When your child is misbehaving, you want to think about what is at the root of the issue and address the heart behind the actions.
“…behavior–the things he says and does–reflect his heart. If you are really to help him, you must be concerned with the attitudes of heart that drive his behavior” (Shepherding a Child’s Heart, page 4).
When you have an undesirable behavior in your child, it is vitally important to examine his heart while trying to solve the behavioral issue. You don’t simply want to stop the behavior; you want to change the motivation in the heart.
When To Analyze the Heart
I think it is necessary to analyze the heart even if something is a first-time offense.
I remember the very first time Brayden was physically aggressive toward Kaitlyn. She wasn’t hurt, and it was his first time. Despite those two things being true, this was not a moment I let slip by.
Brayden and I had a long heart-to-heart conversation in private. We talked about the seriousness of what he had done and why he had done it.
Even though it was his first time, to me it meant something was wrong inside. Something deeper needed to be addressed.
Addressing the Heart Prevents Future Offenses
I really like the example Tedd Tripp gives in his book. He talks about sharing (pages 5-6). He says many parents solve a fight over a toy by asking who had it first.
He points out how this is simply addressing a behavioral issue, not a heart issue.
In the sharing scenario, this is the way it typically goes.
One child wants something another child has. Mom gives the toy back to the child who originally had it, while the original thief typically mopes until it is his turn for the toy.
Then he gets it, and the original child now mopes.
Does it seem like this is teaching the children’s hearts? Most definitely not, and the main way you can tell is that in 15 minutes, the same fight will break out over something else.
And it will still be repeating 15 days from now.
That is clue number one to you as a parent that “who had it first” and “in five minutes, you can have a turn” strategies are not being effective for long-lasting change. Without change, there was no discipline.
We want to get to the heart.
Tedd Tripp says both children in such a scenario are being selfish. I have to agree and yet disagree. Sure, child number one is selfishly wanting to continue to play with the toy she was playing with.
However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that a child who is upset that her toy was taken suddenly is “sinning.” I don’t even blame the child one bit for being upset.
Anyone, child or adult, gets frustrated when someone does something unkind to them.
Children show frustration by crying.
If, however, the child who wanted the toy asked nicely and reasonably (asking for the toy when the child was done, not asking and expecting it immediately), and the original child refused to share, then yes, we have a heart issue with the child who originally had the toy.
But here is the point to take from the example.
Don't get caught up in "band-aid" solutions to behavior. Band-aid solutions only mask the problem--they don't solve it. They are short-term fixes for behavior.
I think of it like this. If I am pulling weeds and just pull up what I can see and leave the root in the ground, the next time I pull that weed, the root will be even bigger and stronger even if the plant is the same size.
Pulling out by the root removes the weed entirely. I will have to pull future weeds that come up, but pulling them with tiny roots is far easier than trying to get them out with a strong root.
Addressing the Heart
So how do you get to the heart of the issue?
It requires some analysis. I realize this comes easier to some than others. My husband is not very adept at analyzing. It actually isn’t something he ever did until he married me. I am a huge analyzer and I am always trying to get to the root of the motivation behind the behavior.
Motivation is what ultimately matters to me, not the actual action.
Tedd Tripp obviously discusses how to get to the heart in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. We will discuss some of these strategies over time.
Here is my basic process for analyzing behavior.
- What did the person do? What was the action–the actual offense?
- Why might the person have done that? What did the person have to gain? This is a time to practice empathy and the ability to see things from the perspective of the other person. You might consider “if I did X, it would mean Y” as you analyze, but don’t let what your motivation would be answer the question for you. You are not that person.
- Once I have some ideas in my head, it is time to talk to the person. It is time to ask questions. Why did you do that? Why did you think it was okay to hit your sister? What did you think it would get you? If the person has no clue, offer some of your ideas and see if any of your ideas are the reason.
- Now it is time to get that person to use empathy. “How do you think your sister felt when you hit her?” “Would you like it if she hit you?”
- Now some logic, “Do you think hitting her helped you get what you wanted?” No? What could you have done differently?
- You also need to address the motivation behind the action. Did he hit because he was frustrated with her? Looks like some work on self-control and patience is needed. Did he hit because she wouldn’t do what he said? Sounds like some discussion on bossiness and taking turns is in store.
- Next is when you apply consequence, and now you can do so appropriately. Rather than simply addressing the hitting (“Now you can’t play together for the rest of the day”) you are also addressing the flaw in the character. You can work on teaching patience, kindness, love, etc. This is what will really end not only that specific undesirable behavior, but any other similar undesirable behavior that would stem from that weakness.
You can use this process for really anything. Whining, back-talking, getting out of bed, lying, etc. Changing hearts changes behavior. And most importantly, it puts your child’s heart where you want it to be.
The best way to get children to self-regulate and avoid future offenses is to address the heart. Your child might be sad, scared, angry, nervous, tired, hungry…there are so many possible driving factors. Get down to the root.