All Articles Discipleship ideas

Parenting the Heart, Not Behavior

God cares about our hearts – the motivation behind our behaviors. As Christian parents, we should too.

Anxiety workbook for kids

Would you say that most of your parenting interventions focus on your children’s behavior – either what they are doing or what they have done?

Behavior is what we can see, so it tends to be what we respond to most. While focusing on behavior might be effective in the short term, we need to dig deeper if we want to have an impact on our children’s spiritual development. Let’s start digging with the best tool available: God’s Word.

What the Bible Says about the Heart

In 1 Samuel 15, God gives Saul a clear instruction through the prophet Samuel:  wage war against the Amalekites and completely destroy them and their belongings as punishment for their wickedness against His people. Saul goes out, fights, wins the war and brings back the king of the Amalekites and the best of the plunder.

God pronounces a judgment on Saul, stating that his kingdom will be removed from him because of his lack of complete obedience.  To paraphrase, Saul replies, “But God, I saved all the good stuff for you!” God’s answer is not what Saul expects. God replies:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.” (vs 22-23)

God didn’t want the sacrifices. He didn’t want the burnt offerings of the plunder. He wanted Saul’s heart. But He didn’t have it.

What can we learn from this story?

God cares about our heart – the intent behind our behavior. Whose interest do we have in mind – ours or God’s?

We are judged not because of our behavior, but because of what our behavior reveals about our heart. Behavior is much easier to see, so it is much easier to discipline. But if, as Christian parents, we ignore the heart behind the behavior, we miss an opportunity to shine the light of God’s love into the dusty, dark corners of our children’s hearts.

How do we “parent the heart?”

The very best tool that you have available to affect the hearts of your children is not a method, intervention or tactic. It can’t be summed up in a chart, a reward system or a list of consequences.

The secret to parenting the hearts of our children is to focus on our own hearts.

Saul’s army didn’t obey because his heart was not devoted to God. Likewise, we cannot lead our children in the ways of God if our hearts are not seeking after the Lord. Assess the condition of your own heart. Evaluate your motivation for doing what you do and talk to the Lord about your own inner struggles. Live your faith out loud right in front of your kids – not a polished, candy-coated faith, but one that is “worked out with fear and trembling” amidst the hills and valleys of life.

Practical applications for parenting the heart

We can implement a heart-focus to our parenting with our kids when tempers are calm and when our kids are in a receptive place to have an open discussion. It doesn’t have to occur immediately after the misbehavior or difficulty. We can circle back to it at another time. If we can approach our kids from a share position of fellow sinner, we will have a softer tone, kinder words and a compassionate heart which will decrease defensiveness. Prayerfully invite the Holy Spirit into these interactions with your kids.

1. Focus on the underlying heart condition rather than the behavior alone

When emotions are calm, we can explore what might be going on underneath. We can say something like:

You have been yelling at your sister a lot today. Maybe you are having some hard feelings toward her. Let’s talk about what is going on inside your heart when that is happening.

2. Address heart issues when the heart is soft

Circle back around to the issue you want to address. You can say something like:

You had a hard time listening earlier today. What do you think was going on in your heart that made it hard to obey?

3. Use God’s word to intervene, but not as a weapon

God’s word is powerful but we need to use it to heal, not control. If a verse comes to mind when speaking to your kids, share it. You can say something like:

I know that you were really angry earlier and said somethings that were hurtful. The Bible tells us, “in your anger, do not sin.” The anger wasn’t the problem, it was what you did with it. I struggle with that too sometimes. Let’s brainstorm about some things we can do when we have an angry heart

4. Do daily heart “check-ups”

You can do this as a group or individually. By asking and sharing your own struggles (if appropriate) you create an atmosphere where noticing what is going on inside of us is commonplace. You can say something like:

Did you have any heart struggles today?


Did you notice any times today when you felt God speaking to your heart?

5. Use “heart language” in good times

Heart language isn’t only for difficult behaviors. In fact, try to aim for more encouragement regarding their heart than correction. Point out the fruits of the Spirit when you see them in action:

When you help clear the table without being asked, I can see the kindness like Jesus coming from your heart.

6. Study God’s word together

Hebrews 4:12 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It is a powerful tool in our parenting. It does more than we could do. The Holy Spirit is the only one who can ultimately change a person’s heart. Opening the word together, gives Him greater opportunity to do so.

Our heavenly Father cares about the heart – it stands to reason that as Christian parents, we should too.

“For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”1 Samuel 16:7

This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for treatment from a qualified mental health professional. Cornerstones for Parents is not liable for any advice, tips, techniques, and recommendations the reader chooses to implement.

Follow on Facebook

About Laura

Laura Kuehn, LCSW

Laura is a licensed clinical social worker who offers individual therapy to women and moms in Connecticut. She is the author of More Than a Conqueror, A Christian Kid's Guide to Winning the War on Worry. Cornerstones for Parents is the place she combines some of the things she is most passionate about: God's word, parenting and mental health.


  • Laura Kuehn, I have been facing many challenges as a parent and wondered often where I am going wrong. The title of this post instantly drew my attention. I agree thoroughly that behaviour is just the result and we must dig into the source to make a deeper impact. Very well written!

  • I’ve been having trouble with my son who has behavior issues for years. After reading the word I neverooked at it that way. I’m taking a new route this time a round. I even prayed about my heart and asked God to lead me

      • Hie Laura Kuehn,

        Thank you so much about the article, Parenting the heart , not behaviour.
        Indeed its so touching and educative, I enjoyed the lesson I got. I believe God will assist me to put them into action to equip my children and even the society I am leading. Needless to mention, the teachings are directed to me.

        Thank you, I think I will continue looking for your stuff as this will assist me to be a good leader, suit for the Kingdom of God.

        Stay blessed for blessing me.


        E Rutsava

  • This is a great article – thanks for it! I love the concept of parenting the heart – am going to switch to this method with my 3 little ones

  • Wow. This goes along so well with what I’ve been reading in a brand new Dr. Tony Evans book. We are doing everything we can to give our son the foundation and understanding he needs to succeed in his faith. One of the goals of the book is to help parents grow in confidence as they discover their worth as a parent based on God’s Word, not on their kids’ actions. It’s called “Raising Kingdom Kids: Giving Your Child a Living Faith.” He says, “It’s far easier to SHAPE A CHILD than to REPAIR AN ADULT. Raising kids who recognize and retain their identity as children of the King launches healthy adults who have the capacity to stand strong in their faith.” Equipping and guiding our children starts with us, parents! This is the most solid, thorough, inspirational and affirming parent book I’ve ever read! I love it and HIGHLY recommend it for all parents!

  • wow! what a great encouragement to me this article has been. I had been parenting the behavior and not the heart… not to mention it really made me think about my own heart as a Christian parent; that my Savior wants my heart. thanks for this article.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.