A few months after our son Jacob turned twelve, he began to resist participating in family work routines, such as setting the table at dinner or Saturday chores. He seemed angry more and more of the time. My husband and I responded in the best way we knew how—we held him accountable, and we tried to do so in a loving but consistent way.
Through prayer, fasting, and scripture study, we sought inspiration to know how we could improve our parenting and what we could to do help our son. Eventually, the situation became more serious, and we sought professional help. After more than a year, things were still getting worse, not better.
Before BYU, Coach Bronco Mendenhall worked with many street-smart young football players who came from difficult family circumstances. He studied some of the world’s most renowned warrior cultures and talked with his teams about the practices that made these warriors stand out. Young men in these cultures were often required to undergo grueling initiation rituals that helped them prove their worthiness and desire to join the ranks of the adult world. Likewise, Bronco requires his team members to exert maximum effort not just on the practice field, but also in annual traditions such as the “Run to the Y.” These are design choices intended to foster discipline and hard work.
Likewise, families can make design choices intended to foster in their children the characteristics that they value. As in any organization, the way parents design their family life and the choices they make can change the outcomes of the struggles that they face. We came to believe that what Jacob needed most was a stiff, healthy challenge, not just a doctor. There came a moment when, at wit’s end, we made the difficult decision to take a different path, and we helped Jacob choose a boarding school. We chose the firm structure and academic emphasis of a college prep boarding school as the right fit for Jacob’s intelligence and determination, though we considered many other options that would have presented our son with the adventure he seemed to require. He attended school away from home for a year and a half.
One couple I know, determined not to raise children who were “lazy, entitled, and unable to delay gratification,” brought home a milk cow! While there are lots of ways to teach kids hard work, this family chose the daily challenge of caring for a farm animal because of the father’s rural upbringing. As the dad said, “The garbage doesn’t moo, keeping the neighbors awake, if it isn’t taken to the curb.”
But design choices don’t have to be quite this dramatic. These same parents also wanted their children to develop kindness, so they selected a particularly kind, favorite uncle to hold up as a role model. They helped the children identify things he did to help others feel loved. Each morning, they asked their children to think about this uncle at school and then after school to recount the kind deeds they had done.
Another family hoped their children would develop strong testimonies, so they designed their family life to focus on this goal. One design choice that they made was that in addition to regular church attendance, family scripture study and prayer, they would often hold small family testimony meetings.
I can’t say that Jacob at this point in his life looks back on boarding school with gratitude. But it did serve as an intense challenge that engaged his youthful energy and intelligence in a constructive way. When he came home for his sophomore year of high school, we all found that we could live together in a happier equilibrium. Eventually, his pervasive anger subsided.
Writing Running into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall—5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team alongside Paul Gustavson helped me learn principles I could apply to being a better parent and helped me connect with my son. He gladly answered many of my questions about football, and only recently did I ever stump him. (It was when I asked him about the specifics of a spread offense.) He finished high school with top honors and is now a thriving freshman at the University of Kansas who kindly gave his permission for us to share his story and even helped us with some editing tasks as we prepared the book for publication.
Learn more about the new book Running into the Wind: Bronco Mendenhall—5 Strategies for Building a Successful Team.