This is part 9 of Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth. To see previous installments, click here.
One morning a mother was loading her several little children into the car to go to the store. Just as she got them all in the car, the neighbor came over to talk to her. As the two women talked, the children became restless. One of the boys began to climb out the car window. The mother yelled for him to get back in the car. Then she returned to talking with the neighbor.
Did the boy get back in the car? No. He continued to climb out the window. A few minutes later the mother turned and yelled again for him to get back in the car and threatened to spank him. He sat still while his mother yelled at him, but as soon as she returned to talking, he climbed out the window onto the hood of the car. When the mother spotted the boy on the hood, she yelled, “I have told you for the last time . . .” She glared at him but still did nothing.
This boy had learned that parents yell a lot but do not really mean what they say. The bottom line is that threats insult children but they do not teach them. They also don’t create real limits.
(Adapted from Finding Joy in Family Life, by the author)
The Sacredness of the Law
The Lord is very clear: “Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Latter-day Saints have a unique view of law. For us, law is not a quirky and mysterious invention God uses to test His creation. Rather, we understand that law governs the universe, and that God Himself obeys it. According to our doctrine, if He violated law, He would cease to be God (Alma 42:13, 22, 25; Mormon 9:19). So God is not only a lawgiver, He is also a law follower. His very example teaches us that we should take law very seriously.
But there is more to God’s example. While He faithfully honors law, He is also willing to make every sacrifice to advance His children’s development and glory. Rather than allow the law of justice to skewer us, He provides the sacrifice of His Beloved Son to satisfy that law. His doing so activates the law of mercy in our interest. While being perfectly submissive to law, God is also perfectly redemptive.
What a perfect example God is for mortal parents! While we must teach our children to honor law, we must never allow justice to bludgeon mercy, or mercy to rob justice. It is clear that the dilemmas of parenting beckon us to appreciate God’s perfect plan.
Most parents tend to excel at one or the other—love or law. Most of us neglect one while overemphasizing the other. It is not uncommon for parents to polarize across this difference. Often fathers insist that children must learn responsibility while mothers plead for mercy and compassion.
It is a serious mistake to make law and love, into enemies of each other. We should follow God’s example by honoring both love and law. This requires more than the wisdom of Solomon; it demands the inspiration of Heaven.
Teaching a Respect for Law
God has declared: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (Doctrine and Covenants 130:20–21). This is a vital lesson for parents to teach and children to learn.
As an example of the challenge to honor both love and law, my wife, Nancy, observed an overwhelmed single mother trying to get her son to eat his dinner. He threw his beans on the floor. Mom was frustrated with him and offered him a hot dog. He threw that on the floor. Exasperated, Mom declared, “Okay! I’ll give you a candy bar and you can be sick.”
What did that little boy learn? He learned that his own preferences can defeat his mother’s wisdom. He learned that his own will can govern in his world. He learned that terrorism pays. These are not lessons that prepare him for healthy adulthood and joy in eternity.
Most of us have fallen into lawlessness traps. At the grocery store, a child may ask for a candy bar. We want to be sensitive to the child, but a nagging voice tells us that a candy bar is not a good nutritional choice, especially just before dinner. The child ups the ante, yelling: “I want a candy bar!” We hate to cave in, but we also want to get our shopping done peacefully.
Often we try to reason: “We’ll be home and have dinner in only half an hour.” Sensing that his or her drip torture is working on us, the child shouts louder: “I’m hungry! I want candy now!” We can’t decide whether to be angry or to accommodate. The child pushes. “You gave a candy bar to Molly when you took her to the store.” Many of us, for the sake of peace, cave in. We grudgingly grab a candy bar for the child. Our conscience groans at our concession, but we don’t know what else to do.
In the Doctrine and Covenants, we read: “That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still” (88:35). That’s pretty strong language! While young children do not “altogether abide in sin,” we sense that ignoring reasonable limits is not good for their souls.
So how do we set reasonable limits, while at the same time show love and compassion? How do we reconcile law and love, limits and nurture?
- Set Clear Limits and Follow Them Consistently
When we took our young children to the store, we faced the same dilemma that all parents face. We were hurried and harried, and the children were tired and bored. They begged for candy. But we knew that surrendering to their demands in order to keep the peace would guarantee an ongoing war. It would teach our children that by continually whining and begging, they could override the limits that wisdom recommends.
We told our young children that we would never in the course of their mortal sojourns buy them a candy bar to be eaten while in the store. We were willing to buy them a unit-priced piece of fruit or a box of animal cookies. But we would never buy them a candy bar for in-store consumption. And we stuck to that rule.
Some would argue that our rule was arbitrary. They are right. Animal cookies are not necessarily nutritionally superior to candy bars. But that misses the point. The point is for the child to feel respected while experiencing sensible limits. Your rule might be that the child can have up to three ounces of any treat he or she likes. Or you rule may be that the child can have raisins or dried fruit. What matters is that you set a limit that makes sense to you, and that you apply it consistently.
In fact, many of our rules, unlike God’s, will seem somewhat arbitrary. There is no scriptural mandate restricting cookies from living rooms, requiring that piano practicing be done before dinner, or demanding that young children be in bed by 8:30. But some arbitrariness is okay. What matters is that things are done in “wisdom and order,” and that children learn to respect law.
One of the most important mottos we developed as parents is related to this point: “It is our job as parents to help children get what they want in a way we feel good about.” In other words, we honor their preferences, but within the bounds set by wise and loving parents. This approach can move love and limits from endless and divisive brawling into beautiful and growth-promoting harmony.
There should be a sensible (if not scriptural) basis for family rules. We should be able to articulate reasons for rules—though wise parents know that it is futile to discuss the rationale behind rules when children are angry or combative. There are times when endless “Why” questions are children’s terrorist tactics intended to keeps us off balance. We should discuss the rationale behind rules when our children really want to understand our reasons rather than argue about them.
There are also times when rules and limits are negotiated and adjusted. But this should rarely happen in the heat of battle. When calm presides, parents and children can negotiate rules.
Some of this discussion about children’s terrorist tactics may seem to Latter-day Saints’ unique belief that children are born innocent (see Doctrine and Covenants 93:38). While we cherish the understanding that children do not come with the taint of original sin, we also understand that a fallen world can progressively poison them. “And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in [a world of] sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good” (Moses 6:55).
Children are born innocent, but a fallen world works furiously to teach them fallen ways. Our parenting can feed the natural child or nourish the child of Christ. Teaching law in a context of love is the way to do the latter.
- Be Proactive
There is a second thing we can do to be sure that our children learn to respect law. It is called proactive parenting. It is the opposite of reactive parenting, which waits for problems to break out and then reacts with threats and punishments. Reactive parenting tosses us to and fro with every wind of family challenge and emotion. It raises our blood pressure while damaging children’s spirits.
Proactive parenting involves planning ahead, whether it is for a trip to the store or a summer vacation or preparing for church. Returning to the grocery store example, before parents take children into a store, they are wise to consider what they want to have happen and how to make that more likely.
There are ways to have peaceful trips. For example, young children might ride in the cart and keep the grocery list. They might check items off as they are found. They become proud helpers. A creative friend blows up a produce bag for her child and invites the child to play with it as they wend the aisles. A parent can also make a child a food guardian: “Would you hold on to the sweet potatoes?” Children can be invited to name the colors of the produce. The possibilities for keeping children happy and engaged are limitless—if we plan ahead and tune in to their needs.
Somewhat older children might help parents find needed items. Nancy invites our young grandchildren to be “store troopers” and help her find items on her list (and protect her from Darth Vader). It keeps them busy, active, and happy. We can even invite their input on selected decisions: “What vegetable would you like us to buy for dinner?” “Is there a new fruit you would like to try?” The proactive parent might set limits on decisions that could go off the rails, like which breakfast cereal to buy: “I’m looking for a healthy cereal to buy. Do you think we should get Cheerios or Shredded Wheat?”
When the child begs for Fruit Loops, we have an opportunity to use what we have learned about compassion. “I know you love those. You wish we could have them this week. Maybe we will buy some for our next holiday.” They will whine. You can repeat your statement with great earnestness. There is no need to become indignant and accusatory. We can show that we are absolutely determined to honor the limit—while being perfectly pleasant.
This underscores a vital truth of parenting: We do not require children’s assent to act wisely. They may insist that death is imminent and only Fruit Loops will save them. We can say, “Wow, you really wish you could have Fruit Loops!” Wise parents are not any more afraid to have their children upset with them than God is that we are occasionally upset with Him. We can act in their best interest even when they wish we would cave to their immediate wishes.
- Stay Tuned
Even God watches for compliance: “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed” (Abraham 4:18). God might have issued a command and gone about other business. He did not. He gives directions and watches to see that all is done correctly.
In our frantic family lives, we often give directions to children and then rush to the next crisis. Often, children realize we are distracted, so they ignore our directives. When we do not stay tuned to make sure our directives are taken seriously, children learn that laws have meaning only on those rare occasions when parents happen to notice their noncompliance. Children learn we are not serious about the rules we make.
Inadvertently, we sometimes teach children that blessings come without effort, crops grow without work, and rules are made to be ignored. They do not 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)
In my experience, the consistency that matters most in parenting is the consistency between our words and actions. When we give directives we need to make sure they are taken seriously. Wise parents may decide to have fewer rules so they can enforce them more consistently. They know that casualness about law is bad for the soul.
Much of this article is focused on preventing problems with children. In the next article, we will describe three kinds of control used with children and suggest ways to control effectively.
Reflection and Application
Do you tend to be stronger at showing love or setting limits? How will you help your children to experience a balance of both? You may draw on your spouse’s strengths or draw other people into your children’s lives or try to develop more of the balancing strength yourself.
Have you established clear limits that you are willing to enforce? Try to think through limits in areas of conflict. Be sure the limits honor children’s preferences and adult wisdom. Be prepared to enforce the limits that make sense.
I encourage you to discuss the ideas in this article with your spouse and friends. It is often in earnest discussions that God reveals new truths to us. Blessings to you—and your children.
If you would like to own the book from which this article is taken, you can order Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth from Deseret Book. You might also enjoy The Soft-Spoken Parent which teaches 50 things parents can do that are more effective than getting angry with children.