There is a theory in teaching grammar that all educators fall into one of two categories: prescriptivist or descriptivist. A prescriptivist doles out rules for strict adherence. Grammar lessons would inevitably involve much memorization of the rules while correcting faulty sentences from an old handbook of some sort.
And—I’m sure you saw this coming—essays would be returned bleeding with marks and symbols that resemble nothing short of wingdings. The role of a prescriptivist is tidy, predictable, unchanging, unrelenting, and often harsh. This is likely the education of the masses, at least back in the 90s. And of all the dinners and parties I’ve attended in my life, no one kicks their feet up to tell grand stories about how much they loved grammar school.
A descriptivist, on the contrary, explains and clarifies the language the student is using. They will look for the communication itself rather than the means of communication. Grammar lessons would involve a class looking at a passage together to describe the language used. The instructor would point out how some punctuation would make the communication clearer, but the focus would be to synthesize what is already there—not what is missing.
Balance the Means of Obedience
And this is a plain slice into our parenting. Whereas the latter is preferred in the education arena, a balance of both is necessary for the Christian home. We have rules that must be strictly obeyed and cheerfully walked in because that is what God requires of us. However, if this is the only focus we present to our children, their hearts can and will quickly go cold. And as parents, we would take up a permanent clipboard, constantly weighing and measuring our kids like cattle at a stockyard.
The balance comes from intentional heart checks with our children, describing how the obedience is or is not taking place.
Consider this: you have given your ten-year-old the task of cleaning the bathroom twice a week that he shares with his two siblings. You go and check his work every so often, and it’s excellent. The trash never overflows, the sink never has the remnants of toothpaste, and the mirror is without splatter—great work, ten-year-old! As a parent, you could easily commend yourself on a job well done. You could very quickly and efficiently measure the success of the parent/child relationship by the fact that there is no toilet ring to be seen for weeks.
So maybe you ask the same child to clean the kitchen after dinner one night. While picking up the living room, you hear what can only be described as grunts and shuffles. As you peer into the kitchen, you see a highly aggravated, surly-eyebrowed ten-year-old scrubbing the cast-ironed skillet. While the kitchen is cleaning up nicely, the dark storm clouds brewing above the tween are killing the whole vibe. It’s obvious, isn’t it? Even though your son has the posture and hands of Mr. Clean, his heart is far from cheerful. It’s brooding and tipping over into straight bitterness at what’s been asked of him.
The Lord Looks at the Heart
Let’s be honest. It is quite challenging for many of us to want to clean the bathroom or kitchen. I know my daughters do not want to put their shoes where they go, clean up after the dog, apologize and ask for forgiveness, share a bowl of snacks, or any other random request of the day depending on their capricious emotions.
But we must teach them that the Lord looks at the heart. We see this in 1 Samuel 16:7 when David gets sized up and overlooked because of his appearance. God saw that David had a heart for the things God had a heart for—that’s worth much more than a tall man. And the widow’s offering in Mark 12:44. By appearance, the two copper coins could not affect much in the church’s life. Yet her availability and willingness were counted more worthy than a rich person’s fat check/denarii.
Second Corinthians 9:7 says that the Lord loves a cheerful giver—that’s the heart check we must be after. Cheerfulness, gratitude, joy, and peace are all fruit of a heart that is properly oriented in the things of the Lord. But how? So how do we get them there? Doubtful any Christian parent would be content with obedience well done when their child is spitting venom the entire time. Fostering the right heart stance does require more work—but it yields fruit that produces transformation.
1. We must model it first.
Yeesh. Any time I forget the generosity of God, I fall into entitlement and a whirlwind of what I think is fair. My good friend, Pastor Trent Brown, reminded me of this in a sermon just a few days ago. He said, “We have to remember that God calls us based on his redemptive story to receive the glory he is due.” So whatever I am asked to do by God, my husband, or church leadership must be done with joy so that my children see my own heart of submission. It is not about me and what I think should be done. It is all about God’s work—all the time.
2. We practice.
Philippians 4:9 says that whatever we have learned from Paul must be practiced. Relate it to sports or piano or knitting or cartwheels—if we do not practice something, we will not advance in it. We use the word “practice” in our home a lot. When I respond in anger, and the Lord calls me to ask for forgiveness from my daughters, I point out that I should have practiced patience instead. When we ask them to help clean up, we ask them to practice cheerfulness. It’s a team effort on both fronts because I need the heart check as much as my daughters.
3. We make our joy obvious.
This is my current biggest thorn. I am ten kinds of wrapped up in the sin of self-seriousness. But Psalm 16 says that “in Your presence there is fullness of joy.” We know the Lord is everywhere, so we are to be a people full of laughter, joy, and chronic gratitude. This goes back to the first point of remembering the generosity of God. For me, when I can zero in on that, then everything else goes calm. I want this for my daughters, so I work at my joy and gratitude. Some people have this naturally—mine is part of my sanctification. And we point out grumpiness in our girls. The body language of a human is very telling—we don’t tolerate crossed arms, heavy sighs, or rolled eyes. We will grab their little hands folded up in their arms and shake them while reminding them that the joy of the Lord is their strength (Nehemiah 8:10)!
The Gospel Saves the Day
The center of all of this is the Gospel. When we remember who we are apart from Christ, the generosity and love of the Father, and who we can be in Christ, then the heart grows soft, and obedience follows. It’s what Jesus declares in Matthew 23:26, “First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean” (ESV).
So, these heart checks. We don’t have to create a weekend getaway with individual children to gauge their whereabouts on obedience. We just have to pay attention. Ultimately, I have found that daily, and sometimes hourly, heart checks of my own will direct the pulse of our family. When I am grateful and cheerful, my daughters willingly follow suit. So let us not just prescribe rules and expectations to our children. Let us hold fast to the truth that our joy must be fulfilled in Christ alone (John 17:13)—and that comes from the heart.
Related: Listen to Our FREE New Parenting Podcast! Christian Parent/Crazy World with Catherine Segars is now available on LifeAudio.com. You can listen to the first episode by clicking the play button below:
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Kate Stevens is a worshiper, wife, and mom, and with the help of the Lord, that is her hierarchy of work. Beyond this, she works with the youth and children at her church and edits as a freelancer. She enjoys reading, writing, running, cooking, and practicing thinking pure and lovely things.
After being unsure if they ever wanted children, the Lord eventually blessed Kate and her husband Clint after nearly three years of waiting. They welcomed their first daughter in 2011, another daughter in 2013, and yet another daughter in 2016. Kate considers this her most time-consuming, emotion-full, sanctifying, not always pretty but trusting in the Lord’s plan, and blessed work. Stuck in a house with four females, her husband Clint consistently reminds Kate of her identity and union in Christ.
You can read more of Kate's work here.