Why is this the Wrong Question?
How can I get control of my life, my child, this current situation?
by Darla Isackson
I remember that awful day with vivid clarity. I had over-scheduled and felt pressured and harried. As I attempted to clean the house, bake the birthday cake, and prepare the activities for an older son’s birthday party, my three younger sons seemed to have formed a pact to thwart my efforts– David, in particular. Every time someone screamed, David ( five or six years old at the time) was always in the middle of it. He had messed up a younger brother’s Lincoln log cabin, punched them, or kept them from doing what they wanted to do. David resisted every chore, made one mess after another, and in general refused to cooperate with MY urgent priorities! Of course the phone rang every other minute and regular daily chores had to be attended to. Then, during the party, as I was cutting the cake, a whiny, selfish little voice proclaimed loudly, “I want the biggest piece!” Absolutely appalled that I could be the mother of a child that impolite, all the frustrations of the day combined in one instant to push me over the edge I’d been teetering on all day. I took the “biggest piece” and squashed it into his impudent face! All the children laughed uproariously at the chocolate mess, but both David and I were humiliated. Even worse, the moment will never go away–all of Dave’s brothers were there and will never let us forget it!
I can easily get into guilt about that day–for not being in control of David, in control of the situation, in control of myself. Because I can clearly see in retrospect that it was really my own weaknesses that troubled me to the point of total exasperation, I could go into “Guilt Trip # 9”–well practiced. In order to be in control of the situation I should not have left all the party preparation for the last day, I should have given the children positive attention so they wouldn’t have felt the need to get my attention in negative ways, I shouldn’t have let my feelings escalate without taking time for scriptures or prayer, I shouldn’t have let myself get so frazzled that I would lose control of myself and act like an idiot. Does any of this sound familiar? But all those “shoulds” don’t do a lot to help me improve. What if the very paradigm–that the ultimate goal is for me to “be in control” is an inaccurate paradigm?
Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?
I have pondered long and hard the control and agency issue I have written about previously. We are well programmed in this society to place a high value on “being in control.” Self-help literature drips with suggestions for “taking charge of our own lives,” for “taking charge of the situation,” for becoming an increasingly powerful person.” Scary when you think of the similarity of all that to the anti-Christ Korihor’s message: “but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature: therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength.” (Alma 30:17)
Instead of “how can I get control of my life, my child, this current situation?” what if the correct paradigm is: “How can I experience the mighty change of heart? How can I turn my children to Christ? How can I become more sensitive to the Spirit so I can learn the Lord’s will in regard to my children? How can I gain the strength and courage to yield to the Lord’s will and honor his plan of agency? How can I repent of pride and through the Atonement replace it with charity for myself and my children?
God Does Not Give Us Power to Control Our Children, but to Control Ourselves
Previous to the prayer scene I share below, James Jones had spent several miserable years trying to control his rebellious drug-addicted son’s behavior–and had utterly failed. He said
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 it seemed that God would not help! I went back into the bedroom and knelt down again and began to plead with God for the life of my son with all the energy of a loving father. 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 run Danny’s life! I recognized clearly that force is Satan’s method–but it is not God’s! Our Creator has given each person the power to choose for themselves–to choose right or wrong without coercion or force–and I was trying to change His plan.
That answer to prayer was the beginning of my understanding of the principle that:
. God–our “Heavenly Father” is the only model we have of a perfect parent. 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.
Peace through a Change of Heart–Not Change of a Child’s Behavior
Next I want to share an example of the spiritual power that can come to a parent (in this case, James Jones) to transcend the behavior of an errant child as a result of humility and prayer–of reaching upward for spiritual strength, rather than demanding a change in the outward situation.
One night I had my first real experience with unconditional love. Before retiring I had stood looking out the front room window at the full moon. I pondered Danny’s situation as a bank of storm clouds drifted across the moon, nearly eclipsing its light; Danny’s light was still there, I thought, behind the clouds of drug use and rebellion. I was bone weary; this whole experience with Danny seemed like dark clouds in my life. I walked down the hall deep in thought, and turned and entered Danny’s bedroom through the open door, determined to reason with him about this drug thing–again! I had spent so many hours talking to him about it, but I could not give up–surely the next lecture would get through to him! He immediately began attacking me verbally when I walked in his bedroom door. He ranted on, his face growing redder by the minute.
As he raged at me he reached a point of such intensity that I could feel his red rage clear across the room, hot against me. I did not respond, just stood there with thoughts going through my head as he accused and raged. Surprisingly, I felt calm, and very sad for my son.
As I continued to look at him, an incredible feeling began to come over me, filling my whole being with love; I had a keen sense of how greatly I loved my son. I just stood and enjoyed that wonderful feeling for a minute.
Danny continued to rage on, but his words did not reach me. Finally, in my heart, I reached out to my son and silently said, “I love you, Danny. I love you so much!” Feeling totally calm and peaceful and full of love, I simply turned around and walked out, knowing there was nothing more I could do right them.
Previously, Danny had most often seen my frustration and disappointment with the way he had chosen to live his life. Danny had not been seeing or feeling my tremendous love for him–he was feeling my distrust and my anger at his being so rebellious and hard to manage. My ego was all mixed in there too. What other people thought of me was never a big factor. However, what I thought of myself was a huge factor. It was a deadly blow to my self-confidence and self-esteem when I could not convince my own son of the danger of drugs. I felt I was failing as a father when I could not guide Danny to a better life.
I was finally learning that good parenting includes knowing when you should do something and when you cannot. We do not often have the key to “fix” things for our children, and often cannot do anything but wait and keep loving them. By his own choice, Danny was in hell and not even my love could help him out until he wanted to get out. Still I was determined that he would know that my love was immovable and would always be there, no matter what.
Application to Parenting
It is absolutely true that no matter how well we behave, some of our children may behave very badly, even persecuting us for our efforts to live righteously. Remember that in spite of Jesus’ perfect example and flawless behavior, some men chose to spit on him, revile him, mock him. Yet he always gave the perfect response–often silence, never returning reviling for reviling. In his moments of greatest pain and humiliation he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I feel him saying that in regards to me. And I hear him saying it in regard to my children, showing me how I should feel towards them. Even the best educated and most experienced of mortals knows such a tiny pinprick of all that God knows. When the veil is drawn as our precious children are born, they are faced with making choices from their first wailing complaint at the discomfort of being born, with scant knowledge or understanding . “We weren’t born knowing that” is one of my favorite sayings–a buffer when we find ourselves or our children making mistakes of ignorance. We simply don’t have to buy into anger and misery when our children are making poor choices. We don’t need to be dependent on our children “acting nice” in order to validate us as “good parents” as Brother Jones was in the story about David. We can learn to turn upward and feel the Lord’s mercy and love for all of us.
Brother Jones greatly improved the quality of his life–not by changing his son–but by changing himself, by developing a new spiritual kind of self-mastery. As he reached upward to the Lord, he was led to relinquish his former goal of “control,” and he learned to see his son’s situation more as the Savior does and act more as the Savior would.
Learning from Divine Example
Jesus was not “in control” of those around him or the situations he found himself in–at least those situations certainly didn’t all “turn out” pleasantly or the way he may have preferred. Those in his personal sphere of influence did not often follow his perfect example. Still, by maintaining constant contact with his Father, he always maintained control of himself–no matter what others chose to say or do. Jesus our exemplar didn’t achieve self-mastery by white-knuckled effort on his own, however. He often “took himself apart to pray” to His Father. He spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying in preparation to be a clear conduit of the Father’s will. He achieved self-mastery, then, by prayer, yielding his will to the Father’s, and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We, his imperfect disciples, have a far greater need to follow that type, that pattern. Is yielding and submitting then the real goal, the hidden key to self-control? Yielding instead of seeking control means accepting God’s plan as it is, knowing that we and all our children will make mistakes, affirming our need for the atonement of Christ. The atonement is all about making up the difference for our weaknesses and lack of understanding, all about extracting pure joy from the raw and often coarse material of mortality.
In Part Two of this article, we will discuss the implications of these thought-provoking principles.
2002 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.