Correcting Children: Look at “Why” not just “What”

When your child misbehaves, don’t just worry about what she did. Consider why and how you can change her heart for future actions.

Mom and daughter hugging

In the preface to the second edition of Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tedd Trip says

“Parents tend to focus on the externals of behavior rather than the internal overflow of the heart. We tend to worry more about the “what” of behavior than the “why.” ”

(page xi)

I think you are well-aware of my love for focus on “why” vs “how” in parenting and life really. It is like a “spirit of the law” vs “letter of the law” interpretation. 

Look at Intent, Not Just Actions

A lot of times, parents spend their energy trying to control the actual behavior–we react to the behavior. We punish for the behavior. We rack our brains and scour the Internet looking for a solution to curbing the behavior. 

When we focus this way, it really leads us away from looking at children as people with human emotion.

Children are not machines that we can tweak a bit, reprogram, and send them on their way.

They have motivation behind what they do.

And in the eternal scheme of things, why they are doing things is far more important than what they are doing.

Real Life Example

This discussion brings to my memory a time when Brayden was physically rough with Kaitlyn. This is definitely something we do not tolerate in our home.

Brayden is not a naturally physical person and it had never been an issue for him.

I could have reacted in an angry way and sent him to his room “for life,” but instead, I took him to a room where we could be alone, I pulled him onto my lap, and we talked about it.

This was so uncharacteristic of him that I wanted to get at the root of the problem. 

Sure, I don’t want him to be physically aggressive for a lot of reasons, including the safety of other people.

But I also want him to be able to control his anger.

I don’t want him redirecting his anger–I want him telling his anger to go away.

There was something in his heart that day that drove him to act out this way. I wanted to treat the root of the problem–not just cut off the bad branches. 

“When parenting short-circuits to behavior we miss the opportunity to help our kids understand that straying behavior displays a straying heart”.

(page xi)

“Why” Is Most Important

Why a child does something is so much more important than that he does something.

We should always be mindful of why our children are doing what they are doing, even if their external actions are good.

I think about people who donate large sums of money so they can get the attention that comes from it.

Some people run for presidents of clubs so they can have the power.

Some people go to church for the social benefits. 

Others donate money to help people and prefer people don’t even know about it.

There are people who want to be presidents of clubs simply to help the club out and offer their service to the club.

People go to church for the Lord.

I like the point Tripp makes about all people being worshipers “…ether we worship and serve God, or we make an exchange and worship and serve substitutes for God…”

No matter what our children are doing, we want to make sure they are doing it for the right reasons.

I want my children to share because they love others, not because they fear consequences.

I want my children to obey because they trust me, not because they fear me.

I want my children to serve others because they love others and love God, not because they want thank-you notes and recognition. 


As you raise your children, stay in tune with them so you know the internals of their hearts. Don’t just look at externals.

Externals give you clues, and good externals can lead a child to change the internal to follow.

But you need to be familiar with your child’s heart so you can direct it in the right direction. Look to the internals, not the externals.

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Correcting Kids: Look at why not just what

5 thoughts on “Correcting Children: Look at “Why” not just “What””

  1. On point Val! Thanks.However, I do remember reading the Toddlerwise book and it mentioned that between the ages of 0-3 years old, children don't really know right and wrong. So, as parents, we have to deal with behavior problems through restraint and redirection. Would it be safe to safe to say that we instill good habits the first 3 years of parenting (the WHAT), and then train morally (the WHY)?

  2. Ruth, for most, that is a fair assessment, but some really do grasp the morals before age three. Telling a 12 month old to love others isn't going to result in much, but it might for a 2.5 year old.


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