Worried your child may leave the church someday? One Latter-day Saint psychologist offers some advice


Editor’s note: This excerpt was originally published on LDSLiving.com in March 2020.

For many Latter-day Saint parents, one of their greatest desires is to raise their children in the gospel. However, we all have agency and the gift of discernment. Some children in Latter-day Saint families may choose to leave or not be associated with the Church.

As a parent or a family member, this can be heartbreaking and painful. A parent may try to do everything possible to bring their child back into the fold—at times, wishing away the principle of agency.

However, one of Australia’s most respected and popular parenting authors and speakers, who also happens to be a member of the Church, says he believes coercion and control will only drive the spirit away from our homes.

In this week’s episode, All In host Morgan Jones talks with Dr. Justin Coulson about what we can learn from the examples of our Heavenly Father and our Savior, Jesus Christ, while parenting.

Read an excerpt from their conversation below or click here to listen to the whole episode. You can also read a full transcript of the podcast here.

The following excerpt has been edited for clarity. 

Morgan Jones: What advice would you give to parents who are worried that their kids are going to make poor choices or specifically leave the Church? I think that this is kind of a preface to the next question, so this question is going to deal with parents that are worried about those things happening. And then the next question, I want to talk a little bit about what you do when those things happen.

Justin Coulson: Wow, okay, well, the first thing that I would say is our children are going to make poor choices.

Morgan Jones: Spoiler alert.

Justin Coulson: That's part of being human. But I'm not sure that that's exactly what the question really is. I think the question is more a fear of "What happens if my child makes choices to vacate covenants, to step away from faith, to no longer attend religious services or even hold their faith in their heart? What if they leave the church?" I have one daughter whose faith has faltered, and the grief that my wife and I experienced and continue to experience as a result of that daughter's choices has been crushing at times. And it flows into our lives in extraordinary ways. As we were going through the worst times, I remember saying to my wife at one point, "I don't, I don't see how I can credibly write or speak ever again on the topic of parenting. What authority do I have when my child has made these choices? How can anybody ever take me seriously?" And she said, "Well, there are plenty of scriptural examples of extraordinary parents, including a Heavenly Father who had children who use their agency and unwise ways and that does not reflect necessarily on those parents."

But something else has happened over time as a result of the experiences we had with that daughter, who we just, who we love. And what has happened is that, now, I guess, I know how to mourn with those that mourn, and help those whose own children have made similar decisions. What it's also done is, it's taught me some powerful things about giving good gifts, and about loving perfectly, and being compassionate, and about respecting agency - those three things that I think informed—in fact, it may even be the experiences that I've had that informed my first answer to your question before.

The way that I would answer or respond to this question if I was to flesh it out a little more though is this, Morgan, I'd say, the reason that our Heavenly Father, who—let me reemphasize does nothing except it be for our benefit—has given us our agency is less about testing us. I know in the church, we often use the line, you know, "Life is a test, we're here to be tested." But I don't really see our supreme being, our Heavenly Father, sitting up there conducting an examination and ticking and crossing our lives off. It's a common description of the purpose of our life on Earth, but I think that we can have a little more nuance and consideration in the way we look at that. I don't think he's submitting us to this lifelong mortal exam. He's given us agency because it's the only way that we can live as He lives.

So, when we take our children's agency from them and rule by force or coercion, as hard as it is for me to say this, we're not following the example of our Heavenly Father. We're not living according to what He's asked us to. In fact, in Section 121 [of the Doctrine and Covenants], it teaches us that when we undertake to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness - I'll say that again, slowly and intentionally. When we undertake to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon our children in any degree of unrighteousness—that is, when we're trying to force them to do things and the Spirit is not guiding us, we're doing it for any purpose that's not pure and in harmony with our Heavenly Father's instructions—"Behold, the heavens withdraw themselves. The Spirit of the Lord is grieved. And when it is withdrawn, Amen to the authority of that [parent]." In verse 38, it says, Behold, here is where he is left to “kick against the pricks” and to “fight against God.” That's really, really strong counsel. Heavenly Father is saying your job is not to compel and fix your children, your job is to love them. And when you do try to compel them unrighteously, when you start to do anything that doesn't have the Spirit as your guide, you're kicking against the pricks, you're losing the Spirit, the heavens are withdrawing, I don't think anybody wants the heavens to withdraw themselves from their homes. And ironically, this is what happens precisely at the time that we need the Spirit most.

You know, we've got a child who's rebelling, or a child who's refusing, or a child who is making life hard, and it's in that very moment that we, essentially, we start to get upset, we start to get annoyed, we start to become frustrated. That's our natural response. And when we do that, the Spirit leaves. In a sense, we're actually saying, "The Spirit of God? It's okay, I've got this. I'm feeling frustrated right now and I know how to handle it. Just leave it to me." I have a saying when I'm talking to parents: As our emotions go up, our intelligence goes down. And one of the most unintelligent things we can do is fail to rely on Heavenly Father's spirit in those moments of contention and conflict. 3 Nephi (in Chapter 11, verse 29) tells us clearly in chapter 11 that contention is not of Jesus, it is of the devil. When we allow that into our relationships, which is what happens in these high stress moments, we say goodbye to the Spirit, because we think that we can do it on our own. We try to do it on our own, and that's when everything goes wrong. ...Allowing our children to use their agency, which is what I'm really emphasizing here is not the same thing as stepping back and raising the white flag of surrender and saying, "Oh, you know what? It's your life. You go do it your way."

What Paul taught us really clearly is that we need to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. So nurture, most people understand nurture means if we're going to nurture a child, we protect them, we support them, we encourage them, we give them our time and our interest in our affection. But admonition is a word that we don't quite understand very well, I think in the Church. When we look it up in a dictionary, Merriam Webster's Dictionary says, it's “gentle or friendly reproof.” But it also adds a second definition. It says “counsel or warning against fault or oversight.” Now, when I read that definition, I actually thought that admonition means "Well, if I'm going to admonish you, I'm going to tell you what I think I'm going to correct you.” I'm going to say, “What do you think you're doing? That's not how you do it, it's time from admonishment? Let me admonish you." But what the Lord seems to be saying through Paul, when he says this, I think admonition actually means counsel, guidance, advice, caution. And sometimes our children don't want to hear that, sometimes our children, as you asked in that question, “Well, what do I do if they do want to leave the church? What do I do if they won't listen to my admonishment?” My counsel, my best efforts to work with them? And I love Elder Holland's counsel. And this is a quote that's become a meme and you can find all over the place. He says, "And if those children are unresponsive, maybe you can't teach them yet, but you can love them. And if you love them today, maybe you can teach them tomorrow."

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