Years ago, when my son was just a waddling toddler, testing his independence and voice, my husband would get home from work he would scream as I pulled him away from whatever he was doing to welcome his daddy home. It hurt our hearts that he seemingly didn’t want to say “hi” to his dad and at first we even took this tantrum personally. For weeks I forced him to do it, his two-year-old frame wrestling against me every time I picked him up and made him come to the door to greet his dad. I just figured this was how I made him learn to do something I wanted him to want to do. I mean, I was the parent, and I was bigger and it was the right thing to do so I just made him do it. But it didn’t feel right. And I quickly saw that forcing him to do it was not changing his heart’s desire to do it.

And isn’t that what we as parents really want?

We don’t just want our children to do the right thing, we want our children to want to do the right thing.

We want our children to want to drop everything and run squealing to the door when daddy comes home from work.

We want our children to want to sit nicely at the table and eat what we made for them, maybe even say “thank you for dinner, mom!”

We want our children to make good decisions when it comes to their friendships.

We want our children to want to do well in their academics, or sports, or extra activities.

We want our children to desire a good relationship with their siblings.

We want our children to pursue their own relationship with Christ.

But we quickly realize that we can not pick up a teenager and force their nose into the Bible. We cannot force our children to make friends with the kids we want for them. We cannot make them be happy when we serve them certain vegetables at dinner. We cannot change their hearts.

I mean we can try…but it usually backfires like I saw with my two-year-old son. As the weeks drug on, his tantrums just got worse and worse as I forced him to do something I wanted him to do.

So what can we do as parents?

We must model.

For my young son, instead of picking him up and forcing him to hug his father, I started doing it myself. I made a huge deal of daddy coming home, excitedly getting up from our play time and running over to give him a hug and kiss and ask how his day was. I probably even squealed a little bit for added affect. And little by little, as I did this consistently day after day, my little son started doing it too! (and he still does to some degree!)

So whenever parents come to me, often frustrated, to ask the question of, “How do I get my kid(s) to …(fill in the blank)?” I ask them if they are doing it and how they are modeling that behavior or skill or attribute to their child.

Want your kids to love reading? Read to them. And let them see you reading.

Want your kids to eat their vegetables? You eat them and show them how you like them!

Want your kids to enjoy going to church every Sunday? You tell them how much you enjoy it!

Want your kids to get up early and have their own time in God’s Word? You do it and you let them see how important this priority is to you!

This principle applies to almost every area of parenting children, and is especially effective in the younger, foundational years. As your children age, some of that behavior “cement” has hardened and you may find it more difficult to change those behaviors that have already been set. But you keep modeling it. You keep telling them why you love reading your Bible and what God is teaching you. You keep saying “please” and “thank you” and eating your vegetables with a smile on your face. And you pray for their hearts to change. Because you can not change their hearts, only God can.

The sooner parents recognize that they cannot control their children, the easier it is to let go and lead. Jesus tells his followers to learn from Him: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30). Paul reminds the disciples, whom he often called his children, in the churches He planted to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Modeling was Jesus’ ministry. God came down in the flesh to model for us what a perfect, seek-God-first life looked like. Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He modeled how to pray. He modeled how to love others. He modeled dependence upon God and the Holy Spirit. He modeled how God’s Word was central to His life and ministry. And He modeled obedience to the will of God the Father even to the point of death (Philippians 2:6-8).

Just as in the parable of the faithful steward in Luke 12 (or the negative example of a dishonest steward in Luke 16), God calls us as parents to be stewards, faithful and wise, with the children God has given us.

So next time you find yourself getting frustrated at your child for something you want them to do and they are not doing (everything from having a poor attitude to negative behavior), first consider what example you can model for them.

For we cannot expect an orange tree to grow and bear fruit if you didn’t plant an orange seed in the first place. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).

If you need some help seeing how you can apply this to your own parenting situation, schedule a free 30-minute consultation with me here and we can work through how to apply this concept to your parenting challenges.