A husband and wife who came to me for counsel complained that their son was being obstinate, stubborn, uncooperative, and rude. He was choosing bad friends and was using alcohol, cigarettes, and drugs. They wanted to know how to "fix" him and get him back into their control.
As I talked with them, it became clear that their son wasn't the only problem. It seemed obvious to me that these parents were getting, to a large degree, what they had asked for. Because their own hearts and attitudes weren't right, they had not taught their son properly either by precept or by example. Their problem was not a lack of technique; they had learned and used many parenting techniques propounded by the secular world. But they had failed to incorporate in their relationship with their son many of the principles the Lord has set forth in the scriptures for relating to our children and to one another.
Certainly there are many parents who have done the right things and still have rebellious children. But the chances of such rebellion are dramatically reduced when parents follow true gospel principles set forth by the Lord. (And this includes far more than just taking children to church!)
The Command to Teach
There has never been a more critical time than our own day for parents to teach their children the principles and standards of the gospel. Certainly, if we don't teach our children, the world will. According to the scriptures, teaching our children the gospel is the greatest responsibility we have as parents.
To Adam, the Lord said: "Teach . . . unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent, or they can in nowise inherit the kingdom of God." The Lord further commanded Adam to teach the principles of the gospel "freely"openly and oftento his children. (Moses 6:57-58.)
Moses instructed: "Thou shalt teach [the commandments] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up" (Deut. 6:7).
In our dispensation the Lord stated: "I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth" (D&C 93:40). "And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents" (D&C 68:25).
In an almost frightening way, parents largely hold the destiny of their children in their hands. Because of agency, children are free not to heed their parents' teaching. But if parents teach by precept and example, they avoid accountability for the sins of their children.
Teaching by Example
Nowhere in the scriptures does the Lord imply that teaching by precept (words) alone is enough. We must also teach by example, because our children learn more by what they experience than by what they hear.
In the scriptures, we learn that "Adam hearkened unto the voice of God, and called upon his sons to repent" (Moses 6:1). The order of Adam's actions is very important here. First he hearkened unto the Lord; then he attempted to teach his children.
Because of his own obedience and example, Alma was able to say to his son Helaman, "I would that ye should do as I have done" (Alma 36:2). Alma powerfully strengthened his verbal teachings by living his life in a manner that was consistent with his words.
A family home evening manual stated:
Parents enjoy a unique and powerful teaching influence in the lives of their children because
1. Parents have a near monopoly of the small child's time and attention. During most of his waking hours he is in the presence of one or both parents; he feels little influence and knows few teachers other than his family members.
2. Because of the love felt by a young child for his parents, and because of his dependence on them, his feeling for them is akin to hero worship; Mother and Father are the supreme authority, possessing all power and all knowledge and doing no wrong. In such a relationship, the young child's mind is open and receptive not only to information from them, but also receptive to their own attitudes and values.
Knowingly or unknowingly, for good or for bad, a parent is constantly teaching the child. During the same time he is learning from his parents the creative and constructive characteristics such as love, integ-rity, and confidence, the child is also receptive to their feelings of fear, anger, and deceit, which can become destructive forces in his life.
Those values which a child perceives to be most important to his parents may well become the values by which his own life will be guided. . . .
A father who spends an unusual amount of time teaching his son to play ball, without also giving him spiritual and intellectual training, will likely influence the boy to adopt athletics as the supreme value in his life. . . .
A mother who is overly concerned with physical beauty and fashionable clothes may find her daughter growing to be a vain woman whose highest value is to appear physically attractive. (Family Home Evening: Walk in the Light [family home evening manual, 1975-76], p. 217.)
Teaching Personal Religious Habits
As parents, we must do everything we can to develop in our own lives the habits of personal religious worshipsuch as sincere private prayer, scripture study, church and temple attendance, and selfless service. Once we have developed these habits ourselves, we can help our children do the same.
If our children are merely going through the outward motions of membership in the Church, without actually developing their own private religious commitment, they will be on thin ice when faced by temptations and peer pressures. They need constant spiritual nourishment from personal and family prayer; personal and family study of the scriptures; family home evenings; attendance at church, seminary, and institute; and meaningful service in order to resist the tide of evil that is sweeping the earth. False prophets will always try to broaden the gate. Although the verbal teachings of parents and leaders are helpful, even greater protection against evil will come to our children from their own habits of worship and faithfulness.
Teaching from the Scriptures
One of the best ways to teach our children the spiritual truths of the gospel is to teach directly from the scriptures. There is a spiritual power in the scriptures that cannot come to us through any other means. The scriptures are the voice of the Lord to our spirits; when we read them, we can testify that we have heard the Lord's voice and know his words (see D&C 18:35-36). Pondering them brings the Spirit of the Lord into our livesand having the Spirit is the key to living a righteous life.
Teaching by Bearing Testimony
When our children love us and have a good relationship with us, they are more likely to identify with our values, try to emulate us, and want the same things we want. Hearing the gospel from us is much more powerful than hearing it from other teachers or leaders. Certainly, we as parents have a responsibility to bear testimony often to our children.
In the Lectures on Faith we learn:
We have now clearly set forth how it is, and how it was, that God became an object of faith for rational beings; and also, upon what foundation the testimony was based which excited the inquiry and diligent search of the ancient saints to seek after and obtain a knowledge of the glory of God; and we have seen that it was human testimony, and human testimony only, that excited this inquiry, in the first instance, in their minds. It was the credence they gave to the testimony of their fathers, this testimony having aroused their minds to inquire after the knowledge of God; the inquiry frequently terminated, indeed always terminated when rightly pursued, in the most glorious discoveries and eternal certainty. (Lectures on Faith 2:56.)
Our duty as parents is to incite this kind of inquiry in the minds of our children and to arouse their desires to search diligently after the knowledge of God. Our most powerful tool in inspiring such a search is our own testimony.
"The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10). A testimony comes by the spirit of prophecy through the Holy Ghost and is the power that changes hearts and converts people. For this reason, missionaries bear testimony often, and parents must also.
Father Lehi understood this principle. His son Nephi said that "having heard all the words of my father, concerning the things which he saw in a vision, and also the things which he spake by the power of the Holy Ghost, which power he received by faith on the Son of God . . . I, Nephi, was desirous also that I might see, and hear, and know of these things, by the power of the Holy Ghost" (1 Ne. 10:17).
When Enos went to hunt beasts in the forest, it was his father's testimony that led him to his life-changing experience: "The words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart. And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul." (Enos 1:3-4.)
When Alma was racked with "the pains of a damned soul" because of his past sins, the testimony of his father was the thing that saved him: "Behold, I remembered also to have heard my father prophesy unto the people concerning the coming of one Jesus Christ, a Son of God, to atone for the sins of the world" (Alma 36:16-17).
In each of these instances, we see the powerful influence of the teachings and testimonies of the fathers on their sons. In my own life, some of the most memorable occasions I have had with my children are those sacred moments when I have calmly and reverently borne my testimony to them. Those moments and the feelings we have felt are deeply etched into my memory.
Teaching with a Right Heart
The telestial world teaches us that it is acceptable to use force or various forms of psychological manipulation and coercion to motivate others to do what we want. It teaches us to take offense and to give offenseand to strike back in retaliation when others provoke us or don't do what we want.
Such behavior is, of course, contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And it produces the opposite result from the desired one: rather than motivating others to change, it provokes them and creates resistance. It justifies them in hardening their hearts against us and opposing us.
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that our own hearts must be softened toward our children so that we have compassion for them. Then, when we try to teach or influence them, they will sense our sincere respect for them and for their agency. If they can feel our love and respectrather than our anger, manipulation, or coercionthey will more readily identify with our values and comply with our standards. When our relationship with our children, including our teaching and discipline, is founded on sincere affection and respect, our children are more likely to internalize the moral structure that we are trying to give them.
I once counseled a couple who had been to a variety of parenting classes that focused on techniques for disciplining and controlling children. While there was nothing inherently wrong with the techniques themselves, these parents were applying the techniques with accusing attitudes. As a result, the children only got worse and became increasingly defiant.
However, as the parents humbled themselves and began to treat their children more compassionately, both the parents and the children had a change of heart. The power struggles diminished, and they were able to establish a respectful give-and-take relationship in which both sides took responsibility for what was happening.
If the heart isn't right on both sides, efforts to influence each other will largely be unsuccessful or will work for only brief periods of time. Consequently, the key to getting a different response is to give the other a different person to respond to. This comes about as our own hearts change, rather than as we try to change their hearts or wait for them to change first.
Humility Key to a Right Heart
Pride is a constant, nagging threat to achieving harmony within ourselves and in our relationships with others. As we rely too much on our own power, wisdom, and understanding, we are blinded to our nothingness and our lack of power compared with God (see Mosiah 4:11). When our hearts are filled with pride, the Lord cannot lead us, because we are not reaching out to him.
In contrast, the Lord told the Prophet Joseph Smith, "Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers" (D&C 112:10). I have learned that humilitythe teachable attitude demonstrated by the Savioris the key that unlocks the door to receiving the Spirit of the Lord and to having loving relationships. I have also learned that prayer is the language of humility. Only the truly humble pray fervently, because they recognize how much they need the Lord's Spirit to guide them. Ultimately it is the Spirit that softens and changes our hearts as we humble ourselves, acknowledge our dependence on the Lord, and ask for his forgiveness and guidance.
By becoming his humble followers, we can properly teach our children to follow us as their parents and, in turn, to follow Christ. Our main goal should be to become disciples of Christ in all of our contacts with our children. Becoming his disciples is the foundation of all parenting, and having right hearts is the essence of discipleship. For this reason, the Lord taught that we must "become as a little child" in order to enter his kingdom (see 3 Ne. 11:37). He doesn't want us to be childish, but childlike. It's the heart of a child he wants us to have, because "out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh" (Matt. 12:34). A child's heart is "submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love" (Mosiah 3:19). A child's heart is compassionate; it can sympathize with others, sense their needs, and respond to them. With such a heart or with such attitudes and characteristics, we "will not have a mind to injure one another, but to live peaceably" (Mosiah 4:13).
The Power of Love
Affection, warmth, love, and high support motivate children to want to identify with their parents and with their parents' values and wishes. Both Paul and Mormon tell us that without charity, we are nothing (see 1 Cor. 13:2; Moro. 7:44). Parents who lack love raise children who tend to be undisciplined, destructive, and disorganized. Children are the products of those who loved them or refused to love them.
When we love something we make it a priority, enjoy it, spend time with it, and enjoy taking care of it. With our children, we extend our- selves to them in order to nurture their physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Loving them is by far our most powerful way of influencing them and encouraging their cooperation.
Joseph Smith said: "Nothing is so much calculated to lead people to forsake sin as to take them by the hand, and watch over them with tenderness. When persons manifest the least kindness and love to me, O what power it has over my mind, while the opposite course has a tendency to harrow up all the harsh feelings and depress the human mind." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1976], p. 240.)
President Joseph F. Smith said:
Fathers, if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! and prove to them that you do love them by your every word or act to them. For your own sake, for the love that should exist between you and your [children]however wayward they might be . . . , when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly; get them down and weep with them if necessary. . . . Soften their hearts; get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence. . . . Approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned. With these means, if you cannot gain your boys and your girls . . . there will be no means left in the world by which you can win them. (Gospel Doctrine [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1939], p. 316.)
Children Are to Honor Their Parents
If the most important responsibility of parents is to teach their children, the most important responsibility of children is to honor their parents (see Ex. 20:12). To honor means to respect, cherish, reverence, and obey. It includes so much more in terms of attitudes and behavior than simply obeying. The Lord commanded his children to honor their parents as he wants us to honor him. If parents teach with right hearts, and children honor their teachings with right hearts, we have the perfect combination for bringing salvation to everyone. This is the Lord's plan for our spiritual and temporal survival.
In every dispensation, the Lord has warned that if parents do not teach and children do not honor, they will be overcome by the world and become scattered, lost, or taken captive by the world. As we look at the history of Israel, that is the very thing that happened over and over again. Israel was repeatedly scattered, lost, and taken captive because of disobedience as they assimilated into the world rather than standing as a peculiar people and a light to the world.
A Zion Family
In describing a temple to the Saints in Joseph Smith's day, the Lord also described what kind of homes he would have us build: "Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God" (D&C 88:119). If our homes are dedicated to these same objectives, we will be "organized" according to "every needful thing" and will be following the celestial order found in the temple.
This should be our objective: to raise a Zion family, shunning the temptations and vain glory of the world found in money, station, position, appearance, prestige, and pride, and seeking for lasting happiness and eternal glory, which are found only in righteousness.
Many people expect me to have obedient, well-adjusted children because of my education as a marriage and family counselor and my academic training in raising children. As helpful and enjoyable as my secular training was, especially in learning to understand and diagnose dysfunctional behavior, I have not found necessary much of what I learned in terms of techniques for controlling children.
Instead, I have reduced my approach to mainly two things: I teach them the gospel through the scriptures, and I try to show my love for them often. I love getting up in the mornings and hugging them, playing with them, and telling them how great I think they are and that I love them. I may do it teasingly or playfully or seriouslythis is the fun part of raising children. By teaching the gospel to them and loving them, my wife and I get the furthest in gaining their cooperation and supportmore than we would by trusting in and relying on the control techniques of the arm of flesh.
Even though my children have their weaknesses, mainly because of me, they are close to their parents and are trying to be good. We really can't ask for more. We owe everything that is good in our lives to the Lord for giving us the greatest marriage and family manual in the worldthe scriptures. And I remind our children often that even though they may have weaknesses that are inherent or that they have picked up from imperfect parents and from a fallen world, if their hope is in Christ and not in themselves or in us as parents, weaknesses can be eliminated someday through their faith and hope in Christ.
What comfort it gives me as a parent to know that my children can overcome any adverse influence I may have been to them if they will "come unto Christ, and be perfected in him, . . . then is his grace sufficient . . . , that by his grace [they] may be perfect in Christ" (Moro. 10:32).