“And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up.” - Deuteronomy 6:6-7 (NLT)
Want your children to be obedient, kind, and respectful? Then train their heart. The goal is to get our kids to be good and virtuous, not because we threaten them with punishment, but because they know in their heart it’s the right thing to do.
Training your child’s heart means to instill a strong foundation of what is right and what is wrong, according to God’s Word. It’s about instilling virtues such as kindness, unselfishness, and self-control. Training the heart is also referred to as moral training or character development.
By training your children’s hearts, you’ll improve their overall behavior. Because once you've instilled a strong foundation of what is right and what is wrong, children will begin to do what is right on their own. For instance, once your children know in their heart that the right thing to do is to obey their parents, you won't have to spend as much time on outward compliance.
Training their hearts will also improve children’s intellectual, social, and psychological development. For instance, without moral conduct, intellectual development will be delayed. Why? Who do you suppose is going to learn more? A child with self-control who patiently listens to his teacher and does what is expected? Or the child who has no self-control, cannot sit still, and has never been taught to listen and obey? The same goes for social development. Children don't like the kids who are selfish and unkind. These unlikable kids become social outcasts. And for those parents who are concerned with their children's psychological development, children will be far healthier emotionally if they have virtues like thankfulness, unselfishness, and empathy.
However, realize this: Children are not born with a set of good morals or virtues. The Bible tells us that man by nature is sinful and that children are born with a natural inclination toward selfish, wrong behavior.
"The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked.” (Jeremiah 17:9 NLT)
“. . . the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:21 NASB)
“. . . the hearts of the sons of men are full of evil, …” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 NASB)
A child's heart has a tendency to do wrong, . . .” (Proverbs 22:15 ISV)
Think about it: You don't have to teach children how to take away another child’s toy, hit, lie, or throw a tantrum when they don't get their way. That all comes very natural to them. What doesn't come naturally is how to share, be kind, and be unselfish. This comes after much parental training.
Be aware though, if you don't teach your kids morals and virtues, someone else will. But they may not be the values you want them to hold. Your children may learn their values from TV, movies, and other kids at school.
That’s why the Bible commands parents to diligently train their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. In Deuteronomy 6:7 it says, “And you shall teach them diligently to your children.” That word diligently means that parents are to purposely, actively teach their children God’s ways. We can’t just leave it up to chance—especially today when everything in our culture is promoting the exact opposite of what we want our kids to learn.
Start Training the Heart Early
It's been said that 85% of a person's character is formed by age six, and by the age of 12, it’s hardened in stone. While I don’t know how true that statement is, I do know the earlier you start teaching morals and virtues the better. Just like languages are learned best when children are very young, so is morality and learning how to deny your impulses with self-control.
Start training your children’s hearts when they first begin to understand words, around 6 to 8 months of age. However, if your children are older and you haven’t done this yet, don’t panic. Despite what you might think, teenagers are capable of learning. It’ll just be a little harder if you wait until they’re older.
The 3 Parts to Training a Child’s Heart
There are 3 parts to training a child’s heart, and they must be done in combination:
Not Allowing Bad Behavior
For instance, if you want your children to be kind:
Teach them how to be kind.
Don’t allow them to be unkind.
1. Parental Example
The first part to training a child’s heart is through example. Pastor Joel Osteen says that children are like video cameras with legs. They’re recording everything you do. They’re recording the type of language you use and the tone in which you speak. They’re recording how you treat your spouse and how you treat a store clerk. They’re recording how you react to frustration and how you deal with anger. They’re recording how you behave in heavy traffic and how you deal with difficult people.
With each recording, your children are learning how to act and react in certain situations. In fact, most children's moral, social, and emotional skills come from watching and then imitating how their parent behaves.
2. Intentional Instruction
The second way to train a child’s heart is through instruction. In Deuteronomy 11:18-19 it says,
“Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up."
These verses mean that we as parents need to put God’s Word in OUR hearts and minds first by reading and studying the Bible; and then we are commanded to teach the Word of God to our children.
Notice how it doesn’t give the responsibility to our kids’ pastors. This message is to parents. We’re supposed to teach God’s Word all day long: in the morning, in the evening, while we’re taking a walk, or driving down the road.
There are two ways to train your child’s heart through instruction:
Short, casual everyday conversations
Intentional instruction time
Everyday, ordinary conversations and situations
The first way is through short, casual everyday conversations. For instance, when you’re taking a walk with your kids, point out God’s creation, and let them know that God created the world, and He created them. At mealtime, be sure to give thanks to God, and teach your kids that God wants us to give thanks for everything. When you’re driving down the road, instead of handing your child a device, talk to them about how God wants us to treat other people in love.
Probably the most frequent comment I used to say to my sons throughout the day was, “Be kind to one another. Don’t be mean.” Or, when I asked them to do something, and they’d have a bad attitude, I’d quote Philippians 2:14, “Do everything without grumbling or arguing.”
Other comments that I seemed to repeat over and over to my sons were:
If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
Remember to build people up, never cut them down.
Don’t repay evil with evil. Instead, if someone is mean to you, repay them with kindness.
A soft answer stops an argument, but harsh words stir up anger.
These types of comments only take a moment, yet teach children what they should and should not do in that particular situation.
Watch for natural opportunities to teach about right and wrong. If you go to a store, teach your children how to politely hold the door for others. If their grandmother needs help, make them go with you to help. When they’re playing with friends, insist that they share and be kind. The point is, if you keep your eyes and ears open, there are opportunities throughout each day to teach your kids how God wants us to live.
Here’s the thing though: Unless you spend time being with your children, you’ll miss those golden opportunities to teach morals and virtues. That’s where the question of quality time verses quantity time comes in. I’ve heard the answer is quality time … and lots of it!
Intentional instruction time
The second way you can instruct your children is through intentional instruction time. This is just a time that you set aside to specifically teach your children about God. You might read the Bible to them, or read a daily devotion. But it’s a consistent time when you teach them about God.
One of the best ways that I found to train my sons’ hearts was to read to them every day from the book of Proverbs in the Bible. The book of Proverbs is known as the book of wisdom. Wisdom means to know what is right and to do it.
There are so many amazing lessons that Proverbs will teach your children. My favorite lesson is that it’s the wise man who listens to instruction. It’s the fool who doesn’t listen. This lesson runs throughout Proverbs. I love it because once you get this lesson instilled in your children’s hearts, when they become teenagers, they’ll listen to you.
I remember trying to teach my boys something when they were in high school, and I could just tell they thought I didn’t know what I was talking about. Their eyes glazed over and they would respond with “Mom, please…” Then I’d say, “Remember, it’s a wise man who listens to instruction. It’s the fool who doesn’t listen.” Then they’d suddenly say, “You’re right. You’re right.” It was awesome!
Another great lesson that Proverbs teaches is that the mother and father are supposed to discipline their children. It specifically says in Proverbs 19:18 that if you don’t discipline your children, you will ruin their lives. This is a great lesson for your children to hear over and over. Then, when you do have to discipline and give a consequence, they’ll know you doing it because you want the best for them.
The book of Proverbs teaches basic common sense. For instance, it gives practical instruction about things like:
Children, obey your parents.
Parents, discipline your children.
Work hard; don’t be lazy.
Be honest; don’t lie.
Choose good friends.
Control your temper.
Control your tongue.
Don’t get into debt.
Don’t drink too much.
I started reading one chapter of Proverbs each day to my sons starting at the age of four, and I tried to read a chapter a day until they were 12. There are 31 chapters of Proverbs—one for each day of the month. As soon as I finished all 31, I started over.
Reading the Bible
I also encourage you to read other parts of the Bible as well. Starting at age two, I read to my boys most every day out of the Beginner’s Bible. (I love that Bible! It’s easy to read, and the pictures are great.) But as your kids get older, I would encourage you to read to them out of an adult Bible too.
When my boys turned four, my church did a program where we were supposed to read through the entire Bible in a year. I got so excited. I was determined to read the entire Living Bible to my boys . . . and I did! It took me eight years, but I did it. I started when they were four and didn’t finish until they were 12. But one of the great things about reading the Bible to your kids is that it gets God’s Word in YOUR heart and mind, so that you’ll be able to teach it to your children when natural opportunities come up.
If you’re thinking that reading the Bible aloud to your kids is unrealistic and that your children couldn’t possibly sit still and listen to the Bible for 10 to 15 minutes, let me give you two thoughts.
My first thought is from the perspective of a teacher. If your children can’t sit still and listen for 15 minutes, how do you think they’re going to function at school? Maybe that’s a sign that you should work on that skill. Have them practice sitting and listening to you read. Because the more they practice, the longer your children can sit still and listen. I used to read to my boys for at least 30 to 60 minutes at a time when they were two years old. But I did it every day, so they had developed the skill of sitting and listening.
My other thought is from the perspective of a parent. When you’re forcing your children to sit still and listen to you read, you’re developing many important virtues, such as patience, attentiveness, and self-control. Admittedly, these proverbs are difficult for children to understand. You’ll need to stop along the way and explain some of them. However, as your children hear the same proverbs over and over, they’ll soon learn to understand them.
3. Don’t Allow Bad Behavior
Finally, the third part of training a child’s heart, is not allowing bad behavior. If you’re trying to teach honesty, don’t allow them to lie. If you’re trying to teach respect, don’t allow them to be disrespectful. You stop the bad behavior by giving an unpleasant consequence. (More on consequences later.)
Guarding Your Child’s Heart
Not only do you have to train your child’s heart, you also have to guard your child’s heart. You can’t spend all this time training and instructing in good moral character, and then have it all undone by the media you let your kids watch.
When our children are exposed to shows where the kids are disrespectful, or the movies are full of curse words, or there’s sex outside of marriage, that’s going to get into their hearts. Then, as they get older, they’re going to start believing that the ways of the world are how you’re supposed to live, and that your values are old fashioned. Why let them be exposed to values that are opposite to what you’re teaching?
There are so many options for programs now, we really don’t have to let our kids watch offensive shows anymore. For instance, I Love Lucy is hilarious, and it’s out on demand. Little House on the Prairie, The Walton’s, or Walker Texas Ranger are all good wholesome shows. If you’re going have your kids watch something, have them watch something that reinforces the values you’re teaching.
Finally, in addition to putting the Word of God into your children’s hearts and minds, you also need to instill virtues such as thankfulness, unselfishness, and integrity. To find out how to instill virtues in your children, be sure to read the book Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
The teaching of morals and virtues is a gradual process, not something you teach in an afternoon lesson. So be diligent. Moral lessons learned in childhood stay with us as habits of the heart for the rest of our lives.
For more about raising your children with Christian discipline and instruction, get Parenting with Focus by Katie Ely.
Want to meet other parents in your church? Host a small group parenting class. It’s easy with The Parenting with Focus Video Course. Just watch the video and discuss the group discussion questions. Easy—and fun!