I’m not saying Don Henley was a prophet, but I do agree with him that the heart of the matter is the heart, and it matters. Well, maybe that's not exactly what he was singing about, but I still think it's true.
I shared some of my favorite books that have helped shape my understanding and philosophy of parenting (see If being a parent were easy, everyone would be doing it, right?) and there's a progression that can be noticed in that series of books.
At first, the focus was on changing the behavior—helping set up the structure of choices and consequences—so that a kid can experience the way the “real world” works. And there is nothing wrong with this. It helps a young person learn responsibility, decision-making, and independence. But if living in the “real world” were enough to give us all the feedback we need to ensure great behavior by adults then “Jerry Springer” would not be on TV.
I migrated on to resources that addressed not just the behavior, but the “why” behind it—the heart of the matter. You can see the difference between the two in the story about the young boy, who after several increasingly stern commands from his mother, finally obeyed her order to sit down in his seat. Then, as soon as he sat down, he coolly informed her “I’m sitting down on the outside, but I’m still standing up on the inside!”
When my son TJ was maybe 3 years old, I disciplined him for something I can’t even remember, but I definitely remember what happened next. He looked at me with defiant hatred in his eyes, stalked out of the kitchen (after pausing to spit on the floor), and then took up a position behind the Christmas tree where he proceeded to pick apart all the ornaments methodically. It's a funny story in retrospect. OK, it was a little funny at the time, too. But it was evident neither his behavior nor his heart were in a good place.
I took an upper-level ethics class in college called “Vice and Virtue, ” and the textbook we used was written by Aristotle (presumably on an old Smith Corona, the kind where the keys get jammed up if you type too fast…). He stated that if we want to be a virtuous person, we should observe the things a virtuous person does, and copy their behavior. We would then experience good feelings and reap the benefits this behavior brings. Eventually, these characteristics would be normalized in our own lives. As far as I know, nobody sold WWAD “What Would Aristotle Do?” rubber bracelets or had “Fake it till you make it!” printed on T-shirts, but this “outside in” self-disciplined path to virtue has certainly caught on well. We love trying to fix ourselves with ourselves.
Jesus offered an opposite approach: let me change your heart first and then your behavior—from the inside out. He tells us we will see change, like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and more. He calls it fruit—and we know that fruit does not grow without being connected to a healthy plant. His Spirit is at work in our hearts; the results become evident on the outside.
So what am I trying to say? Let’s do it all. Let’s give our kids choices and allow them to experience the logical consequences. Let’s encourage character and self-discipline, without sending a message that if we just keep faking it, we will eventually make it. And let’s lead with grace and get to the heart of the matter, trusting God to change us all from the inside out.