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The following comes from Wallace Goddard’s series, Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships. To see the previous article in the series, click here.
Francis Wayland came home from work as a university president and found that his 15-month-old son would not come to him. He considered this an act of stubbornness and was quite determined to teach his son to be humble and obedient. He isolated his son in his home office until he was willing to submit. Periodically he checked on his son and found him still resistant. So he left him “crying bitterly, going to bed supperless, indeed going with food for more than thirty-six hours, with his eyes wan and sunken, his breath hot and feverish, his voice feeble and wailing” (McLoughlin, 1975, p. 41). Finally, the boy submitted and went to his father.
Though this incident took place in the 19th century, it is instructive still. Wayland wrote about his experience with his infant son: “I offered to receive him to my arms, if he would renounce his hostility to me, and evince it by simply putting forth his arms to come to me. I would not force him to come, nor would I treat him with favor until he submitted. I was right and he was wrong. He might at any moment have put an end to the controversy. He was therefore inflicting all this misery voluntarily upon himself”. . . . From this incident . . . parents may learn the intensity of the obstinacy of children. When they find their children stubborn, they need not be surprised. Let them hold out in a mild yet firm course of discipline until this obstinacy is subdued. This is real kindness. There can be no greater cruelty than to suffer a child to grow up with an unsubdued temper. Let us strive, by the grace of God, to cure the evil as early as possible” (pp. 36-37).
For many years, some believed the primary purpose of parenting was to break the will of the child—that is, to teach the child to submit to authority. Stubbornness was the enemy. (But stubbornness seemed to have been acceptable in adults!)
Today a student of development would see the situation differently. Maybe the boy was tired, hungry, or distracted. Or maybe the boy did not want to come to a father who was not kind and nurturing to him. Our modern objective in parenting is not to conquer the will of the child but to help the child learn to listen to the angels of his own better nature. And the best way for the child to learn this is to
enjoy patient, loving support from his parents.
Today we might encourage Mr. Wayland to step outside his own agenda and think about what his son was telling him. He might give his son time. He might also find a toy or snack with which to engage his son. He might offer to take his son on a walk. But he will not be a positive influence on his son without respecting his son.
Parenting is unique in the opportunity it provides adults to learn how to use influence. Unfortunately “we have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all [parents], as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). We tend to be bossy as parents.
God wants us to learn better ways. What are God’s methods of influence?
He doeth not anything save it be for the benefit of the world; for he loveth the world” (2 Nephi 26:24).
For the Lord God giveth light unto the understanding; for he speaketh unto men according to their language, unto their understanding. (2 Nephi 31:3)
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).
Section 121 is packed with the Lord’s elegant and powerful instruction on influence. It is worthy of deep and sustained study.
But the point at hand is that Heavenly Father motivates by love, He speaks to us in our language, and He uses gentle influence. We should parent the way He does if we want to be effective. Our objective is not to control or conquer our children; it is to help them fill the measure of their creation—to become the great person written in their spirits. When we listen to their souls, it helps them to do the same.
Research is clear: The single most important factor in helping children develop into vibrant adults is feeling, loved, valued, and supported by the key people in their lives.
In contrast to Francis Wayland is Terry’s sensitive mom. Terry showed up at kindergarten one day with a note pinned to his shirt. He was quite proud of the note. The teacher removed the note and read: “Terry was unhappy this morning because his sister had a note and he did not. Now Terry has a note and he is happy.”
Loving children helps them feel safe and ready to explore. Listening to children helps us discover what is written in their souls. Guiding them properly helps them learn responsibility. This is the way Heavenly Father parents. It is the way He asks us to parent as well.
To learn more about sensitive parenting, read Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child.
To learn more about parenting from and LDS perspective, read Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth which is currently on sale at Deseret Book.