How do I improve my child’s behaviour?

This is the one question I am always asked whenever I speak on parenting. It’s a good question. I want to know the answer to this question. I suspect I have even asked my own children this question.

There are two ways to answer this question.

1. You can’t improve your child’s behaviour

Of course you can improve their behaviour while you are with them. You can put star charts on the fridge. You can threaten them with punishment. You can shout loudly. You can explain that their behaviour is slowly breaking your soul and beg them to change. All of these methods could improve their behaviour for a few minutes. Probably.

I remember sitting in a doctor’s waiting room hearing a Mum saying the word, “Share!” over and over again to her children, each time a little louder than before. After the 8th time, I wanted to shout equally loudly, “Stop shouting, ‘Share!’ at your children.” (I didn’t)

If you shout, “Share!” at your children loudly and often enough, they probably will share. Eventually. Why? To stop you shouting at them. Have they learnt to share? No. Are they more likely to share next time? Yes, if you are in the room (because they don’t want to be shouted at). No, if you are not in the room (because if they share, they lose out and who wants to do that?)

At the moment, we have a new puppy. I have discovered that you have to train a puppy to do everything. Without training a puppy will defecate on the kitchen floor, won’t go for a walk and will chew anything. Shock of shocks: I have to train my puppy to chase a ball. My only reason for agreeing to get a puppy was so it would fetch balls! The way to train a puppy is a constant, painful process of repetition and reward. To some degree, children are like puppies. With a constant, painful process of repetition and reward we can train children to say, “Thank you”, to visit the loo for a call of nature and to sleep in a bed through the night. But we want more for our children than that.

We want children who are followers of Jesus Christ, not only in their beliefs but in their behaviour. If we could train them out of sin completely, our children would become perfect, they wouldn’t have needed Jesus Christ to die for them, and we could write the ultimate parenting book! But we can’t.

2. You can speak to your child’s heart Jesus told a parable to explain exactly how your child’s behaviour can be improved.

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognised by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of. Luke 6:43-45

Did you follow the basic lesson in gardening? Apple tree grow apples. Strawberry plants grow strawberries. If you want to get a strawberry from an apple tree you first have to tape strawberries to an apple tree. You could pick strawberries from an apple tree, but you would look ridiculous.

Jesus explained that in the same way, expecting improved behaviour (“good things”) from an unchanged, sinful (“evil”) heart, is like expecting an apple tree to grow strawberries. To shout, “Share!” repeatedly at a child is like taping strawberries to an apple tree. You might get improved behaviour for a while but you are choosing a method that is ridiculous.

Truly good behaviour comes from a heart that is being changed by a work of the Spirit. This is the story of every Christian. We are not the people we once were. The Spirit is doing a slow, steady work in all Christians, to make us more like Christ (Galatians 5:16-24) This is why the Bible repeatedly uses the illustration of fruit. Growth is slow and steady, often discouragingly so, but it is real growth.

Parents are well placed to speak to their child’s heart. They know their child’s heart better than anyone else. They know their character, their common temptations and how they usually respond to situations. They also love their child, so they are more likely to be patient with them, taking the time to explain things, to open the Bible with them, praying with them and for them. Speaking to the heart looks like an ordinary conversation, away from the heat of the behavioural crisis, asking good questions, with plenty of love and finishing with prayer because we all need the Lord’s help. For a toddler it lasts less than a minute. For a teenager it might last weeks (with breaks for food and sleep!). For all of us, it takes a lifetime. But the Lord is patient and he is even more passionate than we are to see our children’s hearts changed (and ours, too).

I wrote “Meals with Jesus” because I wanted to give parents a chance to create habits (remember the slow painful process of repetition?!) of sitting down to watch Jesus Christ as he taught, loved and ate with people. There are eight meals in Luke’s Gospel. For each one, I have written four 10-minute family Bible times. The 4th one in each set aims to hit the heart. It is a Bible time that is helping parents to speak to the hearts of their children, bringing Christ to bear on how they feel, how they hurt and how they are tempted. By the end, perhaps your family will find these conversations easier. That’s my prayer.

I am indebted to the work of Paul Tripp for his books and courses on this topic. Those familiar with his work will notice that I have borrowed his “fruit-nailing” illustration!