Last time I attempted to show that very small children must be taught appropriate behaviors before they are able to learn why. But as children begin to develop their reasoning and communication capacities the approach to training must transition to the next stage.
It is possible to raise a child who adheres to your expectations outwardly, but inwardly hasn’t really understood the moral reasons why. While a two-year old may be expected to mind simply “because I say so”, a five-year old should be instructed in the moral reasons that support such behaviors. Children who do not begin to embrace godly values within their own hearts may obey the instructions of their parents, but usually only as long as the parents are present to enforce them. If you are absent, they have no inner moral compass to guide them.
For instance, it is not enough to say, “Billy, stop running in the church. We don’t do that.” You must also train the child to understand and reason morally: “Billy, see that lady standing over there with the cup of coffee? If you run in front of her you could cause her to spill that and perhaps burn herself and make a mess on the floor that someone would have to clean up. That wouldn’t be considerate of others, would it? And do you see that man praying with that person over there? If you run by them you could disturb what they are doing. It looks like God is doing something in their lives. We don’t want to hinder what God is doing there, do we?”
If we are only focusing on the outward behavior of our children and not the issues of their hearts, we will be failing at the central work of biblical parenting. We must help our kids recognize why they do what they do. They need to identify selfishness within, so that they can begin to trust God’s help to change them.
If you have two kids who are fighting over a toy, your real task is not simply to determine who had the toy first! Rather, it is to help the kids see that some very selfish and sinful attitudes and words are issuing out of their hearts towards one another. One child may be “legally” right, but both are breaking the law of love. Jesus said that if you are angry enough with your brother that you say hateful things to them, you are guilty of murder! Both of the bickering kids are acting out of the prideful sin nature. Helping them identify sin as it manifests from within their hearts is very important. How else will they learn their need for God’s transformation in their hearts? Can you see how this is far more than simply focusing on outward behavior?
Moral instruction always is more effective when done in periods of non-conflict. If your child just got in trouble for something and is feeling upset or angry, the likelihood that your instruction is going to deeply settle into their heart is not high! So heart instruction is something that needs to usually be done during normal and happy periods.
Below is a chart that pictures the need for transitioning from simply dealing with behavior in our very small children to focusing on developing the moral reasoning within their hearts.