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I’ve spent more than 25 years as a mom. I’ve been a mom more than half my life. I’ve not only raised my children, I’ve grown up with them. Being a teenage mom, I took a more cooperative approach to parenting. At age 16, I didn’t have the advantage of years of experience under my belt. I knew there were a lot I didn’t know; so I was opened to learning. I knew my son would teach me more about parenting than I knew. So together we learned, and I grew.

Fast forward 25 years and three additional kids later, I’m still learning and growing as a parent. As our kids grow up and get older, we often find ourselves reacting to and disciplining their behaviors. We want well-mannered and well-behaved children who respect themselves and others. That’s often the goal. We become more focused on parenting their actions and behaviors because that’s what we and others can see, not really focusing on the condition of their hearts. So some kids become duplicitous and flex in their morals. They show mom and dad one face at home and another face with their friends and peers.

To truly have well-balanced, loving, purposeful children, we must also parent their hearts. “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it,” Proverbs‬ ‭4:23‬ ‭NIV. Like you and I, everything our kids say and do come from the heart, and if you’re attacking the behaviors without addressing the issues of the heart, you are fighting a losing battle. It’s not a behavior issue, a drug or alcohol issue or sex issue; it’s a heart issue. Instead of reacting to our kids’ bad behaviors and decisions, ‬‬we must look, concentrate and focus on where those behaviors and decisions originate: inside the heart.

Focus on your child’s spiritual needs

So how do you even start to parent the heart? First learn about the heart and how it works. When we become parents, we’re taught to focus on the physical and emotional needs of our kids. We work two jobs to make sure they have everything they need, but the most important responsibility of every parent is to connect their child to their Heavenly Father. But every parenting book advises us to meet our children’s physical and emotional needs with provisions, the right care, the right neighborhood, love and support. But what about their spiritual needs? My mom always says, “You birth a child but you don’t birth their heart.” The heart is shaped and cultivated overtime, but it is often the most neglected aspect of parenting because we’re too busy looking at their behaviors. If the child is well-behaved, then we believe the child is a good kid. If the child has some behavioral issues, he or she isn’t a very good kid. Both of these assessments are flawed when we don’t look at the heart.

Share Word of God with your child

We go from counselor to counselor trying to understand our kids’ behaviors, but our first stop should be to go to the Creator of life. “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? ‘I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve,'” Jeremiah‬ ‭17:9-10‬ ‭NIV‬‬. From an early age and now, share the love and power of God with your children. Teach them godly principles that will shape and cultivate their hearts. Remember, your emotions and your will come from the heart. So if your kids aren’t making good decisions, you have to go beyond punishing the behavior. You must confront and address the heart issue.

Watch content your kids ingest

When your kids are little, you protect them from content on tv and music that may damage, corrupt or harden their hearts. If you won’t allow them to sit and eat junk food all day, you must also be vigilant in guarding their hearts and minds from content that may perverse their hearts, minds and perspectives, desensitizing them to what is wrong. When they’re older teens and young adults, even if they watch movies and shows and listen to music that go below the values you’ve taught them, talk to them about it. Point out how what they’re listening to and watching impact them and desensitize them to the truth of God’s word and His will for their thoughts, actions and their lives.

This isn’t about religion. This is about a relationship. Connecting your kids with their Heavenly Father is the number responsibility of every parent. God is always present and always loves. They need to know this truth; so their hearts are protected and strengthened during times of loneliness, sadness, disappointments, setbacks and brokenness. Events in our lives impact the conditions of our hearts. We need to connect our kids to God so no matter what they face, their hearts and minds are protected by the Word, love and power of God. Does this mean they won’t make mistakes? No it doesn’t. This means, they don’t have to go through life believing they’re alone, without help or love.

Take advantage of life’s teachable moments

So how do we combat bad behaviors from our kids, especially as they become teenagers and young adults? How do we deal with the temptation of underage drinking, sex, low self-esteem and other behaviors that could harm our kids’ lives and impact their future? Clearly if your child is living below what he or she has been taught, they know better but are just not making good choices. You deal with this in a way you deal with all temptations. You attack the heart, not the behavior. When parenting the heart, “because I said so” is not a productive response. The whys of life become important and are teachable moments for you to nurture God’s word into your kids’ heart.

Show them something more beautiful

You can’t compete with the high of drinking. You can tell them a million things that can go wrong, but every teen and young adult believes he or she is invincible. So you simply introduce them to the beauty of a life that honors God. For example, don’t say “don’t look at that.” Just show their hearts something more beautiful with a greater high which is found in the love of God. Simply living by a moral code leads to self-righteous. Only Jesus can produce anything good in us and through us. This is also true for our kids.