February 3, 2015

How to talk about the heart of the matter in changing behavior

A few months ago, I led a teacher training on how to use a new behavior system in Sunday school at my church. I outlined how the system of consequences would work, with the consequences progressing from a simple verbal warning all the way to stepping outside for some time out. Then one of the teachers shared her situation with me, “What if the kids want to go outside? When I threaten to send them outside, they say, ‘Oooh, can I go now?’ as if it’s a treat!”

First of all, ouch. That is a low blow, and hard for any teacher to hear– especially when she has volunteered time on her Sunday morning to serve children!

Before I had a chance to respond, another teacher chimed in, saying that we needed more severe consequences– stepping outside the room wasn’t going to motivate the kids enough to stop poor behavior. Ack. This was not the direction I was hoping to head in!

I think I gave some response about the real purpose of consequences (not to punish but to provide consistent reinforcement of boundaries), and how we shouldn’t make kids behave out of fear. But I knew my answer was incomplete. I also offered an example of what I might have said in response to the child, but still… there was something more to it, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Shaping hearts shapes behaviors

Months later, I started reading Don’t Make me Count to Three by Ginger Plowman, and I saw what the missing piece in my teacher instruction was. I realized it was missing not only from that training session, but also in previous posts I’ve written on shaping children’s behavior!

A few months ago, I shared some of my strategies and techniques on managing and shaping children’s behavior, which you can find here in my series on How to Shape Children’s BehaviorAs pleased as I was with the series, I had this nagging feeling that something crucial was missing. I knew what it was– it was the talk. The talk that you have with the child as you are correcting their undesired behaviors. The talk that challenges them to look beyond their outward behaviors and into their motives and their hearts. That quiet, gentle, but firm talk, guiding them to examine themselves and understand the root causes of their unwanted behaviors.

I have always had the talk with children, but I couldn’t put my finger on how to teach it to others. I thought I had this experience or special teacher intuition which allowed me to identify their root problems and guide them to examine their own heart motives. I figured each case was different, so there was no way I could write a blog post with a general set of guidelines that would work for just anyone else in any situation with any child. Until now.

As I write this, I am about two thirds of the way through Ginger Plowman’s Don’t Make Me Count to Three, which is a mom’s look at heart-oriented discipline. But I had to stop and share with you, because I think she nails it. First of all, she talks about a lot of topics I have covered in my blog, such as having preventative conversations, offering children a right behavior to replace wrong behaviors, and the power of role-play. However, the crux of her book is how to guide your child to examine their own hearts to change attitudes and behaviors from the inside out. This is something we could all improve at!

The heart of the matter

There are Biblical foundations for her methods which I cannot and would not want to dismiss or ignore. Her goal in raising her children is to “Bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4) with the ultimate purpose of training them to be able to understand their own hearts, identify their sinfulness, and effectively turn away from it and turn to Christ. These are goals that she and I share.

I know not everyone holds the same beliefs or goals, but I think almost everyone can agree that children often do make poor choices. I think we can also agree that simply correcting outward behavior will not be sufficient to build the kind of character required in the long run to help a child (and someday, an adult) gain mastery over their actions. We can labor all day long to change a child’s outward behaviors, but until they understand in their hearts why it is wrong and what is causing them to make poor choices in behavior, our impact is usually superficial at best.

I think it is our responsibility as parents and teachers to guide children in examining their hearts and motives and really identify the heart of the matter. This requires a conversation. Maybe you don’t know exactly how to navigate that conversation beyond, “Stop it… because I said so!” That’s okay. I think that effectively guiding your child through a heart-changing conversation is a skill you can learn, practice and become more skilled at.

If I could go back to that training and field that question one more time, “What if the kids want to go outside? When I threaten to send them outside, they say, ‘Oooh, can I go now?’ as if it’s a treat!” here’s what I would say:

Ask him, “Ouch. Wow, how do you think that made me feel just now?” and let him sit on that, but continue in your lesson. After class, pull him aside for a private conversation and ask him to consider the words he just said. Ask him why he said those words. Maybe he’ll say it’s because he was bored. Follow up with other heart-probing questions: “Do you think that was a loving way to express that?” “Why do you think you said it that way?” “What was wrong about the way you expressed yourself?” “How could you express yourself more kindly in the future?”

This kind of conversation targets the child’s heart and forces them to examine their motives more deeply. Guiding these conversations and coming up with the right questions is a skill you can learn! Plowman gives many tips and ideas in her book to develop the ability to have these effective conversations with children. Here are some I thought were especially useful:

  1. You must develop your skills at helping children examine their hearts.
    Learn how to help your children express their thoughts. Learn how to help them identify and express their feelings. It is something that can be developed if you are intentional and practice.
  2. Learn to ask the right questions.
    Ask them questions that help them take the focus off the situation and instead to examine their hearts and heart attitudes. This is part of what I used to think was simply “teacher intuition,” but I think it can also be learned. Asking questions allows your child to contemplate more deeply as they figure out the answers and heart issues on their own (with guidance from you, as needed). Oftentimes learning a lesson ourselves sticks better than simply being told what to do. Jesus was masterful at looking past situations and diving straight into heart-probing responses, like this time. For myself as a teacher, this often meant looking past the nitty-gritty details of who started it, who said what, etc. and speaking with children individually to examine their motives and responses.
  3. Practice this conversation frame for the times your child makes a poor choice:

    • Help your child identify the root of a poor choice: Was it done out of anger, idolatry, or envy? Was it selfish or contentious?
      Example: “Why do you think you said it that way?”
    • Help your child examine their response: How did he respond to that root feeling/sin? What was wrong with the way he responded? (As a Christian parent, this is the time when I would use the Bible to reprove my child and show how it is not pleasing to God.)
      Example: “Do you think that was a loving way to express that?” “What was wrong about the way you expressed yourself?” 
    • What other ways could your child have responded that would have been better?
      Example: “How could you express yourself more kindly in the future?

After having this talk, you can move forward and have your child undergo the consequence. This may be something as simple as giving a verbal warning, but can also be something bigger if it was a more serious offense.

When applicable, also follow up by having your child rehearse the correct response. As a general rule, it is most effective not just to get rid of a bad habit, but to replace it with a good one. If it makes sense, have your child redo the scenario and behave correctly: Have your child come back and ask for your attention politely. Have them come back and retry the conversation where you declined a request and they threw a tantrum, this time responding correctly. Have them walk into the door and hang their jacket up, instead of throwing it on the ground. This paves the way for positive responses in the future as well.

Looking ahead

There will never be a clear-cut template for every situation and every child, but if you are intentional about practicing and using these general guidelines, I think you can learn how to have effective, heart-changing conversations with children. While some situations can be handled with a simple and short consequences, many situations call for more intervention and conversation.

There are thousands of teachable moments in a child’s life, and I really believe that if we are intentional with the moments we are given, we can impact a child’s heart forever.


Related Posts:

How to Shape Children’s Behavior

Preventing Misbehavior: What Every Parent Should Know

Using Rewards Strategically to Shape Behavior

How to Use Consequences Effectively

A Better Way to Say Sorry

11 responses to “The Heart of the Matter”

  1. Florence says:

    Wow. <3
    I just bought that book in Kindle format. Thanks for sharing (and, yay!, there is finally something I already felt my way around be fore I read your posts!!)

  2. Heather says:

    I love this! They start so early being selfish, don’t they? This afternoon my 14 month-old looked at me with a “really mom?!” expression and sighed deeply through her nose like an angry ox. She did this because I wouldn’t let her snatch her toy away from a small baby. Then she yelled and tried to push him over haha. I think “the talk” will come pretty soon!

    • joellen says:

      I totally feel ya on this one… and don’t feel quite ready for this willful stage! God help me… haha.

  3. Jill says:

    Wonderful! Thank you. I need so much practice and guidance on asking the right questions of my kids! Thanks for the book recommendation, too. Every bit helps 🙂

  4. Julia says:

    Joellen, I’m so glad you do information sessions and workshops b/c you clearly have a love and passion for children and education and have such wonderful, REAL ideas that teachers and parents can use.
    I really agree with what you said about the importance of having “preventative conversations” and giving children the tools to replace a “wrong with a right behavior.” I found that to be so useful as a teacher and now as a parent of a preschooler.

  5. Dakota says:

    Hmmm. I read this post when it came up and didn’t comment before, because I really wanted to make sure I understood the purpose behind your writing. You and I both know that we differ on our religious/faith stances…

    I think the main thing here, that I’d add, is that often I’m not sure kids know what a socially acceptable response is at a young age, or even what the problem is. I think the expectation of answering a “how should you act/think/speak” question can be very overwhelming if they haven’t had an appropriate response modeled. (And perhaps you’re advocating for that above and I just missed it.)

    At any rate, the point I’m trying to get to is that we live in a world where people are expected to read one another’s needs. We grow up thinking our partners will “just know” when something is wrong and what to do to fix it… and that’s really not the case. We have to learn to explain what is wrong and to ask for what we need. Now, best case scenario, the hurter will learn from the hurtee what they did wrong and will learn from it…

    Um… anyway. Basically what I’m trying to say is that if a child doesn’t know how that they might learn best from someone asking for what they need… an apology, a kiss on a bruise… something like that. It’s for that reason that I really like the combination of the 4 step non-violent communication method and your four step apology.

    • joellen says:

      I agree, young kids (or grown adults…) can have a very difficult time pinpointing why they did something or how they should change in the future. It’s up to us to teach them, guide them, and model for them. Maybe I wasn’t very clear in the post (it was one of those foggy brained nights haha but I really wanted to get it out) but I think we’re on the same page about that! I think the process of learning how to help kids identify and articulate their emotions, feelings, and thoughts is very difficult but something worth working on. It’s our job to guide them through the process, teach them how, like you said, and to help them improve!

      • Dakota says:

        *laugh* I first read this post on a fog-brained night, sooooo with you there! 🙂

        Learning to identify/articulate is SO important. Heck, even as an adult I’m still working on it and it’s tough stuff!