Radio Shack once had a sale on little matchbox-size remote control cars. What a fun thing for the grandchildren to play with at Grandpa’s house, I thought. The next week they were all at our house for a family meal. I got the car out and the children began playing with it. Six children, one car; what was this grandfather thinking?

Within a few minutes I observed one of my grandsons following his sister around imploring her, “Remember that Jesus says we should share. Remember that we are to do to another as we would have them do to us. You should be kind and give me a turn.”

All these statements are true. And he didn’t bowl her over and run off with the controller. But even the most superficial observer knows that this 4-year-old was not motivated by concern for his sister’s spiritual growth. He didn’t care about whether her behavior was Christ-like. He was pursuing the desires of his heart.

The danger of missing the heart

We can fail to address the heart in correction and discipline. We are tempted to focus on the behavior that requires correction, rather than the heart issues that are the source of bad behavior. When the focus is limited to changed behavior, our response will sound like this:

“Share the toy.”
“Leave your sister alone.”
“Stop doing that.”

We may even succumb to the temptation to manipulate our children’s behavior, “It is so sad to see children who have so many nice toys fighting like this. You should both be ashamed; I know I am ashamed of you.”

“If you can’t play without fighting I’m going to send you to your rooms.”

Some parents develop very elaborate schemes of manipulation. One dad told me that he had tried to use a “shut up” jar at his home.

“What’s a ‘shut up jar’?”

“I got so tired of hearing my children say ‘shut up.’ I told them whenever they say ‘shut up,’ they must put a dollar in the jar.”

“What happened?”

“In two weeks we had $100!”

“A hundred dollars, that’s a lot of money.”

“Yeah, I know, my wife and I were putting some money in too.”

“What happened then?”

“A couple of weeks passed and no one was saying ‘shut up.’ So I figured we had learned our lesson. A Friday night came along and I took the family out for pizza, a movie, and ice cream. We blew most of the $100.”

“What happened then?”

“You wouldn’t believe it; within two days they were saying ‘shut up’ again.”

Think about this scenario with me. What was going on with these children? Had they experienced heart change? No, all that had changed with these children was their behavior. Once the external force manipulating their behavior was removed (a one dollar fine for saying “shut up”), their behavior reverted back to the most natural expression of their hearts. This dad had been successful at controlling behavior for the moment, but the children had not been moved an inch in the direction of loving God and others.

There is an almost infinite variety of ways that we can manipulate the behavior of our children. We can bribe them, threaten them, shame them, heap guilt on them, make promises to them, negotiate with them, praise them, or reward them, all in an effort to secure the behavioral outcomes we desire. Sometimes people feel more justified if they are using positive incentives rather than negative disincentives—but it is all behaviorism.

Behaviorism evaluated

Many parents have said to me, “I use a little behaviorism; don’t knock it, it works.” So what is wrong with behaviorism?

Behaviorism does not address the real need of our children.

To use the words of Jesus, “Out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Addressing the behavior without speaking to the heart bypasses the profound needs of the heart. It is like trying to solve the problem of weeds in the yard by using a lawn mower. You might succeed at mowing down the weeds, but you will be dismayed with how quickly they grow back.

Behaviorism provides our children with a false basis for ethics.

The basis for ethical choices in behaviorism is pragmatic. Parents want a certain outcome of behavior, and children learn to choose their behavior based on punishment or reward. When God responds to His children’s behavior, He too is concerned about their actions. But more than that, God is concerned with the heart motives of His children.

In a biblical vision, the basis for ethical decisions is the being, existence, and glory of God. Biblical ethics reasons, “There is a God who has made me and all things. He tells me what to do for my good and His glory.” As we deal with the external behavior of our children, we also need to teach them to make decisions based on things deeper than anticipated punishment or reward. The fact that there is a God in heaven who has revealed His will to mankind forms the basis for decision making.

Behaviorism trains the heart in wrong paths.

There is such a close connection between the heart and behavior that whatever is used to constrain the behavior trains the hearts of our children. When a child is manipulated through shame, he learns to respond to shame. When guilt is used as a motive, he may grow to be a guilt-laden adult. If pride is the motivation, he may develop into a person whose concern is the fear of man or the desire to have the approval of people. And homes where anger was used to beat family members into submission frequently produce angry adults.

Behaviorism obscures the message of the gospel.

The gospel will never be central in discipline, correction, and motivation when behavior is manipulated. The parent who resorts to shame, guilt, threats, or bribes is not placing their hope of change in the gospel.

Behaviorism shows the parents idols.

There are many reasons parents use behaviorism to control their children. Perhaps we are motivated by pride; our children are our calling card after all. Maybe it is simply a matter of ease. Worse yet we are sometimes driven to control others. Maybe we are driven by the fear of man: We worry about what others will think of us if we seem ineffective with our children.

Many idols of the heart will pollute our interventions with our children. These idols will not motivate us to act for the well-being of our child, but for our own reputations. Thus, our child’s good is not the driving force in our correction and discipline, but rather our personal sense of well-being. Our behavior in discipline is motivated by our hearts. This does not show the depth of concern for our children’s spiritual well-being.

The slippery slope of parental hypocrisy

Manipulating behavior will end up hypocritically distancing me from my children. I will find myself saying things like this, “I can’t believe that you are so selfish. Your little brother is going to take a nap in five minutes. Would it kill you to let him play with your Tonka truck for five minutes?”

I would submit that this is hypocrisy toward my son. Who is better acquainted with the ways that selfishness works in the human heart than I? If the truth were told, I could write the book on selfishness.

Do you see what I have done? I have hypocritically distanced myself from my son. I am shaming him for the same crass selfishness that I find in myself. I am focused on behavior and missing the heart. When I act so hypocritically, there will be no gospel, no hope, and no grace in my correction.

Keeping the gospel central

Hypocrisy, of course, is where I will always end up when I am trying to manipulate behavior. If, however, I deal with the heart, I will no longer be hypocritically distanced from my son. I can stand in solidarity with him and his struggles with selfishness. I can put my arm around him and say, “I understand what you are experiencing. I understand selfishness. Dad has his own struggles with being selfish.”

I am not excusing selfishness as okay since I am selfish too. Rather, I am simply identifying with this common struggle with sin. Not only do I understand the struggle, I know where I must go with my struggles with selfishness. I must take these struggles to Jesus Christ where I can find forgiveness and grace to help in my time of need.

Jesus Christ has experienced the same kind of temptations that I experience (Hebrews 4:14-16). Though He never failed, I often fail in these temptations and must continually seek grace and strength from Jesus Christ. He is able to forgive and to cleanse me (1 John 1:9). He is full of mercy for past failure and grace for present and future need.

As I help my children with this issue of selfishness, I am like a seasoned veteran on the battlefield. I have been in the battle for a longer time. I have a better knowledge of how to do this spiritual warfare. My young children may just be beginning this battle with sin. I can get into the trenches with them and show them where there is hope and strength for this battle.

Adapted excerpt from Instructing a Child’s Heart by Tedd and Margy Tripp. Published by Shepherd Press. Used by permission.