One of your sweet ones is turning her back on you, working her best scowl or eye roll, and communicating mostly in grunts. Some child you birthed – in heart or body – has decided to do the opposite of whatever you say.
And you wonder, where did I go wrong? When did my words lose their power? When did she stop trusting that I am on her team? When did I become the enemy?
Taking independence and testing boundaries are a normal part of growing up. But I think the behavior of our children can also offer us clues about what’s happening in their hearts.
Sisters, through my last nine and a half years of parenting, my husband and I have tried all kinds of discipline strategies with our five unique little people. We’ve tried Time Outs and logical consequences and taking away privileges and earning privileges and behavior charts. I read many of the books I could find about how to fix bad behavior and get our children to listen.
And I have stumbled the sloppy, hard way into this revelation of a piercing and strikingly simple reality. When patterns of distrust and disobedience are developing in my home, there is one thing that is almost always true.
Our hearts are not connected.
Maybe I didn’t stop to hear about her day. Maybe I said something that hurt her feelings. Or maybe she is just carrying something that I don’t know about – disappointment or hurt or fear or worry, and somehow she ended up feeling like she has to carry it all by herself.
Maybe someone spoke mean words on the playground, or he is embarrassed about a mistake he made in his soccer game. Maybe he is just discouraged by one too many corrections today.
But if I am not connected with these places of hurt in the hearts of my children, then I am inclined to assume that bad attitudes and defiance are just that. . . bad attitudes and defiance. When in fact, bad attitudes and defiance might be the only open window to what’s really going on inside of their sweet little chests.
This is not to excuse negative behavior, or to say that defiance always points to a hurt heart or connection. Children misbehave from a shockingly young age, and so much of our job as parents is to teach them where the boundaries are. Toddlers might throw their plate on the floor four million times just to make sure you are going to send them to Time Out every single time. They might hit because they want to know what kind of sound you will make, and what kind of power they hold in their little fists.
But, if our children are taught healthy boundaries from a young age, and have the capacity to obey, then these behaviors eventually fade away. Right?
As our children grow, we have a choice to make about how we will interpret their attitudes and behavior. I’ve begun to notice in my older children that a well-loved heart at rest doesn’t generally feel the need to act out.
If one of my children is acting out, I am trying to take the opportunity to look for clues and consider that they might be crying out for help. God is softening my heart and pulling the scales from my eyes to see these little heart cries all day long in my home.
Help. I feel like I’m all alone and I’m going to show you how terribly alone I feel by telling you to “Go away.”
Help. I am going to make you see me right now, even if I have to scream and yell and hit, because I feel like you just don’t see me.
Help. I am saying mean things because I never want to feel so small and powerless like I did on the playground today when mean things were spoken to me.
Help. I feel like I’m losing control and I need you to tell me I’m going to be ok.
Hurt little hearts will do just about anything to make themselves feel better. . . by getting attention, by asserting their power, by pushing you away, by convincing themselves they are actually in charge.
And the opposite is also true. When our children feel heard and understood, seen and known, confident of our love and desire for their best, they are simply more likely to trust us, and therefore more likely to listen and obey.
Boundaries remain firm and consistent in our home, and sometimes that means that my husband and I let our children be mad at us. It is right and good and loving to hold the boundaries firmly! But I believe from the depths of me that heart connection and effective discipline go hand-in-hand. This has become a helpful “heart check” for me.
My son is acting like I’m his enemy. Am I connecting with his heart?
My daughter has a bad attitude about everything I’m asking her to do. Have I asked lately about that scuffle with her friends at school? Or how she’s feeling about her daddy’s travel?
So often, when I get off of the discipline train for a few minutes to explore the heart of one of my children – without agenda, other than to connect and know them better – I discover a previously unspoken fear, anxiety, or hurt. . . something they were convinced they had to hold alone. And once they are seen and known and loved in that tender place, the eye rolls and shrugs melt away, right along with our discipline struggles.
Even my youngest children seem to respond to extra snuggles, or whispers about my love, after a hard moment, or a hard day.
And isn’t my heart the same?
Like so many things that I notice about the hearts of my children, this reality is found tucked inside my own heart as well, as it relates to my Heavenly Father.
When the depths of my heart connect with the love God has for me. . . When I am believing that he is working all things for my best. . . When I am confident that He delights in me. . . I am simply compelled to love and serve Him.
And when I feel wounded by something I’ve perceived was against me – bad news, an unanswered prayer, a failure or disappointment, confusion about something I thought God called me to – I get discouraged and try to take things into my own hands. I shrug my shoulders at Him and neglect to ask Him what he thinks about my day. I stuff my ears with busyness and pressures and numbing to turn the volume down on God’s voice.
Obedience is interwoven with believing we are loved. Trust is interwoven with believing we are seen and known. Courage is interwoven with believing we are believed in. Confidence is interwoven with believing we are delighted in.
Sister, if you feel up against a wall with one of your children, like I often have, would you get off the discipline train for a few minutes with me today, and connect with the hearts of your children?
Search and discover their deep places, as if you are on a treasure hunt.
Pray for eyes to see and ears to hear.
Watch and listen for little bruises or untruths that they are holding. Reassure them of their true identity as your beloved child and as a beloved child of God. Adorn them with blessings and confidence about who they are becoming. Remind them of the beautiful vision you have for their life.
I pray that this habit transforms discipline in your home, the way it has in mine.