Children and the “Title of Liberty”
by Darla Isackson
I had another one of those experiences recently that caused me to look long and hard at the concept of agency. Just when I thought I had this principle well internalized, one of my grown children made some choices that brought back some of the old emotional pain and futile “what ifs.” You know the kind, “What if I had set a better example, been a better teacher?” “What if I had been better at consequences? What if I’d been better at providing experiences that develop the ability to look ahead in decision-making? What if we had held more quality family home evenings, had better communication in our family? Would that have made the difference?” Such questions are about as helpful as feathers on a fish. I can’t go back and redo the past; all I can do is move forward from where I am. The real challenge is to accept the reality of how things are with faith in Christ and in His never-failing love for me and for my children. I find the AA serenity prayer a good guide in my parenting role: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Generally, all I can change is myself and the quality of my love and influence.
I have to conclude that I am building my house on sand if the strength of my faith depends on having things turn out the way I want or having children do what I think is best. When I want my will done I am inclined to label myself a failure when it isn’t done. When I tune into God’s perspective, I have not failed as long as I am seeking and submitting to God’s will and pursuing the path of growth. I’m inclined to believe that if, through the course of all the trials and adversities and ups and downs of life, a person turns to Christ and develops a celestial character, everything in that life has been a success, no matter how bad it looked along the way. When I remember and apply that thought to both to my children and myself, peace returns.
If We Could Have Done Better, We Would Have!
One of the biggest traps, that mothers of grown children particularly seem to fall into, is the idea that we somehow should have done better, should have been closer to perfection in our interactions with our children. I submit that we all did the best we could in the framework of our personal emotional, physical, and spiritual challenges. Heaven only knows if we could have done better, we would have!
Interestingly enough, even if we had somehow succeeded in being “perfect parents” there is no doubt that our children would still be making imperfect choices. God the Father was a perfect parent and 1/3 of his children chose Satan’s plan. The remaining 2/3 of us, with the exception of Jesus, make mistakes on a daily basis–at least during our mortal probation.
The Implication of Invitation
Christ, with his perfect example and perfect faith converted only a fraction of those he came in contact with to Christianity. What made the difference was what was in them, what they were seeking, what they chose. Jesus honored their agency, gave them the invitation, kept loving them even when they turned away from Him. He lamented over those who wouldn’t be “gathered under His wings,” but did not fail in his own mission because of their choices. There is great application in all that to missionary work, as well as to our efforts with our children. And perhaps, in our experiences in raising children, we can come to glimpse the feelings of a loving Savior who constantly invites us to the safety of His wings, but whose invitation is so often ignored. Thinking of this I wrote:
Chicks and Gatherings
Dear Savior, I understand so much better now
Your poignant words of chicks and gatherings . . .
“How often would I have gathered thy children together even as a hen gathers her chickens under her wings, and ye would not.” (Matt. 23:37)
Still I question: “Why do some children–yours and mine–
Refuse safe places, prefer white water rapids to warm wings?”
God gave them agency, I cannot force,
But make the heart-felt choice to come to You myself.
As I beam to them my shining joy at being gathered
I pray I’ll see them follow . . .
Beloved chicks, safe at last beneath divine warm wings.
The Power of Agency
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. Case in point: James Jones’s son Danny.
The first step of Danny’s return to clear thinking and responsible living happened immediately following the conversation I recorded in my last article where James made it clear that he was giving up his efforts to control Danny and turning his life back over to him. Let’s return to James’s story and see what happened next:
“You aren’t going to try to control me anymore? I can live my own life?” Danny snapped. I could feel a great burden lifting off my shoulders. 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?
“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 Lillie 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.
Title of Liberty Engraved on Every Heart
What James is saying is that our need to choose eclipses all other needs. We hold our freedom to choose most dearly above all else–and so does God. 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 welll 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!
To Love is to Desire Growth
In her recent book, Tathea Anne Perry records a fictional conversation–which is symbolically a conversation between God and Satan. The following quotes from this conversation have great application to our topic of agency:
Man of Holiness: “The probation of the flesh has many purposes, but none greater than learning to use power righteously, and none more difficult or more dangerous or beset with as many traps and snares for the soul. He must learn to stay his hand, never to trespass on another’s agency, no matter how much wiser he may believe his vision to be or how much greater his own light. He may see the path far ahead and every precipice that hovers on the lip of the abyss, every morass that would suck a man into its bowels and consume him utterly. He may plead and teach, exhort and implore, yet he must not rob another of his right to choose for himself, good or ill. Love does not excuse. Even I must watch and wait, because to do otherwise would begin the chain of ruin which would in the end destroy heaven itself. There must be opposition in all things; without the darkness, there is no light.
Asmodeus: “Man will never understand that! He will not accept loss! It is beyond his concept of morality with its urgency, its blindness to all but the individual and the moment. His small, finite mind cannot imagine so far! The strong will abuse the weak, most of all when the weak believe they love them. They will protect them unwisely because they glory in their own strength. They will trust their own wisdom above yours. Their pride will not allow admission of error in themselves or in those of their blood or their race. They will foster dependence because to be needed is the ultimate dominion. They will demand obedience because in it is the illusion of glory. Thus the weak will lean upon the strong, and both will be damned.”
Man of Holiness: “It is the test of the strong that they should help the weak for as long as that need exists, that their patience should never tire or grow short. They should nourish the young, the tender, the frightened, and the weak until they too become strong and no longer need them. To love is to desire growth, that every soul may reach the greatness of all its possibilities.”
Our quest is clear, our challenges great. May our love for our children be a Christlike love that desires growth, not ease, that nourishes while honoring the Title of Liberty engraved on every heart.
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.