It is nearly impossible to be a good parent when we are frazzled. Some years ago Nancy and I received a call from an overwhelmed mom. She told us to come to her house immediately because she was extremely upset with her daughter and feared she might do something she would regret. We went immediately. When we arrived we found a tired and overwrought mom and a frightened child. We sat with her and inquired about her dealings with her 4-year-old daughter. Mom had been pushed to the edge by life and over the edge by her daughter’s tiny infractions and normal childishness. What was clear to us was that Mom needed a break. We volunteered to take the daughter for as long as mom needed to get feeling peaceful.
We have all seen the effect that stress and exhaustion can have on our parenting. We overreact. We are harsh. We fail to use good sense. We lose sight of the child’s motives and needs. When we’re not happy and balanced, our parenting suffers. I believe that being a healthy person is the beginning of good parenting.
One of the many ironies of parenting is that the blessed arrival of children comes with such burdens. It’s almost as if God wanted to jerk us out of the center of our concerns and teach us to focus on the well-being of others. It’s almost as if God knew that we would become whole as we serve.
Thus parenting is terribly inconvenient. The demands are relentless and sometimes overwhelming. One of the biggest problems in parenting is our parental perception that children are encroaching on our lives. The reality is that having children means surrendering our independence, our otherness, our self-serving, our order and convenience. Effective parenting mandates that we surrender much of our concern for ourselves and become more like God: dedicated to the well-being of others.
Life (and parenting in particular) pushes us towards stress, exhaustion, and self-concern. God invites us towards Him and His way of being. It should not be surprising that being a healthy, balanced, compassionate, unselfish, flourishing person is fundamental to good parenting. This is a stretch for any of us!
Models of Well-Being
There are two major models of well-being, one secular and the other spiritual. Each helps us see the path to flourishing. The table below summarizes the secular model as described by Martin Seligman (2002), a psychologist who has studied the factors that contribute to what he calls “authentic happiness”. To the table I will add a few scriptures that confirm that these processes are indeed important. After this brief summary, I will discuss the spiritual model of flourishing at greater length.
Savor. Enjoy the simple pleasures of life rather than always wanting more.
Live in thanksgiving daily, for the many mercies and blessings which he doth bestow upon you. Alma 34:38
Use your talents. People enjoy life more when they take challenging tasks that require them to stretch themselves in using their talents.
Fill the measure of your creation and have joy therein
Serve. People are happiest when they find ways to make the world a better place.
Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Matthew 25:40
The very best of psychology teaches us to be grateful for what we have, to actively use our talents, and to find ways to serve. As we do these things, we are more likely to be healthy people who can function better as parents. All of this is in agreement with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet this perspective can be enriched and enlarged by considering principles that are even more fundamental and powerful in effective parenting. These principles become clear as we study heaven’s perspective on parenting.
The Spiritual Perspective
We all do things that make our children crazy. We all do. In some parent-child relationships, this crazy-making is obvious; the conflict and distance are constant. Other parent-child relationships may seem easier, more natural, and more productive. Yet in every relationship we are failing our children in some important way. That is a part of being mortal parents in a fallen world. That is the curse of humanness. In our quiet moments, we know that we’re not good enough to properly care for God’s children.
There is really only one solution: to be changed. When our natures are changed, when we have the mind of Christ, when we have had a mighty change of heart, when we draw our inspiration from heaven, then we can be fit parents.
Dang! This is profoundly discouraging. We must be godly to be good parents. But we simply aren’t godly. We are weak, fallen, and “because of the fall, our natures have become evil continually” (Ether 3:2).
While our fallenness weighs heavily on us, it is not the only truth about our natures. We are also children of Divinity. We are heirs of godliness. We have the divine within us. We have glory awaiting us.
The beloved Restoration adds a vital and hopeful doctrine to our understanding of our natures. We are not mere creations of God that can be adopted into His family if we are faithful. We are His seed, His offspring, His dearly beloved with whom He is under covenant to rescue. We may depart from the covenant but He never will—because we are everlastingly His.
Let me say it again. We are not simply shop projects to be discarded if we do not hold up well. We are His children. He Himself is woven into our natures. Thank God for that encouraging truth!
With great truths come great caveats. We must not, like wealthy children who are spoiled, let ourselves feel entitled. We must not think that we can coast to ease and goodness. We might remember that Satan himself is spirit offspring of God just as much as we are. He is supremely talented. But he was and is rebellious. He will not submit to God’s plan but insists on creating His own.
We are guilty of a related sin when we refuse to “receive all things with thankfulness.” When we are sure that the challenges of life are not as they should be, we are suggesting that our plan for our lives is better than God’s.
Of course there is one big difference between our sin and Satan’s. Satan stood toe-to-toe with God, heard the plan from God’s mouth, and still contended that his plan was better than God’s. In contrast, much of our resistance is due to the veil that leaves us wondering whether the messy realities of our lives are random and pointless. We commit our sin in partial ignorance. Yet, as the spark of faith grows into flames, we suspect that even our aches and pains can minister to our growth. Every challenge of our lives can be a blessing to us.
There is a vital lesson to be learned by setting our resistance side-by-side with Satan’s.
We may recognize that rebellion and resistance send us into bitter tailspins.
They send us to the lonely hell of self-direction.
In contrast, submission is the key to power. We can, like our perfect example, declare: “The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise” (John 5:19).
Ah! The irony! The most talented person in the world is also most submissive. The One who might depend most upon His own abilities depends instead and entirely on Father. This life is not some random test of submissiveness. Submission is the key to power!
Behold, as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel. (Jeremiah 18:6)
Shall the axe boast itself against him that heweth therewith? or shall the saw magnify itself against him that shaketh it? (Isaiah 10:15, 2 Nephi 20:15)
Another great latter-day truth is that God Himself is submissive. Three times in the Book of Mormon we are taught that God would cease to be God if He stopped submitting to law (Alma 42: 13, 22, 25). If He must submit, how important that we do the same!
So submission is not some random test of obedience. It is the process to power. It is through surrendering that we conquer. God is demanding submission of us because it is the key to becoming like Him.
You may ask how submission relates to the command to “be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of [our] own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness” (D&C 58:27).
I think this relates to a two-stage process of submission. In the first stage, we learn to see His hand and accept His will. This is the kind of stuff we normally think of as submission including faith, repentance, and making of covenants. As we become more aware of and tuned to His will, we are ready for the second stage where we become active agents of His will. We are indeed anxiously engaged—but in doing His will, not ours. This is a relatively advanced stage of submission. Jesus exemplified it. We aspire to it.
Submission is the sine qua non—the indispensable and essential condition, or ingredient—of growth.
What Does Submission have to do with Parenting?
It may not be obvious how submission helps us be better parents. Let’s turn to Amulek for the answer. The oft-quoted (and regularly misunderstood) invitation of Alma 34 to pray at all times and in all places neglects the vital context.
Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;
Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save. (Alma 34:17-18)
Note the phrase “faith unto repentance” which is unique to Amulek–appearing four times in three verses (Alma 34:15-17). It is a very powerful phrase. It suggests that, when we have enough faith, we will bring our tattered, weak lives to Jesus. We trust Him enough to run to Him rather than away from Him.
I don’t believe that God is merely asking us to pray 24/7 in these verses. No. He is asking that we recognize our dependence on Him for help with our fields, flocks, responding to our enemies (including the devil), and our crops. We must cry out for mercy in all things. “Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you” (Alma 34:27). In order to be Godly parents we need to submit to God on a regular basis.
When angry, pray for mercy.
When exhausted, pray for mercy.
When resentful, pray for mercy.
When lonely, pray for mercy.
We pray for mercy in all situations because, as Amulek observes, He is mighty to save. His might extends to parenting. We cannot be the parents we should be unless we are filled with Him.
We regularly try to turn parenting into a test of our skills. We’re often wondering how to out-maneuver the child or cure this behavior or discourage that tendency. Skills matter. Even more, our understanding of children matters. But no amount of skill or understanding can balance a heart that is trying to operate independent of God.
When our hearts are right, the right attitude and actions flow naturally. “How can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (Matthew 12:34).
“Getting our hearts right” may seem like a black box with mysterious contents and magical effects. How do I get my heart right? How can I subdue that natural man within me who gets cranky and contrary? How do I draw the spiritual power into my life that will change my nature? I believe that the answer is to do all the things to build a relationship with God that we would do if we were wanting to build a relationship with a respected human. Listen. Spend time together. Learn about Him. Show your interest and commitment. As we do these things, the bond will grow.
When an awareness of God’s power and goodness combines with my own sense of inadequacy, I sometimes have the good sense to cry out for mercy. When I do, God soothes and fills my soul. I find I am better prepared to be a more Godly parent and grandparent.
The process of changing our hearts is a gradual one. We get better and better as we more regularly and gladly call on the God we love. Along the way, we can still parent with love and good sense. The articles that follow will focus on those three processes that can help even an imperfect parent do a better job of raising strong and caring children.
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.
* For an excellent book on the secular model of well-being, read:
Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness. New York: Free Press.