Two-Hard Earned Lessons, Part 2: Honoring God’s Law of Agency
by Darla Isackson
Note from Darla:
Before I begin Part Two, I need to add a couple of thoughts to Part One.
1. Joy and Gary Lundberg’s book You Don’t Have to Make it All Better offers the best guidance I have ever found on how to listen and ask helpful questions. Numerous examples demonstrate the wisdom of validating other people by filling the universal need to know “I am of worth, my feelings matter, and someone really cares about me.” Lundberg’s show why our typical responses do not validate, and how we can change those responses to ones that do. They help us recognize that we do not have the power to make anything all better for anyone else and suggest that the most respectful thing we can do is to express confidence in each person’s ability to solve their own problems.
2. I was not inferring in Part One that we should never share what the Spirit has taught us. In the Lectures on Faith, Joseph Smith made it clear that faith is transferred from one generation to another by testimony bearing, etc. Sensitivity to the Spirit will tell us when it is the right time to share. With older children it seems appropriate to ask whether they want to hear what we have to say. Something like, “I had an experience about that. Would you be interested in hearing it?” My friend keeps a page in her planning book where she jots down things she feels impressed to share with a certain child. What they learn from an experience we share may be different from what we learned from it, however. Learning through scripture study seems the perfect example of how the Spirit teaches each person what they are ready for. Several people can read a scripture together and each person can see a different meaning or application of it, according to their present need and level of understanding. That is why I firmly believe that encouraging our children to listen to the Spirit and receive their own personal revelation is one of the most valuable things we can do for them.
As soon as I began writing on the subject of honoring agency, I knew I had set myself an impossible task. I have taken more than half a century to learn what I’ve learned, and those lessons are not easily communicated. The subject of agency vs. control actually deserves at least a whole book, not just an article. I recently wrote just such a book for Dr. James Jones (Brother Jones, to us). I just re-read it, and every page seems vital and important. The book itself is relatively short, but summarizes hundreds of pages and dozens of seminar hours of Jones’s impressive parenting work. I’ll let you know when the book is available and has a name! Dr. Jones’s work is nondenominational, however, so does not include LDS scriptures nor cover the spiritual journey involved. I believe sincere parents discover a need for daily repentance–and learn that a mighty change of heart is necessary in order to honor children’s agency. I will try to document guideposts for that journey, but not all at once. In this article I will simply pose the questions we all seem to have that typify the dilemma we are in as parents. Then I will bring these questions to focus on one point.
Heavy Questions in Regard to Agency
. We all know the doctrine of agency, but how can we righteously apply it with our children and still fulfill our responsibility to guide them?
. How can parents mesh “obedience is the first law of heaven” with “let every man choose?”
. How is it possible to honor a child’s agency without making him a little tyrant and finding yourself being controlled by him?
. What about “age appropriate” agency? Little children depend on their parents to make the decisions they are not mature enough to make. How can we know the appropriate time to let go and let them choose?
. How can we motivate voluntary compliance instead of grudging or forced obedience?
. Is there a way to create a learning environment with formal and informal teaching moments without creating resistance?
. How can parents honor agency without being permissive? We are certainly not supposed to let our children run wild without supervision or guidelines. How can you satisfy both sides?
. D&C 68:25 says we are responsible to teach them correct principles–and it’s hard not to interpret the rest of that verse to mean that if children don’t live all those principles, the sin is upon the heads of the parents. How can parents just sit by and watch their children make mistakes, knowing that the sins of their children will be upon their heads?
. We all know that children need the security of clear limits, reasonable rules, and appropriate consequences. How do you carry out consequences that reward and reinforce, and appropriately punish bad behavior without infringing on agency?
There is obvious no way to answer such deep questions in a few words; is it any wonder parents get so confused? Is it any wonder that parents of older children who make poor choices suffer so much guilt and pain, or that the very subject of parenting engenders defensiveness?
Still, we must deal with the basis question: aren’t parents supposed to control their children? Even my desire to teach incessantly (explored in Part 1) was undoubtedly motivated partly by my belief that I needed to control their choices.
I’m reminded of another quote from the booklet I co-authored, To Be a Mother, the Agonies and the Ecstasies.
“One day [when two of my children were still living at home,] I was feeling frustrated thinking of all the unread New Eras and other “productive” projects left undone while my sons hunkered in front of the computer screen, mesmerized by video games. Even though I had seen other sons grow in maturity–even becoming neatniks on their own after having a history of pigsty rooms–I was envisioning these two at ago forty neglecting family and church responsibilities to play ‘Command & Conquer.’
“I sat down to study their patriarchal blessings with the idea of finding better ways to motivate them. [control them?] What an experience! The Lord’s view of my sons was infinitely different from what mine had been lately–and there was no doubt whose perspective was more accurate. I clearly saw that “this too will pass,” and was reminded (again!) that agency is God-given, and that anxiety–even over choices more distressing than sitting for hours in front of video games–is shortsighted.
“I have to admit that one reason I get upset about my children’s imperfect choices is that they make me feel like a failure. Where did I get the idea that successful parenting means raising children who invariably make only positive choices? If that were true, then God–the perfect parent–succeeded only with his firstborn son and failed with the rest of us. ”
This is an issue that deserves careful consideration–and I continue to ask myself “How much of my concern and motivation to ‘teach them a better way’ is based on my false conclusion that my standing here and hereafter depends somehow on my children’s choices? How much of that concern is pride-based? Isn’t it obvious that I set myself up when I gave myself the job description to “make certain” my children did everything right?
Rewriting the Scriptures
As my children grew, I experienced a strong desire to protect them–especially from sin and suffering. I wished I could build fences high and strong enough to keep out the influences of the world. I quickly learned that they had minds of their own and that it was going to be a challenging job to keep them in line. “I must control these wilful little ones,” I said to myself. “I’ve got to get them to choose what I know is best and right for them. My children are too precious to risk losing.” I was willing to go to any lengths to learn how to be a good mother and do right by my children. Looking back now, I realize that I would have to do some hefty “editing” of agency scriptures to justify my actual thinking and behavior in those years. Here are some examples:
(D&C 37:4) “Behold, here is wisdom, and let every man choose for himself until I come [except for your children, Darla. You must choose for them because you are responsible to get them to the celestial kingdom].”
(Helaman 14:30) “And now remember, remember, my brethren, that whosoever perisheth, perisheth unto himself; and whosoever doeth iniquity, doeth it unto himself; for behold, ye are free; ye are permitted to act for yourselves; for behold, God hath given unto you a knowledge and he hath made you free.” [but since your children don’t have enough knowledge yet, you surely can’t permit them to act for themselves.]
(Joshua 24:15) “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve.” [but don’t let your children choose–they might not choose Me.]
“Therefore, O my son, whosoever will come may come and partake of the waters of life freely; and whosoever will not come the same is not compelled to come; [unless we are referring to your child–him you may compel to come] but in the last day it shall be restored unto him according to his deeds.” (Alma 42:27)
(Alma 43: 9) “That they might preserve them from the hands of their enemies; and also that they might preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty, that they might worship God according to their desires.” [unless we are talking about your children–you have the right to make them worship God according to your desires.]
2 Nephi 2:26 “And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by [well-meaning parents who are determined to make them do what is right.]”
“And they were exceedingly rejoiced because of the liberty which had been granted unto them.” [but determined, nonetheless not to grant the same liberty or freedom of choice to their children.] (Mosiah 29:39)
I had to give up being being “driven by the wind and tossed” by wave after wave of false ideas that were influencing my ability to hear the scriptures as the Lord had given them to His prophets. As I seek to quit rewriting the scriptures, and earnestly ask the Spirit to help me see what is really there, I have consistently come to the safe shore I will now define.
God, the Father and Exemplar
God, the Father, is our one sure, never-failing, perfect example of how to parent. He lives all the eternal laws of parenting in His dealings with us, his children. Those laws will never change and are just as valid for us in our dealings with our children as they are for Him. Honoring agency is the over-arching, under-girding first law of God’s parenting. He gives clear laws, with clearly defined rewards and consequences, then allows his children to choose.
As much as God loves all his spirit children, He soundly rejected Satan’s plan of “no choices allowed.” Because God is God he surely had foreknowledge of the consequences of His choice of the Savior’s offer to be the Messiah over Lucifer’s–the immediate loss of one-third of His spirit children, a staggering number. I assume those who chose to stand with Satan wanted an easier way, a guarantee of success, a life without risk of suffering, pain, or loss. Ironically, they used the agency God safeguarded for them to reject God’s plan of agency. The consequence for choosing to reject a plan that would include suffering and loss was endless suffering and loss of their eternal potential.
** I think Abraham 3:22 indicates that “the plan” of creating a world, a mortality and needing a Savior to perform an atoning sacrifice was actually in place-was the Father’s Eternal plan. What the Savior did was offer to carry it out.
I remember a talk by Elder Jeffrey Holland explaining that the war in heaven wasn’t fought over agency per se, but over the possibility to become like God. That is what God wanted most for His children; that is what was valuable enough to be worth losing many of them, and that is what Satan wanted to rob us of. Only through giving man absolute choice–in a mortal setting where good and evil are ever-present options and where rewards and punishments are not instantaneous, could godlike character be developed.
Of course, the most definitive scriptures we have on the importance of agency are in D&C 121:
“That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
“That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the spirit of the Lord is grieved: and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man. . . . (D&C 121:36-37)
Okay, here’s another question: Where do you cross the line between righteous guidance and unrighteous dominion? When does dominion or compulsion–which seems so unavoidable, even essential with tiny children, take upon it any degree of unrighteousness? How can we know whether we are being irresponsible for “reigning them in” too little or unrighteous by “reigning them in” too much?
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.” (D&C 121:46)
I put forth the thesis that the nation-wide (and even Church-wide) epidemic of parental pain is born more from misunderstanding our job description in regard to control vs choice and accountability than from any other source. Before we go another step, I want to go on the books as solidly against permissiveness and “child-dominated” homes. However, I wonder if we as parents have set ourselves up for feelings of failure by buying into a myth that counters not only scriptural doctrine but reality?
The Myth of Control
In a teacher development class, Shawna Stewart suggested that teaching is a lot like playing ball. You are responsible to throw the ball as well as possible, but whether the receiver catches it is not in your power. Similarly, we may do all we can to teach our children with the Spirit, but ultimately whether or not they “catch it” is not our choice, but theirs.
Part I of Jones’s book shares his poignant personal story–the painful way he learned that control is a myth. He summarizes his difficult years with a drug-addicted son, his efforts to reach him, help him, control his uncontrollable behavior. I want to share a scene in his story that 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 Lillie, [his 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 the story. When I read Danny’s words “you would if you could” I stood convicted by my own conscience. I knew that was the truth in regard to my own children. I knew that if I could, I would cut up credit cards, enforce church attendance, make them all read the copies of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ that I had given them for Easter one year. I knew I would control them if I could, 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 always came with a undertow of pressure. That Ah hah! began a new journey of discovery and repentance for me as a parent. They did 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.’Danny, from this day on I am no longer responsible for what happens to you. You are! Beware! I cast you out into the deep waters with the sharks and barracuda, and they are going to eat you. Danny, you are going to die–and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. From now on you are responsible for what happens to you, not me!'”
Danny didn’t die. 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. He 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 realized 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–the same philosophy undergirding the parenting book my sister and I wrote twenty-four years ago and that I have come back to repeatedly over the years. 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.”
In pondering Brother Jones’s story again I recognized that what he really discovered in his experiences with his son was his own powerlessness in regard to his children. He accomplished Step One in the inspired LDS version of the Twelve Step program which says: “I myself am powerless–nothing without God.”
Could There Be an LDS Twelve-Step Program for Parents?
Brother Jones said that he was every bit as obsessed and driven by his need to control, as his son was with his addiction to drugs. While his case may have been extreme, I suspect most parents have experienced some degree of the addiction–I know I have. That addiction is reinforced by centuries of tradition. How dare we even question the edict that good parents must remain in firm control of their children? I’m wondering now if an LDS Twelve-Step program specifically on this subject could help all of us as parents overcome the addiction of control, replacing it with God-inspired guidance, powerful righteous examples, effective teaching, righteous traditions of making children accountable for their actions and teaching them daily application of the Atonement?
I know that only as we submit ourselves to the Lord and learn to listen to His Spirit, can we effectively guide our children. I have learned from the light of the Spirit that it is not a parent’s job to control children so they do not need to repent–but to teach them on whom they can rely for a remission of their sins. God soundly rejected the plan of keeping children from making mistakes. 2 Nephi 25:26 says, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” It is a given that they will have sins to repent of, as we do. Moses 6: 55-59 gives an amazing discourse in regard to agency, children, and parents that deserves our careful attention. Verse 57 starts, “Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent . . .” In order to teach our children this important process, we need to be well versed in it ourselves–not only in theory, but in practice. Only when we have the light, can we share the light.
Do Not Orchestrate-Radiate!
Ed McCormack, a trusted friend and counselor taught me that my primary mission as a parent is not to orchestrate, but to radiate. He said, “The very best thing you can do for your children and grandchildren is to continue to develop the light within you. To continue to say, ‘I choose the light,’ so that light can grow ‘brighter and brighter within you until the perfect day.’ (D&C 50:23) What could have a better effect on a child of any age than a mother in whom the Spirit of God dwells and from whom that Spirit is radiating?I think this is true mothering and can be done whether you are married or divorced or widowed. To have a portion of that Spirit dwelling in you, such that you can be an instrument in the hands of the Lord to your own children; that is true mothering. (Alma 17, 18, 26) And that is an opportunity much of which still lies in the future. So there is much to look forward to.” Ed’s counsel and reassurance has been inspiring to me on many occasions, and I have felt certain it came from the Comforter!
Let Go and Let God.
“For behold, this is my work and my glory–to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Moses 1:39 God alone knows how to accomplish this work for his children, and He always does it by honoring agency. We can help only to the extent that we are radiating His Spirit, doing His will, and drawing our children to Christ by our example.
So much of good parenting is not about controlling, but about letting go and trusting the Lord to do with them what we cannot. I find I especially need to let go of criticizing, fault-finding, and trying to change my children. It is so much more productive and wise to focus my energies on the only things I can control–my own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Heaven only knows my own character needs improvement enough to require all the energy I can muster in that repenting and refining process.
Letting go does not mean we stop caring–but it means we stop taking responsibility for people and things we can’t control. Letting go is not to deny, but to accept what is real and true. Letting go is to quit trying to adjust the world and everything in it to our desires, but to take each day as it comes and cherish ourselves and others we love in it. There is no greater relief than when we stop fighting reality. Letting go is to turn the universe back over to God and trust Him with it and turn our hearts to God and let Him transform them. We can let go of thinking that joy is somewhere in the far away future when all conditions are ideal and our children are all doing just as we’d like them to do, and be willing to let in the joy that is waiting for us today in an imperfect world full of imperfect people.
The Power of Prayer
I love the following verse by Dona Maddox Cooper:
“When you were small and just a touch away,
I covered you with blankets against the cool night air.
But now that you are tall and out of reach,
I fold my hands and cover you with prayer.”
Prayer is often the most important thing we can do, even when children are young; somehow, the Lord always makes up the difference for weakness or ignorance on either of our parts, and does for our children what we cannot do. Alma learned this in a powerful way when the Lord intervened with his son because of the intensity of his prayers. But Alma the Younger still had a choice. Angels give invitations; they do not force. Alma the Younger could have rejected the angel’s message, as Laman and Lemuel usually did. Instead he chose to pay attention.
There is so much more I want to say about this subject, but this article is long enough for now. I am considering using the Twelve Steps as a structure for a more in-depth look at the important and fascinating subject of honoring agency.
Editors’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 $1 for tax, shipping, handling) to:
2565 Fern Circle
West Jordan, Ut 84084
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