Growing up, I wanted to be the good kid. The best kid, even. My goal was always to please, and long before I met Jesus, it seems I was already bent toward seeking to earn God’s favor because I was able to earn the favor of others in the same way. I was a good kid, but I wasn’t a godly kid.
In our driven-by-behavior world, it’s easy to train kids to do rather than be, to ascribe value by a child’s behavior rather than their status as a child of the Most High God. For example, the conversations we have with our kids and about our kids tend to center around behavior.
“What was your child willing to eat at this age?”
“When do the tantrums stop?”
“If you just sit still through this church service, you can have ice cream after lunch.”
“If you get A’s, you can get that super special toy you’ve been wanting!”
We reward good behavior and discipline poor behavior. Behavior is the first point of discussion when talking with other parents. Often, it tends to determine the success or failure of a weekend in our home. Now, none of this is inherently bad or destructive. Behaviors need to be reinforced and are often markers of what is going on in hearts, but when we only discuss behavior and neglect the heart, we train doers of the Word but not lovers of it.
We end up producing those who do good out of duty rather than out of a changed heart. And inevitably, “good” behavior becomes a burden much too heavy because no child (and no adult) is capable of perfectly good behavior. The inability to measure up to God’s perfect standard is crushing when value is derived by behavior. Yet, that same inability is unbelievably freeing when it is marked by the work of Jesus on the cross.
Godliness is the goal
Training behaviors doesn’t last, but godliness is the fruit of salvation that holds promise for now and forever. It’s the marker in our lives that points to a new heart and evidence of the Holy Spirit’s seal on our eternity with Christ. First Timothy 4:6-8 reminds us of this: “For the training of the body has limited benefit, but godliness is beneficial in every way, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”
But how do we cultivate godliness in our families? How do we shepherd the tiny hearts that God has placed within our homes toward him in way that, by God’s mercy and grace, results in adults who love him and serve him?
Only the Holy Spirit makes hearts new
Any time the pressure of raising godly children begins to well up in my heart, I can take a deep breath and remember that there’s nothing I can do, good or bad, to change their hearts. My actions cannot ruin them and cannot save them. As much as this is freeing, it also drives me to my knees. One of the primary ways we can aim to raise godly children is to pray that God would change their hearts.
Shepherd conversations well
Inevitably, our children will do something that requires discipline, and discipline is not a negative reality. Discipline is a result of love. When our children have failed to meet our standards, an opportunity to share the gospel emerges every single time.
As I delivered an impassioned time-out speech to my (barely listening) two-year-old recently, I was reminded that I am building the foundations on which he will build all of his theology; with every time-out conversation, I’m either preparing a framework of works-based righteousness where he must earn God’s favor or of grace-based righteousness where Jesus’ work on the cross pays our penalty for sin and gives us his right-standing before God.
Every conversation can be a gospel conversation. Take advantage of the opportunity to redirect your children’s hearts from behavior modification to heart transformation, and remind them of the work that Jesus did on the cross to pay for all the times we fail. We can trust that God is using these conversations, even if they don’t go the way we plan.
Create safe environments by focusing on identity over behavior
When your kids are reminded that you love them because they are your children instead of because of their good behavior, you are creating a space for them to confess future failure. When behavior is the focus, kids can become distant if they feel like they’ve failed. Creating a culture of confession and repentance, even as preschoolers, will place the focus on hearts rather than actions and help kids have a right understanding of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus.
We do not live as the world, so we should not discipline as the world. We are transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit, so the way we raise our children will be transformed by his work. As we become more like Christ, I pray that he works through each of us to help our children become more like him, too. I pray that God will raise up a generation of kids who aren’t simply good kids, but are godly kids who boldly obey God because their identity and value is secure in him.