Latter-day Saint Life

Family Counselor: How to Allow Your Children to Have Agency, Especially When They Choose a Different Path


I remember many years ago, long before I had children, attending a religious lecture by a prominent religious scholar who taught at BYU. The topic of the lecture was agency. During the lecture, this religious professor indicated that most LDS parents only want their kids to get to a level three in personal faith development and not a level five. As soon as he said this, there was a rumble of protest in the audience, implying, “Of course we want our kids to get to level five.” Then the presenter went on to explain what he meant by a level five: "Level five means that you have the faith to allow your kids to find their own paths, to find their own testimonies, to ask hard questions, to wonder what they feel, struggle with personal beliefs, and on some occasions even choose to believe differently than you do.”

After the explanation was offered, a lot of the mumbling changed. Parents realized that it would be so much easier if kids stayed at a level three. I left that night thinking, “Well, I know I do not have kids yet, but I am going to let my kids be a level five.”

Now that I am a mother and a clinician, I can say that the process of allowing my kids to be a level five has come with many sleepless nights, pleading prayers, moments of anger, sadness, confusion, frustration, increased faith, and even moments when I felt totally lost as I learned to allow each of my children to choose the paths they felt best for their adult lives.

For example, not so many months ago one of my children told me that they were not going to attend church. I so wanted to say, “Look, buddy, as long as you live in my home you will attend church; and if not, well, I can promise there are going to be consequences to pay!” Lucky for me the better parent side of me stepped in and said, “Well, can we talk about this choice? I would like to understand what you are feeling and thinking.”

After that talk, I would love to tell you I was the perfect parent, but I must admit when the first weeks came and this adult child of mine did not attend church, I was frustrated and I did not hide my frustration very well. After a few weeks of this, my child said, “You know Mom, you may say it is okay if I take time to find out the truth and what is right for me, but you getting mad is not helping.” Of course I wanted to say, “I am not mad,” but that would not have been true. I asked my child for forgiveness and promised to do my best, but I also needed them to realize that because I loved them so much, it was hard for me to see them make choices which I felt were not good for their spiritual development. 

After that talk instead of coming home mad, I found time to talk with my child about what I learned at church and to ask them what they were doing in their life to find what was right for them. I continued to invite my child to join me for church, to read scriptures with me, and to have family prayer, respecting that they had the right to say no. Several Sundays ago I came home and found this child listening to talks by members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, which I personally believe may not have happened if I had continued to be upset, forced them to attend church, or withheld love.   

As I loved this child for who they are and not for what they do, doorways opened for mutual respect, understanding, wonderful conversations, beautiful bonding moments, and increased love. Today this child is still finding out what is the right path for them, and I am allowing them to exercise that amazing gift of agency knowing full well they will be responsible for what they choose. I also know, because of that great blessing of agency, I can love them for who they are now.  I share this knowing that one of the most difficult experiences of parenthood is to let children make decisions which are contrary to what we know and believe. I also know that letting those we love make such decisions does not mean that anything goes. It means learning to respect agency while also talking about boundaries. It means understanding that each of us is responsible for the consequences of our choices, either good or bad. It means that we can love and be loved completely in spite of choices and differing paths. 

Choices in families are not a one-way street but a two-way street in which each gets to learn, love, grow, respect, and understand. Just as I did not have the agency to force my child to attend church, they did not have the agency to force me to believe that their choice was best, and together we were able to respect each other’s perspectives on this matter and many more. Indeed, one of the most difficult growing experiences we will have in life is to love enough to allow agency.


Stay in the loop!
Enter your email to receive updates on our LDS Living content