Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” — Matthew 19:14 (NIV)

As the disciples looked out over the gathering crowd of children, with their soil-smudged little faces and hands, they must have been dismayed. After all, Jesus was on a mission to establish his father’s kingdom, so there was little time to spend (or waste) with the children whose mothers had brought them in hopes of seeing and being blessed by Jesus.

In Scripture, scenes like this often conjure in our minds a picture of children sitting patiently, each quiet and neatly dressed, as they wait their turn for a few moments with Jesus. No doubt you have seen the Sunday school paintings depicting the meek and mild Jesus sitting with calm children gathered around listening attentively. But if the children that were brought to Jesus were like most, and certainly they were, it is just as likely they were running, jumping and playing. In other words, they were being regular kids. In fact, I suspect that many of them were being less than saintly, only serving to further the disciples’ frustration.

There is a reason (maybe several reasons) that Matthew seems to go out of his way to record this brief scene in his gospel account. He tells us that the disciples rebuked those who brought the children to Jesus, obviously intent on “protecting” Jesus from this unruly crowd of little ones who the disciples saw as merely a distraction from the important business Jesus had to do. So imagine their confusion when Jesus insisted that the children come to him, and having blessed them declared that the kingdom belonged to “such as these.” The disciples could not see past the children’s behavior, their lowly status and their simple humanity. Jesus, however, could not help but look beyond these things to see their preciousness, their potential and their childlike faith.

Examples such as this were commonplace during the earthly ministry of Jesus. He was never content to deal merely on the surface of things, focusing on the obvious and outward. He understood that what lay beneath the surface was what really mattered. The change Jesus sought, and the change that he knew people needed, started at the center (their heart) and transformed them, sometimes albeit slowly, from the inside out.

The same challenge and opportunity exists for parents. It is often difficult, sometimes seemingly impossible, to see beyond our children’s behaviors. And yet, that is exactly what children—particularly those from hard places—need for us to do. Our children desperately need parents who can see beyond their behaviors to the real child that is locked inside a fortress of fear, confusion and shame.

At the same time, it is important to keep in mind that “seeing beyond” our children’s behaviors is not the same as overlooking behaviors that are unhealthy, unacceptable and hold them back. Some parents at this point may be tempted to respond, “How can we just let our children get away with bad behavior? Isn’t it our responsibility to teach them right and wrong and to discipline them accordingly?” The answer is certainly yes, but as we seek to do this it is important that we remain focused on the primary goal.

In this sense, every parent needs to answer the fundamental question “What is my primary goal?” Is it merely to achieve good or right behavior? If so, this focus will largely shape how we as parents approach our children and the interactions we have with them (specifically, how we approach connecting and correcting). But if our primary goal is to build a strong and healthy relationship—a connection with our children that serves as a strong foundation and enables them to develop trust, heal from past wounds and experience a deep sense of felt safety, self-worth and empowerment—then our approach and interactions will likely look different. I believe this is God’s goal for us—that we grow deeper in our relationship with Him (Matthew 22:37) and from that our desires, thoughts and actions begin to reflect the character of His Son. Likewise, we believe that our kids need, and almost every parent desires, this kind of strong foundation of connection. The key, therefore, is to not allow your child’s bad behavior to distract you from building this foundation that will allow true healing and growth to occur.

*This post is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Created To Connect: A Christian’s Guide to The Connected Child. This study guide companion to The Connected Child can be downloaded for free. Printed copies of the study guide are also available for purchase.