As a mother, I try to pass on these same good manners to my son. To me, however (as I am sure it was to my parents), it is far more important that he has a gracious and grateful heart than that he always says or does the right thing at the right time. I want him to overflow with kindness and gratitude and thoughtfulness from a heart that appreciates the people in his life and the God who made not only him but also those around him. This, however, cannot be taught... only caught. We cannot teach our children's hearts. We can only teach their minds and guide their behavior. Their hearts are their very own... to pursue peace or to harbor anger, to develop selfless love or to pursue selfish desires, to extend mercy or to hold a grudge. Only God and His Holy Spirit can penetrate the heart. Any parent who has found themselves forcing a child to apologize to someone they have wronged knows this first hand. He may have said the words, "I'm sorry," but his heart knows no repentance.
I am, without a doubt, an advocate for insisting on the correct behavior even if the heart is not following suit, but I also think that we need to return to the heart issues again and again when the heat of the moment has passed. Not because we can change a child's heart, but because we have to reiterate time and time again that which is most important. We have to be careful to make sure our children do not get the idea from us that saying and doing the right thing all of the time is the most important thing. We must always, ultimately, show them that the motivations of their hearts reign supreme in God's eyes.
I don't want my son to grow up with a firm grasp on saying and doing the right thing, but with a heart that is lagging behind. This means that I have to get a grip on my own motivations and model what I desire for him. In her book, Kisses from Katie, Katie Davis writes about a time when she went to a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon in the Ugandan village where she lives and a 15yr old boy, John, was standing outside the restaurant waiting for her. He had cut his foot on a bottle and was waiting for her to come to her usual Sunday lunch spot so that she could help him clean and bandage it and hopefully prevent infection. Here is what she says, "As I handed him the antibiotic and explained how to take it, I kind of wanted him to say thank you. But as I looked in his eyes I knew why he hadn't thanked me: because this was expected. He knew I would bandage his wound and give him medicine because that is what I do. His trust was much better than a thank you."
If all that is important to us is saying and doing the right things, then we cannot serve others wholeheartedly. Our spirits' will inevitably stumble when our brothers and sisters in the world do not "behave appropriately." We will grow resentful and bitter because, "After all I do, she can't offer a simple 'thank you.'" If the only reason we are doing the right thing is because "it is the right thing to do" and we feel a sense of obligation to do it, and not because we realize we are "poor, wretched, blind and needy," and have been saved by the most extraordinary grace that we now have the privilege to pass on to others, then we will inevitably get hung up when we don't get the appreciation we deserve for our "sacrifice." Tragically, we will never realize the deeper gifts that God has for us, like Katie did.
Dear God, Please soften our children's hearts as well as our own, and help us to model for them attitudes and motivations that will not only serve them well throughout their lives, but that will enable them to serve others well too.