Edyta Linek. Image from BigStockPhoto.com

Editor’s note: This is the third article in a series on teaching children with gentleness and kindness. Read part 1 here and part 2 here.

If respect is the golden thread running through our Heavenly Father’s parental example, how can we apply it in our dealings with our children? The Lord respects our agency; he respects our ability to learn from our experiences; he trusts us with our life choices. When we, as parents, are not following that example, lack of respect seem to be at the root of most of our problems.

James Jones indicates that we communicate lack of respect and a damaging mistrust of our children’s innate strength when we try to control and deny free choice. He said,

If we trusted that a child would make the correct choice, would we attempt to deny them the opportunity to choose? Absolutely not! Would we feel we had to control or force if the child – of his own free will – would choose appropriate friends or music or clothes?

To distrust someone is very discounting, a strong statement against his or her character. I did not communicate to my son Danny that I did not trust the activity, the crowd, or Danny’s inadequate life’s experiences; he felt all along that I didn’t trust him, and after awhile he became totally untrustworthy so that I couldn’t trust him.”

It is wise to begin when a child is very young to extend trust and respect for their age-appropriate choices. We don’t give two-year-olds the freedom of choice to decide whether or not to play in a busy street, but we can let them decide whether to wear their blue or their green outfit today, or whether to put away their toys now or in ten minutes. As children grow, we can turn over more and more decisions to them, letting them know that we trust their desire to make good choices.

Speaking with Respect

Of course we have to give children feedback when they aren’t making good choices – whether in small or large things; it’s the approach and timing that makes the difference.

If Johnny is learning to help with the dishes and we say, “Hey, you’re doing that all wrong; do it this way,” Johnny may get angry or discouraged and want to quit. But if we say, “Let’s put the cups upside down in the dishwasher so the water will drain out,” Johnny will probably not resent the suggestion.

Children in the teen years are especially sensitive to lack of respect in our timing and our words, and may interpret correction to be an indication of lack of understanding or caring. For example, one night a teenaged girl named Marie came home from school, threw open the door, ran through the living room and tossed her books and coat on the couch. She breathlessly exclaimed to her mom, who had watched her enthusiastic entrance, “Mom! Guess what? I got the part I wanted in the school play.”

Her mother responded, “Marie, how many times have I told you not to leave the door open and not to throw your things on the couch. When you will you learn to pay some attention me? Now you march right out there and come in again, and this time do it right!”

Marie burst into tears. “Oh Mom, you don’t even care about me. All you ever do is tell me all the things I do wrong. You won’t even listen when I’m trying to tell you the most important thin that has ever happened to me! Marie ran to her room and slammed the door.

Marie’s mother honestly wanted to motivate her daughter to improve her habits. But her timing and approach were not helpful, nor positive. Pointing out faults, weaknesses, and inadequacies often hurts feelings and damages relationships. A pleasant tone of voice, sensitivity to a child’s feelings, and respect of their need to learn without “losing face” can help us correct when necessary without causing friction and discouragement.

Overlooking Inconsequential Things

We do have the responsibility to teach our children to make right choices and do things correctly, and should never let a child think we don’t care about his transgressions. However, part of respect is to overlook the inconsequential things parents sometimes treat as though they were transgressions! Imagine being trapped in a situation where your every imperfection was constantly brought to your attention.

Another story by James Jones illustrates this principle well:

One night, feeling like a failure, desperate for guidance, I prayed with a more humble spirit than I ever had before. I said only a few words when a strong impression entered my mind. The message was, “You are not being a good father!”

I felt shocked, “I’m not being a good father? In what ways?” I did not understand! Nobody could try harder than I had been trying!

The words came, “Danny needs a father – not a critic, not a judge! Danny needs a father more now than he will ever need a father again. Danny is entitled to a father-son relationship. Danny needs a father whose love transcends all his problems!”

What Danny had most often seen after he started acting out was my frustration and disappointment with the way he had chosen to live his life. Danny was not seeing or feeling my tremendous love for him – he was feeling my distrust and my anger at him for being so rebellious and hard to manage. My ego was all mixed in there too. What other people thought of me was never a big factor. However, what I thought of myself when I could not convince my own son of the danger of drugs and guide him to a better life was a huge factor. It was a deadly blow to my self-confidence and self-esteem to feel I was failing as a father.

He said that the answer he received to that prayer shed light on several principles he couldn’t yet fully define or apply. Beginning to sense them was like a light at the end of the tunnel. The Lord was taking him on a journey where the truth of his son’s agency would set him free from the crazy life he was leading as he attempted to control him.

But isn’t ignoring any negative behavior simply not facing a reality? After all, thorn and thorns! Well, roses are as real as thorns, and if you know a thorny child, perhaps someone paid a lot of attention to his thorns. Why not pay lots of attention to the roses instead? But don’t stop now, thinking I’m advocating permissive, rule-less parenting. Read on.

Clear Instructions Clear the Air

The Lord has set the example of establishing clear rules and expectations in the scriptures and through the voice of the prophets, the Lord clearly states what we should and should not do, giving the consequences for disobedience and the blessings to be received from obedience.

To follow this example, we must set standards for our children and let them know what is expected of them. They only feel secure when they know the limits of what the can and cannot do. Children equate limits with caring. Many delinquents say, “my parents did not care enough to give me any rules.” The love of a parent protects a child from his own inexperience by keeping him from playing with fire. I once heard that if God had wanted parents to be permissive, he would have given us the Ten Suggestions instead of the Ten Commandments!

In a parenting class I went to years ago, the teacher stressed the importance of having rules, consequences, and rewards clearly understood by children. A challenge was given for Mom and Dad to take a single rule and analyze it by asking these questions: “What is the rule?” “Do we agree on it?” “Do our children clearly understand it?” “What does Mom do when the rule is broken?” “What does Dad do?” “Do we do it consistently?” “What happens when the rule is followed?” (Is there some positive reinforcement?)

Having clear rules can give children a feeling of security through knowing what is expected and release parents from the role of policemen. When a rule is clearly understood, the only enforcement necessary may be to ask, “what is the rule?” Not only does this procedure make the parents’ job easier, but it can bring a great improvement in the feeling-tone between parent and child. Consider the following examples:

  1. Mom: Dan, get in here immediately and get those school clothes off!
    Dan But Mom, I’m not getting dirty.
    Mom: Young man, you’ve been told a million times that you shouldn’t play in your school clothes. What’s the matter with your ears? Now march!

    (Notice the lack of respect in the mother’s words)

  2. Mom: Dan, what is the rule about school clothes?
    Dan: We are supposed to change before we go to play.
    Mom: What do you think you should do about it?
    Dan: I guess I should change.
    Mom: Come and show me when you have your play clothes on.

What a difference in feeling tone; the difference is respect. Whenever a child clearly knows what is expected, simple questions can be very effective in changing behavior. One of my boy’s kindergarten teachers told me that one of the best forms of discipline she used was to ask questions such as “What should you be doing now?” or “What is a better way to do that?”

My sister had a pleasant success experience with this technique. When company was expected, instead of saying, “Julie, go change the sheets on your bed.” She asked her, “what do you think you need to do to get your room ready for company?” Without further supervision, Julie changed the sheets and also vacuumed and cleaned her whole room. Perhaps the reason this question approach is so effective is that it gives the child a chance to use his own initiative, and not just obey a command.

One of my sons made this approach imperative. He bristled at commands (such as “go clean up your room -NOW!) He dug in his heels and got ready for a power struggle, which he knew he would usually win because he had more endurance than his poor worn-out mom.

As a general rule, in power struggles it is the parent who is controlled, the parent who loses. Yet this same child often cooperated with the question approach (such as, “What do you think you need to do to make your room look better?”) I suppose it was because it left his dignity intact and he could feel that he had a choice.

Thou Shalt Nots Aren’t Negative

Heavenly Father includes “Thou Shalt Nots” along with the “Thou Shalt” rules. So should we, for such rules are often necessary guidelines for the safety and well-being of the child and those around him.

One of the mothers we interviewed explained it this way:

Thou Shalt Nots need to be taught verbally, not just by example. For instance, we have a large gravel driveway. Our children were taught not to throw rocks, but the any child who visited usually had not been taught. Invariably (although none of their parents threw rocks), the visiting children would find rock-throwing an appealing pastime. I had to teach them through word, as well as example, not to throw the rocks. We cannot be sure our children will avoid negative behavior in any are just because we do. They need clear “Thou Shalt Nots” in addition to good examples.

The Long and Short of Expectations

Heavenly Father communicates great expectations of us through patriarchal blessings, ordinances, and counsel from the prophets, yet he is always mindful of our present stage of development and does not expect more than we can do. We should be sure our own expectations are realistic and in keeping with each child’s stage of development. Discipline problems can be caused by expecting too little or too much of a child.

Most parents readily respect the developmental stage of a newborn. We don’t say to a baby, “What’s the matter with you? Why can’t you talk and run and help with the dishes?” Instead we say, “Look how fast you learning! Before we know it you will be able to run and jump and shout and play!”

However, when he can do all those things, we are inclined to say, “Don’t run! Quit jumping! Why can’t you hold still and be quiet?”

It seems to be increasingly difficult as a child grows, to respect the limitations his immaturity places on his behavior (especially when the behavior is inconvenient or irritation to us.) “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1).

If we expect apples to turn red and juicy before it is their time, and become angry because they are still green, it is our expectations that are at fault, not the apples. If we don’t’ understand the growth stages of a child, we may expect behavior he is incapable of.

Children are simply not miniature adults. Thank goodness! However, it seems that in any areas of child-raising, when you talk about one concern, you immediately need to voice caution lest that idea is carried to extreme and balance and perspective is lost. So it is with expectations. Although we must be careful to avoid expecting the impossible, we parents often put up with behavior that is frustrating and upsetting to us when we really don’t need to. We don’t expect enough when the child is perfectly capable of complying with a more reasonable standard.

Expect Reasonable Behavior

A mother we interviewed, named Helena, felt that firmness when the child is making unreasonable demands can help both parent and child, if the parent remains kind. Helena had a granddaughter who had decided that bread and honey were life’s greatest delights and refused to eat anything else.

This little girl came to stay with Helena while her parents went on a trip. Each mealtime she demanded bread and honey, and each time her Grandma placed a good meal in front of her and told her she could have bread and honey when she had finished her meal.

The child went the whole first day without eating a thing. The next morning at breakfast he little girl said, “I want bread and honey.” Grandma said, “Eat your cereal, and then you may have some bread and honey.” She ate her cereal without protest and ate her meals for the rest of the visit.

Helena believes that a child needs to know you will be firm when it is for the child’s best good, and that you will not allow him to browbeat you. What child doesn’t prefer cookies over vegetables and meat? But what responsible parent gives in to a child’s insistence of cookies for the main course of dinner every night? Once you have established your firmness, the spirit of cooperation often flows freely again.

It is a child’s nature to test his limits. When these limits hold firm, he feels safe. Good discipline, basically, consists of setting limits in love and correcting a child with love when these limits are ignored. It’s about doing for your child what you know is right, whether he likes it or not. I’ve heard it said that parenthood is not a popularity contest. We can’t be afraid to limit or forbid. Reasonable limits give our children knowledge of the trails they must traverse in the tanglewood of life.

Whenever a child’s behavior is unreasonable, intolerable, or falls far short of what we know he is capable of, we can set limits, expect better behavior, and find ways to bring about the change. One mother finds it necessary and effective to lock a two-year-old in the “time-out” room when he passes the limits of tolerable behavior. Another mother puts her child outside in the fenced-in yard when he is impossible, and tells him he may rejoin the family when he is ready to change his behavior. (Depriving a child of an audience when he is acting up seems to be effective!)

Enforcing Limits Once They Are Set

But how do you enforce the limits you have set? It is certainly easier with small children than with teenager. (My grandchildren live close enough that I have been able to say, “Grandma will have to take you home if you …. Usually just one time of following through on that promise so they know that I mean what I say, and the boundary is firm.)

One mother said that the main discipline method she used to is to have her little ones sit on a chair when they have done something wrong (I had one child that I would have had to tie to the chair!) She said the chair-sitting time gives her a chance to calm down, and is uncomfortable for the children because they hate being out of the action. She always ends the chair sitting with a talk to make it a learning experience, not just a punishment. She explains exactly what the child did wrong, and what he should do next time. She tells him she wants him to learn to behave well because she loves him so much and wants him to be happy.

Another mother uses extra work assignments with older children to enforce limits on their behavior. She said,

If the children are squabbling and can’t get along, I tell them it must mean they don’t have enough work to keep them out of trouble, so I’ll give them some more. (II also use this procedure at bedtime. Anyone who can’t settle down can get up and do some work. They usually decide to settle down!

If a child complains about an assignment, I give him two. If he leaves his coat lying around, he must clean the whole room it is left in. (When I was an overwhelmed mother, I would have had a hard time enforcing these word ideas.)

If one child interferes with another’s work, he must take over and do it for him. Like the day my oldest was mopping the floor and the others were running in and out to tease him. I simply said, “The next one who steps on the floor will mop it.” That approach usually results in instant good behavior. (Note: This would only work if the mother has a track record of meaning what she says and following through.)

There are lots of pros and cons regarding using work as a discipline, but an outstanding counselor I talked with heartily recommends it. She feels that work is the healthiest discipline you can use because a child can vent his frustrations as he works, accomplish something worthwhile, and end up feeling better about himself when he is finished. At the same time, he is contributing to the good of the family if you give him something to do that really needs to be done.

The Lord Never Says What He Doesn’t Mean

Many of us talk too much when disciplining and make our children “mother deaf.” Our children will quite listening if we constantly say things we don’t mean or threaten what we can’t (or wouldn’t even want to) carry out.

With older children our motto should be, “Don’t say it if you don’t mean it and refuse to get caught up in arguing.” For example we shouldn’t say they can’t go to a youth activity unless they finish their work, then give in because we really don’t want them to miss it.

With little children our motto should be, “Don’t keep talking – act.” Instead of threats when a child goes in the street when we’ve told him not to, we can pick him up and take him into the house. When children are fighting, instead of repeatedly pleading for them to quit, we can separate them – maybe even send them both for a time out in separate rooms. Instead of telling them over and over to quit splashing water when they are in the tub, we can take them out the very first time they ignore your request to stop. We truly train children to listen or not listen to us by our actions.

Peace, Not Power

We don’t need more power to shape up and control our children; we need more self-control and more desire to align ourselves with correct parenting principles – with the ones our Father in Heaven models every day for us. If we want quick fixes, techniques that “work,” we will go on to the next parenting book and the next and the next; we will go from technique to technique, from class to class, without satisfactory results.

However, as we come to deeply believe and implement the truths clearly presented by our Heavenly Parents, we can live more of our daily lives in a place of greater inner peace – a peace that depends on our own closeness to the Savior, not on getting our children to do precisely what we want.

Mine didn’t and don’t, and neither will yours!

Choice and Accountability

The Lord bases our mortal experience on choice and accountability – and we would be wise to build our homes on that model. We can build on the foundation that each person has a conscience given by the Creator, and has the capacity to know right from wrong. We can feel justified in holding our children accountable and responsible for the decisions they make. We recognize that our children will make mistakes, but remember that the Savior was sent here just because of that inevitability.

Mistakes are part of our learning equation in mortality and when we allow our children to experience the consequences of their choices we align ourselves with His plan. We will see that parents are given to children to serve, teach inspire, and train, not to coerce and force them into doing right or to exert unrighteous control or dominion in an effort to keep them from making mistakes.

And he said unto him, My lord knoweth that the children [are] tender, and the flocks and herds with young [are] with me: and if men should overdrive them one day, all the flock will die. Let my lord, I pray thee, pass over before his servant: and I will lead on softly, according as the cattle that goeth before me and the children be able to endure, until I come unto my lord unto Seir (Genesis 33:13-14).

We want our children to be able to endure. We don’t want to “overdrive” them – even by over-scheduling them in extra activities that may not be their choice or that would not be wise, or by demanding top grades in school because “we know what’s best for them.”

To the degree we as parents repent of living false principles and choose to follow true principles, we can be free of inappropriate guilt, and misery. Personal peace, not power over our children’s lives can become our definition of parental success. If we do our faithful best to make our homes a place of learning, growth and positive influence, regardless of how our children respond to that environment, we can have peace.

An interviewer once asked Mother Teresa how she could keep working when she was never going to succeed in alleviating the suffering of the poor – there were just too many of them. She replied, “God has not called me to be successful. He has called me to faithful.”

God doesn’t call parents to fill some worldly definition of success. He calls us to be faithful – to lead on softly by being true to the light that we have and always being willing to receive more.