No amount of time spent in church or school can guarantee that your kids will choose right over wrong. Despite years of instruction on how to make good moral choices, many kids still end up making unhealthy decisions. That’s because what they’ve learned has only reached their minds, when it needs to go deeper into the place that motivates them – their hearts.

If you focus on your kids’ hearts, you can help them mature so they’ll want to make wise decisions, no matter what situations they encounter.

Here’s how you can motivate your kids to make good decisions:

Realize that inner motives determine outward behavior. Rather than just trying to control your kids’ behavior, aim to help them grow in maturity so their inner motives – which drive their behavior – change.

Understand that moral development occurs in stages. Realize that God has always worked with people at their various stages of development, patiently helping them mature from being motivated by fear to being motivated by love. Recognize that there is a predictable path toward moral maturity that is the same for all people, and is documented in the Bible and in research. Seek a close relationship with God and your kids so you can all travel that path together well. Ask God to give the wisdom you need to guide your kids toward greater maturity. Examine your own motives and try to grow in maturity yourself so you can inspire your kids.

Help your kids grow beyond fear of punishment. Understand that, at stage of one of moral development, people are motivated by their fear of pain, failure, or being out of control. Give your kids the security of clear boundaries that are rooted in a close relationship with you and based on your values and expectations. Be diligent and consistent in enforcing those boundaries through consistent consequences. Expect your kids to test the boundaries and express some sadness and anger; refuse to be manipulated by their emotions. Instead, be lovingly firm to give your kids the environment they need to feel safe enough to explore motives higher than fear.

Help your kids grow beyond anticipation of reward. Understand that, at stage two of moral development, people are motivated by their desire to find out what will most likely bring them comfort or pleasure. Make sure their physical and emotional needs are met so they feel well cared for and are open to learning. Help your kids associate good decisions with rewards. Realize that, since hope is grown in a vacuum, doling out random rewards for good behavior is more effective than giving consistent rewards. Try to randomly catch your kids doing something right, and express your appreciation by surprising them in a way that keys into one of their interests (for example, if they enjoy music, offer to take them to a concert). Remember that rewards don’t have to be expensive; they’re not about material value. Rather, they’re about communicating admiration for the character traits you see your kids display.

Help your kids grow beyond crude conformity. Understand that, at stage three of moral development, people are motivated by their need to know that others like and accept them. Recognize and try to meet your kids’ need to belong. Show them unconditional love to help them understand that a person’s value doesn’t change – regardless of behavior or circumstances. Praise your kids’ character traits rather than their behavior. For example, rather than congratulating one of your kids on consistently doing his chores, praise him for being a diligent person. Let your kids know that you appreciate them for who they are, rather than just what they do. Model grace for them so they can understand that there is nothing they can do to make God love them any more or less. Apologize gladly when you’re wrong. When correcting their behavior, seek to inspire them rather than shaming them. Appreciate and celebrate the unique personality that God gave each of your kids rather than trying to get them to act like you. Give them plenty of physical affection – no matter how old they are.