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One Question to never ask your preschooler {teaching their heart—not their behavior)

I will never forget the first time it happened.

We sat at the dinner table–and I could tell something was really off. It was a face of shame–not regret…not remorse…not repentance. Just shame.

He was four. Oh to be able to go back to that sweet little season! (Thankful I still have 3 more still this age! How sweet it is!)

He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t eat.

So I made phone calls. What in the WORLD shut this sweet 4 year old down today? It didn’t take much-just a conversation with his best friend to discover my little man that day…well, he had disobeyed earlier at preschool. And he had landed–on the dreaded YELLOW.

Have you ever been to a class that guides behavior in this way?

Most preschools and lower schools use a system related to this to maintain behavior. You’ve seen the charts. Maybe you are a teacher and you’ve even laminated one recently–with little cute clips with the children’s names on the end…or even their pictures to show where they stand that day. Minor offenses get you to yellow. Maybe you even get a warning or two. But “real offenses”–they get you straight to red often meriting a phone call or a trip to Mrs. Gloopy’s office in her naughty chair.

So why does everyone use this system? Because it works. But here are a few important questions to consider before we take the easy instead of narrow road.

What does this teach the child?

What happens when the charts are one day taken away?

What happens to a child’s heart when they are motivated by fear? By rules? By charts?

What happens to a child’s heart when instead of charts or rules to guide them–their hearts are taught why you should do “this or that” rather than…you should do it to stay on green?

You might think it’s not a big deal–but this shaping of these little hearts and how we choose to guide them just might have a greater impact on their futures and how they view things than we realize. In a sense, when we use these systems we are bribing our children to obey rather than teaching their hearts through true conviction, character, compassion, understanding and love. In many ways, we are selling them short–and not seeing them as people but rather as things to be controlled and maintained rather than deeply understood. There is nothing long term or heart-changing at the root of this classroom or home management–and even more so–should we be surprised when the children come home and act wild for us when they are being taught they need a system rather than an understanding in order to obey?

What about the child who sits and sees his name under red? Does this make him WANT to obey? For some children, this doesn’t motivate but rather creates more behavior problems–after all…they are already on yellow or red–and the heart isn’t being shaped but rather behavior controlled. For some kids, it will bring sadness–others same–and for very few a challenge to rise to the occasion and on their own have a change of heart of what caused the behavior to begin with. After all, littles ones need to be walked through this–and we need to be tender in how we guide them through their behaviors.

Alfie Kohn wrote a book entitled Punished by Rewards:

“Seeing that behavior stems from the heart, educators need not take on the role of a behaviorist, modifying and conditioning pupils to act accordingly through elaborate systems of rewards and punishments. There is another way, the way of the heart. Children already possess the capacity for responsible actions and natural curiosity to know and to do good work as a manifestation of who they are; free and responsible agents, in direct relationship to self, God, others and the world around them. When one rewards unthinkingly, the assumption is made that individuals cannot choose to act a certain way on their own. It becomes dehumanizing, treating people like pets or objects. It is the removal of what truly defines us as human.”

When our little man was sent to yellow–he was embarrassed. In front of the class, he may have been asked to move his marker. What did he learn that day? NEVER GET ON YELLOW–AGAIN. He didn’t eat dinner that night. He went to bed quiet. And he didn’t even remember WHY he was on yellow–only that he was moved to yellow and he was ashamed.

Now as a mom, I could easily be tempted to WANT him to stay on GREEN–for simply a mother’s pride. “I have a child who never gets yellow or red.” I will tell you, I *do* have a child that NEVER gets on yellow or red–but this is also the heart I see the need to shape the most.

As a mom, I could easily be tempted to pick up my child and ask, “Did you stay on GREEN?”

And I might even be just as easily tempted to be nosey and ask, “Did anyone get on yellow or red today?”

But WHAT does this teach my child?

Instead, let us ask questions that SHAPE their hearts…

Did you love others today?

What did you learn today that you want to share with me?

Did you have fun? What was the most fun thing you did today?

Was there anyone sad today? How do you think you could encourage them next time?

The list goes ON of heart shaping questions.

But one question I never want to ask again is this: Did you stay on green?

Because THIS question–it IS a heart shaping question too. Only this question teaches the child to behave through systems, control, fear and shame rather than teaching them important things like the WHYs behind doing the right thing.

How do we parent and teach their hearts instead?

We simply teach them. We get on their level. We speak to their hearts. And we help them understand. We don’t sell these little ones short choosing to believe they are not capable of compassion, understanding and respect. We teach them important lessons like we are quiet when the teacher talks because it’s disrespectful to talk when someone is already talking. We grow their hearts and help them develop deeper compassion–understanding that it hurts feelings when they are unkind. We help them process what the effects of their actions lead to rather than putting systems in place that control–because one day those systems won’t be there…but their hearts–will.

I love the words from the child-friendly motto of Charlotte Mason:

I am a child of God,

I ought to do His will.

I can do what He tells me,

And by His grace, I will.

Jack Beckman in the book When Children Love to Learn takes this motto and so eloquently writes how instead we can guide their sweet hearts:

“I am a child of God.” – How freeing to realize the wonder of the relationship of a child with her heavenly Father–the flow of love and grace in the child’s life as she learns to live under His care and authority!

“I ought to do His will.” – The child has a standard to live by found in the very Word of God. She has a place to go to find out about the “oughts” in life, but a place of forgiveness and acceptance as well.

“I can do what He tells me.” The very real presence of the Holy Spirit in the child’s life makes obedience to His precepts possible. 

“And by His grace, I will.” It is by grace the child has been saved, and it is by grace that the child is preserved and sustained as she walks the walk of faith, life and learning.

And really–this teaching…the teaching of their hearts rather than control–leads right back to the Giver of their hearts.


He doesn’t control us but rather guides us and gives us free will. He molds us. He teaches us. He equips us.

So think twice before you ever ask your preschooler the question that may be more loaded than you realize: Did you stay on green today?

And when and if that dreaded day comes–and they get on yellow–or the forbidden red–be very cautious how you talk with them about it remembering that they may already have more shame and be unable to listen–and you have some added work to do in it’s place.

Replace the shame or guilt with love–walk with them through it–and take them back to the heart of the matter–the WHYs–rather than the system that won’t always be there.


april - September 13, 2013 - 5:20 pm

I can see how this would “work” with some children, in some situations, but it certainly must never be embarrassing for them. How sad that your son had to have this happen to him.

Kelly - September 13, 2013 - 6:10 pm

I read your blog from afar often, but this is the first one that has prompted me to comment. Yes, yes, yes! I work with older children, high schoolers, and college students and the same is true as we grow! Of course there need to be consequences for actions, but our goal should never be simply behavior modification. I’m always looking to see what is the actual issue of the heart and how we can address that instead of the behavior.

Sarah - September 13, 2013 - 8:21 pm

Thank you SO much for writing this. I have a first grader, who has this exact system in his class. I will never ask him again what color his was on that day. I can’t thank you enough. He was on yellow for the first time this week and was so ashamed. Now I know what to say to him if this ever happens again, and what to ask him after school each day.

I love your blog! We just started the adoption process for a love in China. Can’t wait to see what the Lord has in store for us.

Erika - September 13, 2013 - 8:59 pm

YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! You have GOT it, girlfriend! I LOVE this post! Did you read my mind? I am jumping up and down…thank you! I feel so affirmed by this post – I am going to share it with some friends who need to hear this today! How wonderful you and and how great this blog is! LOVE! Have a great weekend!

Jan - September 14, 2013 - 8:55 am

Wow. I too read your blog from afar and have never commented. My oldest child (now 16) spent the first 6-8 weeks of 1st grade “flipping his card” (similar to the stoplight). Each day I would ask — did you flip your card? Yes. Why? I don’t remember. Finally, I had a conference with the teacher. The minor infraction was not using the proper check-in system when he arrived at school (yes, she flipped his card over and over again even though he wasn’t changing behavior). Guess what? I simply reminded him every morning from then on to remember to check in. . . and he never flipped the card again. My daughter is a “rule-follower” and pleaser. When a teacher flips her card for a minor infraction, she carries it with her for weeks. To this day, she can tell you which teacher flipped her card and why. She lived in fear of ever flipping the card even though I told her I just didn’t care if she flipped her card because I knew she was doing her best to be kind and to follow instructions as best she could. I knew this system didn’t feel right, but now I know why. And, it’s a two way street. . . I needed to not be focused on the minor infraction but rather on my child’s heart.

sarah hurst - September 14, 2013 - 9:34 pm

this is so well written! its so evident that this isn’t just how you parent but who you! its your heart! ever since i found your blog, years ago, i’ve always admired how you show your children love, how you teach them and how you’re silly with them too…children need that from their parents! you’re such an incredible woman of God and i want to thank you for all that you’ve taught me!

Melissa - September 15, 2013 - 8:55 pm

Very timely and interesting post. I am in student teaching currently and see a lot of this stuff going on. I could go on and on and on about how harshly I see our sweet students treated. It truly breaks my heart. Not with all teacher, but certainly in the classroom I am in. But I also saw this in my daughter’s kindergarten class two years ago. She had a wonderful teacher and a wonderful experience BUT she is naturally a really good kid that wants to please and be obedient. So, I never had a problem with it! It is nice to see it from this perspective and I will definitely think twice before implementing this in my future classroom. Thanks! 🙂

Alisa - September 18, 2013 - 10:05 am

Oh you touched on something that resonates strongly inside me as a mommy.

My now 8 year old struggled with behavior in school starting in Kindergarten. if you knew her, you’d know that she was never purposefully misbehaving. We are know in the process of having her evaluated for possible disorders but I can tell you that she is a GOOD kid with a great heart.

Repeated yellows did nothing but damage her self esteem and make me question myself as a parent. I became obsessed over what color she was instead of focusing on what good she did that day.

Second grade didn’t have a color chart and I loved it.

Third grade does again, however her teacher explained that a child rarely gets moved off of green that it’s there more as a motivator that a punative measure.

Steph - September 21, 2013 - 3:56 pm

I am so thankful for having read this post – it reinforced what my husband and I have been saying about our kindergartner. He has been working SO hard at school to stay on green – and then coming home and behaving like this child we have never met before. So many talks about looking at our hearts and seeing the root for the fruit of our lives and how the inside condition matters more than the outside performance. Thanks for sharing.

mary - September 26, 2013 - 12:36 pm

Hi! I’ve read your blog for a long time and enjoy your writing so much. Thank you for sharing your family and your adoption stories with us. On this blog post I whole heartedly agree with your thoughts on parenting and I often appreciate your reminders to care for our children’s hearts first. However I do not think it is inappropriate that our schools have systems for behavioral consequences (at the elementary level and above, I’ve never heard of this in a preschool). If my first grader disrespects his teacher or breaks a rule, I like that there is a ‘wordly’ consequence. I do want to help walk through the repentance with him at a heart level. But I think it is important for children to learn that their actions have consequences- for as a grown up they will be accountable to following the laws of our country. I want my child to understand that while his reunion with the Lord is of most importance, he will still face fines or jail time for breaking the law.

admin - September 26, 2013 - 1:32 pm

Mary! I’m in COMPLETE agreement with you sister!! This blog post is about PRESCHOOL…our sweet loves are TOO young to understand the consequences and just focus on the color. OF COURSE there needs to be other consequences for elementary, middle and high school kiddos–but this post is about preschool:). SPEAKING OF–JUST yesterday my Isaac was upset b/c he has stayed on GREEN all year! He said he doesn’t like not getting to move his name like the other children. He wants a turn on yellow and red TOO. My oldest son told him he could tell him some tricks to get on yellow or red;). Oh no! Not quite what they were going for I think. BUT it just shows you that it’s so much better to focus the heart than systems for preschoolers b/c their little brains will only focus on the systems. And obviously for some–they might be motivated in the wrong ways. I had to tell the teacher that Isaac is itching to get to move his to yellow or red–so could they consider moving it one day for a small reason even if it doesn’t merit it by their standards so he doesn’t try to get there on his own;)

Chelsea - October 22, 2013 - 6:37 pm

I am a preschool teacher and I could not agree more with you! In my classroom, we use red, yellow and green faces. Green-happy Red-sad etc. BUT my students use it each morning to evaluate how they are feeling. They are in control. At the top, it says “how are you feeling?” Breaks my heart that your little one was so upset. Thanks for sharing…as a teacher this was great to read.