Part 5 of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth. Click here to read the previous sections.
In the previous article about compassion, I suggested that this quality of mind and heart is foundational for good parenting and for our spiritual well-being. Compassion is vital. Yet it is also completely unnatural for the natural man. Compassion requires us to extend beyond our self-focused thoughts and concerns. Ultimately, it requires that we get the mind and heart of Christ. Only when we are changed by Him will we be fully and properly compassionate. But that doesn’t happen in one fell swoop.
God asks us to do the best we can to be compassionate while crying out for heavenly mercy. Godly compassion is the ultimate gift to those who have struggled for it for a lifetime.
Two Homes for Compassion
The Lord taught that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34). While heavenly compassion is substantially a quality of the heart, the mind is the gardener; our thoughts prepare the soil of our hearts for compassion. When our minds dwell on judgment and irritation, the soil remains hard, sterile, and impenetrable. In contrast, when our minds understand the unique needs, challenges, and life experiences of other people, our hearts are softened and we are prepared to be compassionate.
Perhaps that is why the Lord used obscure and strong language when He gave Joseph Smith timeless instructions for dealing with people: “Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45).
In scriptural terms, the word bowels suggests not just our hearts but all our innards—all our feelings, all our insides. He wants more than our hearts; God wants our innards to be packed and brimming with charity.
Then God adds the next condition— “and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (Doctrine and Covenants 121:45). When we run into the word virtue, we moderns often think of sexual purity. It seems clear that God has in mind a broader meaning. I think He is inviting us to look for goodness. “Unto the pure all things are pure: but unto them that are defiled and unbelieving is nothing pure” (Titus 1:15). According to Paul, we see what we ARE. If our souls are judgmental and angry, then our thoughts are cynical and negative. We see badness. If our hearts are pure, we see goodness in all those around us; we choose to dwell on their virtues, strengths, and righteousness.
We are often quite unaware of the one of the commonest ways Satan can hijack our hearts and families. When we let ourselves get angry, our heart rates soar and we prepare for battle. It’s difficult to think rationally and almost impossible to have compassion when we have been hijacked by anger. Plus, when we move into that accusatory mode, the Spirit takes off and leaves us alone; we regress to being the natural man and parent. We say and do things as parents that we know we shouldn’t, but we’re just too ticked off in the moment to care. This is especially likely when we are hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. We can lose our tempers and feel bad—but we hate to apologize so we try to justify. We set up a system of unkindness and dishonesty. (For ideas on avoiding anger, read the revised edition of The Soft-Spoken Parent by the author or Anger Kills by Redford Williams, MD, and Virginia Williams).
So God prescribes a combination of thoughts that are upright, holy, and generous, and feelings that are charitable and compassionate. You can see how important this is in parenting. Parents are constantly required to weigh in on children’s motives. When our minds are judgmental and our hearts are hard, our judgments will be filled with accusation and condemnation. We become like the great accuser, Satan, who is always looking for the bad and emphasizing it. This is very damaging for children. It leaves them feeling lost and lonely in a hostile world—just as Satan would have it.
In contrast to parents whose minds and hearts accuse their children, God invites us to be like the great advocate, Jesus, who looks for the good in us and whose heart is always welcoming. He knows we will make many mistakes. He knows we will often act foolishly (childishly!). And yet He is prepared to turn those failings into blessings of learning and growth. As God directed: “Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart” (Proverbs 3:3). Kindness and generosity are marks of discipleship.
Three Types of Understanding
Compassion is facilitated by understanding, which I like to divide into three kinds, each with a different combination of mind work and heart work.
- Understanding Children’s Development
We can help children more effectively if we understand their development. When we understand development, we are more open to a child’s challenges. For example, it is perfectly natural for a two-year-old to try to exercise some independence. The “terrible twos” are a vital developmental milestone. We certainly don’t want our children to remain completely dependent on us into adulthood.
In like manner, the churlishness of adolescence is another vital step toward establishing independence. The bold overstatements of teens are the sounds of a growing brain stretching and trying its muscles. When we adults react judgmentally to teen’s bold statements, we damage healthy growth. The right reaction involves understanding and compassion.
Some parents might worry that gentle ways of responding encourage brash statements in our children. Actually the opposite is true. Rather than responding to such a brash statement with our own brash statement, this approach models mature thinking. It invites dialogue. It demonstrates the kind of open mind that can lead to productive thinking and collaborating.
There are seven developmental challenges that most commonly put parents of young children over the edge: colic, children’s sleep problems, separation anxiety, normal exploratory behavior, normal negativism, normal poor appetite, and toilet training. These are not calculated attempts by children to make their parents crazy. These are the normal, expectable challenges of a spirit learning to work with a mortal body in a fallen world.
We can react impatiently and harshly to problems. Or we can try to understand what challenges in the child’s world are creating the problem for the child. This requires us to get out of our own life stories and into theirs. This requires patience, open-mindedness, and humility.
For example, colic is inconvenient for parents. In fact, intractable crying by babies is the most common cause of child abuse. It can perturb even a saintly parent. When an exhausted parent is combined with an inconsolable baby, there can be trouble—especially if we begin to think we have a bad child or that we’re poor parents. The solution to colic is to be sure the child is healthy, is not overfed, and gets a lot of soothing. There is a reason rocking chairs have been around for centuries. When nothing else works, sometimes a parent must put the baby down and allow him or her to cry. But children do not cry to annoy us; they cry to engage us in solving their problems. They need us.
The bottom line is that most of the annoying or silly things kids do in the course of growing up are perfectly normal. Most of them are markers for children’s developing maturity.
Sometimes preferences in style may irritate parents and suggest a rejection of the family’s values. T-shirts with rock-band insignia, or flamboyant posters on teens’ bedroom walls, may annoy us. While it is appropriate to set limits on moral issues such as modesty, we are wise to enjoy our children’s growing expression of self. In the process of parenting, we need to be very careful about the battles we pick. Better yet, we can try to see every step our children take as progress towards God’s perfect purposes for them.
- Understanding Children’s Unique Temperaments and Personalities
Understanding development requires us to know what is common and normal for children. We also need to understand the ways in which a given child is different from most. We can only parent effectively when we appreciate each child’s uniqueness.
Each of our children has been different from the others from the first moments he or she arrived in our family. Emily has always been a people person. Andy has always been creative and enterprising. Sara has always been tender and loyal. All three have wonderful qualities in common, yet all three are as distinct as three different species of trees.
Differences between our children create challenges for us as parents. We cannot develop some tidy formula for raising all our children. What works magically for one child may annoy another and evoke open rebellion from a third.
God knows what He is doing. He wants us to love each child personally, individually, even sacrificially. Some will be easier for us than others. We can spend a lifetime studying our children and their preferences. We can be genuinely open to their uniqueness. We can beg Heaven for needed guidance and inspiration. God aims to stretch us. Nowhere is this more evident than in the challenges of family life.
Brigham Young gave wise counsel to parents. Notice the italicized part in the context of the rest. “Bring up your children in the love and fear of the Lord; study their dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly, never allowing yourself to correct them in the heat of passion; teach them to love you rather than to fear you, and let it be your constant care that the children that God has so kindly given you are taught in their early youth the importance of the oracles of God, and the beauty of the principles of our holy religion, that when they grow to the years of man and womanhood they may always cherish a tender regard for them and never forsake the truth.”
Perhaps one of the best ways to teach our children about God is to be godly with them—to tune in to their needs and preferences and draw them toward God with our love. We cannot drive or compel them to heaven; they must be drawn with gentleness and kindness.
- Understanding Children’s Circumstances
Do you remember some of the things you worried about when you were in elementary school? I remember worrying as a child that I would forget to change out of my night clothes before going to school and would be humiliated to arrive at the classroom wearing my cowboy PJ’s.
Each of us worried about different things. Some worried about being picked on by peers or being humiliated by a teacher. The point here is that most of us have long since forgotten what worried us as children. That may be good—except we may not realize that our children worry about many things that we have long forgotten.
Years ago some caring and concerned parents asked for advice. Every once in a while their son would go crazy and become a terrorist. Sometimes while Mom nursed the baby, this boy would scream and jump on the furniture. They wondered if something was wrong with their boy.
We talked for some time and had not found a convincing answer until I asked Mom a key question: “Is there something different in your life when you have these problems with your son?” She sighed and said, “Every once in a while the baby is sick and I spend the night caring for him and walking the floor. When morning comes, I am exhausted. I don’t play or laugh with my boy like usual.”
The light dawned for both of us. The terrorist son was not deliberately trying to make his parents crazy. Quite the opposite. Once in a while he got up and found that his normally loving mother was a zombie. She didn’t talk to, laugh with, or play with him. She seemed to have disappeared from his life. She seemed angry at him. The boy’s terrorism was a plea for love and engagement. He was saying: “Mom, what’s wrong? Have I made you mad? Don’t you love me? Mom! Please come back! I need you, Mom. Please!”
When we see the world through our children’s eyes—when we notice their circumstances and struggles—we are far better prepared to respond to them helpfully. Paradoxically, we are often unaware of the ways our moods and well-being impact our children. Our distractedness, frustration, and exhaustion may frighten our children—even when they did not cause it in any way.
These three ways of understanding children are common among those of us who study child development. I want to add a fourth to the list. It is important enough that I would like to dedicate a separate chapter to it. So we will continue our discussion of compassion in the next chapter.
Reflection and Application
Can you remember things you worried about as a child, or things that hurt or frightened you? What are some of the things that worry, hurt, or frighten your children?
What can you do to help your children feel safe and loved?
How can you help your children know that God “will go before your face. [He] will be on your right hand and on your left, and [His] Spirit shall be in your hearts, and [His] angels round about you, to bear you up”? (Doctrine and Covenants 84:88).
You can buy a copy of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth at Deseret Book. Brother Goddard has written or edited other books that may interest you, such as The Soft-Spoken Parent, Between Parent and Child, or Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.