Hannah is our first-born daughter, and she has a lot of leadership potential. That’s just another way of saying that she challenged the process a lot growing up in our house.

I distinctively remember having a conversation with her one night when I was tucking her into bed. It was one of those days when there had been a lot of conflict, and she had gotten in about as much trouble as a five year old can. For some reason I was compelled to ask her a question right before I turned out the lights. I said, “Do you think I love you more when you’re good, or more when you’re bad?”

She immediately responded, “You love me more when I’m good!” My heart sank when I realized that was her perception of our relationship. I tried to apologize to her for my reactions as a parent. I remember telling her that night (and for several months afterwards every night), “I hope you will always remember that I love you the same, when you are good or bad.”

It’s so easy for us to make the rules more important than the relationship. It’s in the tone of our voice, our body language, and our eyes. If we are not careful, disappointment in our kids’ behavior can be translated into their hearts as rejection. The truth is our children will always challenge the rules and debate our reasoning, but we should strive to parent in a way that they can never question how much we love them.

Looking back, I realize that I have never explained the rules so clearly that my children agreed and said in unison, “Oh, now we understand, Father! You have explained it so well. We will do exactly what you say.” It is natural and normal for kids to challenge the process. As they move toward independence, it will happen more frequently. That’s the problem with rules—you can always debate their rationale, but you can’t debate a trusted relationship. Unfortunately, most of us parents are better skilled at fighting to win the argument than we are at fighting to win the heart.

It’s not that parents shouldn’t give answers when kids ask, “Why?” It’s just that the answers carry more weight when combined with a healthy relationship. One of the most powerful things a parent can do is learn to communicate in a style that values the relationship.