Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series on teaching children with gentleness and kindness. Read part 1 here.
Here I sit in my quiet, orderly home, with all the kids grown and gone. I have only occasional grandkids to referee or clean up after – and I can take them home whenever I choose!
No hassles about home work or curfews or loud music, no peanut butter or jelly smeared on the woodwork, no chirping voices interrupting my phone conversations or making constant demands on my times. No “look at me, Mama!” or “where is my red shirt?” or “Johnny hit me!” or “I don’t want to’s.” No squabbles or banging doors or hurt knees or kids falling out of bunk beds in the middle of the night.
And I presume to write about parenting issues? Even though I have been there, done that, and my memory isn’t all that bad, I’m afraid I sometimes come through as the idealist I am.
After my last article, a Meridian reader asked me what I had used as my “drug of choice” on my five sons (I also have two stepsons) – apparently feeling that what I was saying sounded pie in the sky when it comes to real-life situations. There can be such a gap between lofty theory and daily “in the trenches” practice.
In these two follow-up articles I am making a sincere effort to be more practical. However, I do believe that certain principles apply – period. Just because they are true. Just because they make sense. One of these is using Heavenly Father as our ultimate example for basic parenting principles. In this article I’m going to highlight God’s example of honoring agency.
Honoring Our Children’s Right to Make Mistakes
One father said, “The hardest job of parents is to leave children free to make their own mistakes.” Because we dislike seeing our children suffer the consequences of a wrong choice, we sometimes try to force them to do what we think is right, or exert control to keep them from doing what is wrong. Satan suggested those tactics and Heavenly Father rejected that plan.
His voice in the scriptures never suggests that parents can teach children so well that they can avoid making mistakes. No matter how thorough our teachings, no matter how good our example, our children will at times use their agency to sin. (Why should they be any different from their parents in that regard?)
Their mistakes do not make us failures. In fact, our biggest success can be to teach children where to go for a remission of their sins. The scriptures clearly set the pattern: “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins” (2 Nephi 25:26).
Learning from Other Parents
When my sister and I were gathering material for our book, To Parents, with Love, we interviewed more than a hundred families about real-life problems and solutions. I will be telling you about a few of them in this article and the next (yes, the idea has now grown into three articles). I will also be quoting from some ghost writing I did for a family therapist named James Jones. He believes that the belief “I should be able to control my kids and keep them from making mistakes” is the root of parent misery and ineffectiveness. He points out how we fall into all the “parent traps” (such as habitual anger, nagging, threats) because of that belief and our attempts to take away their free choice. He pointed out that it is not only a basic human need to choose, but a god-given right that children do not relinquish easily.
Brother Jones gave me permission to quote from him at will. He said, “When we try to control another person we become impotent, frustrated and angry because we are attempting an impossible job.” He knows because he lived it. I want to share a piece of his story that teaches these principles in a powerful way:
Praying for the Power to Change Danny
I was at my wits’ end. After all we could do, Danny had run away again. You must understand that Danny was not running away from abuse in the home. He was running to … to parties … to alcohol … to drugs … to girls.
We had done everything parents could do. Drug rehab wouldn’t work because Danny wouldn’t let it; he just conned the counselors or didn’t even show up. Probation made no difference, getting arrested and going to jail made no difference. Danny was completely addicted and nothing that anyone could say or do had the slightest effect on him.
The stark reality that there was nothing on this earth capable of saving Danny’s life weighed heavily on me. I knew that if he did not stop it was just a matter of time before drugs would kill him. My son was going to die!
Lillie and I had lost two of our children when they were newborn, as Lillie mentioned. They had died three years apart. Funerals are hard. And funerals are hard to explain to the other children. But we can do funerals. When a family goes through the experience of losing a child the survivors gather together; they go through their mourning, they have a funeral service, they process their grief, they comfort each other and express their love. And after a time they move on with their lives – as difficult as it may be, there is a closure and life goes on.
But when a child is addicted to drugs and out on the street, the suffering never ends. The awful pain of seeing a loved one hopelessly trapped in drug addiction and slowly wasting away before your very eyes is unimaginable. I was depressed and in mourning. I had accepted the fact that Danny would die unless we could come up with a miracle. I had reached the end of my rope. I was worn out. I was exhausted emotionally and physically! I had done all I possibly could do.
I felt terrible. I went into my bedroom and knelt down by the bed and started to pray. I asked God to intervene and save Danny. I pled that he would not let my son die. I reasoned with God and said I knew He could do anything and that I knew that He loved Danny more than I did. I explained that I was worn out and was totally helpless and that everything we had tried had failed. I prayed that God would protect Danny and let him know how to recover from drugs … and bring him home.
I tried to make a deal as I prayed for the life of my son. I told God that I would pay any price or make any sacrifice that he would accept if He would save my son.
I pled, Please! Please! I felt my utter helplessness and fell into despair. The sadness, the tragedy, the inconceivable waste weighed down on me and the tears began. All my strength was gone. Even my hope was gone that Danny would survive. I sank deep into my sorrow; my soul and my body ached, and I mourned. I couldn’t pretend to be tough any more. I was completely overcome by sorrow and sank helplessly into the pit and anguished.
As I suffered I gave in and cried like a little child; I didn’t care if I was acting like a “man” or not. From deep within me I began to sob. Like a little child I sobbed so hard that my whole body convulsed. Tears flowed out of my eyes and nose and mouth and it was okay. I gave myself permission not to be strong, just to mourn and suffer and sob. All pride was gone, all self-assurance and power were gone. I was broken, beaten and I could not carry on another step; my son was being destroyed and God would not help!
As the time passed and I sobbed and cried, I began to realize that it felt good to cry; it was a great relief. As I cried a wonderful emotional venting took place that I had not experienced since I was a little boy – because big boys don’t cry. After awhile I got up and went into the bathroom and looked at the “big boob” in the mirror with the red swollen eyes. I washed my face and pulled myself together. At this point I felt more peace than I had in years. But I wasn’t finished yet.
I went back into the bedroom and knelt down again and began to plead with God with all the energy of a loving father for the life of his son. I said, “Dear Heavenly Father, please help me to reach Danny! I must have more power! I need more power to convince him. Please, give me the power to -“
Then, in an instant, my mind opened and I understood as I heard the words clearly spoken in my mind, “No! That is not my way! I will not give you that power! Danny knows what is right and he will learn by the things he suffers. No! That is not my way!”
I did not move. I just stayed kneeling at the bed. The realization hit me that I had been completely wrong. I could hardly believe it! How could I have been so stupid? I had actually been praying that God would give me the power to force my son to do what I thought was right. I had asked for power to take away my son’s right to free choice. I had been asking for the power to run my son’s life – and God himself wouldn’t even run Danny’s life! I thought about the fact that force seems to be Satan’s method – but is certainly not God’s! Our Creator has given each person the power to choose for himself – to choose right or wrong without coercion or force -and I was trying to improve on His plan.
That answer to prayer was the beginning of my understanding of the principle that:
Heavenly Father is the only model we have of a perfect parent, and if we don’t get in line with His laws and the way He does things we will continue to suffer.
I stood and paced around the room putting these principles in order in my mind. I concluded that my Creator was well aware of Danny and what he was doing with his life, and that Danny was going to learn by suffering the consequences of his choices. I was very humbled and knelt down again to express heartfelt gratitude that God had answered my desperate prayer. I had been clearly shown the best source of parenting wisdom.
I knew that God’s design is free choice. Our Founding Fathers, in the Declaration of Independence, laid the groundwork for a governmental acceptance of the freedom that our Creator had already given people. They boldly declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
I had been destroying my life, giving up my own liberty and failing at the pursuit of happiness by refusing to accept that truth. God had told me that He would never give me the power to take away the free choice He had given Danny. I vowed to remember that people are inherently endowed with free choice. It is a fantasy to think that a parent can take away what God has given.
When We Espouse the Doctrine of Agency, Why Do We Resort to Force?
Many times we resort to force because we are so emotionally involved with our children and don’t want to see them suffer from the consequences of poor choices. We are tempted to force them do their homework, to hover and threaten, to manipulate and push. Part of our motivation may be prideful: we may believe that we are judged by our children’s actions. But even more damaging, we may wrongly believe that our own salvation depends on getting them to do what is right.
But God does not condemn parents who have taught as well as they know for decisions of others (which they can’t control – and shouldn’t control). God himself – the perfect exemplar – always respects agency, regardless of the cost to Him.
Joseph F. Smith said:
You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. You may force them to hell, by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be. The man that will be angry at his boy and try to correct him while he is in anger, is in the greatest fault; he is more to be pities and more to be condemned that the child who has done wrong. You can only correct your children by love, in kindness, by love unfeigned, by persuasion, and reason.[i]
President James E. Faust said:
Our agency, given us through the plan of our Father, is the great alternative to Satan’s plan of force. With this sublime gift, we can grow, improve, progress, and seek perfection. Without agency, none of us could grow and develop by learning from our mistakes and errors and those of others.[ii]
Both age and abilities of a child determine the amount and strength of guidance that will be appropriate. One mother we interviewed said”
In teaching my children to take responsibility for their own choices, I used two lists, A must list, which included rules that governed our home, and a may list, which listed things they could decide for themselves. I started my young children with little choices (from their may list) and then gave them bigger and bigger ones.
I feel it is very important to a children’s personal development to give them choices as much as possible, because choices help them grown and develop and learn to make decisions. If forced, they do not grow. I tried to teach them correct principles, then let them govern themselves according to the principles. I felt that by the time a child was a teenager, the only things on my must list for them was gospel principles. (If they wanted to wear purple pants or dirty cord to school, I let them. Those things didn’t affect their salvation. I noticed that the mothers who made a big issue over little things like this often lost their children’s obedience of the big things that do matter.)
Even on gospel principles, though, I let them make a choice after I had taught them correctly. For example, one Sunday after church my son said, I don’t know why don’t let me go to the show on Sunday. All my friends are going and here I stand by myself and they think I’m a sissy tied to your apron strings.’ I’m not keeping you from going to the show,’ I said, you can go if you want to, but first I want to be sure you know exactly what the Lord has said about Sundays. Once I have taught you right, then you will take the consequences of your action, not me!’ We read all the scriptures I could find about the Sabbath, and then I said, Now you can decide for yourself.’ He never said another word about Sunday shows and as far as I know he has never gone to one.
I did choose to go with friends to a movie when I was still in grade school – and felt so bad I never wanted to again. If my parents hadn’t given me that choice, I wouldn’t have learned that important lesson.
Not even good choices feel very good if you are coerced into making them. A father named Rex said, “it is such a thrill to do something right when it is your idea to do it – than you can take the credit for it. But if someone else makes you do it, they get the credit and you don’t feel any rewards. Because we’re left the decision up to them, I think they have felt the rewards of their own right choices. Until a child makes a right choice of his own free will, I don’t think a parent has really accomplished anything, no matter how obedient they are to commands.”
Freedom Within Limits
Freedom within limits seems to be a concept that most parents and children feel comfortable with. In stressing the importance of agency, we don’t want to give the impression that parents should not set limits or be firm. B
ut the most effective kind of firmness is deciding how we the parents should act, and what we will and will not do, instead of deciding what we are go make the child do or keep them from doing. For example, Helena told her granddaughter that she would not give her bread and honey, not that the child had to eat what was good for her. (in reality she couldn’t force her to eat it anyway! The choice of whether to eat or go hungry was left up to the child. If we create an atmosphere of mutual respect and consideration, we will be providing opportunities for our children to comply willingly with necessary demand and learn to live comfortably and happily with other.
“We need to take stock of our actions as parents in the area of teaching consequences,” said one father of five. “Heavenly Father rarely steps in and shields us from the consequences of our own acts, and I feel we should follow His example in regard to our own children.”
Parents sometimes do not realize they are shielding their children from consequences. An example might be:
“Kevin, it’s time to get up!
“Kevin, if you don’t get up now your won’t have time to finish your homework.”
“Mmhm. In a minute.”
“Kevin, if you miss the bus, I’m going to be so mad at you!”
Kevin drags out of bed at the last minute and then the rush is on! Mom finishes Kevin’s homework, combs his hair, pushes him out the door and drives him to school. Kevin’s mother chose to suffer the consequences of Kevin’s bad choice to stay in bed.
Choices teach responsible behavior only when a child reaps the consequences of his choices – good or bad. Brother Jones said he learned that his son, not he and his wife, “was responsible for every choice he made in his life and the consequences of those choices. Each person is accountable to God for his own choices and his own life.”
Many parents we interviewed recommended the study and use of natural and logical consequences as teaching and discipline tools. Parents who use these methods say they are extremely effective and save much frustration and friction. Why? Because they are God’s way.
A Parenting Revolution
Brother Jones said:
We need a parenting revolution! We need to revolt from operating in opposition to the laws of nature [and of God] and learn to operate within them. If we don’t revolt from horse-and buggy ways, our kids will carry out their own revolution.
We are raising a generation of brilliant kids. They spot injustice, coercion, and hypocrisy instantly and will rebel against it and use their brilliance against us. We need to abandon our current “mission impossible” that is doomed to failure because it is based on the lie that parents should control their children and are a failure when they don’t. We need to remember that we alienate people we are trying to control, consequently losing our ability to influence them for good.
Let’s lead on softly, give up the impossible goal of control and accept the stewardship of influence.
Note: watch for part 3 for suggestions on how to correct with respect, give clear instructions, set and enforce limits, and live God’s laws of choice and accountability.