mother son tug of war

Recently I was reviewing some articles I wrote about ten years ago, and came across a story I’d received permission to share that still intrigues me. I’d like to share it again. I’d been doing some writing for parenting expert James Jones, who told about a big lesson he learned from his son Danny.

From the time Danny was twelve the two of them had been engaged in a constant power struggle. Danny was doing everything his dad didn’t want him to do, including drugs, and James was obsessed with trying to control him. He shared the painful way he learned that control is a myth. He summarized his difficult years trying to reach him, help him, control his uncontrollable behavior. The following scene in his story I think is pure dynamite:

My son yelled, “Why won’t you just leave me alone? Stop telling me everything to do! Let me live my own life! Can’t you get it? Get out of my life! Stop trying to control me!”

His words stunned me. I stood speechless and looked at my wife, who looked pale and stricken. Thoughts flashed through my mind. What is he talking about? I have not been able to control him! I’ve tried every trick in the book; I’ve given it my best, and I’ve never been able to control him! He had emerged victorious from every desperate control battle we had ever had! He was impossible to control. Danny always won and we always lost.


Control Battle Score:


Dad and Mom———-ZERO


For me, at that moment, a great thing happened; the clouds of ignorance parted just a little, and a ray of sunshine fell on me. Then the light got brighter! In only a few seconds I saw the insanity of my attitude and what I had been doing. I rose to my feet, walked across the little circle of chairs, and faced Danny. In a calm voice I began to speak words to Danny that were really meant for me.

Danny, I have never been able to control you. If I could control you, you would be in school right now, not serving time with other drug addicts. My decisions have not brought you here. Your decisions brought you here. I’ve never been able to control you!”

We stood eye to eye, and Danny shouted back angrily, “Well, you would if you could!”

Let me take just a momentary break from James’s story. All those years ago when I read Danny’s words “you would if you could” I stood convicted by my own conscience. I knew that had been the truth in regard to my own children. I knew that if I could have, I would have enforced church attendance, made them all read the copies of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ I had given them for Easter one year. I knew I would have controlled them if I could have, and they knew it too. Suddenly their resistance and frequent lack of enthusiasm to listen to my “words of wisdom” made perfect sense. My suggestions came with an undertow of pressure. That ah hah! moment began a new journey of discovery and repentance for me as a parent. Whose plan was it, after all, to control people and make sure they didn’t make any wrong choices? The same journey began for James Jones, too. Let’s go back to his story.

Danny was absolutely right. Even at that moment, if I could have kept him from choosing the wrong thing, I would have done so in a heartbeat–just to keep him from killing himself! I realized that those words clearly defined the very root of the problem I had with Danny: I would have controlled his every move if he had allowed it–to save him from his own stupidity, I quickly justified. However, the fact remained that, much to my frustration, he had never allowed me to control him. I started to speak again in a firm and confident voice, “Still, it is true, Danny, that I’ve never controlled you.”‘ I paused and then said, “You win! I lose! From this day forward I give you full responsibility for your life.” I made a motion with my hands as though I were taking a heavy burden off my shoulders and putting it on his shoulders. I could feel a great burden lifting. It felt wonderful, like coming out of a deep, dark place into the light. Suddenly I knew again that . . . nobody is really responsible for anyone else’s life. Only that person is responsible. Hadn’t I learned that a hundred times?

Danny responded incredulously, “You aren’t going to try to control me anymore? I can live my own life?”

“Yes! You can live your own life. You have been! You’re living the exact life you have chosen to live, not the life I would have chosen for you.” The words were comforting and revealing all over again.

“I can do what I want?” he asked incredulously.

“You have been doing exactly what you want.” I was beginning to see clearly through the fog. I recognized at long last the lie that had driven me to nag and scold, to be angry, to drive Danny farther and farther away from us. It was as though an inner voice was saying “Now hear this! You are in this painful dilemma with Danny because you have bought into the lie that caring and capable parents can and must control their children.” That assumption had influenced every nuance of how I felt and thought and perceived my role as a parent, even after I had experienced the impossibility of it all. Even after I had rejected the lie with my mind, somehow my heart had hung onto it. But no more.

Danny immediately called my bluff. Danny had insisted on seeing a girl that we strongly disapproved of. We had done everything we could to keep them apart the last couple of years. Of course, the harder we tried to keep him away from her, the more time he spent with her. They were like glue on glue. Danny and this girl I’ll call Suzy would walk back and forth in front of the house. Danny told me they were saying, “Oh, if only our parents would let us marry, we could be so happy.” I was running from one window to the next watching them and praying for Danny. Lillie and I were terrified, helpless, and angry over his stubbornness about this girl.

At this emotion-laden moment in our counseling session, Danny said, “Dad, you mean I can live my own life? You will let me make my own decisions?”

“You have been!”

“OK, then! If I really can make my own decisions and you won’t control me anymore, then give me permission to marry Suzy!” Danny was raising the stakes.

I was being challenged. “You want to marry her?”

“Yes! If I can live my own life, then give me permission to marry her!” [Danny was only seventeen]

I looked him square in the eye. “Danny, I give you my permission! Marry her! By all means, marry her–and as soon as possible!” I raised my hands to the heavens and cried loudly, “God bless you my children! You deserve each other! Go forth and be happy!” I liked this new feeling, but my wife was making funny little squeaking sounds like she couldn’t breathe.

Danny was stunned. “Dad! You would really let me marry her?”

“Absolutely! Why not? You know everything! If you want her, you should have her!”

I had a big grin on my face; I was happy! “Go get the paper! I’ll give you written permission this instant! Go! I mean it! Let’s do it!”

“Dad, you’ve got to be kidding!”

“I’m not kidding! Just live far away from us.”

Danny just stood there. He looked at the floor, then he looked at me, then at his mother, then at the floor again. He put his right hand up to his forehead, covered his eyes, and massaged his temples. Danny seemed to be in pain and confused. Then he began to mumble, “Marry her? Really marry her?”

For the first time, he was not pulling against my restraints. It takes two people to play tug-of-war. I had put my end of the rope down . . . and the game was over! It was his decision and he was considering what it would be like to be married to Suzy. He looked up as the realization suddenly hit him. It would be stupid to marry this girl! He said, “Marry her? No way! She’s nuts, Dad! I don’t even like her!”

Danny and I were communicating honestly for the first time since he was twelve. Now it was my turn to be stunned! I just stood there as the impact of what I had just heard sunk in. I stammered, “What? You don’t even like her? What are you telling us? What do you mean, ‘You don’t even like her’? What are you saying? What has been going on these last two years?”

“Dad, I don’t like her. She’s an idiot! I’d never marry her! It’s the truth, I’d be crazy to marry her.”

I looked at my son in bewilderment and slowly sat down. I had just experienced in living color the reality of another principle: When the issue of free choice is at stake, other issues are subordinated.

It took time, but without the need of resisting his dad’s controlling ways (and, I am convinced, in response to his parents earnest prayers), he began to take responsibility for his life, and to build something good of it. Of course, not all stories end this well, but Danny not only got off drugs, but eventually graduated from college, married well, and had children. He supports his family well by working a good job of his choice. He is a good citizen, a good husband and father.

James Jones was typical so many of us–a conscientious LDS parent, concerned for his child’s welfare above all else, willing to sacrifice anything to assure his son’s well-being. Yet Brother James came to realize he had been way off in regard to his own stewardship and his long-suffering attempts to control his son Danny’s choices. He had, in reality, been allowing Danny to control him! Brother Jones’s experiences with his son set him off on a quest to discover how God would have him deal with his children. What resulted was a philosophy of choice and accountability and God’s example as a parent. Jones points out the vast difference between the “Control” path and the “Choice and Accountability” path of parenting. He concluded that: “Control of any other human being is a myth, because it goes against the laws of God. He said, “We cannot control the lives of other people! We cannot make people do what we want except by fear, violence, and brute force, and that only goes so far. Who ever made a baby eat his spinach or a two-year-old go to sleep. Even some prisoners will not submit to the rule of brutal captors. Often, those who rule by brute force have to kill to get absolute submission.”


A “Title of Liberty” Is Engraved on Every Heart

What Brother Jones is saying is that our need to choose eclipses all other needs. God rejected Satan’s plan of control and every parent has the chance to choose again to follow Christ and His plan of agency in regard to the way they deal with their children. Every child of God holds freedom to choose most dear above all else-because it is God-given. God allows his children to commit all manner of wickedness rather than trample on their right to choose. Each individual has as part of his or her very soul, a love of personal liberty that many have been willing to die for. Helaman said of his stripling warriors, “Now they never had fought, yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their lives” (Alma 56:47).

And so it is with our sons and daughters–they think more of liberty than they do of their lives. When they feel the need to defend their own liberty against infringement by well-meaning parents, they will often go to any length, as Danny did, to prove to themselves and everyone else that they can make their own choices. Perhaps our most important job is to remind our children that the words on Moroni’s Title of Liberty (Alma 46:12) began with God and religion, then freedom–that we maintain true freedom only to the extent that we love God and live his laws. Still, if our expectation is that we can teach our children so well that they will always do right and will have no need to repent we will be dashed. Instead, we teach them how to repent, how to come to Christ for a remission of their sins. In the list of things we are to teach children mentioned in D&C 68:25, repentance comes first! Considering the fallibility of the children of men, no wonder!

Our stewardship is to do the best we can to come to Christ ourselves and teach our children true principles. Then in age-appropriate ways, if we get out of the way and make it perfectly clear to our children that they can and must choose for themselves and experience the consequences of their choices, they are much more likely to choose wisely than when they are feeling coerced.

Our quest is clear, our challenges great. May our love for our children be a Christ-like love that desires growth, while honoring the Title of Liberty engraved on every heart.


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