We rarely recognize the importance of parenting in God’s plan. Parenting is God’s central task: “He doeth NOT ANYTHING save it be for the benefit of the world” (2 Nephi 26:24, emphasis added). Parenthood is also His core identity; first and foremost, He calls Himself Father.
Earthly parenting is the place where we learn the vital lessons to prepare us to join Him in His work. It is, above all else, an apprenticeship for godliness.
Research has shown that LDS people have distinctive beliefs about parenting—but their parenting is just about like everybody else’s. What a shame that our extraordinary understanding of God’s plan has not informed and enriched our way of caring for our children!
What are the distinctive doctrines that could make our parenting more heaven-like? What are the principles that God models in His own parenting that should be the core of ours? How can the principles be translated into practices that strengthen our families?
Benefiting from Scholarship and Scripture
God has always had the best answers to all questions and challenges. Yet we have hardly ever mined God’s truth for all its riches. I believe that scholarship can help us ask better questions especially in the area of parenting. Drawing on the best thinking of the best scholars can open us to answers we never saw before in God’s work.
A national project reviewed decades of research and released a report called the National Extension Parent Education Model which identified six principles as central to parenting (Smith, Cudaback, Goddard, & Myers-Walls, 1994). I would like to take four of those principles—the ones I believe are most essential—and enrich them with spiritual perspectives to form a Model for Godly Parenting.
In this article I will introduce each of these four principles. We will use the analogy of building a house to help us envision the key ideas for raising up children. Then future articles will be dedicated to looking at each principle in further detail and discussing how to apply them.
The Footings: The Flourishing Parent
At the very base of any substantial structure are the footings or footers. This substantial course of concrete is generally wider than the foundation and assures that the foundation (and the whole structure) will not settle and crack. The integrity of the structure depends on the strength of those footings.
What are the footings of parenting? What does the entire structure rest on? I believe that the footings are the state of mind and quality of character of the parent. Parenting scholars often speak of the concept of “parent care of self”, meaning that a parent must be a healthy functional human in order to be a good parent. A miserable, unhappy person is not likely to be an excellent parent.
The Gospel of Jesus Christ suggests that we must be converted before we can strengthen others (Luke 22:32). A corrupt tree cannot bring forth good fruit (3 Nephi 14:17) The same principle applies to parenting. A dead tree trunk cannot nourish the branches. A troubled, hostile, bitter parent will find it difficult or impossible to deliver life-sustaining truth and goodness to children. A person who is spiritually alive and growing is more likely to be what I call a flourishing parent, capable of nourishing children and helping them thrive.
Of course the Gospel prescribes very specific actions if we are to be flourishing people. In fact, God provides a surprisingly tart directive to parents
Teach parents that they must repent and be baptized, and humble themselves as their little children, and they shall all be saved with their little children. (Moroni 8:10)
The foundational principles of faith, repentance, and covenant-making have special relevance to parenting. These are the principles of spiritual growth. We must be good saints if we are to be good parents.
The Foundation: Compassion
Built on the footings of a great structure is the foundation. The scholarly model of parenting recommends “Understanding” as the foundation of parenting. This concept encompasses everything from understanding normal development to understanding a child’s unique temperament and circumstances. This is vitally important.
God prescribes something even richer than understanding: Compassion. While understanding entails a knowledge of development and personality, compassion involves being “touched with the feeling of our [children’s] infirmities” (Hebrews 4:15). Compassion goes beyond understanding the child in that it entails a readiness to act in the interest of the person. This is best done when we see the world through the eyes of the child. Compassion is the offering of our soul to experience the life of another person.
Compassion is exactly what Jesus did as part of the atonement. Not only did He bear the burden of our sins, but He also bore our infirmities so that His compassion would be fully informed (Alma 7:11-12). We can NEVER rightly say to Him: “You just don’t understand!” He does understand. He bore every pain, discomfort, and disappointment any human ever suffered so that He would have perfect compassion.
Jesus invites us to have compassion for our children as He has compassion for us. I believe that our development of compassion is foundational to good parenting.
The Body of the House: Nurture and Guidance
The body of the house involves two companion processes. In the scientific community we call them nurture and guidance. God calls them something similar in scripture.
I don’t believe that nurture and admonition are carelessly chosen words. It is exactly those words that Enos uses in describing the godly parenting that he received (Enos 1:1).
Nurture is any behavior that the child experiences as warm, caring, and supportive. The key is how the child experiences the behavior. In other words, all the “I love you’s” in the world do not constitute nurture unless the child feels loved.
This is where guidance provides the perfect balance for nurture. Children must not only be loved but also learn the law of the harvest. “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Children must be taught eternal principles and the natural consequences of disregarding them.
The reality of mortal parenting is that children won’t always feel loved or loving when they are learning the law of the harvest. Sometimes we don’t feel loved even though God’s love never fails. Yet we can create a bond that is stronger than the cords of death (D&C 121:44) while helping children learn to honor the principles of eternal growth: “I, the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise” (D&C 82:10).
We can best teach children when we ourselves are striving to honor the laws of God.
The Roof: Eternal Purpose
Our objective is not merely to get our children through mortality in a way that keeps them out of hell in immortality. That is the rather limited purpose of parenting in most of the Christian world. Those of us who have the fullness of the Gospel have loftier ambitions. We are preparing our children to do the work that God does and, in the process, we are preparing ourselves to do as God does and be as God is.
YIKES! That is an exalted objective! In fact it is fully impossible for mere humans—unless we get divine help. When we understand God’s eternal purposes, we are humbled. When we earnestly seek heavenly counsel, we are taught from on high, including how to more effectively, compassionately, and wisely parent our children.
In future articles, we will walk through each of these principles in more detail including the specific processes that help us succeed at this challenging and lofty opportunity of rearing children. I invite you to join me for that journey.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child (the Ginott classic which he revised). For more information about his books and programs, visit www.FamilyCollege.com or www.DrWally.org
Thanks to Barbara Keil and Annmarie Worthington for their insightful improvements of this article.
Smith, C. A., Cudaback, D., Goddard, H. W., & Myers-Walls, J. (1994). The National Extension Parent Education Model. Manhattan, KS: Kansas State University.