What I’ve Learned about a Heart Based Approach
NOTE: Dr. Scott Turansky teaches the Master’s Level Parenting Class at Concordia University. It’s the same material taught in the Biblical Parenting Coaching Program through the National Center for Biblical Parenting. You can learn more about it here. This is the final paper of one of his students.
The Bible says in Matthew 12:34, “out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” In Proverbs 23:7, it says, “as a man thinks in his heart, so is he.” A heart-based approach is the recognition that the way children behave is a direct result of what is going on in their hearts. Children’s emotions are often overlooked but those emotions are the very indicators of what a child is going through internally, which in turn cause certain behaviors to show up externally.
What is the heart?
The heart is the center of all things. Inside a child’s heart are many things- certain issues they’re holding onto, feelings, things that bring them passion and joy, their experience of closeness or lack thereof to their parents, feelings of guilt or conviction and temptations and desires. Understanding your child’s heart can not only help “solve” some behavioral issues but it can help prevent them as well. Lastly, a heart-based approach recognizes God has the ultimate heart changer.
While adult hearts hold all these same things, there is a difference with children. Children do not naturally understand selflessness, kindness, responsibility and all the other things that come with growing up. A parent’s job is to train their children to not only acquire these qualities but to understand why they are important and necessary.
I believe it’s important that children learn to see past tomorrow. Parents should often talk to their children about growing up. Children should understand and be aware that they have a future. A child needs to learn how to clean his room but he also needs to understand why cleanliness is an important skill to have as a successful and responsible human being.
A heart-based approach not only gets to the root of a certain issue but it gives an outline for how to train and teach a child, not just punish or correct them. A heart-based approach is not focused solely on correction. It’s focused on getting to the bottom of what a child needs and helping them work through certain emotions and the usual growing pains of learning to be a healthy functioning adult.
One of the major differences between a heart-based approach and other parenting approaches is the emphasis on God being the changer of hearts. While we want to get to the bottom of our children’s behaviors and emotions, we also want to teach them to deal with those emotions and therefore learn better behaviors. While parents can teach and train their children to learn these better behaviors, God is the only one who can actually do the heart change in a child.
A heart-based approach is essentially a partnership between parents and God. Parents are to raise their children to honor God and live in a way that’s pleasing to him. This partnership between God, the parents, and the child, and the emphasis on the connection between the spiritual and emotional aspects of a child, are often forgotten but are worked on when using the heart-based approach.
Teaching children about God is one of a parent’s greatest tasks. The Bible is the tool that a parent can use to teach a child about God. The Bible contains so many examples of people who lacked, but then gained, as a result of the presence and power of God in their lives. It’s powerful and encouraging when a child learns about how a popular hero in the Bible had their own struggles but was able to overcome them with God’s help. Children should learn that they are imperfect and sinful but also that God is their help and strength. I believe that a deep connection and reliance on God is so valuable especially learned at a young age.
There are different theories and approaches to parenting. Many parents tend to focus solely on changing their child’s negative behaviors. A common parenting theory is a child-focused approach. It allows a child to make the decisions trusting that children are innately good beings so they don’t need many restrictions. It offers the child freedom to do whatever they choose.
The issue with this theory is that it overlooks or avoids the fact that a child is guaranteed to experience negative emotions and behaviors as well as make mistakes because a child has a sinful nature. Also, it doesn’t take into consideration the fact that the only hope for deliverance from sinful nature is God.
Another common theory is a parent-based approach where whatever the parent says is law. There is no room for compromise or a personal relationship between the child and parents. The issue with this theory is that God wants parents to have a relationship with their children as this is the avenue through which parents teach their children about values especially about God. A parent cannot connect with a child’s heart when there is no room for the child to learn but only do as they’re told with no discussion or question.
Then there are common disciplinary tactics like taking away privileges, time outs, bribery, ignoring or even arguing with a child. While some of these may be effective, they can also be detrimental if not paired with balancing tactics that also appeal to their underlying issues or hidden emotions.
A Different Way to Think
Taking away a privilege can be effective when paired with a break and a conversation. Time outs can also be effective in the same way but children need to know why what they did was wrong, what led them to behave in such a way and what they can do to change the narrative so that they are more successful next time. Parents should always try to set their children up for success. They should work towards helping their child achieve independence when it comes to working through their emotions and making wise choices so that they turn into emotionally available and healthy adults.
3 of the Heart-Based Tools
Here are three of the tools I’ve experienced that illustrate the power of a heart-based approach: visioning, relationship, and the instruction routine.
Visioning is valuable because it includes the child as opposed to the parent-based approach theory. The parent sits down with their child and explains to them that while there are wonderful qualities about them, there are other qualities that need work. The parent will explain what those qualities are and why they’re important for the child.
A child needs to not only learn to clean his room but he should also understand why cleanliness is an important quality for every person to have. As the child improves in this area and receives affirmation from the parent, a sense of accomplishment and pride will grow in the child’s heart thus opening the door for the child’s continued growth.
A relationship between parent and child is key in order to reach the heart of a child. Children need to feel safe, loved, and accepted by their parents if there is to be any sort of change. While children can obey out of fear or to avoid the loss of a privilege, it will not reach the child’s heart. Spending time with children, affirming, encouraging and teaching them will change their heart, their thought process, and their reactions and behavior.
The Instruction Routine is the practical tool that works with the visioning and relationship building. This is used to train the child. The IR trains the child to form new habits by getting them used to responding when called and completing tasks that have been given to them.
When a child is approached by a loving parent with whom they have a connection with, and the parent visions with them about acquiring a desired quality, then the child can practice and learn that quality. Once the child is able to respond to the parent and do what is asked without whining or resistance, the child is well on his way to acquiring more desired qualities as well as strengthening emotional capabilities.
Changing the Heart
A story that was shared by one of my classmates includes all three tools. A parent was frustrated with her son for interrupting her while talking as well as his inability to clean his room and follow his morning routine.
The parent had a visioning session with her son, informing him about how she wanted to help him grow in those areas. The parent used the IR to get him accustomed to performing small tasks. After that, she trained him in each desired quality. She trained him to stop at the door frame when entering a room and look around to see if adults were talking. If they were talking, he was to quietly put his hand on his mother’s arm to communicate that he had something to tell her. He would then wait for her to finish her sentence and address him before speaking.
She also trained him to clean his room by cleaning with him and showing him how it’s done properly. When the room is cleaned, it instills a sense of pride and accomplishment in the child making it easier for him to complete the task again for the next time. Lastly, she trained him in his morning routine by helping him prepare his clothes and backpack the night before. He has grown accustomed to his mother touching him and looking him in the eye as she tells him that he needs to get ready for school. This is an excellent example of how these tools work together to change behavior and the heart.
Putting it All Together
In conclusion, I have learned that helping parents to see their parenting from a heart-based perspective is not easy. A lot of parents just want their children to be obedient but they don’t realize that the child’s heart is the only way to make a consistent, lasting impact and change.
I’ve also learned that training and teaching children is hard work. It’s common to just want an immediate fix and live in the moment. Taking the time to actually train a child is a major commitment. However, this is the way God intended for parents to raise their children.
Consistency, patience, wisdom, and much prayer are needed every step of the way. It’s so easy to forget that children are little people in the making. But when parents remember to see them as such, they are reminded of their calling to do their very best to bring them up to be the best people they can be.