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When one of our sons was a teenager, he made a choice that came with consequences. He protested about the severity of the price, and I asked, “Do you feel this punishment is unwarranted?”
He didn’t quite hear me right and said, “Of course it’s unwanted!” It lightened the moment, and gave us both a chance to see things from the other person’s view.
A reasonable synonym for parenting is teaching. So much of what we do as parents is exactly that. Yes, we feed and clothe them, we take them where they need to go, but we’re actually teaching by example at every moment. Though it may not seem we’re sitting down and teaching a lesson with formal instruction, learning happens nonetheless.
And one of the best lessons we can teach our kids is that we’re on their side. Too much of official schooling and even parenting sets kids up on one side of the line, with the authority figure on the other. Do you remember school classes when you cringed at test time, wondering how the teacher was planning to trip you up? Did you agonize before raising your hand, sure the teacher would shoot you down? I think we’ve all experienced that kind of teaching. And many parents follow the same format.
But in our last General Conference Elder Lynn G. Robbins told us about Jae Ballif, a physics professor he’d had at BYU. Professor Ballif allowed his students to retake tests to improve their scores, over and over. Elder Robbins said, “He was an uncommonly wise professor who inspired his students to keep trying—to consider failure as a tutor, not as a tragedy, and to not fear failure but to learn from it.” Professor Baliff’s reasoning was simple: “I wanted to be on the same side as the students.”
I heard of a man in India who shared the same philosophy. He said, “When we want an elephant to grow, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.”
What wise counsel for parents! Instead of constantly measuring and judging, establishing punishments for broken rules, why not help the child keep those rules? Often parents skip over the part that seems obvious to us—explaining why rules matter, and outlining expectations. Just as when we mistakenly expect our spouses to read our minds, so do we often expect the same of our children. We issue a directive and then we apply an artificial consequence if it isn’t followed. For example, if a child failed to do the dishes a parent might send him to his room. But think about it—his bedroom has nothing to do with dish duty.
A better consequence would be to pull him away from whatever else he’s doing that night, stand beside him, and teach him how to follow through. Maybe he doesn’t really know the best way to wash dishes. Maybe we’ve just assumed that he knows how. But what if we walk him through it, maybe even share tips we know, and help him understand the importance of this job to the whole family? Maybe share with him the various chores you dislike, but which you hunker down and do because we all have to do hard things (think about filing taxes!) and be team players. This puts parents and children on the same side.
If he knows how to do it and is just being lazy, stubborn, or rebellious, some time with Mom or Dad explaining the task all over again might be far better motivation to pitch in and help, than would be time out in his bedroom. And, I have to ask, how is going to one’s room punishment, anyway? Even taking away a cell phone doesn’t address the washing of dishes, does it?
I once heard the example of a swimming coach who didn’t make the errant team member sit on a bench, but got him right back into the pool to practice until he had corrected what he was doing wrong. The consequence fit the situation. The coach and the swimmer were on the same side.
If children are arguing, the solution is not to whack one of them or take away the item they’re quarreling over. The best solution is to teach. Yes, it’s harder and it takes more loving effort. But it’s worth it. Contentious kids need to be taught respectful behavior, better communication skills, and ways to manage conflict besides yelling or accusing (and these skills will pay off great dividends in their later marriages). Sometimes you have to walk a child through the steps or role play with them until they get it. But just punishing in a non-related way will not teach better skills for next time.
And sometimes a child has to lose a privilege because they willfully choose to do wrong. But even here we can stay on the same side and sympathize with them, even share their disappointment. “Oh, man, I wish you could have gone to Sarah’s party.” And our dismay is genuine—we really do want our child to have privileges and we feel crushed when they shoot themselves in the foot. We’re rooting for them to succeed.
Again, I do not claim that this is easy. And I’m sure it wasn’t easy for Professor Ballif to grade all those extra tests. But parenting—parenting correctly— has never been easy. It’s the most difficult job that exists and will try us to our limits of understanding, intelligence, creativity, patience, and perseverance. Hard as it is, it’s worth it to establish the love and commitment kids sense when they know we’re working with them, instead of against them. Just as we would never forget a teacher who was on our side, our children will never forget that we were on theirs.
Heavenly Father wants us to be happy and feels sorrow when we take a path in the other direction. Likewise, we as parents can maintain our belief in our child’s basic goodness, our confidence that he can learn and grow for next time, and our determination to help him triumph. Sometimes we just need to take the test again and again, until we have all the right answers.
We all need second chances. And third ones, and fourth ones, and so on. What warmth and acceptance we feel when we know God gives us repeated opportunities to learn. And what a gift we can give our children when we approach parenting the same way. There should be no end to our patience in teaching.
Perfect for Mother’s Day– Hilton’s new LDS novel, Golden, is available in paperback and on Kindle. All her books and YouTubeMom videos can be found on her website. She currently serves as an Interfaith Specialist for Public Affairs.
Kay RookhuyzenApril 19, 2018
Great article and insight! I really loved it. I used to get a little depressed after reading a parenting article that I wised I'd had access to when my kids were young. Now my baby is 34 and I read these articles now and enjoy them. My hard work, good but probably could have been better, has paid off. I have five beautiful adults that are good, honest people, contributing to society in a way that just makes me proud.