It started as a simple outing with my wife and 2-year-old daughter, but before long, a woman was in my face screaming, “I’m calling the cops on you!”
My crime? Saying “no” to my daughter at a toy store and causing her to scream uncontrollably.
Full-bodied meltdowns are never enjoyable, especially when all eyes are on you and accusations fly. If only my daughter could have been more patient, had more self-control, or been able to have a joy not dependent on getting a toy.
Parents everywhere long for well-behaved children. We’ll try almost anything to avoid such embarrassment. It’s no wonder the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23)—are often taught in Sunday School.
But can we teach the fruit of the Spirit to our kids? Can the proper parenting techniques eliminate bad behavior?
Outward behavior vs. heart transformation
There’s no shortage of advice for getting your kids to behave. Some believe you need to lay down the law. Others embrace a “follow your heart” method and trust that kids will eventually find their way.
Most parents use some combination of rewards, punishments, and outright trickery to get kids to do the right thing. With consistency and patience, it’s possible to train a child to be polite, say please and thank you, and generally appear to be “good kids.” But those are only outward behaviors. How do we ensure we are reaching their hearts?
We’re all sinful. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick.” Yes, even the heart of a sweet 2-year-old.
Polite behavior can only mask the evil living within the human heart for so long. Eventually, our kids will face tough questions and temptations more powerful than rewards or punishments can dissuade.
Why not vape, have sex with your girlfriend, lie to get the job, or cheat on your taxes?
Sometimes life rewards bad behaviors and punishes good ones.
In those moments, being polite and appearing good won’t be enough. Our kids need more than behavior modification; they need heart transformation.
Can I teach the fruit of the Spirit?
When your child accepts Christ as their Savior and chooses to follow His ways, the Holy Spirit comes to live within them and they are given a new nature. Ezekiel 36 puts it this way: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh” (verse 26).
In many ways, this makes our parenting techniques irrelevant. God is the one who gifts our children with His Spirit. As they learn to trust their heavenly Father, patience grows. When they understand God’s forgiveness for their sins, kindness to others becomes easier. When they experience His acceptance, they no longer need to seek the approval of others.
When His Spirit lives in them, His character traits begin to leak out naturally.
Second Corinthians 5:17 says, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
If we want our kids to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, we need to help them have the Spirit.
This means we have to think long term. Instead of worrying about how to end the fight quickly and restore peace, we need to ask ourselves: What do our kids need to learn about God, His laws, their rebellion, their need for a Savior, and God’s grace in this moment?
When we keep these in mind, every conflict becomes an opportunity to plant a gospel seed.
Indirect gospel moments
It’s often said far more is caught than taught. Unfortunately, we can’t always control what our children catch from us. Those little eyes are watching all the time. They can tell if our faith is authentic or if we’re using it as a tool to keep them in line.
Deuteronomy 6:7-9 explains that parents should tell their children about God, “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Basically, at every opportunity. But it starts with, “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart” (verse 6).
It must start with us.
Are we the same person in church that we are at home? What about when we face struggles, disappointments, or injustices? Will our kids see the fruit of the Spirit? Or the fruits of bitterness and anger?
Our children are far more likely to trust God with their lives if they see us doing the same. So let them see you struggle. Let them hear you pray. Let them watch you obey God even when you don’t want to. Don’t worry so much about doing it right as about doing it real. Our kids will learn more from watching us handle failure than they will from any sermon.
Direct gospel moments
If we really want to teach the fruit of the spirit to our kids, we must supplement those indirect gospel moments with direct conversations about (and with) God.
One day, I sat on the edge of my son’s bed and tried to figure out which way he was facing under the pile of blankets he was hiding in. He had been banished to his room long enough, and it was time to set him free.
“Do you understand why you got in trouble?” I asked.
“Uh-huh,” the blanket replied.
“It’s hard to control yourself when you get mad, right?”
“I know. It’s hard for me, too. But God can help you with that if you ask Him. Why don’t you take a few minutes and talk to Him about it? When you’re ready, you can join us again. We miss you downstairs.”
A gospel moment doesn’t need to include a drawn-out Bible lesson; we only need to help our kids see their need for a savior. We point our kids toward God. He does the rest.
Growing the fruit of the Spirit
Jesus told the disciples they would do “even more” than He did while He walked the earth (John 14:12). Considering everything Jesus had done to that point, that was a tall order. But even though they were given gifts of boldness, healing, and preaching, they weren’t made perfect overnight. They still needed to help each other grow into the likeness of Christ (see Galatians 2:11-21).
As parents, we play a critical role in helping our children mature in their faith. But we need to understand the difference between childish behavior and sinful rebellion. Sometimes our kids need to try harder. Other times we need to help them admit their inability to “be good” and rely on Christ.
My daughter is now old enough that I no longer worry about meltdowns in the toy store. If anything, I’m probably the one more likely to cry on an extended shopping trip. But even though we’ve worked hard to teach her a lot, I’m still amazed when I see her displaying characteristics I know didn’t come from us.
Then I remember, she has another Father. And He’s a much better teacher than me.
I can’t teach the fruit of the Spirit, but God can.
Copyright © 2021 by FamilyLife. All rights reserved.
Carlos Santiago is a senior writer for FamilyLife and has written and contributed to numerous articles, e-books, and devotionals. He has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in pastoral counseling. Carlos and his wife, Tanya, live in Orlando, Florida. You can learn more on their site, YourEverAfter.org.