When We Ask the Wrong Question We Always Get the Wrong Answer
by H. Wallace Goddard

Recently I served on a panel at a parenting conference. At the end of the panelists’ presentations we invited questions from the audience. A young and earnest mother with a baby in her arms asked, “I have a 6-year-old boy at home. I can’t get him up in the morning to get ready for school. I have tried everything! Nothing works! What should I do?”

There are as many answers to her question as there are experts. One of the panelists suggested that proper use of timeout would shape his behavior. One suggested talking with him at a peaceful time to get his ideas of how to start his day. Some might suggest providing rewards for the desired behavior. We moved on to another question before we had really given her a good answer.

I had the good fortune of being seated next to the mother at the banquet following our session. We were able to continue the discussion. I learned important new details when I asked about the boy and what he loved and how he responded to correction. She told me that he was very active but also tenderhearted. He was occasionally very affectionate. His feelings were easily hurt when he was corrected. As she talked lovingly about her son, some of the answers seemed obvious. There were also factors that were not obvious to her but might be seen by an outsider. For example, while the mother was very dutiful and a morning person, her son was not. (Sometimes our best efforts to motivate our children do not work because we are only using the tools that work with us but do not match our children’s needs.)

I invited the mother to try a different approach from the traditional begging, threatening and cajoling: “Would it work for you to go to your son’s room 5 or 10 minutes before he needs to be up and lie down beside him? You could talk with him quietly and stroke his face. Allow him to wake up slowly and in the arms of your love. Would that work for William?”

She responded with a smile and the addendum, “Yes, he would like that. It would also help if I told him that as soon as he was dressed he could watch cartoons until he left for school.” This “impossible” situation yielded viable solutions when she thought about her son and his unique personality in a spirit of helpfulness.

Of course it is natural to object to such suggestions, “But that boy needs to learn to obey without all the mollycoddling.”Hmmmm. President Hinckley answers that concern better than I can:

How much more beautiful would be the world and the society in which we live if every father looked upon his children as the most precious of his assets, if he led them by the power of his example in kindness and love, and if in times of stress he blessed them by the authority of the holy priesthood; and if every mother regarded her children as the jewels of her life, as gifts from the God of heaven who is their Eternal Father, and brought them up with true affection in the wisdom and admonition of the Lord. (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Behold Your Little Ones,” Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 20)

Much of my professional activity is dedicated to parenting. Most of the questions I get from parents have the general form, “How can I get my child to do what I want him/her to do–especially when they don’t want to do it?” That question has no satisfactory anwer; there is a problem with the question itself. We might better ask, “If I consider my child’s world at a time when I am filled with love for the child and inspiration from heaven, can I find a way to draw that child toward better behavior?”

Turning again to prophetic counsel,

Fathers, if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! and prove to them that you do love them by your every word or act to them. . . . Soften their hearts; get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence, but argue, or rather reason–approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned. . . .You can’t do it any other way. You can’t do it by unkindness; (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p.316)

I remember when a devoted mother approached me with a parenting quandary. Her 4-year-old daughter had been playing with her older sister and the sister’s friend. The 4-year-old had gotten upset about something and scratched her sister’s friend. The mother asked, “How can I teach my daughter that her scratching is unacceptable?” Many questions went through my head, “Does your daughter scratch people often? Was she under a lot of stress at the time of the incident? What are the ways that soothe and teach your daughter?” Before getting to those questions I asked, “How did you respond to her scratching?” The mother replied, “I grabbed her and scratched her. Then I confined her to her bedroom for three days. I wanted her to learn that such behavior is simply not acceptable in our family.”

I am certain that the little girl learned a memorable lesson; I am confident that part of the lesson she learned was not what her mother had hoped to teach.

Study [your children’s] dispositions and their temperaments, and deal with them accordingly, never allowing yourself to correct them in the heat of passion; teach them to love you rather than to fear you. (Discourses of Brigham Young, p.207)

We deceive ourselves when we justify harshness as necessary or helpful for children. The Lord recommends a different course: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, kindness, and genuine love (See D&C 121:41-42).

Every earthly parent acts harshly at times. Such occasions are cause for repentance rather than rationalization. It is a relationship of love that is the great motivator for children and for adults. The most important parenting questions we can ask are not about mechanisms of control; they are about love: “Wilt Thou grant me wisdom that I can understand my child and his needs? Wilt Thou fill me with divine charity to change my heart and fill me with love? Wilt Thou show me how Thou wouldst teach and bless this child?”

Better questions help us discover better answers.


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