when you're tempted to whitewash your kids

The story goes that an older woman perched uncomfortably on an examination table when a young doctor walked in.

"How's it going?" greeted the young resident, glancing over the thick chart.

"Oh, it's going." replied the patient.

"I see you seem to be losing your hair," observed the resident, "I can prescribe something for that."

"Well, I-" the woman began, but the almost-doctor interrupted.

"Take this to the the pharmacy and they'll get that taken care of."

The woman nodded, sighing, patient.

"Anything else I can help you with?" asked the pleased young man.

The woman started to talk when an older doctor walked in and greeted her warmly. 

"Marjorie, so good to see you. How's the chemo going?"


It's laughable, isn't it? The idea of prescribing meds for hair loss when the real issue is cancer eating at the bones? But I find myself doing this, metaphorically speaking, all the time.

I think it is human nature to fix, to treat, to want to clean up the outside because maybe the inside will follow. Or maybe we think we'll never be able to clean up the inside, but at least it will all look a little less messy to the rest of the world.

If there's one thing that I've learned from parenting, first with 23 teens and now with my own 4 littles, it's that I am a mess. I have issues and insecurities and so much ugliness marinading in my soul. 

And then- oddly enough- God gave me kids who are a mess. They are selfish and stubborn and willful and ugly and sometimes they flat out do not care that they have hurt those around them. Of course that isn't all of them (as it isn't all of me), but it's a lot of it. They are just a few years old, carrying around emotional baggage and I'm trying to figure out where in the world they found the strength to lift it in the first place, and how do I take it from them, unpack it, and help them let it go.

There are two approaches to helping people grow (well, there's probably a lot more than two. But for the sake of this brief post that I want to write, edit, and post during nap time- let's just stick to these main two.) There is behavior modification and heart renovation.

Behavior Modification is the belief that behavior can be modified. It's true, really. You can give your son an M & M every time he says, "Thank you, mommy" and he will say that so often you'll go through M&M's by the pound. But then that same sweet son with the chocolate on his breath will turn and punch his sister.

Why? You taught him to say thank you; you didn't teach him to be kind. 

Heart renovation, on the other hand, attempts to get at the insides, the messy stuff, the reason behind why he hits his sister and why he sasses you and why he stomps his little foot. Heart renovation functions on the premise that if I can help your heart and character to be healthy, then healthy behaviors will pour out of that.  

Trouble is, like all great renovation projects, heart renovation turns out to be way more expensive and a much longer process than you bargained for. 

I'm not saying there isn't a place for behavior modification; it works awesome when you are teaching new behaviors. 

Potty training? Yep.

Sitting at the table? Sure.

Learning chores? Uh-huh. 

But it can be pretty empty when it comes to addressing the real things that are going on inside. 

Jesus had a few things to say about this. Seems to me that the Pharisees were the behavior mod advocates of their day. They were so consumed with the behaviors of the people (how they prayed, how much they gave, what they did with the Sabbath, who was clean and unclean) that they didn't have the wisdom to get at the heart of those things. 

Jesus had something to say about that...
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean." -Matthew 23:27
Yeah, take that, Pharisees! That's what you get for obsessing over the outside, for manipulating those under your care, for pretending to have it all together.

(What's that, son? No, I can't help you right now. Mommy has to finish getting ready, put on make up, clear the dining room table, and shine up all the kids before our friends come over.)


The truth is, I whitewash. I whitewash myself. I whitewash my marriage. And, maybe worst of all, I try to whitewash my kids. 

I say things like, "Stop hitting. Stop screaming. Stop pouting. Stop whining." and then I wait for results.

How often do I get down on my knees, look my sweet kids in the eye, and think, "Jesus, give me wisdom. Why is my kid hitting and screaming and pouting and whining? Help me to help them."

Instead, I'm like the doctor looking at hair loss while the insides are under attack.

I don't have many answers, and so I'm hesitant to even offer suggestions. But I also get irritated with writers who make a call to arms without actually arming me, so here are a few ideas.

Consider patterns

Sometimes a behavior is temporary, lasts just a few days or weeks. But you may, over time, find that one of your kids has a long term habit of _________________. I, personally, would put more energy and focus toward those long term things because they hint towards your child's tendencies.

Break down the behavior

The tricky thing about behavior (and the clue that helps you find a root for it) is that four kids can all show the same behavior but be doing it for different reasons. 

For example, maybe your daughter bullies her older brothers (purely theoretical, of course). Here are a few possible causes:
  1. She's a bully.
  2. She feels ignored that they leave her out, so she acts out her hurt in anger.
  3. She doesn't really understand how to play with them, so she has resorted to this behavior out of frustration.
  4. She acts out to get attention from her parents.
  5. She is imitating something she saw on TV about how a younger sister treated her older brother (thanks a lot, D.W.)
Do you get the point? If you simply try to modify the behavior, you miss the opportunity to deal with her insecurity, teach self-control, talk about positive and negative role models, or ultimately help her look to Jesus for help. 

I know, this part can take a lot of discernment, and sometimes you just don't really know why a kid is doing something. But even if you don't know the why, you can still focus on the heart and not the act. 

Instead of "Honey, please stop hitting" you can say, "Honey, please be kind." Kindness is the goal, not simply eliminating hitting. 

Instead of "Stop whining" the conversation could start with, "From what you are saying, you don't sound very thankful to me. Are you thankful?" (Whining, I believe, comes from an ungrateful heart.)

And (the classic around here), when I say "You need to get yourself under control", what I probably mean is "I would like you to try to use self-control right now." 

Take the time 

Let's face it, most of the time when I don't handle my kids' sin with the right heart, it's because I am in a hurry. And heart stuff is slow and messy, requiring a patient mama who has to be willing to invest time in the long run. 

You can't rush a renovation, and there is no "Extreme Home Makeover" edition of shepherding a toddler's soul. There just isn't!

Which brings me to my final point...

Keep the end in mind.

At the end of the day, when I am through with homeschooling and my kids are grown and Garrett and I are sitting on the back porch sipping mai tais and watching the sunset, I want my kids to love Jesus. 

I don't really care if they go to college. 

I don't care if they own homes or go into ministry or have one kid or ten kids or choose to serve Jesus in unorthodox ways. 

I just want them to love Him with a love that binds them to Him, to know His voice so that they can follow.  

In order to do that, they have to be able to examine their hearts, to discern what is bad and what is OK, to know what to do with the stuff that is bubbling out of them and threatening their relationships. And I have the privilege of training that, modeling that, walking through that with them every single day. 

Your sweet children will learn confession and repentance and forgiveness most powerfully as you model it for them, walk it with them, urge them in it.  

So put away the white paint and the brushes. Turn down the volume on the voices in your head that worry what others think, because it's often those voices that lead us to take a quick fix in regards to our kids' behavior. 

Invite the Spirit to move in you, in your home, in the hearts of your littles. And I think you'll find that it's worth it, that it's a grueling process, and that you will be changed along the way.

Because that's the way it is with heart renovation. As I seek to love others well, my own renovation begins a new phase.

I've come to terms with the fact that my heart is, at best, a 'fixer upper'. And I am actually OK with this. And I'm done fixing up the outside, planting flowers while ceilings rot, painting fences while structures wobble, and projecting a facade to the world that this  here house is really in good shape. 

It ain't. 

But it is under construction, undergoing a quiet and painful and committed refining, under the watchful eye of One who makes all things beautiful in His time. 

And last I checked, He'll do that in my kids, too. 


Uncle J said...

I feel like we have had this discussion in a number of counseling classes; appreciate the wisdom and insight!

Jenni said...

So, so good. Thank you.