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Engaging Your Child’s Heart

Truth in Love 320

The Bible call parents to be proactive in the way in which they engage and shepherd their children's hearts.

Jul 19, 2021

Dale Johnson: Today on the podcast, I am delighted to have with me a frequent guest on the podcast. Dr. Sam Stephens is our Director of Training Center Certification, and I just always love having a conversation with him. I think it’s maybe a bit more helpful, and today, I want to introduce you to a new curriculum that we have. We are really excited. This has been something that’s been in the works for a couple of years. Our new curriculum is devoted toward high school students, those who are in Christian Schools, even in public schools, or homeschooling. We’ve built a curriculum that’s based around the fundamentals of biblical counseling. Part of that has to do with wanting to give a biblical perspective on things regarding the social sciences that your kids will encounter in school, and we want to provide a biblical alternative to that so that people can understand the context of what gets categorized often in secular psychological areas and then challenge your children to think biblically about these types of issues.

What I want to do first is I want us to discuss the importance of this type of curriculum and your children engaging in these types of ideas or these types of problems that they’re going to face. I find it interesting consistently that so many people ask these very difficult questions about parenting, and listen, parenting is very difficult; parenting is not easy. If you want to be sanctified, become a parent. That’s one of the ways that the Lord uses to challenge what we think we might have under control. It is difficult work. And so, I don’t want to minimize that fact, but the Bible has so much to say about the way in which we shepherd and engage the hearts of our children. One of the things I fear Sam, however, is that the way sometimes we approach these issues is we have a tendency to want to say, “Oh, there’s so much evil around,” and there is, but we want to shelter our children and is sheltering our children to a certain degree okay? Yes, but I think it misses some of the points.

When we think about this issue of sheltering, that was a dominant sort of parenting style specifically among believers in the 70s, 80s, 90s where we want to just keep our kids from all things that are evil. There’s a problem with that. It’s that the Bible says that our kids are born wicked. They have evil that’s within them. They are sinners. They naturally tend toward sinful dispositions, and without the grace of Christ, they will continue in that way just like you and I did and still do to some degree. Sam, I want us to talk about this issue of sheltering. But I want us to put it in context of what I see the Scripture saying in places like Proverbs 1 and other areas—shepherding versus sheltering. How do we think about shepherding in this context and making parenting something that’s proactive, right? We often think about it in terms of being defensive, I want to keep my kids from this and then they’ll turn out okay. That’s very defensive in parenting. The Bible says to be proactive in the way in which we engage our children.

Sam Stephens: I think to launch into this, just to reiterate first off that, we’re so grateful for the grace of the Lord in parenting. As we talk about this, my wife and I are fairly in the early days of parenting. I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a six-week-old. And so we’re in our early, early years, and you’re a little bit, even some are a little bit further down the road than we are. You have young kids, but you’ve got one about to start college soon. But in the midst of all this, I think just to kind of set the whole landscape here is just first off thanking the Lord that He is with us in every aspect of our Christian walk, and that includes parenting because I don’t think you ever feel fully equipped to be a parent until the Lord blesses you with a child and then He gives you the grace to do that. I think that’s key to what you talked about when we think about sheltering and shepherding and what those distinctions look like. I think it is helpful to think about it in terms of being proactive versus reactive.

I’ll give you an example of where we are right now in our parenting life. As I mentioned, if you caught what I said, I have a five-year-old, a three-year-old, and a six-week-old. So to say that our household is a little bit chaotic would be putting it mildly, but there are fun days. They’re sweet days, but there’s a lot of discipline right now, and as I think about where we are in our parenting journey, this idea of being reactive versus proactive really hits the ground running when it comes to discipline and what that looks like. We’ve made a lot of mistakes. We will continue to do that. But our position in parenting is to try to shepherd our children’s hearts as much as possible. I know many of our listeners are probably very familiar with Tedd Tripp’s book Shepherding a Child’s Heart. I could not recommend that book enough. We have read it multiple times. I’m sure we’ll be reading it a lot more as we continue on into the young childhood years where we are right now in our parenting journey, but a key idea in discipline is explain to our children why they need correction. Right now, a verse in our home that we repeat quite often is one that you’ll probably be surprised by its foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child.

We tell that to our kids quite often. That probably sounds kind of cruel, but even our five-year-old fully understands, and we want her to understand, that when she disobeys her mom or she disrespects her parents, or she chooses what she wants, which is quite often, that’s foolishness, according to what the Scriptures say, that’s selfishness. But in our exhaustion, in our busyness, in our desire as parents, our sinful desires to maybe sometimes want to parent towards behavior and not so much the heart, we can be reactive in our discipline. I have shouted at my children before; I have spanked my daughter out of anger. That’s not something that we want to be, to characterize our parenting.

So what do we do to kind of guard ourselves from being reactive in our discipline and specific? Well, one thing that we do is we explain to our children—we do it in age-appropriate ways (again, five-year-old, three-year-old). But what I’ve learned amazingly, and again in the short time that I’ve been a parent, is that our kids know a lot more than we give them credit for. Taking time in the heat of the moment, in the heat of a discipline issue, our children are hitting each other, they’ve got crayons all over the walls, other things have happened. We take a moment. We stop and say, “Listen, discipline is coming because of this, but let me explain to you why.” That has been the most helpful thing. One that I think brings our children closer to the realization of the gospel and their need for Christ.

But secondly, it’s also a check in my spirit, as a dad, and my wife’s spirit as a mom, to help us understand why we’re doing what we’re doing and the spirit behind our discipline—that we do it in love. My wife and I are memorizing Proverbs 3 right now and in the midst of that chapter, it’s what we’re teaching our kids as well, that we discipline because the Father disciplines us, but the Father disciplines those whom He loves. Explaining to our kids why we are disciplining them, explaining the heart behind why they do what they do. It’s funny when I ask my daughters all the time, “Why did you hit one another? Why did you take this thing? Or why did you speak to your mom in an unkind way?” Do you know what they tell us? And it’s not because of conditioning or things that we’ve planted in their minds. They just say this: “Because I wanted to.” It expresses the natural inclination of their hearts. I think just an example of proactive parenting that is very practical and happens every day, multiple times a day, in our home is just how can we position discipline that looks very different from the world. I don’t want to be that parent out in the store—and I’ve seen it this many times—just yelling at their kid to stop and placating their bad behavior to just get immediate gratification. We have to be in it for the long game. We have to be in it to win their souls, and that takes explaining, that takes correction and discipline when necessary, but always pointing them to Christ and their deep need for Him.

Dale Johnson: Yeah, that’s exactly right. One of the things that Summer and I have done with our young children is using an if-then chart. That helps us proactively know some of the sins and the issues that are our individual kids, all of our six kids, individually dealing with different things in different ways, knowing some of their tendencies, and going ahead and giving an equal punishment to the sin that they’ve committed at that moment, trying to give instruction based on Proverbs chapters 1 and 2 and helping them to see, scripturally speaking, how they pursue their own way or foolishness in this particular moment, as opposed to giving themselves for the sake of another. And that helps us to not be dominated by our emotions at that moment. We’ve sat down, we’ve thought through the issues that our kids are dealing with, we’ve given biblically appropriate ideas on what should be a good response in shepherding the heart of that child when that comes up, and we’re doing that not in the intensity of a moment where it’s difficult, and emotions are high, and you’ve taught this for the tenth time for the tenth day in a row and things get difficult.

You’re engaging in a proactive way, and there’s a lot more that I think we could say about that, but what we’re trying to help, I think biblically us to see, is that there’s an engagement that happens from us with our children and that certainly at a young age, but that doesn’t cease after their young. I think it’s important for us to see that one of the primary things that we are called to teach our children based on Proverbs 1 is the fear of the Lord and that is an active thing. Sheltering builds in our mind to defend them against something, and are there a thousand things out there to defend our children against? Yes. Absolutely. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do that. I’m not minimizing those evils that are out there. All I’m saying is that the Bible tells us a primary way that we build our children, that we instruct our children is active. We pursue teaching them the fear of the Lord, not necessarily keeping them from this thing or that thing.

Now, Sam, what I want to do is just get very practical. Why is sheltering in parenting such a draw, especially for us who love the Bible, who want to pursue righteousness. We want our kids to be righteous. We want them to pursue good things. Let’s talk about some of those things out there that are scary to us, and the culture is consistently growing. Listen, I don’t know if you’re one of these parents who, you know, you’ve wrestled to some degree with all the stuff that’s going on, or maybe you’re unaware, and all my kids aren’t aware of some of the things going on. Listen, your kids are aware of the things that are going on out there. Especially those who are in, you know, middle school up into high school age, they’re aware of some of the things that are going on through commercials, through music, through chatting with friends, even though they may have only homeschooled friends or something like that. I mean, they are aware of the things that are going on around them. Let’s just talk basically about some of those things that we struggle with out there in the world that we see there are evil things that we want to do everything we can to keep our children from. 

Sam Stephens: Well, I’ll tell you before I became a parent I told myself, “I will never be that parent out the helicopter dad. Never, that is so wrong. I trust the Lord. I’ll never do that then I had kids.” And I don’t want anything to touch them, you know? If I could, I feel like I would. I’m gonna put them in a bomb shelter underground, and you’ll be released when you’re 30, and it’ll all be good. And it’ll be fine. But no, that’s not the way we’re called to live as believers. We can’t do that, and it’s not right. But there are a lot of things out there in the world that, as a young parent, frightened me—and you would think that, having children in the home. We’re going to homeschool, that’s our personal choice. We have a five-year-old, three-year-old, six-week-old, we’re not getting out very much right now, but through television, through even kids programming and shows that we think all these are fairly innocent, we’ve already had to have a lot of conversations with our five-year-old, about a plethora of different things.

One, which caught me totally off guard, was something that we watch this fairly innocent show about princesses. And, you know, little girls love princesses, and that’s fine. But there were questions about magic, demon possession even in the show and shocking things that me and my wife were like, “This is a Disney thing, like where is this coming from?” My daughter is very sensitive to things like that, having nightmares. Another thing is sexuality and shows nowadays, even in these shows that come on PBS. We don’t have cable. We’re just getting free programming, same-sex couples in children’s shows. I didn’t realize how on top of that I had to be as a parent. I thought, “Well, this is pretty innocent, Sesame Street. I grew up on Sesame Street,” but the culture is indoctrinating our children in very seemingly innocent ways, but it’s got a very clear message. My daughter is very aware of those types of things. She brings those things up. So as she sees it, she asked questions about it, already at five. 

Dale Johnson: I would say Romans 1 warns us against this constant pattern of sinful digression, if you will, that happens in the culture. It’s a normalization of these types of things, like same sex-attraction or even issues of mental health, where we normalize those ideas as if, “Well, these things are just normal parts of life.” And we just have to deal with them. And the way our culture deals with it is X, Y, and Z and, you know, issues of sexuality that go beyond same-sex attraction. I was reading an article last night about demisexuality and different types of sexuality that our kids are being faced with as if they have questions they have to answer regarding these things.

Here’s the thing that I want to warn us about relative to sheltering is sheltering does not help us to pursue teaching our children wisdom. I think shepherding, sometimes I use the word censuring, what I mean by that is the way that a person grows in wisdom is through the fear of the Lord—learning to discern good and evil from God’s perspective. Now, I understand that there are age-appropriate times that I want to introduce my kids to certain things or that I know they’re going to experience certain things. There are certain times at age-appropriate places where I say, “No, I don’t want them to encounter this type of evil,” but as they grow older, they will encounter evil, and I have to help them to think thoroughly through that. As they live life, a part of the Deuteronomy 6 model is to teach and engage them as they experience life. Why? So that, as I engage them and I shepherd them, I shepherd them to think through the lens of the fear of the Lord about that particular issue, whatever it is, this is how God sees this so that it’s in the proper category of good and evil.

Remember, if they’re born into foolishness, how are they going to interpret these things? They’re going to start to call things good that the world says are good, and we know that’s moving in the opposite direction of what God says. It will normalize sin. It won’t build a conscience that’s against the things of the world or against sin. So when they commit sin, there’s no conscience of guilt or shame before a holy God. Our job is to help them to engage life. Not shelter them completely, especially as they grow older, to engage the issues that they’re facing around them. For what purpose? Hebrews 5:14, I want to make them wise so that they are able to discern good and evil. That’s exactly what Solomon says for us to do with our children is to instruct them primarily in the fear of the Lord, and then he goes on to describe, you know? “Hey, son, don’t follow after that adulterous woman; she’s begging you to and enticing you to come with her, but that’s evil according to God’s eye, and this is what is good to pursue this way, or that way.” And that’s what I think we’re called to do as parents.

So, why did we do this curriculum? We want to help you, give you a tool to engage these types of very difficult issues. For example, one of our books that we are using in this high school curriculum is Counseling the Hard Cases. And in there, you’re going to discuss issues like OCD. This is a common part of our cultural language. It’s a part of our culture. We want our children to think biblically about that, we want to engage them actively. Sexuality, the idea of homosexuality or other forms and versions of sexual identity. They are encountering it everywhere. We want to teach them to think biblically about it. We’re not going to keep them from it, right? They’re going to encounter it. So can we pursue biblical wisdom, teaching them to fear the Lord.

Sam Stephens: And Dale, just to cut in to speak to that like you said, we can’t get away from that, we take our children to the park to play. They see same-sex couples all the time. They see that as different, they know. They have mommy and daddy at home. When they see two men together, two women together, my daughters ask questions. Children are naturally curious. We just discussed too where we live in Kansas City. They just signed an ordinance where all new government buildings and then those that are renovated from here on out are going to have gender-inclusive restrooms. They’re going to notice, there’s a difference between a woman’s restroom, a little girls’ restroom, and a boys restroom, and now there’s this third option. Children are going to ask those questions. I think it’s going to happen much earlier than we expect or even want. 

Dale Johnson: Yep. And so, I think running from these issues or sheltering your kids away from them is not going to be helpful, but engaging them purposefully to help them to see these issues from God’s perspective, so they put it in the right category of that which God says is good and that which He says is evil. And listen, that’s the whole purpose of this curriculum. It’s not going to answer all your questions, but we want to encourage that style of parenting where we are unafraid to embark on some of these issues. And listen, we want to encourage you as parents to engage your children on this level because when they’re in high school, listen, if you’re not talking them about some of these things, they’re already learning from other sources of wisdom and the Lord has put you in the place to help be proactive in to engage their hearts.

Recommended Resources

Foundations of Biblical Discipleship High School Curriculum