Behavior: Getting to the Heart of It


You can’t see the heart, and working on it is more difficult. In a busy schedule, with all of the other stresses of life, many parents settle for outward conformity. Unfortunately, if not addressed, the heart problems grow and fester until they burst out in ways that shock parents. The heart makes commitments, the will makes choices, and behavior is where it all comes out. Sometimes what’s going on in the heart is a mystery, but behavior is always on display. If you watch children and listen to what they say, you’ll learn more about what’s going on deep inside. Don’t be fooled, however, by children who pretend to have their hearts in the right place. Sometimes behavior can mislead others.

All children display both good and bad behavior. Sometimes kids do well at school or at their friends’ homes. Parents get amazing compliments about how respectful, kind, and cooperative these kids are. But at home, disrespect, unkindness, and resistance dominate the same children’s interactions. The inconsistency will eventually come together. Either children will grow more gracious at home, or they’ll become more and more bold in their contempt for others. It all depends on what’s going on in their hearts.

Target the heart.

When children act like they’re obeying but then grumble, complain, and do a half-hearted job, they’re establishing a mask on the outside. This is dangerous – but the saddest thing is to watch parents excuse it with comments such as “Well, at least he’s obeying” or “He’s got a good heart.” In reality, this kind of behavior indicates a decaying heart, with rebellion growing past dangerous levels. Be careful not to teach your children to clean up their behavior only to cover a decaying heart. Target your discipline for the heart, because when the heart changes, kids make lasting adjustments in their lives.

Two ways to get into your child’s heart.

(1) Listening and (2) Looking at what they treasure. Both the things your child talks about and the way those words are said become a gauge, giving you cues for where to target your heart work. It’s surprising how many times we ask kids why they don’t talk to their parents and hear the same answer: “Because they don’t listen to me.” It’s true some children confuse listening with agreeing. But, some parents really don’t listen to their children, whether they agree or not. They’re irritated by the illogic, different viewpoints, or naïve opinions of their kids. It’s in these moments, however, that parents can learn a lot about a child’s heart. Listen to them and try to understand not only what they are saying, but the emotion and passions that drive them.

Listening to open the heart.

As you listen to your kids talk, try to discern what they believe that may be distracting them from understanding the truth. Don’t feel like you have to point it out on the spot. Look for creative ways to help them understand truth more fully. The greatest enemy of listening is wanting to tell your own story. Be careful not to give your opinions too quickly. Kids shut down their hearts faster than a turtle can pull his head into his shell when they know sticking their necks out means having to listen to another lecture. When prodded, the heart often contracts quickly. A harsh word, a sarcastic remark, or an angry jab may be the poke that hardens a child’s heart. An accepting, safe, listening ear often opens the heart in ways that nothing else can.

Influencing the heart’s desire.

Children invest in the things that are in their hearts. If the things your child values aren’t helpful, look for ways to limit them, and then guide your children into constructive activities, hobbies, and relationships. If you have to limit certain activities, look for positive ones to replace those you’re taking away. By adjusting what your children do, you can influence what they enjoy and eventually what they treasure. Other children, however, seem to have a bent towards treasuring the wrong things. You may have to use a combination of approaches, including setting down some firm limits to guide your child in the right direction. That’s part of the hard work of parenting, but it’s not optional.

The heart or behavior? 

“So what do I do when I see problems in my kids? Do I focus on the behavior or the heart issue?” The answer is both. When you see a behavior problem, ask, “What’s the heart issue?” Then develop a strategy that addresses both the heart issue and the behavior. The solution needs to acknowledge the behavior problem and work toward different actions. At the same time, the deeper heart issues need to be challenged. By taking a two-pronged approach, you can bring about lasting change while teaching appropriate behavior.  By working on both behavior and the heart, you’ll achieve maximum change in your children and contribute to their success both internally and externally.

Tell us! How do you get to the heart of your children?