On Sunday, we hosted the second in our two-part parenting seminar with Paul Tripp. He helped us deal with what he felt was the biggest weakness in Christian parenting – dealing with the surface rather than the substance. He said that he often hears from parents about children who have gone off to university and leave the faith. Often, he felt, they hadn’t left the faith at all. What had happened was that children with a veneer of Christianity had stepped out from under their parents’ tight control and demonstrated that their faith really didn’t go beyond mere parental compliance. This, he sees, is the common product of parenting that aims to regulate behaviour without reaching the heart. Let me explain.

Proverbs 4:23 says, Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.

We tend to think that our children’s behaviour is the real problem. Our children often think that it’s their circumstances that are to blame. But this verse says that behaviour flows from the heart. If we only ever address our children’s behaviour without getting at the heart issues that underlie the behaviour, we’ll only ever see superficial change. Our parenting will be like cold medicine, treating the symptoms without ever addressing the real cause.

He shared about a family trip they took from Pennsylvania to Miami when his children were young. His daughter complained that her brother was making too much noise while he was breathing and it was disturbing her. His son had a respiratory issue. When he asked his daughter what she wanted him to do about it, she replied, “Tell him to stop breathing!” At this point, just giving her a rule to stop complaining until they arrived in Miami may have quietened her down, but it would have done nothing to address her selfishness.

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Matthew 23:25-26 says, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.

In the same way that people can use religion to try and clean up their outward behaviour without dealing with their heart, parents often look for techniques that will achieve a change in their children’s behaviour without getting beneath the surface. According to Paul Tripp, the three most common ‘cup polishers’ that parents turn to are:

  1. Fear: Parents often use threats, yelling and anger to try and scare their children into compliance. But fear doesn’t change the heart and the time will come when the child no longer fears you.
  2. Reward: Parents sometimes use rewards to motivate their child’s behaviour. e.g. “Be kind to your sister for the next month and I’ll buy you a bike.” Rewards sometime achieve the parents’ short-term goals, but the child’s selfishness is being affirmed and the heart remains unchanged.
  3. Shame: Parents try to shame their children into conformity. We make statements like, “When I was your age I never would have dreamed of speaking to my father like that!” The impression given when we shame our children like this is that we’re inherently righteous and our children must be defective in some way. It actually forces them into hiding and away from the help that the gospel might otherwise bring.

Instead of this parental cup polishing, Tripp encourages us to work at engaging our children and helping to expose their heart as part of the discipline process. He suggests five “heart-revealing questions” to ask your child:

  1. What was going on? Get a telling of the situation in the child’s own words.
  2. What were you feeling when it happened? This aims to understand the child’s heart reaction to their circumstances.
  3. What did you do in response? By asking about behaviour after talking about their heart, it helps the child to see that their response comes from their heart attitude not their circumstances.
  4. Why did you do it? What were you seeking to accomplish? This helps to unearth the motives and desires of the child. This brackets their behaviour from question three, with the thoughts and desires of the heart in questions two and four.
  5. What was the result? Here the child can see the consequences of their actions and hopefully that there must be a different way to a better resolution.

Obviously, the questions by themselves aren’t a cure-all. But used in conjunction with structure, teaching, clear expectations and consistent consequences, these questions can help expose the heart issues the parent and child will both need to confront on the road to growth and maturity.

For anyone interested in continuing to learn with us, we’d encourage you to get a copy of Paul Tripp’s book, Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family. We’ll gather again on Sunday January 28 to discuss the book and how we can use the principles to better grow as parents.

In awe of Him,

Paul