Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Shepherding a Child’s Heart

A friend of mine with preschoolers asked if I could write a follow up post to The Purpose of Parenting about HOW to teach our kids to obey without expecting them to be perfect and HOW to expose their hearts in a way that they can understand. What great, challenging questions!

In response to her request, I decided to spend some time rereading Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp, the book that God used to during our kids’ preschool days to help me to see parenting in a new light. It inspired me to change my goal from raising perfectly obedient children to directing my children to the cross of Christ. From the wisdom in this book, I realized that with a focus purely on obedience, it was possible to raise children who could look good on the outside while their hearts were still far from God. Hypocritical: the word Jesus used to describe the Pharisees. I was now able to see my children’s sin, not as something to try to eradicate, but as a pathway that could draw them closer to God, as they realized their inadequacy to conquer sin apart from His work in their lives.

In his introduction, Tripp says: “The central focus of parenting is the gospel. You need to direct not simply the behavior of your children, but the attitudes of their hearts. You need to show them not just the “what” of their sin and failure, but the “why.” Your children desperately need to understand not only the external “what” they did wrong, but also the internal “why” they did it. You must help them see that God works from the inside out. Therefore, your parenting goal cannot simply be well-behaved children. Your children must also understand why they sin and how to recognize internal change.”

In the weeks before CJ was born, Charly and I listened to a set of parenting tapes on our frequent road trips between Kansas City and Columbia, Missouri. These tapes taught us how we could establish a helpful newborn schedule of eating, playing, and sleeping. At that time, however, we wouldn’t have used the word “helpful.” We would have said “this is the right way, the godly way, to parent” and here is a parenting law that needs to be obeyed.

Just as I would later allow the worksheets at the Science Museum to control me as if they were the law, so Charly and I were controlled by and way too rigid about this concept of scheduling with number 1. The arrival of number 2 and number 3 allowed us to see that what we learned about scheduling gave us helpful principles that we could adapt to what would work best for our individual children and for our family as a whole.It was better for us to be more flexible and not to rigidly follow these principles.

The early parenting material we followed also taught us the concept of “first-time obedience.” This was a helpful idea to us as new parents. Because, of course, we desired that our children would come the first time we called them (not the fifth time). We wanted to be able to give an instruction once, not multiple times with growing frustration, before our kids would pay attention to it. But again, we wouldn’t have used the word “helpful” back then. We would have said first time obedience is what is most important in parenting.

That’s what I was wrestling with on the Day of Disaster at the Science Museum. In addition to my struggle with how my children’s behavior and performance reflected on me as a mother, I was seeing them through this lens of first-time obedience. Are they obeying the first time or not? If not, then what’s wrong with me as a parent? Or what’s wrong with my children? Underlying this type of parenting philosophy, I believe, is the idea that if we are consistent enough, we should be able to produce perfectly obedient children.

God used Shepherding a Child’s Heart to give me a different set of lenses to see my children and their sin:

Can I see past the disobedience to the heart of my child? How can I help him see his sin, repent, and experience a heart change through personally encountering Jesus? Is my heart, as a parent, drawn toward my child, or is it hardened against him, in this process of training and correction?

Tripp says: “You must address the heart as the fountain of behavior and the conscience as the God-given judge of right and wrong. The cross of Christ must be the central focus of your childrearing.

You want to see your children live a life that is embedded in the rich soil of Christ’s gracious work. The focal point of your discipline and correction must be your children seeing their utter inability to do the things that God requires unless they know the help and strength of God. Your correction must hold the standard of righteousness as high as God holds it. God’s standard is correct behavior flowing from a heart that loves God and has God’s glory as the sole purpose of life.”

As parents who want to follow God’s ways, we must decide on a practical level how to “hold the standard of righteousness as high as God holds it.” We need to discern what situations with our children require the “laying down of the law” and what situations we instead respond to with grace?

In the example of my frustration at the museum, I could have tried to evaluate the situation before God like this:

Where are the expectations about these worksheets coming from? Is this truly the “law” or more of a helpful principle that I can adapt to what works best for my family in this situation? What’s going on in my own heart that is affecting how I view my children and how they meet these expectations? Do I need to buckle down or lighten up? When, where, and what kind of line do I draw?

I’m definitely not a proponent of covering up poor behavior with a “boys will be boys” attitude. It can be easier and more convenient to lower “God’s standard of correct behavior,” but it communicates to our kids that they can’t be expected to behave better. And that's not what we want in the long run. It is also easy for my own laziness to keep me from following through on instructions that I give. As well as a desire to try to avoid conflict.

On the other end of the spectrum, my children’s disobedience can be complicated by my trying to meet others’ expectations. I can overreact or react wrongly because I can be more concerned with what other people think than what God thinks.

I believe that God will help us as parents to discern His will in each unique situation. If we seek His face to determine how best to respond, we can find the right balance within the extremes of leniency and legalism.

Lord, help us to seek Your heart and to trust You to draw our hearts and our children’s hearts to You, through the sinful attitudes you expose. Help us to train our children in righteousness and to respond to their disobedience in ways that truly honor You and who You are. May we be teachable ourselves and help our children to be teachable.

More thoughts on parenting to come...

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