Training is the key to good behavior. There are two distinct parts to training children: training their behavior AND training their heart. To have well-behaved children, you need to do both.
Training your children’s hearts simply means to instill the inward morals and motivation to do what is right. It’s about instilling virtues such as kindness, unselfishness, and self-control. The goal is to train children’s conscience to do the right thing, even when no one is watching. 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 in his seat, 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 practice good behavior.
However, realize this: Children are not born with a set of good morals or virtues. In fact, children naturally tend toward selfish, wrong behavior. 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 natural 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 values, 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. For this reason, parents need to purposely and actively teach their children right from wrong, and teach the character traits that will make them kind, unselfish, responsible adults.
So, how DO you train a child’s heart? First of all, do it 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 young, so is morality and learning how to deny your impulses with self-control.
So to build a strong foundation, start moral instruction when your children first begin to understand words, around 6 to 8 months of age. The goal should be to teach your kids all the morals and virtues they need to know before they start kindergarten. 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:
1. Parental Example
2. Intentional Instruction
3. Not Allowing Bad Behavior
For instance, if you want your children to be kind, 1) Model it. 2) Teach them how to be kind, and 3) 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. That is a huge responsibility! So we as parents need to try our best to live a life worthy of imitation.
2. Intentional Instruction
The second part to training a child’s heart is through intentional instruction. You can train your child’s heart through instruction in two ways:
1. Short, casual everyday conversations
2. Formal instruction time
1. Everyday, Ordinary Conversations and Situations:
The first way is through short, casual everyday conversations. 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.” I also taught them to be grateful. I always made them say thank you for everything.
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.
· In everything you do, let kindness be your rule.
· Remember to build people up, never cut them down.
· Do everything without grumbling or complaining.
· 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. By hearing good rules of conduct over and over, soon your children will have good character ingrained in their minds.
Watch for natural opportunities to teach about right and wrong. For instance, 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 the school has a food drive, make your children participate. 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 impart important values.
Here’s the thing though: Unless you spend time being with your children, you’ll miss those golden opportunities to teach values and character traits. 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!
2. Direct Formal Lessons:
There are all types of curriculum for teaching character development on the internet. There are also dozens of books about morals and values in bookstores and at the library. Reading these types of books together will open discussions for you and your children to talk about morals.
But let’s be realistic. Most likely you’re not going to order an expensive character development curriculum off the internet. So instead, I want to give you a really simple, quick, inexpensive way to instill morals and virtues. This is the way that I taught my sons and I swear by it. The best way 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. And that is exactly what I wanted to instill in my sons’ hearts: to know what is right and then do it.
I’ve got to tell you, it was the absolute best thing I’ve ever done! You cannot believe all the amazing lessons that proverbs will teach your children. Proverbs gives practical instruction about common ordinary problems, such as:
· Children, obey your parents.
· Parents, discipline your children.
· Work hard; don’t be lazy.
· Be honest; don’t lie.
· Take advice.
· Choose good friends.
· Control your temper.
· Control your tongue.
· Be kind.
· Be humble.
· Be generous.
· Don’t get into debt, and
· Don’t drink too much.
Here are three examples of a proverb:
“A good man hates lies; wicked men lie constantly and come to shame.“ - Proverbs 13:5
“Lazy people want much but get little, but those who work hard will prosper.” - Proverbs 13:4
“Listen to counsel and accept discipline, that you may be wise the rest of your days.” - Proverbs 19:20
Each proverb will give you lots of opportunities to discuss morals, values, and virtues.
So, this is how I did it: I read to my sons every day out of The Living Bible translation. (I recommend The Living or The Message version. You can download the entire Bible free on your phone, tablet, or PC with YouVersion. Proverbs is in the middle of the Bible.)
I would read one chapter of Proverbs to my sons each day. It would take about 5 to 10 minutes. As I would read, when I’d come to a part that I thought had a good lesson, I would stop and talk about it to make sure they fully understood it.
I started reading Proverbs to my boys as soon as they turned 4 years old and read a chapter of Proverbs a day until they were 12. Since I always read to my boys every day anyway, I just got into a habit of reading a chapter of Proverbs first, discussing it, and then reading their fun picture or chapter book.
Now be forewarned: These proverbs are difficult for children to understand. That’s why you need to stop along the way and explain. However, as your children hear the same proverbs over and over again, they’ll soon learn to understand them. There are 31 chapters of Proverbs—one for each day of the month. As soon as I finished all 31, I started over.
Now if you’re thinking that this is unrealistic and that your children couldn’t possibly sit still and listen to Proverbs for 10 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 10 minutes, how do you think they’re going to function at school? If they can’t sit still and listen, maybe that’s a sign that you should work on that skill. Have your kids 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 still and listening.
My other thought is, when you’re forcing them to sit still and listen to you read from Proverbs, you’re developing many important character traits, such as patience, attentiveness, and self-control. Isn’t developing these types of character traits what we’re trying to accomplish?
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 him to lie. If you’re trying to teach respect, don’t allow him to be disrespectful. You stop the bad behavior by giving an unpleasant consequence. (More on consequences later.)
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.