The Heart of Parenting

» Posted in Family Life, Parenting | 4 comments

The Heart of Parenting

I was speaking at a parenting workshop recently, teaching about how to discipline our kids. And as usual, I opened up the floor to questions and a discussion forum. What I found remarkable about the audience was how well-informed most of these parents were already about raising their kids. As I listened to their questions and conversations, I heard a lot of discussions about how to make sure that their kids were potty-trained by the time they were two, how to deal with tantrums, and how to teach their kids respect. Parents were well-read and had watched many television programs that taught them how to raise their kids.

But as I listened to their discussion, I started to see a trend that was uncomfortable for me. I saw how a lot of parenting appeared motivated by a desire for achievement and accomplishment, as parents talked about how their kids successfully met various milestones, or they shared concerns about how their kids were failing to reach certain goals. It was starting to feel like raising kids was a lot about behaviour modification and gaining the changes that parents wanted to see in their kids’ behaviour.

This type of thinking has been around for years, based on the principle that a child can be an object of reward or punishment, as is the case with a puppy, as part of shaping that child to be a healthy, law-abiding member of society. And to be honest, I have to acknowledge that much of this trend comes from the field of psychology, as this whole concept of behavioural modification came from esteemed colleagues in my own field of study. But you see, having worked in this field of psychology for over 20 years, I know that while behavioural modification has it’s place, it also misses some very key elements that speak to the heart of relationships.

The truth is how kids turn out is far more dependent on what’s going on inside their hearts rather than their outside behaviour. The same is true for adults, as I’ve worked with many clients who continue to be perplexed by why they can’t overcome behaviours that are dysfunctional for them even though they’ve read everything and tried every form of cognitive-behavioural therapy around. Don’t get me wrong, cognitive behavioural therapy certainly has its place and has been shown to help many people, but in my experience, it’s insufficient to bring about true and lasting change in a person, especially when a lot of our dysfunction stems from heart issues.

Another very alarming trend I see in parents these days is how much of today’s parenting is based on fear: fear of the world and bad things happening, fear of moral failure in our kids, fear of other people’s opinions, fear of our kids not reaching their potential, fear of our kids turning out badly. Our whole society is rooted in fear, as we watch the world around us and all the evil and atrocities that happen, as well as the many people we see who appear rootless and without any moral compasses to guide their lives.

Because of that, too many parents try to create rigid rules and expectations for their kids – the do’s and don’ts of proper behaviour. They read all these books of how to raise kids properly, and in the process of trying to implement the guidelines recommended, they end up controlling their children, and breaking their spirit. It’s too much again about managing our kids’ behaviour and not about connecting with our kids’ hearts.

These parents want to raise their kids to meet their own expectations, and they want their kids to fit the mold of whatever they think they should, whether it’s being a doctor or business person. They often think they know best for their kids – and deep down, these parents truly do want what’s best for their kids. But in their fear of their kids failing to reach their full potential or suffering from poor life choices, they push their kids to make what they would consider to be “right” decisions. And so they don’t allow their child to make their own mistakes and in so doing, they prevent their child from developing the internal character and resiliency to handle the tough stuff of life.

They think that if they can only get their kids to obey their high standards and if they tighten the boundaries, they’ll keep their kids safer, more successful and more moral. And when we over-control our kids, we often end up restricting our kids’ growing sense of selves, we also stifle their emotions, quashing dissenting opinions and the expression of emotions like anger and sadness.

And for those parents who are trying to raise their kids to have faith in God, they can actually end up hampering their kids’ faith journey because of their FEAR of their kids walking away from God. Many times, these parents can be over-protective and controlling in what they allow their kids to do, and they may even use the hammer of God to try to manage their behaviour – for example, “God won’t be happy with you if you do that…” Unfortunately this can create a false notion of God as a punitive and harsh God who cares more about the rules than he cares about their relationship with him – a version of God that’s not always very attractive to the kids as they grow into adulthood.

This parenting plan is based on two wrong assumptions; that the battle is mostly outside of your child, and that somehow the moral life can be transferred to a child’s heart, much like downloading information onto your computer from the internet. As I’ve said, the truth is how kids turns out is far more dependent on what is going on inside their hearts, rather than their outside behaviour, therefore, unnecessarily tight boundaries don’t develop a sense of moral values in their hearts.

When it comes to connecting with our kids and creating a thriving, healthy relationship with them, it sometimes takes a paradigm shift in how we see our roles as parents. Instead of seeing ourselves merely as authority figures who’re supposed to make our kids behave, or as our kids’ friends who’re supposed to make them happy, it’s important to see how we have been given the responsibility to equip our kids with the capacity to attach in healthy ways to other people in their lives, and to have the confidence to make wise choices for themselves.

Our job is to ultimately help our kids internalize a sense of security that is rooted in their capacity to love others and receive love from other people. With that sense of attachment and security, our kids will be able to explore, try new challenges, face difficulties, set tough personal goals and become effective influencers of others.

The ironic thing about relationship is that the more connected I am to my kids, the more likely I am to be a strong influence in their lives, not because of their fear of the consequences of disobeying me, but because they love me and just WANT to please me. This is especially key if you are raising teenagers because they are in a stage of individuating from you and their natural bent will be to buck your control in their lives. Trust me, lecturing and carping at them at this stage absolutely doesn’t work. Trying to control their choices with anger and harsh consequences also doesn’t work, because you may get outward compliance but inward, behind-your-back rebellion, or alternatively, passive acceptance of your control in their lives, which sets them up to have very weak wills and difficulty making good choices for themselves.

But if you’ve invested time into developing a connected relationship with them, you will continue to be a strong influence in their lives, even without words. It’ll be by virtue of their respect for you and their trust in your love and care for them that they will seek your counsel and advice during critical times in their lives.

I also wanted to emphasize that parenting with our heart is a grace-based way of parenting that actually mirrors God’s love and forgiveness, and replaces fear with grace as a motivator for parenting. With this approach, we learn to make grace, not fear, the driving force in our families. We learn to understand and nurture each child’s uniqueness, instead of quashing the special nature that God has given them. We learn to respond to our children’s emotional and spiritual needs in a way that will help them grow up to be healthy and secure adults. We learn to develop safe attachments to our children, so that they will WANT to maintain lifelong relationships with us, rather than out of obligation or guilt.

Stay tuned for more on healthy parenting strategies!

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  1. What an important issue on parenting. Thank you for your advice, Dr. Lin. It flows over into our adult lives too. We have a tendency to judge others by what we see on the outside, before we get to know who they are or how God has gifted them.

    • So true, Lynne! It’s so hard for us as parents with adult kids because we worry about them and want them to have a “good life”. So it is a challenge not to try to control their decisions and outward behaviour. But it’s so worth investing in building a relationship with our adult kids, even if things have been previously strained, so that we can enjoy the wonderful people that God has created them to be!

  2. I found this so helpful. A good reminder. Parenting is an overwhelming task, and I have desperately wanted to do it “right”. Learning to give grace to myself and to my kids (though one is now an adult…how I wish I could go back and so some things over), is important. My one remaining child is now a teenager and hopefully, my parenting will grow as she grows…

    • Hmmmm… I love it! Thanks for your open heart to learn and grow as a person and a parent! That’s the amazing thing about God’s grace is how he does redeem our stories (and that of our kids) if we choose to trust God with our brokenness and mess-ups.

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