Two Hard-Earned Lessons
by Darla Isackson
I’ve thrown away most of my parenting theories, but I am sure about two principles.
With the approach of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, I have been thinking a lot about parenthood.
It’s been thirty-five years since I graduated from college with a major in Child Development. The parenting insights I offer in this article are not the ones I would have given then, degree clutched tightly in hand. However, they are also different from what I would have said twenty-four years ago when the book To Parents, With Love, which I co-authored with my sister Arlene Bascom, came off the press the same week my fifth son was born. Arlene and I had interviewed a hundred families and perused dozens of books to gather concrete ideas for teaching the gospel at home. Our appetite for “how-tos” was voracious. We knew the principles and longed to know “how-to” teach and apply them.
Growing in awareness of all I don’t know
I have seen a diagram where the inside of a circle represents knowledge of a certain subject and the outline of the circle represents awareness of what is not known. When we know only a little, we are aware of only a little we don’t know. As our circle of knowledge grows, so does awareness of what we don’t know. After more than three decades of parenting, thirteen years of step-parenting, and a few years of grandparenting, my circle has expanded and expanded, until my awareness of how much I don’t know is absolutely enormous! Perhaps that awareness makes the things I’m now sure about even more precious. Two of them have become increasingly clear and seem timeless. In Part One, I will explore the first, the importance of asking questions and listening. In Part Two I’ll talk about the importance of honoring agency.
My tendency to talk too much
In my family of origin, all of us were expected to attend every church function unless we were totally incapacitated, and there was never any doubt that the gospel was the center of life. Still, my parents did very little specific gospel teaching, problem-solving, or talking beyond the mundane at home. My intense desire for better communication with my own children resulted in my doing a lot of talking and a lot of what I thought was teaching . . .
I found occasion to bring up gospel topics continually. As the children grew, I began reading scriptures and inspirational thoughts to them at meal-times; the only time I could count on their being quiet was when their mouths were full! Consequently, even while they ate, my children were listening to my voice. When I wasn’t able to be talking at them, I made sure some other inspiring person was: I played scripture story tapes and music ( which was geared to teaching gospel values) all hours of the day and to lull them to sleep at night. Recently, when I was lamenting our lack of formal family home evenings, my son Scott commented, “Every minute we were around you was family home evening, Mom.”
What was I not doing? Asking them what they thought and felt and listening to their answers. My mother said it never occurred to her to teach, but it never occurred to me to ask questions. I didn’t know then that talking is telling, but asking is teaching. I’ve been thrilled with the change of teaching techniques in the Church in the last decade or two. Teachers now ask questions and invite students to participate and ponder. In this setting we are much more likely to internalize the concepts–really learn. With my children, however, because I didn’t know any better, I rarely really taught, I just told. Consequently, another son said, “Mom, one thing I’ll always remember about you is your mouth.” That hurt, and caused me to do some serious introspection. I put what I learned into a little verse that my children undoubtedly wish I had learned years ago:
I speak so many wasted words —
Words you don’t yet know you need.
I’ll hold my tongue and pray for you;
Is silence the counsel you’ll heed?
The Spirit, the True Teacher
Have I now become the consummate question-asker and listener? Old habits die hard, but I am improving. It was about six years ago that I began to understand why so much of my talking was not necessarily helpful, and ever since I have made a concerted effort to talk less. At the time of my first “ah-hah!” I was the teacher development leader in our ward. The stake president assigned us to present a talk by Elder Gene R. Cook at our monthly training meeting. The article explained clearly that our job as parents and teachers is not to teach what the Spirit has taught us, but to teach our children and students how to learn by the Spirit themselves.
To me, that was a new and stunning thought. Particularly in my mothering role, I had truly believed my job was to share everything I learned with my children. I had spent my life as a mother being puzzled because my children were rarely thrilled with my sharing. Elder Cook finally helped me see that the Spirit taught me what I was prepared for, what I needed at the moment–not what my children were prepared for and needed. The Spirit’s teaching always nourishes, because the Lord knows exactly what we are ready for and what spiritual hunger needs feeding that moment. I suspect I often tried to feed my children spiritual food they were not hungry for, that did not seem relevant to them at the moment. I wrote the following about that lesson:
I want to feed you, child–
Not just your body, but your soul.
I’ve lived long enough to know
The minimum daily requirements of soul-food.
Not wanting bare minimums for you
I offer the banquet of my whole life’s wisdom
And cannot comprehend your lack of appetite–
You take no more than a snack.
However, I now know with perfect faith
Your hunger, like mine, will grow through strife
Be finally filled with Bread of Life.
The “Come Unto Me” principle
In Alma 5:34 we read, “Come unto me and ye shall partake of the fruit of the tree; yea ye shall eat and drink of the bread and the waters of life freely.” This scripture gave me another clue to the teaching process. The Lord gives the invitation, “Come unto me,” and when we respond and come, he feeds us. If we are not ready, he waits patiently unto we are. Apostles and prophets speak His words in general conference to all who come, to all who are willing to listen. In contrast, I was running after my children, not waiting for them to come to me, not listening to them to know if they were ready and willing to receive what I wanted to give.
My greatest regret about those years of talking too much and listening too little is that as much as we love each other, I didn’t get to know my children as well as I might have. They know a lot more about my thoughts, dreams, feelings, and beliefs than I know about theirs because I did most of the talking. I’m trying to rectify that.
The challenge of really knowing each other
In the April 1997 Conference, Patricia P. Pinegar gave a talk that appeared in the May Ensign under the title “Caring for the Souls of Children.” She used as a text Psalm 142:4: “I looked on my right hand, and beheld, but there was no man that would know me: refuge failed me; no man cared for my soul.”
Her message pierced my heart. I had sometimes doubted that anyone knew the “real me,” and I suspected my children had felt the same way. Had refuge failed them when they didn’t feel “known?” Can any of us really feel cared for if we don’t feel “known?”
Pondering this, I thought about Helen Keller’s frustrations when she was still isolated in her dark world and couldn’t communicate who she really was. I related, and wrote:
Sometimes, even though I’m way along in years, I’m still a Helen Keller child—blind to life’s beauty, deaf to spiritual realities. I want to pull tantrums, lay on the floor, kick and scream as Helen did. Closed in, frustrated, going mad because no-one knows who I really am–not even me. When Living Waters flow, however, I comprehend life’s meaning and my identity, and I rise.
I must be patient as my children learn that spirit language. I sometimes see their choices mirror so many Helen-like frustrations. Are they blind to their worth? Deaf to the Spirit’s voice? Unable to connect or communicate? When children feel that the adults they love do not recognize a fraction of their potential, do they become angry at limitations? Do they feel terribly hurt when treated as though they were incapable, inept, and incorrigible when inside they are brilliant, vibrant, radiant?
Please, Lord, send an Annie Sullivan into each of their lives–someone who loves them more wisely, less indulgently, someone who pulls forth their true identity, someone who will sign words of wisdom into spiritual hands until they comprehend the meaning of Your well of Living Water.
What makes a person feel genuinely cared for, really known?
I realized that my soul does not FEEL cared for and I do not feel “known” unless another person cares enough to ask and then to listen to what I think, how I feel, what I value. There is no way to really know someone without asking them questions and listening with the heart to whatever they might have to say. I do not necessarily feel cared about–and certainly do not feel “known,” because someone wiser or bigger or more knowledgeable wants to tutor me in their knowledge or beliefs. I may even feel infringed on or pressured or unaccepted. I thought my obsessive drive to teach my children the gospel was caring for their souls–but by doing most of the talking, I unknowingly robbed them of the chance of self-disclosure and robbed myself of the chance to really know them. They were not often motivated to open the doors of their hearts and let me in.
Heavenly Father’s example as a parent
So how can we know our children? How can we care for their souls? Sister Pinegar gave us some wonderful guidelines, “I believe that seriously studying how our Father cares for His children can help us. Everything we know about our Heavenly Father is connected with His parenthood and His loving care for our souls:” She suggests that he: loves, plans, invites participation and allows us to use our agency to choose, creates an environment optimum for our growth, and gives his children clear rules of conduct.
Sister Pinegar asked, “Do I neglect their souls when I don’t help them recognize the promptings of the Spirit and the guidance they can receive?” This question ties in exactly with Gene R. Cook’s suggestion that our main stewardship in teaching is helping children hear the tutoring of the Holy Ghost. One way we can do this is to pray for them in faith not in fear–in their presence as well as in secret. We can point out that it is the Spirit’s warm presence they feel when they are moved to tears, or just feel wonderful when they are praying or reading scriptures. We can communicate belief to them, not doubt, as we show our own resilience and faith in times of crisis and tragedy. Being a living example of the gospel means being real, not faking cheerfulness, but letting them see our struggles and the contrasting peace in our countenances when the Lord has helped us through a time of trial.
Focusing our care on the soul, not the body
When the Saints were suffering great persecutions, the Lord’s revelation to Joseph included D&C 101:37 which says, “Therefore, care not for the body, neither the life of the body; but care for the soul, and for the life of the soul.” So many times we do an excellent job providing food, clothing, and shelter for our children, even luxuries, yet neglect the “one thing that is needful.”
I learned this lesson in a vivid way when roles were reversed and I became the primary caretaker for my elderly mother. Having her in my home, I quickly became overly concerned for her physical well-being. One day she said, “Darla, I don’t need another pill or blanket, or nice meal right now. I just need you to sit and visit with me.” She was really saying, “Please, care for my soul, not just my body.”
From that day on, I tried to remind myself that what I did for Mom’s soul counted most. Listening to a person, letting them explore their thoughts and feelings out loud, is one of the best things we can do for their souls. Mom needed to be listened to, and when I asked her questions and listened, I know she felt more loved. When we take time to listen to our children, we are teaching by example some of the most basic principles of the gospel of love.
Teaching the Truth by the Spirit of Truth
I’ve also come to realize that any gospel teaching we do as parents must be done by the Spirit, or it can actually be harmful rather than helpful.
In D&C 50:17-18, we read, “Verily I say unto you, he that is ordained of me and sent forth to preach the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth, doth he preach it by the Spirit of truth or some other way? And it if be by some other way it is not of God.”
A young woman I will call Katie shared with me the difficulty she experienced in her life because of the unkind methods her parents used in their attempts to teach. Her young adult life was filled with nightmares of being jerked awake as her mother pulled her hair and dragged her down the stairs to re-do jobs she hadn’t completed to her mother’s specifications.
There are so many good values and righteous principles parents feel responsible to teach. But how we teach them makes all the difference. As parents we have the stewardship of teaching the word of truth by the Comforter, in the Spirit of truth. Teaching the truth, teaching the very words of God, the very words of the prophets without the Spirit can be spiritual abuse. If we beat each other over the head with the truth, if we judge, condemn, criticize, find fault because a child is not living up to every principle we teach, we are not teaching by the Spirit, but “some other way” and the teaching is not of God. Abuse in the name of religion is the hardest to handle, because a child cannot argue with the true principle, and can be easily convinced that they themselves are hopelessly flawed.
The Comforter comforts, and so should we
The truth taught by the Spirit, the Comforter, is comforting, never discouraging. Even a call to repentance given by the Spirit says, “you can make this change; the Savior will help you overcome this problem.” Never “you are a bad person.” or “how could do such a thing when you know better?” I heard once that “Christ’s concern is not for your sin, but for your soul. He does not say, “how have you fallen to this level?” But, “I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”
Communicating by the Spirit to our children, caring for their souls, can be accomplished in many ways–through example, through our prayers for them, through acts of unconditional love whether they are still in our homes or not. Criticism is never an effective way to care for their souls. Dr. John Lund, in his relationship seminars states strongly and clearly that criticism is not a virtue, and that if you think pointing out the faults of your children and spouse is part of your job description, you are dead wrong. Our job instead is to love, show a positive example, encourage, and set boundaries– primarily for ourselves. He said that by being clear on what we will and will not do, we set up logical consequences for their behavior. Isn’t that what the Lord does? Dr. Lund stated. There is no such thing as constructive criticism; when it is absolutely necessary, it must be handled very cautiously.” He refers us to scriptures such as “Cease to find fault one with another.” (D&C 88:124)
I was reminded of a piece I wrote some time ago as I assessed the results of criticism:
Apology to My Child
When I feel I’m failing you
I desperately send
Laser looks that burn and bother
Word darts that warn and wither.
“Stop!” I tell myself.
You don’t need to be critiqued,
You need to be discovered!
“Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly”
Refers to your virtues, too.
I read your patriarchal blessing,
Vow to focus on your strengths,
Trust you to learn from agency.
My “mother” job is not to orchestrate, but radiate
Not to lecture, but listen,
Not to coerce you, but to seek Christ myself–
To polish the windows of my own soul
That His light may shine more brightly on your path.
Such scriptures as, “Whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8) can take on great meaning in regard to relationships.
When I am too anxious for the well-being of my children, too concerned about their decisions, the message I communicate is fear and doubt, that I don’t fully believe in their goodness, in their ability to weather the storms and learn from their experiences. I have chosen the goal to apply the scripture above and “Let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly” (D&C 121:45) to all my thoughts of my children–for thoughts are powerful communicators, and those around us truly FEEL what we are thinking about them and tend to respond accordingly.
The Lord never requires more than his children can give–and neither should we
I have also learned that I need to apply the same principles to my thoughts about myself. As you have probably gathered, I have a definite tendency to be overly critical of myself. I have been comforted by re-reading the article I wrote for the booklet To Be a Mother: The Agonies and the Ecstasies. I want to share a quote:
“When I still feel I ‘should’ have done better as mother, I remind myself that no one but the Savior will ever do as well as he or she ‘should’ have. The rest of us only do the best we can. We always fall short, and that is the whole point of the Atonement–the reason God sent the Savior, after all. And without our imperfections and hard times it is unlikely we would reach out to each other in service or reach up to the Lord so earnestly for spiritual strength . . . He alone is completely aware of the level of my emotional spiritual development at every minute of my life. He totally understands my limitations–after all, they are part of being mortal–and he will never require more than I can possibly give. He knows I can’t act on a tenth-grade level in an area where I’m still in kindergarten learning the ABC/s–and that’s okay. Satan’s ‘no mistakes allowed’ plan, after all, was unequivocally rejected . . . I have discovered that the Savior’s invitation to have faith, repent, and apply the reality of the Atonement is the only answer to my mothering dilemmas.”
It’s interesting to me to think about how all of that applies to how I can best care for the souls of my children. I can learn to avoid unrealistic expectations, honor their need to make mistakes, recognize developmental limitations, not suppose that they will act according to principles they do not yet understand, and always turn them toward the teaching of the Spirit and the comfort of the Atonement, rather than try to be their teacher and comforter and savior myself.
So much of what I have been saying leads into the control issue and the need to learn to honor agency, which I will explore in Part Two of this article.
Note: To Be a Mother, the Agonies and the Ecstasies, referred to in this article, is a unique 16-page booklet with full-color cover, written specifically to mothers with grown children. It contains not only the comforting piece Darla quoted from entitled “The Savior Makes Up the Difference for Mothers, Too,” but four poems and some fine prose by poet laureate Emma Lou Thayne. To receive a copy at half the cover price, send check or money order for $3.00 (which includes tax and shipping and handling) to:
2565 Fern Circle
West Jordan, UT 84084
2002Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.