If you want your kids to stop whining, teasing and bickering, you need to better understand what your kids’ words say about their hearts.
“I want some juuuiiice! Right nooowww!”
“She was mean first!”
“No, I’m not cleaning my room!”
Years ago, whenever I imagined my future children, I pictured happy, well-mannered darlings who always obeyed. That kid screaming for a treat at the store? Not my kid. The kid bickering with his sister over a toy? No way.
Needless to say, I was in for a rude awakening. What caused my children to speak tender words in one breath and say something terrible in the next? At the time, it made no sense to me. I had instructed my children not to whine or talk back, and I administered consequences whenever they disobeyed. Why didn’t they learn?
Maybe you’ve asked yourself these same questions. And maybe you’ve come to the same conclusions that I have: It’s because we’ve been taking the wrong approach. Consequences for outward behaviour certainly have a place in parenting, but they are no substitute for training and instruction that address the root problem. And while the words our children speak alert us to that problem, the heart is where those words are conceived. “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks,” Jesus explains Matthew 12:34.
The purpose of disciplining children is not merely to achieve outward obedience, but inward change. If we can reach the heart, the behaviour will take care of itself. I recommend a simple three-step process for parents to combat these behaviours and help our children mature past foolish speech by examining the true problem.
Ask heart-probing questions to help children look past outward behaviour and recognise the root sin.
Correct our children for foolish behaviour, explaining what God’s Word says about the behaviour and why it should be avoided.
Train our children in how to replace wrong behaviour with right behaviour.
Let’s take a look at some common ways that kids’ words reveal their sinful heart. As we examine each of these behaviours, we’ll see how this three-step process can help our kids mature.
Many parents would probably agree that few things are more annoying than whining. Children who whine frequently lack healthy communication skills, and parents who permit their children to whine prevent their kids from learning to communicate properly. Whining is really an issue of self-control, and children who learn to communicate properly learn that self-control is a prerequisite for contentment, joy and wise living.
Probe your child’s heart. Ask:
- “What are you feeling right now that causes you to whine?”
- “Are you speaking with a controlled voice?”
- “Can you think of a better way to say that, so we can understand what you mean?”
Your child may not answer, but you’ve still helped her evaluate her heart and examine her lack of self-control.
Teach God’s Word. Remind your children that God values the virtue of self-control Galatians 5:23-24, and He compares a person who lacks self-control to a city with broken-down walls Proverbs 25:28. Whining is certainly annoying, but we must avoid angry responses. When correction is administered in anger, the child can view it as an attack. So model the same self-control you desire your child to learn.
Train your child to stop whining. Calmly inform your child that she needs to learn to speak the right way and that you’ll not be discussing the matter while she is whining.
Have your child wait three minutes before communicating with you again. Tell her that you love her too much to allow her to continue whining. Because you want her to learn to speak with self-control, you’re going to set a timer for three minutes. When that time is up, she may come back and communicate properly. Before setting the timer, demonstrate a better way to speak her request, so that in addition to teaching her how not to behave, you’re also training her how to return and do what is right.
Whether mocking, insulting or belittling in a joking way, teasing tears down others, which violates God’s commands to love others and build them up. Kids may tease to get attention or to entertain themselves. It may also be used to try to conceal what a child really means or intends, such as when a “just kidding” is hastily added after a derogatory comment or deception. “Like a madman who throws firebrands, arrows, and death is the man who deceives his neighbour and says, ‘I am only joking!’ “Proverbs 26:18-19.
Whatever the motives for teasing, they are usually selfish in nature, as they bring the teaser some type of satisfaction at the expense of hurting others.
Probe your child’s heart. Ask:
- “Do you think that entertaining yourself is more important than the feelings and needs of your sister?”
- “How would you feel if you were your sister?”
- “Did your words show love by building others up, or did they tear others down?”
Teach God’s Word. Help your child view teasing from a biblical perspective, teaching him that God tells us to do nothing out of selfishness, but to value others’ needs as much as we value our own Philippians 2:3-4. We should treat others the way that we would want them to treat us Luke 6:31 and we must remember not to let harmful talk come out of our mouths Ephesians 4:29.
Train your child to stop teasing. Show your child how to be an encouragement instead of a discouragement. You can do this by modelling helpful words that serve as a counterweight to hurtful words — language that demonstrates how to
benefit and build others up. Teach your kids that God can help us remember how and when to use kind words.
Kids can argue about almost anything. Bickering is often about pride. For kids (and many adults) being right feels good, so there is a temptation to fight to prove you’re right, even about trivial issues. While it’s natural that kids are going to sometimes get on each other’s nerves, this constant fighting to show they are right isn’t healthy. We must cultivate the qualities of love, gentleness and peacemaking in our children’s hearts.
Probe your child’s heart. Ask:
- “Are you respecting each other and loving God in the way you are speaking to each other?”
- “Do you think being right is more important than being kind to your brother?”
- “What words might work better right now to avoid a conflict with your brother?”
- “Are you being strong and avoiding an argument, or are you being weak and participating?”
Teach God’s Word. Tell your children what the Bible says about quarrelling, about why they should avoid harsh words that stir up anger and conflict Proverbs 15:1. Bickering does not honour God or show love for each other. After all, Scripture says: “Every fool will be quarrelling” Proverbs 20:3.
Train your child to stop bickering. Teach them the importance of humility — it’s a sign of maturity to understand we are not always on the “right” side of a fight. Encourage your children to patiently stop and consider an opposing view before engaging in an argument. Then ask them to weigh their response by silently considering two questions: Will this really matter next week? Is this an opportunity to be wise and overlook this difference?
Remind your kids what Scripture says about getting into a fight: “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” 2 Timothy 2:23.
Elevating one’s abilities and successes is an expression of pride. And even when bragging is used to cover one’s insecurities, it is still self-motivated and self-serving, fuelled by a desire to exalt oneself. Pride is not characterised by a love for others or a desire to glorify God. Indeed, Scripture says that all boasting is evil James 4:16.
Probe your child’s heart. Ask:
- “Are your words building others up or only building yourself up?”
- “How do you feel when other children boast that they’re better than you?”
- “Do your words bring glory and honour to God or yourself?”
Help your children understand that when we brag about ourselves, we are taking credit for something that doesn’t belong to us. All talents and abilities are given to us by God and are to be used for His glory, not our own.
Teach God’s Word. Help your kids understand how God commands us not to brag about ourselves. “I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment” Romans 12:3. Scripture says that with a proud heart “comes disgrace” Proverbs 11:2. Yes, bragging displeases God, but it also makes us less likeable to others.
Train your child to stop bragging. Give careful consideration to the way you encourage your children. When acknowledging a talent, strength or gift in a child, give God the glory. When your child succeeds or excels, you might ask, “How did God equip you for this particular task?”
As your child learns to stop bragging, train him to replace his pride with humility. As Christians, we are called to walk in humility Luke 14:11. The only abilities and achievements we have are from God and are intended to be used for Him. We can humbly accept others’ praise as long as we keep a right perspective, a recognition that God ultimately deserves the praise.