A number of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about a conceptual model of childhood behavior that was put forth by psychologists, Dinkmeyer and McKay. This model is a wonderful resource for parents because it encourages them to look beneath the surface and really investigate why the child is behaving the way he or she is. This model conceptualizes misbehavior as motivated by attention, control, revenge and inadequacy. Misbehavior is often much more complex than that, but it provides a good starting point. As Christian parents, we can take this model one step further and use misbehavior as discipleship opportunities.
Keep in mind that the time to address these behaviors is not in the heat of the moment, but rather when our children’s hearts are soft and receptive to the work of the Spirit. We can approach these moments of behavioral discipleship with curiosity and compassion rather than condemnation and harshness.
Let’s look at each type of behavior in turn, exploring some relevant Scriptures and concrete interventions. But first we need to set the stage. Here’s a possible script to introduce these discipleship moments:
“Hey honey, do you have a minute to talk? I have noticed lately that you seem to be struggle with ___________. I’ve noticed it particularly when _________ (give an example). I think it’s important for us to talk about this because it’s an area I would like to help you with. I know when I struggle with stuff like that, I need help from other people. You’re not in trouble and I am not mad. Come on, let’s grab a snack and have a chat.”
When you sit down with your child, you can explain that the Bible is your “instruction manual” (related it to them by pointing out a toy that has instructions). As your instruction manual, it has a lot of help for the areas that we all battle. You want to be clear that you are both a teacher and a fellow struggler in this discussion. You have some guidance, but you don’t get it perfect every time either. That’s where God’s grace steps in.
(All verses are from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible.)
Discipleship for Attention-Seeking Behaviors
You can read about what might be at play for a child demonstrating attention-seeking behaviors here.
Kids who struggle with attention-seeking behavior need a greater understanding of God’s best for them. God knows that life is better when we think about others more than ourselves. Below are some kid-friendly verses to help you talk about attention-seeking behaviors. Ask your child what they think they mean and why it is important.
Don’t be jealous or proud, but be humble and consider others more important than yourselves. Care about them as much as you care about yourselves. (Philippians 2:4)
Teacher, what is the most important commandment in the Law?” Jesus answered: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. This is the first and most important commandment. The second most important commandment is like this one. And it is, “Love others as much as you love yourself.(Matthew 22:36-39)
Faith in Christ Jesus is what makes each of you equal with each other (Galatians 3:28)
You can say saying something like, “You know, one of the best ways I have found that helps me when I get all caught up in being focused on myself is to help other people. Let’s think of some ways we can help or serve others today/this week. What ideas do you have?”
Another idea is to print out a blown up picture of your family and/or friends. Pin it to the refrigerator and every time your child does something kind and loving toward them, they can draw a heart next to them on the picture. See if they can fill the whole picture with hearts!
Whenever you notice your child putting others first, even if it’s small (like not pushing to the front of the line) point it out and let them know you can see God working in their heart. Regularly pray with them and for them that God would give them a heart that loves others well.
Discipleship for Controlling Behaviors
You can read more about controlling behavior in children here.
Submission is hard! Acknowledge to your children that it can be hard to be humble because the sin that is in all of us makes submission undesirable. Talk about what submission looked like for Jesus and ask if it would have been easier for Him if he did what He wanted rather than what God wanted. Explore how Jesus, as King of Kings, washed the feet of common men, asked for water from a Samaritan woman, and stayed on the cross as a punishment for things He never did.
Christ was truly God. But he did not try to remain equal with God. Instead he gave up everything and became a slave, when he became like one of us. Christ was humble. He obeyed God and even died on a cross. (Philippians 2:6-8)
I cannot do anything on my own. The Father sent me, and he is the one who told me how to judge. I judge with fairness, because I obey him, and I don’t just try to please myself. (John 5:30)
I didn’t come from heaven to do what I want! I came to do what the Father wants me to do.(John 6:38)
Model submission and humility in your own life. When we feel the need to wrestle control from our children, we inadvertently teach them that control is the ultimate goal. Point out when you submit to authorities and why such as: “I’m going the speed limit because that is what the law has decided is safest” or “I am working on this project because my boss asked me to do it.”
For older children, you can talk about the difference between unfettered submission and submission with discernment. We can also talk about the blessings that come from doing things God’s way and the struggles that come into our life when we try to do things our own way. Again, point out any time you see your child demonstrating Christ-like humility.
Discipleship for Revenge-Seeking Behaviors
You can read more about what might be going on for these kids here.
Sometimes when we hurt, we want to hurt others. We can get caught up in what is “fair” and “right” when this is really God’s arena. God rights all wrongs. He avenges and He protects. We can leave that to him and do what he calls us to do as outlined in the verses below.
Don’t be hateful to people, just because they are hateful to you. Rather, be good to each other and to everyone else. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)
Don’t be angry or try to take revenge. I am the Lord, and I command you to love others as much as you love yourself. (Leviticus 19:18)
Don’t try to get even. Trust the Lord, and he will help you. (Proverbs 20:22)
Do your best to live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)
The best intervention with this child is connection. You may worry about rewarding “bad” behavior by spending more time with a child who is revenge-seeking. But you can explain to them that their behavior shows that they are hurting inside and that kind of hurt is best healed with love. Ask your child how you can show them they are loved and see what they say. You might be surprised that their answer has nothing to do with more toys or screen time.
Pray with your child and ask the Lord to help them know just how wide and deep the father’s love is for them (Ephesians 3:18). When you spend time with them, you can affirm your love for them as well as God’s. Remember: what you water grows. When your child feels their worth is affirmed they will act accordingly.
Discipleship for kids who give up
You can read about what might be going on for kids who give up easily here.
Children who give up are struggling with fear and hopelessness. They need a deeper understanding of the greatness of God. He gives us strength, courage and protection. We do not need to worry about failing because He loves us, chose us, and lives within us.
I’ve commanded you to be strong and brave. Don’t ever be afraid or discouraged! I am the Lord your God, and I will be there to help you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)
Jesus looked at them and said, “There are some things that people cannot do, but God can do anything. (Mark 10:27)
Christ gives me the strength to face anything. (Philippians 4:13)
When you talk with your child about their struggles in this area, you can share hurdles you have overcome and how God helped you do that. You can even let your child know ahead of time that you are not going to jump in right away anymore and that you may let them struggle with hard things. That isn’t because you do not care, but because you know they can do it.
Explore their areas of God-given gifts and talents and give them opportunities to try new things. Help them understand that not all of these gifts are outward. Some are character traits like the fruits of the Spirit such as joy, patience and gentleness. Every good gift comes from God above (James 1:17) – some are not as easily recognizable as others. You can grab a copy of my Fruit of the Spirit Printable here to help them see how God is already at work in their heart.
It can be easy to separate “God stuff” from the day-to-day stuff. But God doesn’t want our lives to be a collection of boxes. He wants to be present in every moment. When we invite Him into our parenting, even the most challenging behaviors can become opportunities for discipleship.