Ask me to recall the offense and I couldn’t tell you. My eldest, then five years old, earned herself a consequence. In an effort to get her to “think twice,” I thought of a consequence that would get her attention, albeit not necessarily related to the offense.

“No desserts,” I emphatically pronounced to the kindergartener.

Around the midpoint of her term, I overheard one of her classmates gushing about the cupcakes they had in class that day. What five year old could resist? I didn’t need to ask. She sat quietly while I tried to extract a confession from her.

My daughter whispered, “Mom, when I noticed in the morning that my friend brought cupcakes for her birthday, I saved a cheese stick from lunch so I would have something to eat too.”

Her response caught me off guard. I was devastated. I can’t imagine the willpower it took for her to reject that cupcake for a left over cheese stick. She did reject a delicious cupcake in order to obey me. Why didn’t it sit well with me?

Proverbs exhorts parents, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).

The question for me became, did my approach accomplish effective training?  How do parents best “train” our children?

According to scripture, behavior is only a symptom of a bigger issue – the heart. God says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:23, NIV).

What we do reflects our hearts. Thus, the best training we can offer our children is not to simply modify their behavior but influence their hearts to revere the Lord.

My approach changed my daughter’s behavior. But did it mold her heart? Probably not.

The truth is, our children won’t always be under our supervision. How do we incline them to not depart from the narrow path?  Focusing on their behavior will only get them so far down the road. But focusing on the heart, well, that’s a different story.

Simply seeking to influence our child’s behavior can be an empty exercise that does not instill permanent changes. A heart modification, however, reflects a deep level transformation that results in a child’s honest assessment of who they are in light of God’s holiness and their sinfulness.

We have no easy task training our children in the way they should go. Accomplishing repeated indoctrination will require forging discipleship strategies that appeal to the heart of the child while they are young. This gives parents the time to develop a beautiful relationship with the child to garner blessings for both the parent and child into adulthood.[2] Planning discipleship strategies that focus on the heart enable parents to get us ahead of the game so we don’t find ourselves simply putting out “behavioral fires.”

It’s been years since that day. Our strategies have changed. Recently, we were saying our bedtime prayers and going over the day. My daughter said, “Mom, I am so thankful and appreciate the way you and dad parent. I know you teach me what you do for my good, to mold my heart.”