The following is a Problem Solving Guide for Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth.
We all feel frustrated and torn by specific parenting dilemmas at times. We feel an impulse to act in one way, but we have a nagging uncertainty: “Am I really doing (or planning to do) the right thing?” Other times, we simply don’t know what to do. That feeling of perplexity is one of the burdens of parenting.
This guide is about those problems that keep recurring. I want to suggest a way to deal with those knotty difficulties according to the pattern described in previous articles about godly parenting.
Think of a parenting challenge that you have been wrestling with. Maybe you have continuing tension in your relationship with one child. Or maybe you worry about the decisions of another. Close your eyes and revisit times when you’ve felt a concern about one of your children. Have that situation in mind as you work through these five sections.
- Be a Flourishing Person.
When we are unhappy, frustrated, angry, confused, aimless, and empty, we don’t do our best work as parents. While we may not be in such extreme places very often, even small doses of unhappiness (or stress or frustration) can get in the way of effective parenting. We’ve all experienced that.
Before we make big parenting decisions or before dealing with big parenting challenges, we need to get our minds and hearts right. (Actually, before we make even small parenting decisions, we need to get our minds and hearts right.) So we start not by focusing on the child and the problem, but by focusing on God. In a sense, the key question here is just what Alma asked: “If ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now?” (Alma 5:26).
There are really two parts to Alma’s question:
- Have you ever felt that soul-filling love of God that makes us sing with joy?
- Do you have that same feeling right now?
If you have never felt that love, the first order of business is to discover it. I encourage you to find something that lifts your spirits. Maybe it is a piece of beautiful music, a scriptural passage, a general conference talk, an inspiring book, or a great story. Let yourself be engulfed by that message. As our spirits soar, the veil is thin. It is then that we are most likely to feel God wrap us in His arms. Nothing is as powerful or as life-changing as feeling His love.
Many of us have felt His love repeatedly trying to break into our lives, but we resist it. “You can’t love me when I do so many stupid things!” I encourage you to drop your defenses against God. Do the things that lift your spirits and thin the veil for you. Let Him grab you with His love. Or just stop resisting His entreaties. Let your perfect Father have you. He changes everything. He give us purpose, hope, meaning, energy, direction. After all, He and Jesus Christ are the Light and Life of the world. They are also the Light and Life of every individual soul—including mine and yours.
Alma’s second question is whether the experience of God’s love is real and present in our souls right now. We should not enter into the sacred and delicate business of difficult parenting without being armed with the love of God. We cannot deal with difficulties unless that fire is burning within us right now.
So, before undertaking any problem-solving venture, fill yourself with that love. Let any troubles be “swallowed up in the joy of Christ” (Alma 31:38). If you cannot get to such a place of joy right now, put off the problem-solving self-dialogue until you can. Do not try to solve eternal problems with puny mortal tools. Wait. Wait until you feel God’s love burning in your heart.
Do not grieve the Spirit by rushing into battle unarmed with “the breastplate of righteousness and your feed shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked” (Ephesians 6:14–16).
The surest sign that we are filled with the love of God is feeling loving toward the people in our lives—even the annoying ones. Do you feel loving toward the child who is currently confusing or frustrating you? When you feel His love and goodness coursing through you, you are ready to solve the problems that burden your family. You are ready to thwart Satan and empower goodness.
Reflection and Application
Are you feeling peaceful and assured in the love of God so that you are prepared to solve the parenting problems that burden you? If not, what will activate that love in your life? If so, move on to the next steps.
- Have Compassion.
Let’s assume you have thought of a specific parenting challenge you are dealing with. You are probably very familiar with your logic in the conflict. You may have spent hours thinking about a child’s bad behavior and what it means about his or her character (or lack thereof). You may have even worried about the long-term consequences for a child who would act that way. “Is my child on the path to destruction, immorality, rebellion, apostasy, criminality . . .?” We fret and blame.
But half of the story tends to get neglected: the child’s side. We know our perceptions, our concerns, our indignation—but we may not fully know or understand the child’s story. What is life like for him or her? What is he or she worried about, burdened by, hurt by? What are the child’s concerns and life challenges?
What might my child be trying to tell me with this behavior? Maybe the child is saying, “I need to feel respected by you. I need you to engage in a discussion with me and try to understand me.” Or the child may be saying, “You keep changing your mind and you’re making me crazy!” Or the child may be saying something entirely different. But when we can get out of our own concerns and complaints and try to walk a day in the child’s shoes, we may get vital information about what he or she truly wants.
There are a lot of sensible reasons children do what they do. They may feel tired, sick, or lonely. They may not know any better. They may be afraid, stressed, or anxious. They may want to feel accepted by their friends. They may want to draw us into their lives. They may be desperate for our love and attention.
Here is a key concept to remember: Children do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. When their action does not make sense to us, it is not because they are bad or crazy; it is because we don’t yet understand them. I am not suggesting that children always have good reasons for what they do, but they do have reasons that make sense to them. When we understand their reasons, their logic, and their objectives, we will be better able to help them.
It may be helpful to discuss the child and the conflict with another person who loves that child. The insight of another person can enrich our understanding. But, of course, compassion is more than understanding why the child does as he or she does. Compassion includes feeling his or her struggle and pain. That alone is challenging. But if that compassion is to be effective, we must communicate it. Somehow we need to show our children we are touched by their struggles and pain. They need to know that we are touched by the feeling of their infirmity.
So this foundation for solving our parenting problems involves both understanding our children’s perspectives and showing them that we care. To communicate your compassion, I encourage you to use statements that focus on your children and their feelings. It is not the use of “you” or “I” that matters as much as the focus of the message.
- “I’m trying to understand and find words to describe your feeling.”
- “You must be tired of that.”
- “You wonder if it will ever work out.”
- “Did you feel humiliated?”
- “I bet you wish things were different.”
It is only when the child feels valued and understood that real negotiation can take place. It will not work to get a resolve to do better and then swoop in with announcements of new plans and programs. The foundation for building a new pattern involves the development of genuine compassion.
Reflection and Application
Do you feel genuine compassion for your child and the challenges that he or she faces? Do you have the words to show your compassion? Are you willing to stick with compassion even when your child is prickly?
Once we are feeling peaceful and compassionate, we are ready to craft the message of love that will help the child feel personally valued.
While we may deeply love our children, there are times when irritation and frustration block the sense of affection and appreciation that are essential to the relationship. We don’t have the right to correct anyone we don’t love. Only heartfelt love gives us the right to be in a person’s life and the right to influence him or her.
When we want to cover up our mistakes, prove we are right, or control another person, we have no power (see Doctrine and Covenants 121:34–37). Power comes from love. It is not the kind of power that compels action; it is the kind of power that invites shared growth.
Once we are feeling peaceful and compassionate (steps 1 and 2 in this process), we are ready to craft the message of love that will help the child feel personally valued.
In parenting we often keep the focus firmly fixed on irritations. “Why can’t you ever . . . ?” “When will you learn . . .?” We seem to assume that the way to improve children is driving them out of their misdeeds and misbehavior. That doesn’t work.
Consider God’s process. He starts by loving us. In fact, “we love him because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19). He wins our hearts with his love and goodness. Of course it is worth noting that His love does not make Him surrender to our tantrums. While He loves us with all His heart, He unfailingly honors law.
Consider a paraphrase of some words from Haim Ginott: “It is said that nature always sides with the hidden flaw. Parents have the opposite role: to side with the hidden asset, to minimize a child’s deficiencies, intensify his experience, and enlarge his life.”
The spirit of irritation must not be the governing principle as we work with our children. Quite the contrary. We can only solve problems and grow heavenward when we are filled with love for them.
Rather than focus on the problems we’re trying to solve, nurture invites us to focus on the goodness in our children—on their finest moments, their greatest qualities, and their purest intentions. As we fill our hearts with love for them, we are prepared to solve problems in the Lord’s way.
Reflection and Application
What do you love best about your child? What have been some of your finest moments? What are the qualities of heart and character that you admire in the child?
Can you see the reasons why your child may be doing the things he or she does? How do the actions make sense from the child’s perspective?
The enormous challenge in guidance is to remember its purpose. It is not about making children pay for mistakes but about helping them learn from experience. And there is a vast difference between those two objectives. We are likely to be confused about the difference unless we have peace, compassion, and love in our hearts.
Proper guidance is filled with God’s trademark goodness. It is He who has commanded us to bring up our children in light and truth. It is He whose creativity is filled with lilting goodness.
Rather than hearts filled with a shriveled “no!” we can have hearts that are filled with a bigger, more gracious “yes!” Rather than lecture (and insult) our children about their forgetfulness, we can make a game out of turning off the lights, closing the doors, AND picking up socks. Rather than get angry when a child leaves his bike on the lawn, maybe we scoop him up in our arms and ask him to solve the mystery of the mislaid bike. Rather than ground children to the end of time, maybe we invite them to help us find solutions to our chronic differences.
Sure, there will be consequences. There will be groundings. There will be lost privileges. But the focus must be on teaching, strengthening, and improving. The best guidance leads to better actions and closer relationships.
When we find ourselves defending a disciplinary action, when we find ourselves feeling tense and defensive, there is a good chance that we have acted under the influence of anger and the prince of darkness. Effective guidance brings light.
Admittedly, children will sometimes be quite unhappy with the limits and restrictions that will be necessary. But we would never burn down a temple just to fry an egg (to paraphrase the famous statement) and we would not sacrifice the long-term growth of a child just for immediate peace and goodwill.
Once, a sweet mother asked me for counsel in dealing with her three-year-old son who had suddenly become crazy every time she vacuumed the floor. She was a kind and compassionate person, but she wondered if the only solution was punishment for the boy. I asked her about what was happening in their family life. Mom was vacuuming more often since she had an infant who was starting to play on the floor. In fact, she was vacuuming at least once a day instead of the usual weekly routine. We cannot know exactly what the new vacuuming regimen meant to the three-year-old. Maybe it seemed to him that every time he started to play, the vacuum came after him.
I suggested that she discuss a vacuuming schedule with her son. Maybe he preferred that she vacuum when he was gone to a neighbor’s house. Maybe she could just alert him and he would retire to his room while she vacuumed. Maybe he could help her vacuum. She had the discussion with her son and they settled on a vacuuming schedule. The outbursts by her son disappeared.
Not every problem will follow this pattern. But every parenting challenge is properly addressed with compassion, nurture, and wise guidance. We must be careful that we do not wield parenting power recklessly. Power may gain compliance when children are small but it generates resentment that bubbles up in adolescence. If we live by the sword, we will die by the sword.
When God taught the great sermon about power (Doctrine and Covenants 121), He described two preconditions to godly power:
- Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith…
- And let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly. (v. 45)
What happens when we are filled with charity and see the good in our children? “Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood [or parenting power] shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven” (v. 45).
But that is not all. God offers blessings that extend into eternity: “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” (v. 46).
Reflection and Application
As you consider the relationship that has often challenged you, can you see a way to focus on loving and teaching rather than battling and punishing? How can you be more effective in teaching the law of the harvest in the spirit of love and encouragement?
- Have an Eternal Purpose.
Part of the challenge of parenting is that we are repeatedly blindsided by problems. We are marching merrily through life when a child punches his sister or spills her drink. We are doing well until we are hijacked by life’s wacky messiness.
But this is no accident; it is quite by design. While cool, polite, steady social environments do not test the deeper layers of my character, family life does. It is here that we get the challenges that make us angry more than anywhere else.
God gave us family life as much as anything so we could have lots of practice at keeping an eternal perspective. Family life invites us to sacrifice our convenience and preferences in order to bless people who are still learning. Parenting regularly stretches us toward godliness.
Our Partner in the Process
We must be very careful about our strategy for reforming our parenting. We simply cannot remake our own characters. As C. S. Lewis reminded us: “After the first few steps in the Christian life we realise that everything which really needs to be done in our souls can be done only by God.”5
Thus we learn, in the great scriptural pattern, to constantly call upon God for mercy.
Have mercy that I may be filled with Thy goodness.
Have mercy that I may properly value the children Thou hast given me.
Have mercy that I may know their hearts.
Have mercy that I may be a messenger of Thy love.
Have mercy that I may have the wisdom and patience to teach well.
Have mercy that my soul may be reformed in Thy image.
Have mercy and change my heart and my family.
Through His mercy, we can be changed by His grace. With His help—His love, His nurturing kindness, His guidance for us—we can love, nurture, and guide our families in His way.
May God bless you on your parenting journey.
Reflection and Application
Can you see the whole of your child—the radiant spirit that came from God’s presence and the glorious person ultimately perfected by God?
Do you recognize that even the biggest problems with your child may be a manifestation of keen sensitivity or a strong spirit? Will you seek a way to honor that strength and point it toward wiser use?
Can you see yourself as a heavenly parent in training? Do you sense how much God wants to help you as you partner with Him in perfecting His children? Do you feel His love and compassion for you as you keep learning and trying?
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