Your Child’s Behavior Reflects the Heart

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.

Child holding up a red heart

“…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.

  1. What did the person do? What was the action–the actual offense?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?” 
  5. Now some logic, “Do you think hitting her helped you get what you wanted?” No? What could you have done differently? 
  6. 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. 
  7. 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.

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Behavior reflects the heart

11 thoughts on “Your Child’s Behavior Reflects the Heart”

  1. How would you handle the sharing situation for a just turned 2 y/o? I feel like when I try to sit and explain why my son should share his toy w/his brother, friend, etc, it ends up being really long winded and I loose his attn quickly… any thoughts?

  2. This is SO helpful! I have had that book on my list for a while now and I am going to go get it TODAY! I'm dealing with a very sensitive..but VERY stubborn almost 3 year old and definitely need that book. Thanks for the help!

  3. Okay I am definitely going to be buying this book soon. It sounds great.I am wondering about younger children too. My 17 mo old could definitely not answer those questions and she has already started to be physical with other children (mostly b/c they have been physical with her). I also baby sit for a 3 year old who is not verbally advanced enough to answer these questions… when you ask him why he did something he says "because I did" or "time out" (meaning he thinks I am asking him what the consequence of what he did was)…

  4. I too am going to get this book this weekend! My just turned 2yo is hitting us more and more, and for more reasons other than we told you no or took something away.Like the others said, I try to have conversations but his speech is still quite limited. REally at a loss how to approach this so I hope this will give me some ideas.

  5. Hi ladies, Before you read it, I have to mention that I don't agree with everything in this book. I in fact pretty strongly disagree with the main premise of the book, but I know a lot of people agree with it. There are, however, some great pearls of wisdom in here. Definitely worth the read. You *might* want to see if your library has it to see if you really like it before buying. Unless you don't care–you can get it pretty cheap.So far as young children go, the Babywise books say that children can't understand moral reasoning until about age three. Kaitlyn definitely understood at 2.5, but most do seem to fit right around 3. Don't spend a lot of time reasoning with a toddler. I say something like, "That was not nice" and remove the toddler immediately. Right now, you are focussing on getting correct habits rather than focusing on the heart. Once your child understands morally (and you will be able to sense when he/she does), you can start more lessons on it. For now, a "that was not nice" and removal is sufficient. Make sure they recognize that when they hit, refuse to share, etc. they 1)do not get their way 2)receive some sort of consequence. When they do share or are good, be sure to praise and hug and say "I bet that made you feel really happy! That is a good girl to share! That was very nice of you."So far as language goes, remember a child can understand a whole lot more than they can verbalize. Just keep things simple. "That was not nice. That makes Jonny sad when you hit him." Practice restitution "you need to tell Jonny you are sorry" And then "You don't get to play with Jonny for now because you were not kind. You need to control yourself." Does that make sense?

  6. So helpful Val! thanks for the quick response! Do you have any more advice for when younger children to do the same disobedient things continuously? This drives me crazy. My 17 mo old daughter is disobeying over the same things daily (throwing food off her tray, running away from me outside and not stopping or turning around when told- which is dangerous- we live very close to the street, and she touches the "grate"in the floor of the living room that will be very hot in the winter time because it is our heat source *side note: it cannot be covered or blocked off based on where it is in the house which is frustrating) I always give her verbal correction. She has to say I'm sorry and "yes mommy" then I usually try re-direction, but she is still constantly doing these things. (She probably has been doing this for a month or two now). I'm sort of at a loss… Thanks for any suggestions or directing to posts!

  7. Hi Val, I like how you took the time to define sharing as letting the other child use the toy IF they asked nicely and IF they didn't expect the toy immediately. If that was the case, then yes the original child should share the toy.However, I don't think a child who is using a toy must immediately hand over a toy just because someone else wants to use it. The second child should wait until the first is done. The original user has some rights too. :)Rachel, I know you don't know me from Adam; but if I could offer what has worked for me and my 22 mo. daughter, who is almost always compliant with my requests: I think it addition to your verbal correction you should try an immediate consequence. For example, if she throws food, tell her you are not happy and that because she threw food dinner is done for the evening. If she runs away from you outside, you could tell her she cannot do that, it is not safe and then go inside, leave the playground etc. It seems like she is disregarding you because there are no consequences (verbal correction is not a consequence). This is VERY labor intensive because you are following through all the time. But once the child gets the sense that you really mean what you say, they won't test you anymore. Another "consequence" I would use is to hold my daughter on my lap, very snuggly so she couldn't move at all. She did not like that at all and would rather be moving around. That seemed to work (I haven't had to do this in a long time). Also, Noel Janis Norton's CD, "Never Ask Twice" was really great at teaching me how to never have to ask twice for compliance. can't recommend her CDs enough! Val, I'd be interested to see what you think of them since I respect your opinion a lot!

  8. Thanks aaron&yuka for your input! I do try to have consequences, but I have a hard time picking a consequence and sticking with it- mainly b/c things I have tried have been ineffective or I have trouble figuring out what the appropriate consequence should be. Time out and a little "hand spank" have not really effected her obedience level for most things, but I like your idea that if she runs away we go inside (she LOVES to be outside, so I think that would communicate clearly- not sure why I didn't think of that). The heater grate thing is harder (though eventually when we turn the heat on there will be natural consequences for that one- though I really hope she won't test us that far). And the food thing doesn't work to take away the food- I started realizing today that she is actually TRYING to not eat the food in front of her in hopes of being done b/c she doesn't want THAT food anymore or in hopes of getting something else (or at least getting down to play). Today I actually kept making her eat the food she had thrown and eventually she ate until she really was "all done". I think it sent her the message that "even though you throw it, you still have to eat it" which was good (so far). I will have to check out the CD's you mentioned… I really aprreciate your response!

  9. Rachel,A time out might work well. Give her one correction, then remove her to a time out if she doesn't listen. Don't be mad about it or anything, just matter-of-fact about it. Logical consequences also are a great idea. So if she throws food, mealtime can be over.

  10. Yuka, I totally agree. I do not have my kids hand the toy over immediately –they get to finish playing with it (in a reasonable time). I have info on that on other posts.

  11. Rachel, for more help on thinking up logical consequences, Parenting with Love and Logic is a good book to get you in the logical frame of mind.


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