Latter-day Saint Life

Do we unintentionally teach our kids that people can’t change?


My family and I were new to the neighborhood and desperate to make friends. We had moved our four children across the country, leaving behind everything they knew and friendships that had been cultivated for as long as they could remember. To say it was hard on them would be an understatement. But now that we were settled in our new place, we all longed to find new friend circles to join.

As I got to know other mothers in the neighborhood, it wasn’t long before I started hearing things through the grapevine about children they knew: “I never let my kids play with him because he once did ___.” Another mother would then chime in, “Oh, I never let my child play with her because her parents did ___.” On and on it went. Even small missteps seemed to have been scrutinized and used to categorize these children and their families as ones to stay away from.

As I listened to their thoughts, I completely understood where they were coming from in each of these instances. As parents, we don’t want our children spending time with people who could be considered bad influences. We worry that the inappropriate behaviors or negative attitudes of other children will rub off on our own kids. I pray that my children will make good friends—there is more than enough negativity coming down on our children every day, so having friends that won’t challenge them to participate in harmful or destructive activities is so important.

However, some of the thoughts expressed by these well-meaning parents also made my stomach churn. What would happen when my own child made a mistake? Would our names be added to the list of children considered social pariahs of the neighborhood? To add to that, what if I did something these parents didn’t agree with? Would my actions lose play dates and birthday invites for my children? I already struggle with anxiety and this just added to my social anxieties as I worried about not stepping a single toe out of line.

Over the next little while, I continued to think about this situation as I got to know the families in my neighborhood—even the ones I had been warned about. As I did, however, I realized that they weren’t so bad after all. Whatever mistakes the parents or their children may have made in the past didn’t affect the way they acted around me or the way they treated me now. In fact, I kind of liked these people a lot. My family even wanted to add them to our new budding circle of friends. Could it be that these individuals were just caught on a bad day before? Could it be that the negative behaviors others had once perceived were no longer a part of who they are? Could it be that these people had actually changed?

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This pushed me to consider the messages we’re teaching our children when we tell them that they can’t play with certain children anymore. In these instances, could we be unintentionally teaching them that there’s no space for forgiveness and no place for change? As I’ve thought about this, I've learned three truths that I hope can guide parents in similar situations:

1. Change is real. When my son was younger, I regularly received calls from his teacher reporting his misbehavior in class—from shouting out of turn to dancing on tables. Tired of receiving these calls, I sat him down and asked him why he was behaving this way at school. He innocently told me that he was known as the class clown—the troublemaker. That’s all he thought he could ever be in class.

Tears came to my eyes as I realized that my son truly felt like he couldn’t change. I looked straight into his little eyes and resolutely told him that we absolutely can change because that’s what the Atonement of Jesus Christ is all about. He could wake up tomorrow, go into class, and put in the effort to be someone different. I’d like to say that those phone calls stopped entirely after that heartfelt conversation with my son, but while they didn’t completely end, they became much more sporadic as my son decided that he wanted to be a positive leader in his classroom.

Our children need to understand that they can always change and that they will continually work throughout their lives on becoming the person that both their earthly and heavenly parents know they can be. They need to understand that the mistakes they make do not define who they are or who they can become. And at the same time, it’s also important for them to understand the importance of giving this same grace to others. That’s because change is real—for each and every one of us.

2. Forgiveness is a godlike attribute. I am not a perfect being, and I hope people don’t expect me to never make a mistake. Furthermore, I certainly don’t hold my children to that standard either. All of us—especially children—are learning and coming to understand what it means to make good choices. During this process, we can extend forgiveness to others and ultimately become more like our Father in Heaven. In his October 1989 general conference address, President Dallin H. Oaks explained, “One of the most Godlike expressions of the human soul is the act of forgiveness. … Forgiveness is mortality’s mirror image of the mercy of God.” Christ is the ultimate example of forgiving others, choosing to forgive even those who crucified Him (Luke 23:34). Not only does forgiving others help us become more like our Savior, it’s also a requirement for us in order to receive forgiveness for our own sins. Matthew 6:14–15 reads, “For if ye forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if ye forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Extending compassion to our fellow man and believing that they can change is an act of mercy and grace. We must teach our children that although forgiving others isn’t always an easy thing to do, through prayer, humility, and a loving Savior who wants to help us, we can forgive others when they make bad choices. Let us teach our children the importance of following Christ’s example by forgiving others for their faults and missteps and gaining that godlike attribute ourselves.

3. Love others where they are. The scriptures tell us that “though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Why are we nothing without charity? Because charity is the pure of love of Christ. Without it, we cannot progress and become like Him but will remain in a state of selfishness and pridefulness. Therefore, we must learn to love others.

It’s hard to love someone when we condemn them. I once saw a sign with a message about this very topic that has stayed with me. It read, “[You] can’t throw stones while washing feet.” Or in other words, instead of condemning others for their actions, we need to love and serve them. We can help our children understand this principle by serving alongside them, especially when they may be struggling to feel charity toward a particular individual. As Socrates once said, “those who are hardest to love need it the most”—and as we teach our children that, they will come to recognize how needed their service is. It doesn’t have to be complicated: sharing treats with someone whom they’ve struggled with at school or inviting them to join a game on the playground can be all it takes to create a budding friendship.

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Yes, people can change, and we must make room for that. Otherwise, we are not giving them the space to reach their true potential. In a January 2009 BYU devotional, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland spoke about how real a problem this can be. He shared a story about a young man who grew up as the brunt of every joke but who later moved away, joined the Church, and found happiness and success. However, when this man returned to his hometown, others who had previously known him kept their same mindset about him. They only saw him the way he once was, and they continued to laugh at him. Slowly, Elder Holland said, the changes the young man had made “gradually diminished until he died about the way he had lived in his youth.” He went on to say that the reason this man’s life had come full circle was because “he was again to be surrounded by… those who thought his past was more interesting than his future.”

Elder Holland’s story is a powerful reminder that we can be a force for good in other people’s lives, seeing them not for what they’ve done in the past, but for who they are and what they can become. And while believing in others’ ability to change is an act of kindness, it is more than that—by encouraging them to become their best selves, we are, in a way, extending the same love that God shows each one of us. In his October 2021 General Conference address, Brother Bradley R. Wilcox taught, “God loves us as we are, but He also loves us too much to leave us this way. Growing up unto the Lord is what mortality is all about. Change is what Christ’s Atonement is all about. Not only can Christ resurrect, cleanse, console, and heal us, but through it all, He can transform us to become more like Him.” Christ’s Atonement has made it possible for each of us to change—every single day. “[We] are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:22–23).

Parents, we should be careful about the messages we send our children as we help them choose their friends wisely. Let us thoughtfully teach them to interact charitably with others that they encounter at school, on the bus, on the playground, in their extracurricular activities, and at church. We are all children of God, and we are all capable of good. We are all made to change, to evolve, and to become more like Christ. It’s the very reason that we are here on this earth today. We must teach our children to rise above the world and to see the good in others as we show love and forgiveness to each other.

Editor’s note: This article is meant to address minor behavioral issues in children or differences in parenting approaches. It is not intended to advise on deeper, more complex situations.

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