I want to tell you a poignant story I heard first-person from a father I admire and respect. Years ago he gave me permission to share it, but I’ll protect his privacy at this point by changing the father’s name in the story to Brother White and his son’s to Jared.
God Does Not Give Us Power to Control Our Children, but to Control Ourselves
Previous to the prayer scene I share below, Brother White had spent several miserable years trying to control his rebellious drug-addicted son’s behavior–and had utterly failed. He said
All pride was gone; all self-assurance and power were gone. I was broken, beaten and I could not carry on another step. My son was being destroyed and it seemed that God would not help! I went back into the bedroom and knelt down again and began to plead with God for the life of my son with all the energy of a loving father. I said, “Dear Heavenly Father, please help me to reach Jared! I must have more power! I need more power to convince him. Please, give me the power to . . .”
Then, in an instant, my mind opened and I understood as I heard the words clearly spoken in my mind, “No! That is not my way! I will not give you that power! Jared knows what is right and he will learn by the things he suffers. No! That is not my way!”
I did not move. I just stayed kneeling at the bed. The realization hit me that I had been completely wrong. I could hardly believe it! How could I have been so stupid? I had actually been praying that God would give me the power to force my son to do what I thought was right. I had asked for power to take away my son’s right to free choice. I had been asking for the power to run my son’s life–and God himself wouldn’t run Jared’s life! I recognized clearly that force is Satan’s method–but it is not God’s! Our Creator has given each person the power to choose for themselves–to choose right or wrong without coercion or force–and I was trying to change His plan.
That answer to prayer was the beginning of my understanding of the principle that God–our “Heavenly Father” is the only model we have of a perfect parent. If we don’t get in line with His laws and the way He does things, we will continue to suffer.
Are We Asking the Wrong Questions?
Why do I think this story is worth re-telling? I have pondered long and hard the control and agency issue. We are well programmed in this society to place a high value on “being in control.” Self-help literature drips with suggestions for “taking charge of our own lives,” for “taking charge of the situation,” for becoming an increasingly “powerful person.” Scary when you think of the similarity of all that to the anti-Christ Korihor’s message: “but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature: therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength” (Alma 30:17).
Instead of “how can I get control of my life, my child, this current situation?” what if the correct paradigm is: “How can I become more sensitive to the Spirit so I can learn the Lord’s will in regard to my children? How can I gain the strength and courage to yield to the Lord’s will and honor his plan of agency? How can I repent of pride—and through the Atonement replace pride with charity for myself and my children?” These are the questions Brother White, through hard experience, learned to ask. Let me share a later experience he had with Jared that changed his paradigm forever:
My son yelled, “Why won’t you just leave me alone? Stop telling me everything to do! Let me live my own life! Can’t you get it? Get out of my life! Stop trying to control me!”
His words stunned me. I stood speechless thoughts flashed through my mind. What is he talking about? I have not been able to control him! I’ve tried every trick in the book; I’ve given it my best, and I’ve never been able to control him! He had emerged victorious from every desperate control battle we had ever had! He was impossible to control. Jared always won and we always lost.
Control Battle Score:
Dad and Mom———-ZERO
For me, at that moment, a great thing happened; the clouds of ignorance parted just a little, and a ray of sunshine fell on me. Then the light got brighter! In only a few seconds I saw the insanity of my attitude and what I had been doing. I rose to my feet, walked across the little circle of chairs, and faced Jared. In a calm voice I began to speak words to Jared that were really meant for me.
“Jared, I have never been able to control you. If I could control you, you would be in school right now, not serving time with other drug addicts. My decisions have not brought you here. Your decisions brought you here. I’ve never been able to control you!”
We stood eye to eye, and Jared shouted back angrily, “Well, you would if you could!”
Let me take just a momentary break from the story. When I read Jared’s words “you would if you could” I stood convicted by my own conscience. I knew that was the truth in regard to my own children. I knew that in the past even with grown children, if I could, I would have cut up credit cards, enforced church attendance, made them all read the copies of Stephen Robinson’s Believing Christ that I had given them for Easter one year. I knew I would have controlled them if I could, and they knew it too. Suddenly their resistance and frequent lack of enthusiasm to listen to my “words of wisdom” made perfect sense. My suggestions always came with an undertow of pressure. That Ah hah! began a new journey of discovery and repentance for me as a parent. They did for Brother White, too. Let’s go back to his story.
Jared was absolutely right. Even at that moment, if I could have kept him from choosing the wrong thing, I would have done so in a heartbeat—just to keep him from killing himself! I realized that those words clearly defined the very root of the problem I had with Jared: I would have controlled his every move if he had allowed it—to save him from his own stupidity, I quickly justified. However, the fact remained that, much to my frustration, he had never allowed me to control him. I started to speak again in a firm and confident voice, “Still, it is true, Jared, that I’ve never controlled you.” I paused and then said, “You win! I lose! From this day forward I give you full responsibility for your life.” I made a motion with my hands as though I were taking a heavy burden off my shoulders and putting it on his shoulders. ”Jared, from this day on I am no longer responsible for what happens to you. You are! Beware! I cast you out into the deep waters with the sharks and barracuda, and they are going to eat you. Jared, you are going to die—and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. From now on you are responsible for what happens to you, not me!”
Jared didn’t die. It took time, but without the need of resisting his dad’s controlling ways (and, I am convinced, in response to his parents earnest prayers), he began to take responsibility for his life, and to build something good of it. He not only got off drugs, but eventually graduated from college, married, and had children. He supports his family well by working a good job of his choice. He is a good citizen, a good husband and father, even though he never came back to the Church.
Application to Our Parenting
God soundly rejected Satan’s plan of keeping children from making mistakes. I have learned from the light of the Spirit that it is not a parent’s job to control children so they do not need to repent—but to teach them where to turn for a remission of their sins. 2 Nephi 25:26 says, “And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” It is a given that they will have sins to repent of, as we do.
Moses 6:55-59 gives an amazing discourse in regard to agency, children, and parents that deserves our careful attention. Verse 57 states, “Wherefore teach it unto your children, that all men, everywhere, must repent.” In order to teach our children this important process of repentance, we need to be well practiced in it ourselves.
Changing Ourselves By Changing Our Attitudes
We simply don’t have to buy into anger and misery when our children are making poor choices. We don’t need to be dependent on our children “acting nice” in order to validate us as “good parents.” We can learn to look to the Lord and feel His mercy and love for all of us.
Brother White was a conscientious LDS parent, like so many of us—concerned for his child’s welfare above all else, willing to sacrifice anything to assure his son’s well-being. Yet he came to realize he had been way off in regard to his own stewardship and his long-suffering attempts to control his son Jared’s choices. He had in reality been allowing Jared to control him. He greatly improved the quality of his life–not by changing his son, but by repenting, by changing himself and his attitude. As he reached upward to the Lord, he was led to relinquish his former goal of “control,” and learn to see his son’s situation more as the Savior does.
Learning from Divine Example
Jesus did not choose to control those around Him and certainly was not controlled by them. Those in His personal sphere of influence did not often follow His perfect example. Still, by maintaining constant contact with his Father, he always maintained control of Himself–no matter what others chose to say or do. Jesus our exemplar didn’t achieve self-mastery by white-knuckled effort on His own, however. He often “took himself apart to pray” to His Father. He spent forty days in the wilderness fasting and praying in preparation to be a clear conduit of the Father’s will. He achieved self-mastery, then, by prayer, yielding His will to the Father’s, and following the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
We, his imperfect disciples, have a far greater need to follow that pattern. Is yielding to the Spirit and submitting to the realities created by agency then the real goal, the hidden key to self-control? Yielding, instead of seeking control, means accepting God’s plan as it is, knowing that we, and all our children, will make mistakes. Yielding means affirming our need for the Atonement of Christ. The Atonement is all about making up the difference for our weaknesses and lack of understanding, all about extracting growth and learning from the raw and often coarse material of mortality.
Do Not Orchestrate—Radiate!
Ed McCormack, a trusted friend and counselor, taught me that my primary mission as a parent is not to orchestrate but to radiate. He wrote in an e-mail to me:
The very best thing you can do for your children and grandchildren is to continue to develop the light within you. To continue to say, “I choose the light,” so that light can grow ‘brighter and brighter within you until the perfect day’ (D&C 50:23). What could have a better effect on a child of any age than a mother in whom the Spirit of God dwells and from whom that Spirit is radiating? I think this is true mothering and can be done whether you are married or divorced or widowed. To have a portion of that Spirit dwelling in you, such that you can be an instrument in the hands of the Lord to your own children; that is true mothering. (Alma 17, 18, 26) And that is an opportunity much of which still lies in the future. So there is much to look forward to.
Ed’s counsel and reassurance have been inspiring to me on many occasions, and I felt certain these words came from the Comforter, because they comforted my heart.
What a wise thing it is to change our questions. To quit asking “How can I get control of my life, my children, my situation?” and start asking “How can I experience the mighty change of heart? How can I yield my will to His? How can I put God first in my life and trust Him totally? How can I remember that God is in charge, that all things happen for a purpose, and that all trials are tailor-made for our growth and individual instruction? The relief that comes from asking the right questions is transformative, comforting, freeing. Line upon line, step by step, the light of truth from the answers to those questions will relieve our stress and grant us the “peace which passeth all understanding” (Philippians 4:7).