Keeping the long-term picture in mind, Jeff and I have made it one of our MAIN goals to help our girls KNOW experientially that they are loved and to teach them to turn again and again and again toward God, REGARDLESS of how their story unfolds.

In keeping the main thing the main thing, behavior modification and sin management are low on our priority list.

Children will always have behavior issues. It’s called sin. (wink) Teaching a child what to do when temptation arises and how to respond when they make a painful choice is really a better goal for ourselves.

Let me share why.

Poor behavior is not okay because it keeps us from experiencing the fullness of life. And yet, it can be a vehicle toward transformation, depending on how we respond to it. If the point of parenting is to stomp out bad or unwanted behavior from our children, it is likely that they will become hollow and compliant human beings who are vulnerable to attracting controlling spouses and following controlling leaders.

The POINT, my friends, is to help our children grasp how wide and long and deep is the love of our God so that they will trust Him with all of their being. (see Ephesians 3:16-20)

This understanding doesn’t result from the delivery of our profound theological lectures, but rather from the small, and often mundane moments of disciplining.

We commonly find ourselves on one side or another of the parenting coin due to our natural hard-wiring and childhood stories. One side is the over-controlling parent who has a rule and a consequence for EVERYTHING. The other side of the coin is the parent who coddles their children and allows them to lead the relationship out of fear of conflict. Each parenting approach has several likely consequences. So, let’s consider the way God parents us.

We have a sign in our home (yes….another sign) that says, “Love the Lord your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him.” Deuteronomy 30:20. When the kids were little, we added a melody and would sing it often to tuck it away in our hearts (including us parents!). We still sing it today as God brings it to mind. It grounds me in my parent role as I remember that God is the ultimate good Father whom we can cling to in all seasons. In the Old Testament, we see how His chosen people keep leaving and returning to God, loving and then forsaking God. In the verse just before Deut.30:20, we hear God parent His children:

“This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live.”

God gives choices. Choose life. OR choose the ways that lead to death and eternal separation from Him and His family.

And God explains the consequences up front.

Our God is a God of choices. There are many times when we become overwhelmed by the behaviors of our kiddos. Yet, the point of parenting is to help them choose again and again. Life and the ways God has said are best for us. Or death.

What I love about what God models is that He gives the choices and consequences up front. Throughout the Bible, He gives us a clear and upfront scenario. He gives choices AND, in great mercy, warns us of the result based on each decision. He doesn’t micromanage and He doesn’t leave us guessing. This plays out in our day-to-day choices and with the things He has given us autonomy and choice in, but we have to be careful not to over simplify this or apply it inappropriately. An example of this could be believing that someone’s cancer diagnosis came as God’s punishment for earlier choices or stepping outside of God’s boundaries. In other words, our human and worldly tendencies can be to start thinking that people get what they deserve. We can judge others by their actions/outcomes, but be much more lenient of ourselves because we naturally judge our own intentions. This is what is so amazing about God’s grace. It can’t be earned, He gives it freely to all who receive Him.

What can this look like in our home?

“John, you can choose the cookie now and not have the birthday cake later with the family OR you can pass on the cookie now and have the birthday cake with the family later. You choose.”

YOU CHOOSE. No temper tantrum. Healthy power of choice given to a child. Win-win.

When a child is two, their choices are smaller. “Do I want a red shirt or a blue shirt?”

When they grow older, their choices expand and so do the potential consequences: “Do I date? Who do I want to date? What will I do with my body?”

Before we can help our children make choices by leaning into the voice of God, they need to know that He is kind and good, and that He loves us deeply. God’s love is not dependent on our choices. As parents, we are our children’s first experience with God the Father. How they experience us, especially when they make poor choices, is connected to how they experience Him. Yikes! But it is so true.

When our children are making poor choices, it often means their “lid is flipped.” So, how do we handle a flipped lid or a flooding of emotions?

Dr. Siegel, author of the Wholehearted Child, reminds us that when a child’s lid is flipped, they cannot hear or receive any direction from their parent. In fact, when your lid is flipped, you are not in a place to parent well either!

Too often, we discipline our children for trying to cope with their feelings of being overwhelmed, scared, hungry, tired, anxious or excited. When they are flooded with emotions, they are merely reacting and often in the process of learning what to do with these normal emotions. This, my friends, is not the best time to offer discipline (though oh, so tempting!). This is when we are to offer comfort, care, and attachment, so that our kids know they are never alone in their uncomfortable or overwhelming emotions.

Emotions are part of being a human. We need to learn what to do with emotions and help our children do the same.

So, the next time your child exhibits one of these behaviors:

  • Stomps off to her room.
  • Yells back when you ask him to clean his room.
  • Steals cookies from the cookie jar.
  • Throws a temper tantrum at the store.
  • Bites the babysitter.
  • Pushes his sister.
  • Rolls her eyes and calls you mean under her breath.

Remember, his or her lid is flipped. The brain is flooded. This is not the time to negotiate, punish, argue or ignore your child. It’s the time to lead your child to healthier coping strategies. It’s can also be the time to calm yourself, which may mean a parent time-out so your own brain and body can calm down.

Our children need our help to not feel lonely in the ups and downs that accompany a growing brain and the human experience of emotions. For older kids, try giving some space so everyone can chill. For younger kids, lean in, which is called a “time-in” instead of a “time-out”. They grow to realize that nothing can separate them from the love of God (or the love of their mom and dad). Try moving through these steps:

  1. Name the emotion: “You are angry.”
  2. Identify where it shows up in her body: “It seems you want to punch something with your hands.”
  3. What does the emotion need (a hug, a banana, a friend to talk to): “Do you want to hit the pillow?”
  4. Meet the need: Let her hit the pillow.

You might be thinking, but don’t kids need consequences?

YES. In fact, a child without consequences will learn to use their emotions and behaviors to manipulate their world. However, a child who is only given consequences without comfort, care, and attachment from a parent is more likely to seek other, unhealthy, sources of comfort in their life: drugs, sex, eating disorders, pornography, self-harm, workaholism.

If consequences are necessary and both you and your child are calm, then you can talk about what’s next and discover a solution. Let the consequences match the crime. Sometimes the consequence includes grace – offering undeserved favor. If you decide to give grace instead of a consequence, it’s important to share the “why” with your child: “Even though we deserve punishment, God still lavishes His love on us….even when we do not deserve it.”

Use grace wisely. It’s meant to be profound and used in impactful moments.

Good news! Not one of us has this parenting thing down perfectly. But, with the help of God’s Holy Spirit living and abiding in us, the more we connect with His heart for us, the clearer this all becomes, we focus less on behavior management for our kids and more on helping them capture the heart and voice of our God, learning to love the One who already loves them. This comes through experience in real time.

In the end, the point is for us, as parents, to live in step with our God, who loves us deeply, and wants our children to experience that same love. God loves you! Love has boundaries. There are consequences for the harmful choices we make in life. God uses (doesn’t waste) consequences to help re-attune our hearts, minds, and bodies back to Him and His ways so that we can do life with Him now and forever. His love, even through consequences, keeps us close and meets our needs. Teaching our kids that they can trust coming to us with any struggle, will help them trust their God with struggles all the days of their lives.

In this way of parenting, we keep the main thing the main thing.

Let’s choose life!

Written by Terra A. Mattson, M.A. LPC, LMFT
Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor
Author, Speaker, Podcaster & Co-Founder of Courageous Girls & Living Wholehearted

Be Loved, Love Well