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Children and Youth Program: Parenting with the End in Mind

As someone who has been observing the development of the curriculum for the Children and Youth program, I have been impressed with its focus on transitioning children into responsible adults. I believe all parents want to see their children evolve into responsible adults, though there are as many varied opinions as there are parents on how best to accomplish that goal. Achieving the goal of transitioning youth into adults appears further complicated by the fact that children with different personalities may actually require a parenting approach tailored to their unique strengths and weaknesses. Sister Joy D. Jones, Primary general president shares, “Leaders and parents, keep in mind that you help children and youth best when you support their efforts instead of tracking them.” It’s my hope that all parents will be able to see how the new program encourages children to take personal responsibility for their development and can be easily adapted to the specific needs of each individual child.

Regardless of the specific parenting approach parents use, the actual task of parenting children is a progressive experience. Specifically, we as parents are tasked with helping our children go through different stages in their progression toward adulthood, with the end goal being a complete transfer of responsibility for the child’s emotional, spiritual and temporal well-being from our shoulders to theirs. It’s not a matter of if, as much as it is determining how and when to incrementally transfer this responsibility. The new Children and Youth program allows for age-appropriate goals that parents can use to help transition their child to the next stage of development. Elder Gerrit W. Gong of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said it best, “Personal gospel growth is not a set of requirements that you check off. Setting righteous personal goals and establishing disciplined and inspired patterns will bless your whole life.”

When I counsel with parents, I’m often surprised by their lack of awareness regarding certain stages that define to a great extent where they need to be in their child’s transitional process. As you become more acquainted with the Children and Youth program you will notice how parents now have the responsibility to assist their child in developing the goals to make the transitions from one stage to another, rather than the way the prior structured programs were automatically doing this by way of advancements. While it does place more responsibility on both the child’s and parent’s shoulders, it also makes it more adaptable to the needs of their individual child. To help parents begin to understand their needed involvement in preparing their child for each new stage of life, I often employ the example of American football:

Stage 1: Imagine you are the quarterback of your child’s football team. During this phase, you call the plays. You tell your child when to block, run, catch the ball, tackle, etc. You are making all the decisions. When your child does well, you reward them with praise. When they do poorly, you correct them and help them learn to be better. This stage usually lasts until his or her 8th birthday. During this first stage, parents are responsible to teach the basics of the gospel through example and precept. The child needs to be taught what loving God and loving thy neighbor as thyself looks and feels like. Professionals from every discipline who work with children can attest that children who grow up in an environment where this is taught by parents, following the direction given in Doctrine and Covenants 121: 41–44, stand out from the crowd.

Stage 2: At age 8, (the age of accountability as referenced in Doctrine and Covenants 68:27) the Lord shows up and marches you, the parent, off to the side of the field. You relinquish your shoulder pads and helmet and He hands you a clipboard. He tells you that you are now the child’s coach. Your child is given the quarterback position and he or she now runs the game. Ideally, before and after every play, they run over to the sideline and consult with you, their coach. About age 13 to 15, the child begins calling audibles out on the field, changing the plays you’ve designed. When this happens, you may experience frustration and even begin screaming and throwing your clipboard down in disgust. This, of course, doesn’t create a desire for the child to run over and consult with you the coach, it does just the opposite. Ideally, the coach (parent) stays calm at all times—a difficult task as most parents of adolescent children can attest.

Helping your child understand “the game” and call correct plays will follow a natural progression of trial and error. Ideally, in the Children and Youth program, parents will be helping their children not just set personal goals but connect these goals to the gospel injunction to love self and love their neighbor. As parents work with their youth in establishing goals, they need to help their child recognize the theme of love running through all of them as well as point out the need for a balanced life as their child begins making their own decisions. The Children and Youth program will create an exceptional opportunity for parents to work with their children on learning to make good calls for themselves as well as recovering from poor decisions.

Stage 3: Ideally, by age 18, the child begins to see the wisdom underlying the plays you, the coach, have been suggesting from the sidelines and is more consistent in following the game plan. However, it’s at this age (in the United States and many other places) that children transition from being a child to legally becoming an adult. In other words, the State comes and takes away your clipboard and marches you down to one end of the field and hands you two pom-poms. You are no longer their coach—you are now their cheerleader. The job description of the cheerleader is very specific: you cheer. It doesn’t matter if your team is losing 100 to nothing, you continue to cheer. 

Once you reach the cheerleader stage, there are times when the child can become confused, thinking you are still their coach. During these times they may run over to you asking for advice. However, instead of immediately telling them what you think they should do, I suggest that you explain that you are running your own game on another field and recommend they employ your coach: God. Explain that you consult with Him several times a day and you recommend Him highly. Ideally, you would have already been gradually transitioning the child from your “coaching” over to the Lord. One of the major goals of the Children and Youth program is for the child to develop a personal relationship with the Savior and receive inspiration for their own life. Given that the child legally becomes an adult at age 18, it seems an excellent time to officially transition them over to the Lord for His coaching. You may even consider giving them a plaque, trophy, or some other token of advancement to mark the occasion.

When my own children pass from child to adult and persist in wanting my advice, I’ll often ask them to guess what advice I might have given when I was their coach. Often, much to my surprise, my child will give the “lecture” (the designed play) better than I might have when I was their coach. It’s then that I’ll say, “Sounds like good advice to me!” If my child responds in frustration for me being so “hard headed,” I then remind them that my current job description is to cheer not coach. Go team go!

Stage 4: This is when you become a grandparent. Your adult children take away your pom-poms and assign you the role of fan. You can decide to be a good fan (always supporting and rooting for your team—your children and grandchildren), a bad fan (always critical when things aren’t going the way you want), or a fair weather fan (only interested when the team is winning or it’s convenient for you).

Of course, everyone loves to be the fan of a winning team. In life, winning is defined as never giving up. Every parent understands this definition. If your child keeps trying to love God, love neighbor and self, and generally be an example of gospel teachings, getting up after each failure and trying again, it’s hard not to cheer for such a team!

Final thoughts

There are two important rules to remember once parents reach stages 3 and 4:

If you ain’t got nothing good to say, don’t say anything! Additionally, look for good things to say, give compliments freely, focus on what your children are doing right and be positive.

If your child wants your advice, they’ll ask for it. Even if they do ask for it, you want to strongly consider not giving it, choosing first to defer them to God for advice and counsel, then you can be His “second witness” when they share with you what He has instructed.

Here I wish to add that I do believe the concepts of choice and accountability do go together. In fact, the child needs to be held accountable at all stages if they are going to learn anything through their life’s experiences. The Children and Youth program emphasizes the importance of children choosing their own goals and determining how they will be holding themselves accountable for their achievement. A great sign of both emotional and spiritual maturity is a person who has mastered this ability. Again as Elder Gong has said, “Setting righteous personal goals and establishing disciplined and inspired patterns will bless your whole life.”

In summary, while there must be hundreds if not thousands of parenting techniques and approaches, ideally they should be compatible with the concepts inherent within the Children and Youth program.  Recognizing the parenting stages and focusing your parenting on getting your child prepared for the next stage in advance of reaching it seems critical to their successful transition. As a parent, while you want to always remain a part of your child’s life, as they age, your goal is to transition away from being the one responsible for their spiritual, temporal and emotional well-being, toward being a great source of emotional support and encouragement. Sister Michelle Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency,  said, “The Church’s new program for children and youth is built on the foundation of learning to seek revelation, discovering what the Lord would have us do, and then acting on that direction. Each one of us regardless age or circumstance, can strive to seek, receive, and act.”

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