kelsey about the importance of being trustworthy if she wants to continue to use your car. You can also discuss how if this type of thing keeps happening you will be forced to restrict her use of the car, but you don’t want to do that at all. Communicate that you want to bless her with the use of your car, but you must be able to trust her for that to happen. The purpose in talking like this is to help her see she has a choice and can easily prevent herself from losing the car – which also minimizes the risk of her blaming anyone but herself. At this point, you could say something like, “Honey, I can understand why you wanted to fit in with your friends so badly that you would be deceptive with me. Many times in the past I have made similar choices, but as you and I both know, that doesn’t make it right or okay. However, I have good news, as a result of the shed blood of Jesus; God forgives sinners like us who repent. 1 John 1:7, 9 says, ‘But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ Are you willing to confess what you have done wrong and commit to not doing that again?” At this point, you want her to ask for forgiveness and then you will commit to forgiving her.
The final guiding principle is to pray for and with our child. Romans 12:11-12 says, “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” If they are breathing, our kids still have hope. It is vital that we remain patient with our kids in their journey towards maturity. Finally, it is unbelievably powerful to continually lift up our children to God in prayer.
While I will certainly pray for my daughter privately in each situation like this, sometimes I will ask if I can pray for her in that moment. You will have to discern if the child will welcome it or not. If you are unsure, you can simply ask, “Do you mind if I pray for you right now?” Even if you do not pray in that moment, your commitment to pray for God to change her heart and help her to grow are a continual gift to her, whether she knows you are doing it or not. We can pray in particular that she will know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge and that she will be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:19). May God help us as we target the hearts of our kids so they may experience this love that surpasses knowledge. In this situation, I wouldn’t encourage parents to issue any consequences. Rather, you could remind your daughter that you forgive her and God forgives her, but if this type of behavior continues she leaves you no choice but to restrict the use of the car. You are attempting to help your daughter experience grace, while helping her to consider that grace is not a license to sin (Romans 6:15).
Next week we’ll discuss the importance of connecting with our children and helping them to know they belong. Let me conclude with a few questions for you to reflect on this week to help you stayed focused on parenting to the heart.
Questions for Reflection
1. How am I drawing out the heart of my kids? Spend some time asking questions and talking with your kids this week to understand what internal battle is going on in their hearts (Proverbs 20:5).
2. A good rule of thumb in parenting is to ask more questions and make fewer statements. When your children misbehave this week, pay attention to first reaction: are you asking questions to draw out the heart or are you making statements that only address the outward behavior?
3. How consistently are you praying for your kids? Write down two or three things you can be praying for each of your children, then get to praying.