One benefit of focusing on the heart in training your children is not only a legacy of godliness that lasts, but it will also enable them to get along better with people. There is an emphasis today on developing “people skills” so that we might be successful. However, this can (if not from the heart) become a tool to manipulate people to get one’s own way rather than an expression of genuine love and concern.
The deeper need is to develop a heart that loves the Lord because a person that genuinely loves God will love people, too. When one loves the Lord it touches the deepest level of their motivations and the fruit is a heart to serve and love other people, not just to be nice to make an impression or to use as leverage for selfish purposes.
Loving God is so intertwined with loving people that the Bible teaches if you do not love people you have never been born again. A very serious statement, but one that is supported by the Word of God.
“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love….If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen?” (I John 4:7-8, 20)
While we can learn and improve in how to be more courteous and show our love in practical ways, the love of God that is given to us at the new birth (Romans 5:5) motivates us to love people authentically, even to a point of sacrifice. This is not something that is learned to be used as a technique for relationship building, but is given to us by God Himself. It is the norm for a true believer.
Loving people is not optional for one whose heart has been touched by God’s grace – “Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is born of God: and every one that loveth him that begat loveth him also that is begotten of him.” (I John 5:1) “But as touching brotherly love ye need not that I write unto you: for ye yourselves are taught of God to love one another.” (I Thessalonians 4:9)
The first step to having a heart for Christ is a personal understanding of the gospel and our need to be saved. The nature of salvation is a relationship with God through faith in the Person and work of Jesus Christ (John 17:3). Ultimately the best way a parent can influence the heart of their child is to help to bring him to salvation. This changes the heart forever and gives the child a desire to not only love the Lord, but also people.
Of course, the place where we ought to be the kindest and most loving is in our homes and that often is not true. Someone sarcastically wrote, “Home is the place where family members go when they are tired of being nice to other people”.
If I want my children to love each other then it must extend beyond verbal exhortations to “Be nice and share” or “Say, I’m sorry”. If the desire for these actions is not in the heart of a child, the behaviors you teach them and expect from them will not last. Again, all behavior originates in the heart and only the new birth can change the heart (II Corinthians 5:17).
So, let’s focus on the heart of our children, their personal needs, even their failures, and allow the power of the gospel to change them internally. One of the evidences of this transformation is a heartfelt love for God and people.
When I was nine years old my mother took my younger brother and sister to Arkansas to visit relatives on her side of the family. (I remember we only had one car so they had to take a bus). Typically I would have gone along for the trip, but I stayed behind with my father because I had football practice. So, it was just me and Dad for three days at home.
After he picked me up from my practices each afternoon we did special things. One night we went for ice cream. Another night he took me to run some errands with him and we went out to eat. Back then, our family rarely went out to eat and took almost all of our meals at home. Then, one evening he again surprised me and took me to a family putt putt course to play miniature golf. We had been here several times before with all of the family, but this was the first time I had ever been with my father alone.
Though I was very young I was aware at the intentional focus that he was giving to me and was overwhelmed emotionally about it. During these days he gave me no life-changing lectures or tried to correct my flaws. He simply focused on giving me his heart.
I remember as we left the putt putt course and drove away it was dark outside and very quiet in the car for a minute or so. My heart was so full of love for my Dad and I wanted to tell him, but I didn’t know how or what to do. Finally, I summoned up the courage (and it was such a difficult experience for me that I still remember the exact words though it was almost fifty years ago) and said, “Daddy, I think you’re the best Daddy in the world”. I gave him my heart….because he had given me his heart.
Fast forward several decades later. When one of my sons and I were out one evening spending some time alone after doing some fun things together it was dark and quiet in the car for a bit and my son broke the silence and spontaneously said, “Dad, I think you’re the best Dad in the world. When I get older I want to be a preacher, too, just like you”. (I clearly remember exactly where he said this because it meant so much to me. Incredibly, it was not far from the very place when I was a young boy, many years earlier riding alone with my father, and had said much the same thing to him).
Tears begin to fill my eyes and spill down my face. My heart was so full and grateful. I was glad I had let my father know, even as a young boy, that I treasured him and now I was experiencing the same joy. No amount of money can buy that feeling! Both of those times were very precious to me.
Later on as I thought about it, both situations had a common thread – it wasn’t a formal situation where this happened, we were just spending time together. My dad gave me his heart and I reciprocated. Many years later, I gave my son my heart and he gave me his. I learned to do that from my father.
“And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers…” (Malachi 4:6)
A classic book that is a tremendous help in reaching the heart of a child is “The Blessing” by
Gary Smalley and John Trent. I try to read it every couple of years to remind me of the importance of blessing my children and it gives some practical pointers that are very helpful.