What many parents call “finding out what works,” author Ted Tripp calls “identifying the idols of your child’s heart.” In his parenting book called Shepherding a Child’s Heart, Tripp refutes arguments such as, “But what if you can use it to motivate them to do good?” Simply put, that’s pragmatism, and it rarely (if ever) actually aids us in discipleship — probably because the goal of having “good kids” falls short of God’s ideal, anyway (Romans 3:23). By God’s grace, it is possible to both nurture and admonish our kids in a way that aims at fulfilling the Great Commission (Ephesians 6:4, Matthew 28:16-20).
Keeping the Goal in View
Is the aim of Christian parenting good behavior — or even godly behavior? What does a good — or godly — kid look like? While we can and should make evaluations based on what we see, only God truly sees our hearts (1 Samuel 16:7). We need to remember that the first and most significant commandment relates to our desiring God above all else (Matthew 22:38).
Yet most of us are (or would be) content as long as our kids become law-abiding citizens who “play well with others,” show us respect, follow us to church on Sundays and serve alongside us at the soup kitchen on Saturdays. However, those outward behaviors could be motivated by something other than a love for God. Perhaps we’re even providing those external motivations without even realizing that we could be doing more harm than good.
Identifying a Rebellious Heart
While some may outwardly conform while their hearts are far from God, kids often do wear their hearts on their sleeves, allowing their behavior and words to reveal their hearts.
While there is a point at which overly restrictive expectations may cross the line into “provoking your children to wrath” (Ephesians 6:4), generally that phrase refers to how we treat our kids and our attitudes toward them, rather than the mere presence of expectations or restrictions causing rebellion; instead, restrictive expectations reveal the rebellion already “bound up” in their hearts (Proverbs 22:6). Even the 10 Commandments were designed by God to show us the sinfulness of our own hearts (Galatians 3:24).
While we can use our knowledge of our kids’ hearts and desires to love them well, we can also help them learn to evaluate their own sinful responses that are likely to come when they don’t receive what they desire or think they need.
Making the Stakes Clear
Our kids can’t earn their salvation; none of us can ever be good enough to do that. However, each failure to measure up to God’s standards of behavior or motivation needs to draw us — and our kids — to the cross. In repentance, humility, and gratitude, we find the grace we need. When we train our kids to think they’re okay by either eliminating occasions for obvious rebellion or accepting compliance with idolatrous motivations, we’re doing them a great disservice.