Someone once wrote that feelings cannot be disputed because they are experiences. Whereas beliefs can be disputed because they are how we interpret our experiences.

I completely agree with this sentiment. I believe its very important to understand the distinction before we try to understand life, we must first seek to understand how we make sense of life. Before we can understand that, we must our own thought processes. We must understand how our own thinking works.

Dr. Robert Lehman, a man who has been very influential in how I view these issues, once delineated three ways of thinking that I’d like to share with you here. I believe understanding these views will help us to better understand our thoughts and feelings.

  1. Reactive or emotional reasoning. Reflective or emotional reasoning is just pure reactions. I feel it so it must be true, whatever true is. So the wife caught in a marriage she doesn’t like will convince herself that “it will always be this way.” This person makes decisions based simply on how they feel about a situation. If a person is caught in this mode of thinking they are usually all over the place emotionally. Almost everything is about how they feel. They have very little impulse control and rarely think about the consequences of their actions beyond the short term.
  2. Reflective thinking. This person considers the consequences of their actions. They will consider what will happen from what they do. This person will even consider how their actions affect other people. They consider the consequences in the short term and the long term. Sometimes, this person will weigh the risk of the negative consequence against the potential positive of doing whatever they are considering. I knew a nine year old girl who would do this. When threatened with a vague “punishment” for not doing her room, she ask for specifics on the punishment. She was deciding if she was willing to pay the price or not. This is reflective thinking but it is incomplete.
  3. Moral Reasoning. Moral reasoning is when someone decides what they are doing based purely on what is right. Their moral compass is put into play with decisions. These people do the right thing because it is the right thing to do not necessarily because it will get them anything. It goes beyond reflective reasoning because it asks the question of “what is the right thing to do?” It is not only concerned with the outcome, it is actually concerned with the morality of a decision.

This is important because a person who is stuck in the first category of reasoning will not be able to debate their beliefs about their feelings. They will be ruled by their feelings. Relationships will be short or tumultuous or both. So many things happen that impact our feelings. Those feelings are real. Debating them is pointless. It’s an experience that the person has lived. The person’s beliefs about those feelings can be debated.

Think about marriage. Successful couples don’t always feel like being faithful or kind or gentle but they can be all of those things all the time. They can chose to do something about their feelings.

Think about individuals. They don’t have to be ruled by their feelings. They don’t have to give up hope that life will always be the way it is today. They don’t have to live the same bad story line over and over again. They can see change in their life.

Think about parenting. Think about how these three different levels of thinking affect parenting children. The techniques used to shape the child. Think about how often parenting is about instilling fear. Fear of the parent, fear of the consequences and about how rarely, in my opinion, it is about instilling the desire to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Tomorrow I’m going to write about the woman who made her son wear a sandwich sign about being a drug dealer and making bad choices. If you haven’t read that article yet, be sure to find me on Facebook and like my page. You can click to it on the right sidebar on my webpage.

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  1. I only have a comment regarding one point…I think part of instilling the desire to do what’s right because it’s what is right is teaching your children to Fear the Lord. I often talk with my kids about fearing the consequences of sin because God sees and knows what they do even though we (mom and dad) might not even know you are doing it… And that to live wisely means we do what’s right because God knows when we do what is right and He knows when we don’t. It is our fear of disappointing the one we live for that can motivate us properly to do what is right. It is also to be born from a desire to be rewarded in the future for choosing wisely because God promises that too.

  2. Hi Amy,
    Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I hope you come back and comment often. My fear is that we only focus on the negative consequences of what our children do. We teach them fear instead of doing something out of love. I am not sure that I agree with the statement that our fear of disappointing the one we live for can motivate properly. I am reminded of the verse that says, “perfect love casts out fear.” “God did not give us the spirit of fear.”
    I am afraid that we have taken God’s story of redemption and turned it into God’s story of zapping us.
    I especially believe that fear based parenting that lacks the final component of simply doing what is right because it is right not only misses the part of story that matters most but it also doesn’t work. Parenting that focuses on the punishment misses the opportunity to teach what is right and wrong for its own sake.
    So for any readers who could care less about the theological side of it (and I know I have readers on both sides of that), the question still remains about what works to build healthy, emotionally stable children that understand moral reasoning. For those who add the theological component, which I do for my own children there is certainly more to consider as well.

  3. Joe, thanks for this thoughtful discussion. These are things that I think a lot about since I have 3 kids 5 and under! How would this approach (teaching them to “do things out of love”) look in action? Is there a way to get really specific about what a parent would say or do in specific situations? That’s what parents need, I think.
    Is there anything to be said for instilling fear of consequences? In other words, connecting wrong behavior with the natural results of it… “If you don’t go to bed now, no story tomorrow before bed, because we will have to start the whole going to be process earlier…” or something like that.
    Also, I wonder if there is something to be said for shaping a child’s will when they are young, before they understand the ramifications of those actions or can think in terms of “Do this out of love,” so that they have good habits as they age. I didn’t understand that not brushing my teeth as a boy would lead to big problems later (or exactly what those problems would be), but thank God my dad just built that in as a habit, and that I simply feared punishment for disobeying. Now I recognize that was done out of love by my parents.
    Speaking of which, how does a parent take the “teach them to obey out of love” approach in, for example, a situation like brushing your teeth? When a child is refusing to do that, is it really possible to work God’s redemptive plan into brushing of the teeth? And is it necessary? (it’s not that my kids don’t brush their teeth, it’s just a relevant example.. 🙂
    Thanks again for this thought-provoking article; it obviously hits on some things I’ve been mulling over as a parent!
    Josh Wilson

  4. Hi Josh,
    Thanks for reading the post and commenting. I think those are some great questions. I love the brushing the teeth example because it so real to life.
    I actually want to write about this and was going to to do it tomorrow but now might try and get it up today. What I’m driving at is the totality of our parenting package.
    In other words, even with your two year old brushing his or her teeth, who will absolutely not understand the abstract idea of long term dental care, you can still begin to teach the idea of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do. It can happen during the post discipline processing time that you have with your child.
    You: Why did Daddy do _______________?
    Child: Because I didn’t brush my teeth.
    You: That’s right. Were you supposed to brush your teeth?
    Child: Yes.
    You: Why is it important to brush your teeth every night?
    Now you have a wonderful opportunity to teach about long term dental care and plant seeds. You also have an opportunity to talk about authority, etc.
    This begins the process of helping your child (even at 2) develop moral reasoning.
    I’m not saying that we shouldn’t discipline our children. I think that too often our discipline never moves to teach moral reasoning. Ideally we will do this in different manifestations for all of our children throughout their lifetime. At the very least I hope we do it, as they move to become adults. Often it never gets done. Our children learn only fear and thus never move from reflective thinking to moral reasoning.
    Again, thanks for adding to the conversation. I hope you and Amy come back and comment often. Bring some friends. 🙂

  5. Thanks Joe. I haven’t read this latest post but I will tonight or tomorrow. I think you’re right; parents need to do a better job eventually connecting right behavior with a better motivation than just “I’ll be punished if I don’t.” I like your example here.
    I noticed a phrase here that was also in the post: “you can still begin to teach the idea of doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.”
    How would this be communicated verbally to the child? Also, how is “right” defined as used here? In other words, if the child says “Why should I do that” is the answer “Because it’s right,” or is there more to the explanation?

  6. Hi Josh,
    Thanks for continuing the conversation. I think you are asking two separate questions and I’m not sure I understand the first one. If I have misunderstood it please feel free to correct me and we’ll get it done.
    I think the first question you are asking is what language should be used to teach the idea of doing right simply for the sake of doing right?
    The answer I think is to just use language. Clear, explicit, concrete language that communicates the idea of doing right simply because it is the right thing to do.
    As the children are younger, it may not actually click but it’s like gardening: you don’t see fruit or vegetables. You do it because you know it will produce those things. It is the same principle with your younger children. At some point, the idea begins to take root.
    I believe your second question is more along the lines of who decides what is right for the sake of right? Of course, this is going to be different for everyone. Some parents are going to teach their children that going to church is the right thing to do. Some parents are not going to teach that. The former parents will think the latter parents are incorrect, etc. Some parents are going to teach their children that hunting is wrong, while others are going to teach them that it is something that is not only right but beneficial. As you are a pastor, your determination will no doubt be shaped by your faith and the expectations of your congregation. OK, so I made that last part up, I hope.
    The pluralistic society that we live in is protected by the constitution and I think that is a good thing.

  7. Great, thank you Joe. I think my real question is more foundational. Why should our kids care about our definition of “right?” That sounds really cynical… I guess what I mean is, I wonder if the notion of doing right simply because it’s right is sustainable…
    “Why should I do it?”
    “Because it’s right?”
    “But why should I do what’s right?”
    “Because it’s the right thing to do.”… and so on.
    I guess what I’m getting at is that at a philosophical level, it seems like there has to be something more than just “because it’s right,” under-girding our approach. I know that my kids would eventually say, “Why does Dad’s definition of right always have to win over?” if I don’t somehow justify it.
    This isn’t just philosophical for me, it’s something that will affect my approach to teaching and discipline with my kids..
    Thanks for this great discussion,

  8. I think the answer to that question depends on how integrated the parents live their lives. Consistent research shows that children accept the assumed values of people they respect. Larry Crab was talking about this in 1985.
    Of course there are other reasons and the ultimate answer is probably rather complicated but I think this is a good short answer.

  9. That’s a great point–children tend to pick up the values of their parents; that seems to be true even when they don’t respect them!
    As a Christian I would tend to stabilize my reasoning for “do what’s right” by appealing to the character of God. “Do what’s right” only has meaning because “right” is whatever God would do if he were in my shoes (as well as that can be ascertained!).
    I think “right” doesn’t exist apart from God–right is, because God is who God is.
    It might be a few years before my kids can grasp that though :-).

  10. Josh, I agree with you 100% but that’s not what you originally asked. You asked why kids would choose to obey their parents on deciding what was right. Or I misunderstood the question.
    Many an Atheist has been raised in the home where the parents would have affirmed what you stated about right and wrong but failed to live integrated lives. They actions fell far short of their stated values so the kids rejected the stated values. IMO.

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