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.
Help your kids grow beyond a mentality of majority rules. Understand that, at stage four of moral development, people are motivated by respect for the law and what seems normal. Challenge them to seek experiences that stretch their faith rather than just pursuing fun. For example, encourage them to use their talents to serve their community in a useful way rather than simply using their free time for recreation. Invest in their spiritual training, such as by signing them up for camps and conferences that help them apply biblical principles in their lives. Pursue spiritual growth yourself so you’ll have integrity in your kids’ eyes. Encourage them to engage the culture around them. Teach them how to think critically so they can thoughtfully analyze media they read, watch, and listen to in light of a biblical worldview.
Help your kids understand self-evident truths. Understand that, at stage five of moral development, people are motivated by whether or not something is the right thing to do. Rejoice when your kids arrive at this stage, because it means they realize that decisions aren’t all about them, or even all about them and other people – they are bigger than that. At this stage, kids know that good decisions are those that truly please God. Talk with your kids about why you reject two concepts that are popular in our current culture (that there is no absolute truth, and that man is basically good and therefore doesn’t need God). Let your children watch you make decisions so they can see how the process of seeking God’s wisdom and trusting Him works. Make sure that what you believe is truly reflected in how you act. Regularly discuss what’s going on in the news and in your kids’ everyday lives and talk together about why certain behaviors are right or wrong.
Help your kids embrace love and truth. Understand that, at stage six (the final stage of moral development), people are motivated by a desire to express ultimate love and truth. Help your kids understand that truth without love is useless, and love without truth is dysfunctional – so real truth and love must always be connected to each other. Check your motives when you’re making your own decisions to make sure you’re dealing with the truth of the situation (confronting sin), yet also looking for an opportunity to express God’s love within the situation. Whether your kids are dealing with a crisis or a routine situation, encourage them to pray about it so they’ll be able to handle it in faith rather than fear. Give your kids what they need – not necessarily what they want. Whenever they misbehave, don’t just punish them without also doing all you can to help them. Let them know they can always count on you to help them keep growing. Celebrate as they reach new levels of maturity!
Adapted from Parenting the Heart of Your Child: Teaching Your Kids to Make Good Decisions, copyright 2005 by Diane Moore. Published by Bethany House Publishers (a division of Baker Publishing Group), Minneapolis, Mn., www.bethanyhouse.com.
Diane Moore is executive director for Healthy Families International, a teaching, coaching, and resource organization for parents. A popular speaker, she loves to share Parenting the Heart of Your Child principles with both parents and students in a variety of settings. She also provides family crisis counseling as a certified family life educator. Diane, her husband, and their three almost-grown children live near Portland, Or.