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Engaging Your Child’s Heart Part 2

Truth in Love 321

Parents have the call to train and engage their children by pointing them to biblical principles and the fear of the Lord.

Jul 26, 2021

Dale Johnson: I’m Dale Johnson and you’re listening to Truth in Love, a podcast of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors where we seek to provide biblical solutions for the problems that people face. And this week, just like last, I have with me our Director of Training Center Certification, Dr. Sam Stephens. Sam, I’m always delighted to sit and have conversations with you. This week I want us to continue some of the thoughts we had from last week on engaging our child’s heart. 

And we talked about that certainly last week from a conceptual standpoint. I want us to move more into some practical things, and these are not gold standards. These are not legalistic things that we’re going to throw out. These are points of wisdom. We hope things that you and I have tried personally where we’ve seen good growth in our children, where we’ve been aiming at the things that we believe God has given us in the Scripture to talk with our children about, to teach them, to train them, and so on. 

We have learned these from other people. So these are not things that you and I, in our own personal wisdom, just thought of or came up with, but it’s been a conglomeration of hearing people teach the Word on some of these things and us working some of that out in the context of our own families. And I want to encourage our counselors when you’re engaging parents, and when you’re engaging children, in the counseling room, I think always first of all incorporate the work of the parents because biblically speaking that child’s authority is the parents. We can’t separate the work that we do with children from the context biblically of their parents. The child is certainly influenced to a great degree based on God’s design by the authority of the parents in their home for good sometimes or ill. 

We need to incorporate the work of the parents, and I think some of the things that we’re going to talk about today may be helpful for you as a counselor to think about in relation to homework that you could provide or just helpful bits of wisdom from the Scripture with rationale as to how a parent can help to train their children and to engage their children. So, Sam I want us to have a conversation. We mentioned a couple of things last week. I’ll talk in just a moment about the “If, Then” chart. Oddly enough, we’ve had several questions about that this past week and so I want to make sure that we address some helpful tips related to that. You guys engage your children in a lot of different ways, and just so that you guys know Sam has children. Remind me of their ages, Sam.

Sam Stephens: Yeah, we have a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a six-week-old. 

Dale Johnson: And so this is very authentic, Sam is still sleep deprived from the young baby, so this is going to be fun. My kids are a little bit older. They’re 17 all the way down to twins that are six, and we have six children total in our home. So sometimes our parenting now with the ages looks a little bit different, so we’ll talk through some of that. Sam, give us a couple of helpful things that you guys do to purposefully engage your children. 

Sam Stephens: Well, and moving into what you said, this is really important. An inherent part of biblical counseling is the practical nature of counseling. If you’re going to be a parent who wants to be proactive, like we talked about last week, not just reactive, you want to shepherd your children. You want to evangelize and prayerfully disciple your children to the cross. 

You have to have a plan. You have to have clear goals. We were so blessed to have wise counsel early in our marriage, before we even had children from saints much older than us, much further down the road than we were in the parenting journey, that gave us this counsel: You need to walk into parenting with the plan. I love what Randy Patten always says that sanctification doesn’t happen in fuzzy land, and that can definitely be applied in parenting. If you try to walk into it, you can have the best intentions, but if you don’t have a plan and goal in shepherding your children, it’s going to be that much more difficult to be successful. 

One tool that we have been very much blessed by was a gift to us from a dear friend and one of our ACBC certified members, Dr. Cheryl Bell. Sweet friend to our family and a mentor to my wife, and we call it the “I Choose” poster. What this looks like, and we can include it for our listeners to look at as an example that maybe will be helpful to them. It’s just a regular sheet of paper. We have it framed, and it’s hanging in our dining room, a place where a lot of our family activities take place. It’s a place that we bring the girls to quite often, both in discipline moments, but also just generally when we’re teaching them throughout the day. What we did was on this “I Choose” poster, we basically culminated a lot of the teaching that we do with our children. We looked at patterns and lessons that we come to quite often with the girls and now soon with our son as he grows older. We condensed it to basically eight different principles or eight directives that provide clear instruction and very clear goals as to what we’re aiming for in our home. We find this helpful because it does many things. Each of these things, you’ll notice when I walk through some of the examples, is one where we emphasize biblical principles and language. That’s very intentional. We want to use biblical language in our parenting. We want to point them to biblical principles.

This is the same thing that we do in counseling, right? When we’re counseling adults outside of the parenting context, we do the same thing. We want to use the language of Scripture to point people to the Word of God. And of course, the Bible speaks about this in Psalm 119:9-11. We want to hide God’s Word in our children’s hearts that they would not sin against God. These principles are grounded in Scripture, using biblical language very intentionally. 

What does this accomplish for us? One, it creates consistency in our home and in communicating to our children. And for communication between my wife and I. My wife works in the home. She’s a homemaker, homeschooler, and everything else in our home to make it work. I work, and so I’m out of the home a lot during the day. This chart helps my wife and I both get on the same page regarding where our girls are with discipline moments day-by-day and moment-by-moment. If there’s been something that my wife’s been talking to my girls about she can say, “Hey Sam, I’ve had this conversation with one of the girls, and it dealt with not listening and obeying.” That’s one of the principles on our chart. It helps me use the same language when I talk to my daughter, Audrey for example, that my wife had. We’re consistently communicating to our girls too. The last point is that it provides clarity in heated moments. Now you all know, if you have kids, you know what I mean by heated moments, okay, it’s those moments where everything is breaking loose, emotions are high, kids are screaming. I have little kids, so they’re pretty much screaming all the time, but instead of losing it and again being reactive in our parenting, we can go to the “I choose” poster, look at the principles that need to be addressed and go right to the Word. It is so helpful in many ways. This is actually more helpful for my wife and I than maybe even for the girls, but let me give you a couple of examples of what’s on this chart. We’re going to make it available to you in our show notes. 

The first principle at the very top is a principle that my prayer is a principle for all of our lives, my wife and I included. That principle is this: Lord, with your help, I choose to love you and others. We have Matthew 22:37-39 there as that principle. All of the directives that we have on this chart, these goals, these aims that we’re using for points of instruction for our girls and for our son, all are subsumed under this larger framework. Patience doesn’t mean anything, speaking truth doesn’t mean anything, thinking of others first, and being thankful. Those things lose true meaning if it’s not about loving God and loving others, as He has commanded us to do. Regardless of the teaching moment, or what is being addressed, specifically, my wife and I always go back to Matthew 22. This is something that my five-year-old and my three-year-old both understand and know because we’ve made it a consistent part of our parenting from very early days. 

Another component that we come across quite often is the idea of listening and obeying. I’m being very intentional with the “and” there, that conjunction. Listening and obeying—if they listen but don’t obey they’re being foolish, and the Scriptures talk about this. James has a lot to say about hearing and obeying or hearing and heeding. Colossians 3:20 also makes it very clear children are to be obedient to their parents in all things, for this pleases the Lord. So we use that quite often. 

I’ll give you a practical example. Hannah gives the girls a command, and they don’t do it. We keep saying, “Hey girls, you need to do this thing,” and then ultimately we have to call them to us and say, “What’s going on?” “Well, mommy, I heard what you said.” Okay well, that’s great. I’m glad you did, but you didn’t follow through. That’s not obedience, it’s hearing, and that’s great. But you have to obey. That’s a principle that we use quite often. 

Another one that we go to a lot is the idea of being patient. One thing that the Lord showed me through all this is being patient. My three-year-old is the one we really use this one a lot with right now, and it’s actually linked to the idea of trust. Yes, trusting my wife and I, man, they’re just so afraid that after 14 times of reminding that we’re going to forget to give them dessert. You know, “Are you going to give me dessert?” Yes, yes I will. See, they don’t trust us, but that’s linked to a larger lack of trust and that’s lack of trust in the Lord. And so being patient, trusting the Lord with all of our heart, not leaning on our own limited understanding (Proverbs 3) and committing our ways to the Lord. All of those things are extremely important that we’re called to be still before the Lord and wait patiently for Him and not to fret. These are principles that my three-year-old needs to learn. Hey, it’s principles that I need to learn as a 33-year-old. We don’t grow beyond that. We’re always being reminded that we have to trust and not fret. 

Then the last one, that we go to in this chart is the idea of a spirit of thankfulness and not having a critical spirit in our home. This is so easy because of the natural inclinations of the heart. Both of my daughters are not yet saved. We see this come out so frequently because there is no filter. I tell people all the time, especially my counselees with children. The only difference between a child’s sinful expressions and an adult’s is that we’ve become sophisticated sinners. My daughters don’t hide that, it’s just out there, and sometimes, to be honest with you, it’s pretty grotesque, but then I look at my own heart, and I go, “Oh, that’s not good.” But the spirit of thankfulness that we have a lot to be thankful for, and we want the peace of Christ to rule in our home and in our daughter’s hearts, and we know that won’t ultimately happen until they’re saved, but we’re going to shepherd them that way. Then just fun verses that we go to that we even sing. Psalm 118:24: This is the day that the Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it. We sing that song at the kitchen table every morning and it’s in the Scriptures. So these are just a few things that we go to. The reason why it’s so helpful, and again, we don’t have 20 things here, just eight, is that when my wife and I are always trafficking in biblical language, always dealing in the truth, always bringing them back to the Scriptures, we are also very quick to see these things, or the opposites of these things express our daughters hearts. When we see these things happening, we can very quickly address it and then show them what God’s expectations are. Because that’s really what this is all about. What are the expectations that we have for our kids, and how can we help them meet those expectations? 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, I think those are absolutely critical, and I’ll just add several things to that. When we parent, we do it with a disposition that is, as you mentioned, we are on the same page with them. And by that, we are pursuing sanctification ourselves. We’re not perfect. We’re not asking them to conform to us and our image. We’re asking our children, as they are redeemed and as we teach them the law of God so that they can recognize that they are sinners. We are teaching them to be conformed to the image of Christ and prayerfully, what begins to happen is they see that they are not in that image. That the law of God reveals that they are sinners, and that they see that they are truly guilty and shameful before the Lord. One of the things we use that I mentioned last week was the “If, Then” chart. It’s very similar, Sam, to what you were describing, and it has several things listed on this with disobedience sort of broadly. Defiance, particularly rebellion, when they know to do good and they’re not doing it. Particularly sinful responses, where they choose on purpose to do the wrong thing. When they’re arguing or fighting between siblings, when they’re complaining, things like that. This chart we really benefited from because in one column it has biblical passages that demonstrate that that’s a breach of what God expects of us as people and those who are created in the image of God. It’s really good for us because it’s not just our preferences. We are connecting our discipline and our correction and our encouragement and edification to passages in the Scripture that our children are breaching. We’re helping them to see the law of God. We’re helping them to understand that it’s His standard that they’re measured by. 

Some people ask me about parenting, and just say, you know, “Do we teach the Word to even our unbelieving children?” Well, yes, the Bible tells us to teach the commandments of the Lord to our children. Why? Because it raises up the expectation of what they will be measured by, so that when they do sin, and they will because they are born sinners based on Romans 5, and as they sin they will then recognize that they have sinned. When we do nothing, we allow them to be carried off by the cultural norms, and so when they sin there is no guilt, there is no shame, they’re doing what’s right in their own eyes, and they’re not guilty before the Lord, so they don’t need the gospel in their minds. It’s so important that we raise the commandments up before our children as we teach them so that when they feel guilt, they feel shame, it’s legitimate but we show them the rescue plan. We demonstrate that to them by our own lives. When we fail, we teach them that there’s a way home. 

Some of the most profound things that I’ve done and I don’t do as good at this as I should, we all can confess that this is true, but some of the most impactful times is yes, when I’m teaching them the Scripture, but even more so the moments when my kids see me fail, and they could probably tell you some good stories when they see me fail but when I come back to them, and I get on my knees. I looked them in the face, and I repent, and I ask for forgiveness to them. Those are some of the most profound times where it builds a relationship further with your children, but you’re demonstrating that there’s a way home for your children as well. And so what we’ll do is we’ll take this “If, Then” chart and we’ll revise this at times depending upon the season of our child’s life, the things that they’re struggling with, and so on, but we like to connect our discipline to specific things in the Scripture, and then we give a category or a biblical pursuit. So this is the idea of putting off, these are the things that you did, we learn to put this off. And these are the things that we’re trying to pursue. 

So I’ll give you an example: I don’t know about you guys. We have six kids, and so that’s eight sinful people in our house, so these kinds of things happen on a daily basis. When complaining happens in the house, or when bickering starts to occur, for example, if there’s some sort of complaining, Philippians 2:14, my kids can recite that passage. They’ve heard it so many times that we are called to do everything without grumbling or complaining. And so in the moment that we hear grumbling or complaining, we pause, and we try to do this as often as we recognize it, we pause, and then we turn to 1 Thessalonians 5 where the Scripture tells us to rejoice in all circumstances, to give thanks in all things. And what we do is we pause, we help them to recognize that they are complaining in this moment. Then we make them tell us three things that if they complained about their brother or their sister if they were bickering about something, we make them tell us three things that they appreciate or that they’re thankful for about their sibling or about whatever issue it is that they’re complaining about. And what that does is it is an attempt to correct the heart, to turn the heart and disposition to the things of God. 

Now listen, there are a thousand things that we could talk about here relative to wisdom. Proverbs teaches us it’s not about our child’s intellect, right? I want them to use their mind, the mind that God gives them as a steward. So I want my kids to be smart, we challenge them to do that, but knowledge in and of itself puffs up. The Scriptures tell us to pursue wisdom, and wisdom happens as we live life with our children. One of the most forgotten things I think in our American busy culture about parenting that’s so significant in the Scripture in the way God intends for children to be discipled is first of all, it’s the parents primary responsibility to accomplish that based on Deuteronomy 6, Psalm 78, 105, and 106 constantly in the Scriptures, Ephesians 6 reiterates that, the commandments are shaped around the parents being the primary focus and disciplers of their children. Teaching them both theological truth and sociological realities flowing out of who God is, and that’s the parent’s job and responsibility. But one of the key factors that we see in the Scriptures, Deuteronomy 6, is that we will be with our children. Now that’s significant. Why? Because parenting doesn’t happen in a series of lectures. Yes, lectures are a part of it. My kids will tell you that, and they love them. But the issue is that when you’re living life with them and things happen, you have immediate illustrations. You have immediate examples in life where you can tell spiritual truth. This is exactly the way that Jesus made His disciples—as He lived life with them, He helped them to interpret that experience from God’s perspective of good and evil so that they could define good and evil in their heart, and that’s what grows a child to maturity. 

I don’t want my child to just have a list of do’s and don’ts. I want them to understand why so that when they leave my house, they can make decisions on things that are good and evil from God’s perspective. To know what to stay away from and what to pursue with all their heart. So this is important, and I have a thousand more things listed, but we’re coming close to the end of our time. Let me mention maybe just one or two more things that have been really impactful for us. We try to start with the fear of the Lord. We want our kids to fear the Lord appropriately. So we try and talk about the things of God on a regular basis. When they make a comment about life or some sort of issue in life, or if we’re praying for someone who’s ill, we always try to introduce who God is, that He’s over all of creation, that He’s sovereign. So that our children learn to fear the Lord and we have a position where we trust what the heart of God is in relation to us. Sam, I wish we could go further on this, and there’s so much more we could say. I’m going to let you close out maybe with a couple of things, and then I want to add a few additions before we sign off today. 

Sam Stephens: I would just say that again, this mirrors biblical counseling quite well just as we counsel with the end in mind, we parent with the end in mind. I have young children, one day, God willing, they will be adults. I want a close and open and loving relationship with them as parents and friends, but I also want them to walk with the Lord. That’s the most important thing. So my parenting needs to be now, and not later but now oriented around them first off being saved, evangelizing them, but also walking with them in the sweet relationships and you have that now with your older children, I mean, you’re experiencing that even now but I want that with my kids. I want them to trust me. I want them to know, Daddy’s going to deal with us in truth. He’s not going to manipulate or lie to us. Daddy loves us even when there’s discipline, he draws us close, like the Lord does, that’s what I desire. So, keeping that in mind I think is vitally important. 

Dale Johnson: Yeah, and there are distinctions, I would say, in a couple of directions, the way we handle younger children and our primary mode is through processes of teaching, which is constantly repetitive in their life. And then, as they grow older, we get into more conceptual ideas and points of wisdom from the Scripture and really pursuing the things that God calls us to do. And there are distinctions in the way that we parent, particularly based on the Scriptures, even between genders. We have three boys and three girls, and the ways that I handle both of the genders in my home and the things that I’m preparing them for. I’m trying to teach my boys to bear the burden of responsibility. I’m trying to teach my young ladies to serve sacrificially and to understand what God says is beautiful and right and of value in their life as a feminine, young lady. Those values are being crushed today, and I want them to be able to stand strong, trusting in the Scripture and their value based on what God calls them to more than anything else. And so our parenting takes sometimes different shapes, obviously the same moral responsibility. But sometimes, the way in which we parent them flourishes into different things that we’re training them for because we believe that’s pleasing in the sight of God. 

I’ll finish with this that Ephesians 6 is so important, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord.” That command is not lost. It’s so important that you strive to guard your child’s heart and help them to pursue obedience. And the way that you do that is through consistency and not just teaching them to obey but teaching them to obey with a happy heart. That’s one critical piece of the puzzle. We’re not just creating Pharisees who obey just for external praise and pleasure. We want them to obey because their heart wants to. They begin to see and love and value what God calls them to. And this doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t happen in a week. That’s a part of why God, by His design, has granted us these children for an extended period of time because this is how true wisdom takes place. This is how we train children appropriately, as it takes time. 

And listen for you guys, Sam, who are in your shoes where you have really young kids. It’s exacerbating. It’s difficult. It’s hard. You want to throw in the towel so often, and you want to just take a nap in the afternoon, but who’s going to watch your kids? I mean, all these things are so, so difficult, but I can say diligence in that before the Lord, not just for the sake of what you might get in the lives of your children, that’s a secondary benefit but because you’re honoring the Lord faithfully with the stewardship that He’s given you is so critical. And as you counsel, be wise in how you instruct parents to care for their children to maybe change their whole paradigm about the way they think about parenting because our culture is going so different. That’s causing so much confusion and so much difficulty in this particular world. So use these principles, and again there are a thousand more things that we could say, and we may do that in the near future. This would be a really good topic for us to dive in on, I think and really offer some wisdom where we can from the Scriptures. Because right now, our culture is dealing with so many false narratives in relation to the ideas of CRT, egalitarianism, and racism. There’s so much confusion on these issues. Gender identity and sexuality, and your kids, our kids, are facing these things. And as counselors, we’re going to deal with these things, and we need to incorporate these good biblical ideas, using the value of the home and the structure of the home to accomplish some of these things that God intended in the way that He intended.

Helpful Resources

Engaging Your Child’s Heart Part 1

Truth in Grace Catechism – Tom Ascol

Shepherding a Child’s Heart – Ted Tripp

The Duties of Parents – J.C. Ryle

Thoughts for Young Men – J.C. Ryle

If, Then Chart

I Choose Poster