Better Ways of Disciplining

I was chatting with a friend in the entrance to his garage one Saturday morning. As we spoke, his young son rode into the garage on his bike and parked it in front of the old family station wagon. Apparently, the family had a rule about the proper place to park bikes and the boy had violated that rule.

What should a father do to be sure his son learns that he must not park his bike in front of the car? Dad has several options.

He could punish the boy. But can we punish children into submission? Perhaps. We certainly can punish them into bitterness and resentment. Punishment creates resistance.

The father could remove privileges. “I am going to lock up your bike until you learn a lesson.” That consequence might make the boy take the rule more seriously. Yet instead of teaching better thinking, this assumes that the only way to learn is through the threat of unpleasant consequences.

Let’s talk about what the father did do. The father interrupted our conversation to stomp over to his son, grab him, hold him up in the air and start yelling the Standard Parental Lecture. “Why do you always…Why can’t you ever…Won’t you ever learn…What is it going to take…”

Such expression of strong emotion may help the father feel that he has made his point. But let’s leave our parental perspective and see the situation from the child’s view. What do you think the son was thinking as he was suspended in mid-air with his father’s angry face yelling at him? Do you think he was saying, “I am so glad that dad is bringing these things to my attention. He has a valid point. This will really help me remember.”

I don’t think so. I don’t think the boy was doing any quiet reflecting. I suspect that he was flooded with emotion. Fear. Anger. Humiliation. Hurt. If my discernment is correct, the boy was overwhelmed and forlorn.

When the father had finished his harangue, he paused, still panting from the angry lecture. Then he bellowed: “I love you.” He set his son down and returned to pick up the conversation with me.

Again, let’s take the child’s perspective. Do you think the boy left the conversation feeling loved? I don’t think so. I think he felt humiliated! The person who should have been his friend, protector, teacher, and advocate had acted in total disregard for his feelings. He could have taught him, encouraged him, and helped him. Instead he demeaned him.

In an earlier post I recommended the use of parental induction in which we minimize the use of power, we reason with children and help them understand the effects of their behavior on others.

This agrees with the Lord’s instruction: “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; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile” (D&C 121:41-42).

Imagine that the dad, upon seeing the son’s parking violation, called out to his son, “Ethan.” Maybe simply calling his name would spark the son’s remembrance of previous discussions about bikes and parking.

Maybe not. If not, the father could invite: “Let’s talk!” The son trots to his father who kneels to face him. “Do you remember what we’ve said about parking your bike?” Almost surely the son will remember. “I would like you to park your bike on the side of the garage. Are you willing to do that?” If Ethan has any hesitation, Dad might teach the reason for the rule. Then he might suggest, “I know it may be hard to remember. What can we do to help you remember?”

This approach assumes that the son will respond to reasonable guidance but may need reminders. So the focus is on helping him remember.

How might the son respond to this approach? He is likely to feel that his father is on his side, that they can work together in peace and love. He is likely to learn that rules are reasonable guides that help us live together. This is in perfect harmony with the research on induction which shows that children guided by parental induction are likely to become mature, caring, and conscientious adults.

There are innumerable challenges in family life. Kids forget their chores. They are unkind to each other. They do things on impulse. They sneak Twinkies. Induction is a process that can be customized to the behavior of each child. It helps parents go beyond simply enforcing obedience through discipline. Instead, the parent enters the mental and emotional world of the child in order to teach effectively. With an understanding of the child’s world, the parent teaches responsible behavior while preserving a positive relationship.

I recommend teaching as the key to guidance.

“For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own” D&C 88:44

Invitation: Sometime soon your children will do something that irritates you. Be prepared to help them learn through the use of gentle and patient instruction.

Recommendation: I heartily recommend Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child. For ways to guide children without anger, I recommend my Soft-Spoken Parent.

The bike story used in this article is adapted from my book, Finding Joy in Family Life.


Showing Understanding in Marriage

Imagine that my wife Nancy has been in hard labor for hour after long hour through an entire night and most of the next day. I am by her side trying to comfort her. She is exhausted from relentless and inexpressible pain. Image that she groans, “I just don’t know if I can keep going.”

Let’s imagine that I say, “I know just how you feel.”

Nancy would have every right to rise out of her bed and smite me.

I don’t know how she feels! My body has never experienced 14 hours of labor. And, even if it had, it would still diminish her current and painful experience if I redirected attention from the one in crisis to the experience of the one who is sitting comfortably at the side of her bed.

There is hardly a poorer way to show understanding or compassion than to say to someone in pain, “I know just how you feel.” That is equally true whether the pain is physical or emotional.

By the way, I did not say that to my wife. Unfortunately, when our firstborn was placed in my arms, I marveled! “Amazing! We need to have more children!” Those were not the words that Nancy was ready to hear immediately after hard labor. It is hard for us to think outside our own experience and fully enter someone else’s experience.

There are times when a dear one is suffering, and we want to offer words of comfort and compassion. What are the best ways of doing that?

Let’s start with INEFFECTIVE ways to show understanding. Many of our efforts to show compassion may have the opposite effect. They make a person feel mad or misunderstood. Following are some examples of things that we should not do:

• Don’t jump in and immediately give advice.
“Here are my thoughts on that…”
“What you need to do is . . ..”
“When something like that happens to me, here is what I do…”

• Don’t talk about your own feelings and experiences instead of theirs.
“I know just how you feel.”
“That same thing happened to me.”
“That’s nothing. You should hear what happened to me.”
“That just makes me so angry because…”

• Don’t make your spouse’s pain seem unimportant.
“I think you’re over-reacting.”
“Everything will seem better tomorrow.”
“That’s too bad…. Now I have something else we need to discuss.”

When people are in emotional pain, the first gift you can give them is the willingness to listen. Provide them a safe harbor in which to express whatever they want to share. Don’t interrupt with questions or opinions. Don’t immediately begin offering counsel. Avoid becoming distracted by planning what you are going to say when it is your turn to talk. Don’t become impatient and signal they are taking too long to share their experience.

While someone is struggling with emotional pain, that experience is very personal and very significant to them in that moment. They don’t feel anyone really understands. And they are right—even if you have listened carefully or been in similar circumstances, you can’t fully understand how the other person is feeling That’s why a person who is hurting would probably rather have you say, “I’m so sorry this is happening to you. I wish I could understand just how sad (or hurt or lonely) you feel.” Sometimes the best way to show understanding is to admit that you can’t understand exactly how they feel.

The key to understanding what the other person feels is identifying the person’s feeling. After we have listened and watched carefully to learn how a person is feeling, we might do and say one of the following EFFECTIVE things:

• Acknowledge or identify the person’s feeling.
“You feel strongly about this!”
“You seem to feel very (concerned, hurt, upset, confused, frustrated, lonely, sad).”

• Invite more discussion.
“I would like to understand how you are feeling. Will you tell me more?”

• Use active listening.
“Let me see if I understand. You feel like . . .? “
“It sounds like you feel (lonely, confused, sad, etc.).”
Effective compassion keeps the focus on the person in pain. It sets aside my own discomforts to minister to one who is suffering. When the good Samaritan was ministering to the wounded and half dead man, he did not say, “I know you’re in bad shape, but my bunions are killing me!” No! We set aside our discomforts to minister to those who are suffering.

All of this gets more complicated when both partners in a marriage are feeling hurt and distressed. When one person can set aside his or her pain to offer comfort, healing is advanced. But that is rare. When we feel attacked by another person, we tend to counter-attack. When a wife enumerates a husband’s faults, he is likely to respond in kind. Sometimes the best we can do when we are both in distress is to take time out. During that timeout, we are wise NOT to rehearse our own complaints but to try to understand our partner’s pain.

There are many times every day when our spouses express pain, dismay, or discouragement. When we regularly offer genuine compassion through the ordinary challenges of life and marriage, we build a bond of trust and love.

Invitation: Next time your partner expresses pain, pause your natural reactions. Turn your full attention to his or her distress. Offer words of understanding.

Recommendation: For an LDS perspective on marriage and compassion, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her excellent additions to this article.

Examples of poor and good ways to show understanding are adapted from my publication, Being Understanding, written for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System.

Self Development

Overcoming the Odds

Cory Hatch was a unique kid. For example, as a high school sophomore in a rural school, he often had that telltale ring in the back pocket of his jeans. A new teacher would approach him:

“Cory, give me your chewing tobacco.”

Looking innocent, he responded indignantly: “I don’t have any tobacco.”

“C’mon, Cory. You know you’re not allowed to have tobacco at school.”

“I don’t have any tobacco.”

“Cory, just give me what’s in your right rear pocket.”

Cory would reach in his pocket and hand the teacher a roll of electrical tape-which just happened to be the same size and shape as a can of common chewing tobacco.

For anyone else, that might seem like a case of pure mischief-deliberately baiting teachers. For Cory it was different. He was having fun before he died.

Cory was born with cystic fibrosis. Not only was his disease a death sentence for him, it overtook his life, entailing hours of breathing treatments patiently administered by his loving mother every night. And it meant that he was the shortest and smallest student in the school. He may have weighed 80 pounds in high school. By10th grade, he had already outlived his life expectancy. Though he lived with the threat of death, he lived his life joyously.

I remember Cory joshing other kids. He didn’t have the size or strength to intimidate anyone, but he had the wits and personality to leave a lasting impression on many lives.

There was another small student at the school. The football players liked to pick him up and shove him headfirst into garbage cans. But Cory didn’t allow them to do that with him. He didn’t plead poor health. He didn’t ask for pity. Nope. If any football players came at him, he turned to face them squarely. Picture this tiny guy facing a crowd of menacing footballers two to three times his size. “Just a minute guys. You need to think about this.” When he had their undivided attention, he declared, “If you shove me in that garbage can, I will be forced to beat the hell out of every one of you.” Everyone laughed and Cory never went in a garbage can.

Cory’s IQ did not set him apart. No. It was his positivity and sense of humor. He enjoyed life and he intended to live it to the fullest.

At the end of his sophomore year, Cory wrote in my yearbook: “From one of the most kind-hearted, well-mannered, intelligent persons you have ever had in a class. Cory Hatch” He’s right. Yet I would add more. He was one of the most clever, savvy, sensitive, and vibrant people I ever knew. I love him.

When Cory left to go to college and no longer had his mother’s care, he died. As one of his teachers and his scout leader, I was asked to speak at his funeral. I realized how profoundly that little man impacted my life.

Cory defied the odds. He had the risk factors for many kinds of human misery. Yet he lived vibrantly.

Most of us assume that our level of happiness depends on our circumstances. We tell ourselves that the challenges and burdens of our lives mean we have little choice but to feel unhappy and disheartened. But research tells us that our choices have far more impact on our happiness than our circumstances. Cory’s example confirms that the people who are happier are not so because they have optimal life circumstances. They are happier because they choose to focus on whatever is positive and joyful about life.

Thank you, Cory, for your life and your example. I hope all of us will choose to live as vibrantly as you did. I can’t wait to see you again.

Invitation: Who are the people you know who have lived vibrantly? What can you learn from them to live your life more fully?

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful suggestions on this article.

Self Development

God’s Unexpected (and Under-appreciated) Purpose in Marriage

The requirements for a successful date include having bathed within the previous 24 hours and being agreeable (naturally or artificially). Usually some amount of cash is also required. It’s really not too hard. When two freshly-washed and agreeable people spend a few hours together in some recreational activity, they will probably have fun. Dating is a nice way to pass time.

Marriage requires more. A successful companionship requires not only patience, hard work, commitment, compassion, and unselfishness but continued stretching. So when Father says that “marriage is ordained of God,” He has something loftier in mind than a pleasant evening or even a lifetime of pleasant evenings.

God has never varied in His commitment to the development of our character. He wants to stretch us toward godliness and that will often require discomfort and inconvenience. It is not enough to take a shower and put on a smile. We must be patient in affliction. We must be willing to grow. We must be willing to put aside our preferences and enter our partners’ worlds.

The problem is that most of us like the fun of dating far more than we like having our characters developed. We chafe when our spouses favor different foods and activities. We get defensive when our partners accuse us of selfishness. We feel indignant when they tell us we are wrong. We become insulting when they don’t meet our needs. We are filled with resentment when they expect us to set aside our priorities in order to meet the family’s needs.

The problem isn’t that marriage is challenging. God always intended it that way. The problem is that we expected it to be like those vacuous dates that began our relationships. We can become quite indignant when our expectations are upended.

President Hinckley quoted Jenkin Lloyd Jones: “There seems to be a superstition among many thousands of our young [men and women] who hold hands and smooch in the drive-ins that marriage is a cottage surrounded by perpetual hollyhocks to which a perpetually young and handsome husband comes home to a perpetually young and [beautiful] wife. When the hollyhocks wither and boredom and bills appear the divorce courts are jammed. . . .
“Anyone who imagines that bliss [in marriage] is normal is going to waste a lot of time running around shouting that he has been robbed.
[The fact is] “most putts don’t drop. Most beef is tough. Most children grow up to be just people. Most successful marriages require a high degree of mutual toleration. Most jobs are more often dull than otherwise. . . .
“Life is like an old time rail journey–delays, sidetracks, smoke, dust, cinders and jolts, interspersed only occasionally by beautiful vistas and thrilling bursts of speed.
“The trick is to thank the Lord for letting you have the ride”
(“A Conversation with Single Adults,” Ensign, Mar. 1997, 60)

Of course Jones is right that marriage is challenging. But why is it so? Does God merely want to annoy us? Does He want to test us? Or is He providing us a gym in which to stretch and enlarge our Christian goodness?

That great marital therapist, King Benjamin, counseled us: “For the natural [spouse] is an enemy to [their partner], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever . . .”

Forever and ever. That is pretty definitive. Fortunately, there is an escape close for those of us who are fallen partners:

“unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father” (Mosiah 3:19).

When we understand God’s purposes for marriage, we cherish every moment of connection and joy. We also recognize irritation as an invitation to grow in our discipleship.

C. S. Lewis provided a glorious metaphor: “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently, He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace.” (Mere Christianity [New York: Macmillan, 1960], p. 174.)

Yes. Marriage is ordained of God because He is quite determined to teach us to get beyond our petty preferences and on to greater goodness. He wants to make us into Kings and Queens.

Invitation: Think about some of the things that currently irritate you in your marriage. Now, rather than find fault with your partner, consider what holy purpose God may have in that irritation. Is He trying to help you develop humility, compassion, patience, or kindness? If Heavenly Father sat down with you right now to guide you, how do you think He would counsel you to respond to those irritations?

Recommendation: For a spiritual perspective on marriage, read my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.


Good Control and Bad Control in Parenting

Imagine that you find a policeman at your door one Saturday morning. You’re surprised. You ask how you can help him. “Apparently your teenage son was out with his friends last night and they blew up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox. She is very upset. I need to take your son to the station for questioning.”

Let’s use this situation as an example as we consider three categories of control described by parenting scholars. The first is power assertion in which the parent approaches non-compliance with force: “If you don’t do as I say, you will suffer,” said ominously. Or: “You’ll do it because I say so!” with an assumed threat of violence. You won’t be surprised to learn that power assertion is associated with bad parenting outcomes. Children tend to become either passive or rebellious. They tend to be less socially competent and have less conscience.

A parent who uses power assertion might respond to the news from the officer by marching to his son and shouting threats. “You are grounded until you are 65! I hope you enjoy prison!”

The second category of control is love withdrawal which sends children the message: “I don’t want anything to do with you if you act that way.” The parent may walk away from the child leaving him feeling unlovable. Love withdrawal has not been shown to work successfully in controlling children. And it creates children who feel guilty.

A parent who uses love withdrawal might approach the son and express disappointment. “I thought you were becoming a good boy. I was wrong.” You can see that this is likely to create guilt without helping your son learn better ways.

Fortunately, there is a third child control technique which is effective. Scholars call it induction and it is defined as parental behavior that minimizes the use of power, uses reasoning, and helps the child understand the effect of his behavior on others. This kind of parenting sounds remarkably similar to what the Lord recommends:

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; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile— (D&C 121:41-2)

As we should have expected, the Lord has always understood principles of effective influence. Parental use of induction is associated with many positive outcomes for children including greater success, social competence, and moral development. Induction is powerful parenting.

We should note that induction can only be done correctly by a parent who feels peaceful and appreciative of the child. Your heart must be right.

What would effective induction look like in the situation described above? The parent might ask the officer if she could have some time with her son and then bring him by the station later. A good parent is worth 100 police officers when it comes to moral development in children.

The initial approach to the son is vitally important. An angry, screaming parent creates a child who is worried about safety more than goodness. A parent who expresses disappointment does not teach the child anything. The best approach engages the boy’s mind and heart without overwhelming him. We want to educate his soul. The parent might calmly say: “A policeman was just here to see you.”

That should get his attention.

It is almost always unproductive to ask a question for which you already have the answer. Rather than ask, “Did you do anything stupid or illegal last night?” you might say: “Apparently you and your friends used your newly-acquired fireworks to blow up Mrs. Jones’ mailbox last night.”

And here is a vital element of induction: We give the child the benefit of the doubt. “I know how much fun it is to use fireworks. And I know that you and your friends like to have fun. I’m sure that you intended Mrs. Jones no harm.”

Your son may sputter: “Why is that such a big deal? It was just an old mailbox!”

“It might seem like an old mailbox isn’t that big of a deal. But just as your property is important to you and you wouldn’t want someone destroying it, that mailbox was important to her. And it’s against the law to destroy someone else’s property.”

Obviously, this discussion requires wisdom, diplomacy, and sensitivity. The objective is to activate your son’s mind and heart without causing distracting anxiety or resistance.

Son: “That’s crazy! It’s not like we are criminals!”

Mom: “I think we can work this out. If you would like, I will go with you to the police station. We can offer to buy Mrs. Jones a new mailbox and install it with the appropriate apologies. Does that sound okay to you?”

It is possible that processing the situation may be upsetting to your son. A break or pause may be necessary: “Should we take a break so you have time to settle down?”

When he is ready to sustain a calm conversation, he might say: “You’re right. We should buy her a new mailbox.”

“Thanks, Son. I’m glad you are willing to take responsibility.” The process of educating your son’s mind is well begun. Now comes the educating of his heart.

“May I share a part of the situation that would be easy for you to miss? You might not know that Mrs. Jones is a widow and has lived alone since her husband died some years ago. I wonder what it was like for her to be awakened in the middle of the night last night with the sounds of stomping on her porch and then explosions. I know she was already uncomfortable living alone. She felt very vulnerable. I wonder if she is now overwhelmed and panicked.”

The objective is not to fill your son with guilt but with compassion. He might respond: “Oh, Mom! I didn’t think of that. I am so sorry! We did not want to frighten her. We were just having fun with fireworks.”

“Yes. I know you would never want to hurt her or frighten her. I’m glad you are compassionate. Do you have any ideas how you can help her feel safe again?”

“The guys and I could apologize to her and offer to mow her lawn this summer. Do you think that would help?”

“Son, I am so glad that you want to help her. May I go with you when you go? Together we can help Mrs. Jones feel safer.”

No parent-child conversation follows a tidy script. But we can apply eternal principles. The induction process is intended to educate your child’s mind and heart. It helps children anticipate how their behavior will affect others. It involves appropriate consequences. Wisely used, induction results in the heart and soul of moral development: an internalized concern for others.

While power assertion and love withdrawal may or may not control behavior, induction invites the child to think about other people and their needs. It changes children into ever-better people. It helps them to begin the important process of regulating their own behavior.

This is “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.” It is the best kind of parenting. It is the same kind Heavenly Father uses with His children.

Invitation: Think how you might have applied induction in a parenting challenge you recently faced. See if you can be prepared to use these principles the next time you face a need to redirect your child.

Recommendations: Martin Hoffman has written scholarly works on the uses of induction. The more practical approach to parenting is given by Haim Ginott who combined compassion with limits. I heartily recommend his Between Parent and Child. (Disclosure: I helped update his work for the current edition.)

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful suggestions for this article.

Self Development

Making Grace Personal

Stephen Robinson was the person who awakened me to the new LDS understanding of grace. He replaced my spiritual do-it-yourself attitude with an understanding of the infinite and eternal atonement. His book, Believing Christ, has changed my life—and the lives of thousands of Latter-day Saints.

Maybe Hafen, Wilcox, or Givens or someone else awakened you. Thank heaven that the light has dawned! We understand now better than ever that we cannot save ourselves. We can allow ourselves to be humbled. We can throw ourselves on His merits, mercy, and grace. But we are saved through His redemption. His is the only name under heaven whereby we can be saved (See Acts 4:12).

That doctrine is central to the Book of Mormon message. And the Bible’s message. Yet it required a new generation of messengers to break down our cultural resistance.

It seems to me that there is one thing still missing even after this remarkable revolution. It is a great first step to recognize that Jesus is a Savior who saves. It is quite another thing to fully accept that His saving can reach through my weakness, my contrariness, my fallenness and encircle me in the arms of His love (See Lehi’s words in 2 Nephi 1:15).

It is great to know that Jesus and His plan are so amazing. But it doesn’t change anything for me or any of us until we accept that He loves and fully intends to save us. The plan must become personal to be meaningful.

For years I believed and taught that Jesus loves us with an incomprehensible love. But I did not accept that He loved me because I knew that I often acted foolishly, selfishly, and wickedly. I often made bad choices while knowing better. As a result, I did not truly believe that He could love me or rescue me. I felt that His love could not reach past my badness.

I wish I could say that I matured into a wiser view of His redemptiveness. That’s not what happened. No. He tricked me into accepting His love.

When I was serving as a bishop, He sent a deeply troubled woman to visit with me. She described a life that was filled with the wreckage of bad choices and regrettable behaviors. I saw little hope for her. When she asked for counsel I was worried. What hope could I offer to someone whose life was in total shambles.

But then something astonishing happened. God reached to one of His troubled children through a weak messenger. I found myself telling this troubled woman that there were three things the Lord wanted her to do. I had no idea what they were. But the Lord told me there were three things. When I wrote the number “1” on a piece of paper, a clear, wise, loving, and encouraging message came. We discussed the idea. When I wrote the number “2” on the paper, another wise and loving bit of counsel came; likewise, with #3. God loved her, taught her, and sent her forth with hope and a plan.

I was dumbfounded. I was astonished by His love for even His most troubled children. I knelt on the floor and shook my head: “I had no idea how much You love your children! I just didn’t know.” If He could and did love her despite all that she had described to me, then He must also love me the same way.

Ever since that day, I have rejoiced in His love. I still grieve at my mistakes. But I repent more gladly and live more fully because I know that His love extends to me.

Dozens of readings of Believing Christ helped me understand the plan. I grew in my love and appreciation for Him. But His message did not become fully personal until God broke through my defenses and surprised me with His love!

I suspect that there are many saints who are committed appreciators of Jesus but not yet surrendered disciples. How do we move from appreciators to disciples? What are the steps?

I don’t know. He had to trick me. And the way He breaks through your defenses will be different from the way He broke through mine.

I suppose that we can lower our defenses. We can learn of His magnificent plan. But the experience of His love will always be a miracle. Maybe the best we can do is pray for it and embrace it when it comes. And we must trust that, because of His love, He does stand ready to save and redeem us. He carries each of us to glory.

As the years go by, I become more and more aware of “His relentless redemptiveness.” Story after story in scripture deliver the same message: God is faithful. He presides in our messy learning process. When we are foolish and contrary, He offers a fresh start through the atonement of Jesus Christ. With infinite patience, He oversees our development toward godliness, line upon line.

If you haven’t already felt that life-changing love, I wish I could tell you how to find it. I pray that you will persist in seeking it until you are swamped by the personal good news: Jesus loves YOU and intends to teach and bless you until you are ready to go to your Heavenly Home and join Him in the work of redemption.


You Create the Story of Your Relationship

We can tell the story of our relationship in many ways. We can take the facts of our togetherness and form a comedy, a tragedy, a romance or a satire. We have full power to create whatever narrative we choose. And we can make it fully convincing.

Let’s take an example. A family needed a new refrigerator. The husband consulted reviews and settled on a good choice. He presented the data to his wife. She shook her head. Nope. She wanted one specific brand. He showed her data that favored other brands. She was undeterred; she knew what she wanted. He was frustrated.

When faced with experiences like this, we can form biased perceptions of our spouse: “She is irrational!” “He doesn’t care what I think!”

With that perception in place, we find plenty of evidence to confirm anything we want to believe. The next time he disagrees with or neglects her request, her hypothesis is supported. The next time she says something he doesn’t understand, his view of her is solidified. We continue to look for evidence and continue to find it.

Natural spouses are enemies to their partners. Unless. Unless, instead of looking for evidence to convict, we look for reasons to appreciate. The condition of our hearts determines what we see in people—especially those we are close to. When our hearts are self-focused, irritated, and resentful, we will see lots of offenses. When we are gracious, generous, and compassionate, we see very different people and tell very different stories.

You may recognize the story about the refrigerator as one that Steve Covey told. He and his wife Sandra could not see eye-to-eye on refrigerators. Some months later they were relaxing together when Sandra told Steve an important story from her childhood. During the depression, their family struggled. Her dad worked two jobs including running an appliance business. Only one appliance company had been willing to front her dad needed inventory in those tough times. He often expressed appreciation for that company to his family. Because of her deep love for her father, she had an enduring devotion to that company.

We never know enough to condemn another person. Only God knows that much. (And He uses His knowledge to redeem.)

So, when we’re frustrated with the actions or positions taken by our partners, our best bet is to become detectives. Why does that behavior make sense to my spouse? Why is that position so important to my spouse?

For example, in one couple the wife loves tidiness and order. It is hard for her to feel peaceful without neatness. For her, tidiness is a sacred duty. Her husband loves to hang onto old clothes, household items she believes have out-lived their usefulness, and all kinds of random “stuff” in the garage. He doesn’t like to throw out things that might still be useful. For him, frugality is a heavenly mandate. When she is irritated by all of what she views as “junk”, she faces a choice. She can see him as a slob who doesn’t care about tidiness or her preferences and probably would annoy all heaven’s inhabitants (if he had any chance of being admitted). Or, she can try to understand his mindset. “Why is his desire to hang onto things so important to him?” It may be difficult to understand, but, until she sees why it makes sense to him, she has not arrived.

In addition, she can also make requests that would help resolve the situation while trying to honor what is important to him. “Sweetheart, could we pack up some of the clothes you haven’t worn in a long time and store them in the attic so our closet is less cluttered?” “Would you consider organizing what’s in the garage as a birthday present to me?”

Understanding our spouse doesn’t mean we can’t make our own needs known. But when we truly gain understanding and compassion, we are more likely to tackle issues with kindness and creativity rather than blame, threats, or withdrawal. We are more likely to discover solutions that are agreeable to both partners.

In a marriage there are unnumbered opportunities for irritation. Intimacy. Finances. Priorities. Communication styles. Household chores. Children. If you didn’t know better, you might think that God was trying to stretch us towards greater godliness through our marriages. I often say: Irritation is an invitation. When we are irritated we should imagine it as an invitation from God to display greater understanding and compassion—what we call Christ-like charity. We can also pray to be given that divine gift of charity.

Please note that none of this discussion excuses destructive, abusive, or immoral behavior. In extreme cases we may need to leave a relationship. However, in most relationships we need to stop any narratives that condemn our spouses without any understanding or compassion. Instead, we need to soften our hearts and seek to comprehend the other side of the story.

Look for the good. Seek to understand the irritating. Be ready to forgive. Be wise in making requests.

If you want a vibrant relationship, one of the best things you can do is to collect memories of your best times. “Find the glory in your marital story,” Gottman advises. Make a habit of noticing and cherishing good experiences in your marriage. And elevate the ordinary experiences by the way you interpret them.

Marriage is God’s training ground for godliness. He invites us to bring compassion, patience, and kindness to those flawed and fallen humans to whom we are married.

Application: Watch carefully for irritation with your spouse. Next time you spot irritation welling up, take a deep breath. Try seeing the world through your spouse’s eyes. Pray for heavenly kindness.

Recommendation: The classic secular book on marriage is Gottman’s 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work. For an LDS perspective, see my Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage.

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful comments on this article.


Reading Children’s Instruction Manuals

I have heard the saying “children don’t come with instruction manuals” hundreds of times. The saying has always annoyed me; I don’t believe it.

Children do come with manuals. They are the manuals! In everything they say and do they are giving us instructions. The problem is that we don’t use the manuals they give us. We don’t understand their instructions, or we don’t take them seriously. But the instructions are there. Clear as day. If we read them.

An amazingly sensitive and insightful mama called me this week. She told me about her son in kindergarten who has started misbehaving. Rather than his usual happy and docile self, he has been angry and contrary. He has picked on his sister and has rebelled against his mother’s influence. None of the usual family systems are working for him. He seems to have become a rebel.

The natural response is to punish the child into submission. “You will not act that way in this family.” There is an enticing logic to such a response. We love to set limits and ladle out consequences. And we try to convince ourselves that they are necessary for children. Yet unwisely done, our usual punishments are like pouring gasoline on a fire. They make things worse. They make life more confusing and lonely for children without teaching them how to manage themselves. And they damage the relationship of trust that should exist between parent and child.

I don’t believe that the rebel boy was just letting his badness take over. I think he was trying to tell his mother something important.

So that sweet mom and I talked. I asked her what was different in her son’s life. What was he trying to tell her about his experience? Could kindergarten be upsetting to him? Could the addition of the baby to the family make him feel less noticed and appreciated? Had a friend moved away or turned against him?

Mom thought. “Actually his just-younger sister has recently become the star of the family. She has been cheerful and loving and may have crowded him out of his starring role in the family.” Mom thought some more. “And his dad uses too much sarcasm with him. I’m sure it feels like criticism and maybe even mocking to our son.”

There it is! Mom is reading her son’s manual! Using her natural compassion and great insight, she is getting vital instructions for helping him.

I suggested that she take one-on-ones with her son and ask him what he is loving about his life and what is bothering him. There is nothing quite like listening attentively and lovingly to learn what’s happening in a child’s life. She reported later that she spent a day with her dear boy and learned many things about his life, worries, and joys.

A great deal of misbehavior in normally-pleasant children is a plea for help. “I feel lost! I feel unimportant and worthless! Do I have a place in this world?” I suggested that her dear boy might need more mama time and more opportunities to work through his worries and burdens.

Will extra love teach him to misbehave in order to get extra attention? It can. But usually only when children think that is the only way to get some attention. When their misbehavior gets them needed help, they learn that their world is a safe place.

The child’s manual will also help a parent know when a child needs firm limits and appropriate consequences. I definitely don’t believe in smiling benignly while children destroy the world around them. But our actions should match their needs rather than our mood. Sometimes they need someone to clearly state that certain words and actions are not acceptable in our families. They often need teaching. There is a place for consequences. Yet, more than anything else, they will need parents to reassure them that we will help make the world a safe place for them.

Haim Ginott tells of a boy who visited his prospective kindergarten with his mother. As the teacher provided a tour, the boy gruffly asked, “Who made the ugly pictures on the wall?” Mom was embarrassed: “Those are lovely pictures.” But the teacher recognized what was written in that boy’s manual. He wondered if only children who were good artists would be appreciated in this classroom. The teacher wisely responded: “We are glad for all kinds of pictures in this class.” The boy was pleased.

Of course new chapters are always being added to each child’s instruction manual; we must keep reading carefully. And mastery of one child’s manual does not make us masters of another child’s; we must study each child as a unique creation.

It’s not true that children don’t come with instruction manuals. I hope we will all become fluent in reading the manuals we have been given: Our children, their moods, their words, and their actions.

Invitation: Do you have a child who is particularly hard to understand? Pay close attention. Can you find sensible, adaptive reasons why the child does what he/she does? How can you read that child’s manual?

Recommendation: John Gottman, the world’s leading relationship scholar, recommended Ginott’s Between Parent and Child in strong terms: “This is the most important book ever written on parenting and the emotional world of children. It is a must that every parent and teacher master the skills taught in these pages. Written by Dr. Haim Ginott, renowned child psychologist—and in my opinion, a true genius—Between Parent and Child goes far beyond telling us how to discipline and control our kids, and explains how to raise children who are not only well behaved, but are also emotionally strong, independent thinkers, and compassionate toward others. This newly revised edition is better than ever. Take my advice—buy this book! Read this book! You and your children will be forever grateful.”—Dr. John M. Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

Self Development

Getting Heavenly Guidance

Our friend John wondered why there were so few crickets. They used to make a racket every summer evening. Now they were almost silent. What was the reason? Pesticides? Winter freeze? Migration?

Then he got hearing aids. The first night after getting those devices, he asked his wife, “The crickets are so loud! Have they been that loud all along?”

Many of us know someone whose hearing has declined and finds it difficult to interpret the voices around them. The same thing can happen to our “spiritual hearing”. Over time our sensitivity to spiritual messages can diminish or disappear. We can become spiritually deaf.

“Ye have heard his voice from time to time; and he hath spoken unto you in a still small voice, but ye were past feeling, that ye could not feel his words” (1 Nephi 17:45).

There is an older high priest I know. When asked about his greatest spiritual experiences, he still referenced his mission which occurred 60 years ago. While he certainly should remember and treasure wonderful spiritual experiences during his mission, it is unfortunate that he doesn’t seem to acknowledge any more recent meaningful encounters with the Spirit. Has he stopped seeking the Spirit or craving heaven’s counsel? Does he imagine that the Spirit has gone silent regarding his life?

I contrast that high priest with David Biliter. When he was in our stake presidency, he typically began temple recommend interviews by asking, “Do you mind sharing with me the last time you felt the Spirit?” Every time he asked me that question, we were both flooded by heavenly light. Just asking the question invited the Spirit into our lives.

Our responsiveness to God is like being a horse on whom God is the Rider. When he pulls the bridle one way or the other, a reluctant horse may resist—having his own course in mind. A good horse will respond to the direction. A great horse will turn when God merely leans in the saddle. Our whole orientation can be welded to His will. But only if we welcome it.

How do we enjoy more of His influence and guidance in our lives? There are stock answers to that question. But those stock answers can be somewhat shallow. And they suggest there is a standard “one-size-fits-all” process to follow in order to listen to the Spirit. That is not the case. Each of us has our own communication style and learning process. Our Father understands us individually and customizes the way that He reaches out to each of us. Instead of trying to follow some standard recommendations, we should explore how God tailors His communications to us.

For some, the surest way to bring Him present is music. For example, I cannot play Glorious by the One Voice Children’s Choir without weeping with joy. It always touches me!

Others are inspired by nature. Time spent in God’s creation makes a heavenly connection for them.

Some connect best through prayer. Yet there many ways to pray. When we try to follow someone else’s formula, we may get frustrated. Elder Douglas Callister recommended that instead of offering the same rote prayers every day, “Choose what you want to talk to Father about. Just one, or two, or three things, not a great deal. But talk to him the way a child talks to a father that is much loved. When you get up from your knees, you’ll remember what you prayed for and it won’t be the same thing as the night before or the night which follows.” (“Take Control”, Devotional at Snow College)

Some may be uplifted by testifying. I love speaking and writing about God’s amazing work! As I share, He teaches me new things.

Some find the Divine through pondering. Some connect with the Spirit by asking questions and then listening for answers to come.

We can learn to hear the voice of God in scripture. There are thousands of different ways to find Him from reading and reflecting to using study guides and studying with friends. Our study program will change as our needs change. And they will vary by our personality.

What works for you? As you think of the best experiences you have had with the Spirit, how have those experiences been achieved? In what way does Heavenly Father connect with you individually? How do you best seek His voice and receive His messages? How can you have meaningful experiences with the Spirit more often?

Each of us must earnestly seek to find the way to cultivate the Spirit in our unique individual lives. The Holy Ghost is dedicated to the very serious business of getting us through the mess of mortality and back to Father. It makes sense for us to cooperate with Him.

If you had the opportunity for a great historical figure to visit you, how would you prepare for that visit? Chances are you would take that opportunity very seriously. Probably you would prepare carefully. You might think of questions you would want to ask. You likely would listen carefully and respectfully. You might earnestly take notes. You would probably reflect back upon the conversation afterwards. So shouldn’t we approach the opportunity to spend time with Heaven’s Messenger as seriously? We should grab that opportunity as often as we can! We should notice and honor His presence. We should be respectful of impressions He shares with us. We should give serious consideration to the truths He delivers and take action upon them.

For that reason I keep a small joy journal. Every day I record the things that went well. Naturally that includes any messages from Heaven. They come wrapped in joy. They inspire, comfort, and guide. I want to notice them, remember them, and guide my life by them.

Invitation: What could you do to be more mindful of God’s messages? What can you do to better guide your life by them?

Thanks to Barbara Keil for her insightful contributions to this article.

Recommendation: Consider reading a book on personal revelation such as Hearing the Voice of the Lord by Gerald N. Lund or Personal Revelation: How to Recognize Promptings of the Spirit by JoAnn Hibbert Hamilton


Discoveries: Fitting the Parts Together to Make a Marriage

Marriage is like combining two halves of a house to make one home.

Imagine that a person has many friends in the construction industry. When it comes time to make a new home, he calls a couple of his buddies who make prefabricated homes. He asks each of them to send him their best half-home. They ask for specs but he says: “Just send me your favorite half.” He doesn’t specify size, style, or layout.

So one builder sends a sleek, modern half that is intended to be part of a contemporary structure. The other sends half of a geodesic home that is efficient and practical.

When the two halves arrived at the site, the halls do not line up. The roofs do not match. There are two kitchens and two living rooms but no bedrooms. The electrical, plumbing, and heating are not compatible. The styles are jarringly different.

Marriage is much like that construction challenge. Two people are built in different “factories” (or families) with different tastes, traditions, styles, preferences, and experiences. Neither family coordinates with the other in the creation of their half of a family-to-be. They just build things their way.

One family is loud, exuberant, and expressive. The other is quiet and avoidant. One family is relaxed, the other is exacting. One family is rigorous in their religious practices, the other is more casual. One loves sports and informality. The other is more serious and task-oriented.

When two people come together from two very different backgrounds, the challenges in connecting the two halves into a functioning whole are immense and continuing. We do not create a well-connected home overnight.

The challenges are also often unexpected. We imagine that, coming from two good LDS families, we have almost everything in common. Yet one partner thinks that a rousing political argument at the dinner table counts as family home evening while the other wants hymns, quiet reflection, and healthy snacks. The different perspectives on holidays, affection, food, time-use, chores, money, and communication seem quite insurmountable. Further, the differences between marriage partners are not due simply to their different families of origin. They also have different personalities, different values, and different sets of experience.

Nothing in the dating experience prepares us for the vast surprises in combining two people from different traditions into one cohesive, functioning family. The only solution is to activate powerful gospel processes. Only then can we hope to create a successful family.

The first key to combining the two halves is humility—the openness to other people’s ways of doing things. There is a tendency to believe that our way of doing things is the best way or the right way. I recommend that we become good private investigators. When our spouses do something that does not make a bit of sense to us, we might ask ourselves, “I wonder what that means to my spouse?”

Here is a great truth: People do what they do for reasons that make sense to them. When their actions do not make sense to us, it is because we don’t understand them. We can judge them or we can seek to understand. The spouse who takes time to understand the partner’s logic has a good start for connecting the two sides of the house.

A person who loves tidiness believes that cleanliness is next to godliness. The person who creates a junkyard wherever they are may see themselves as creators or savers. Each preference has its logic. And, if we are humble, we will be able to discern and honor our differences rather than condemn them.

Of course, we can, as Gottman recommended, start a dialogue with our unresolvable differences. We can make good-natured jokes about her love of order or his passion for tools. We laugh about the ways our different styles create surprises in our lives. This is compassion—the willingness to look kindly on someone who—like us—is afflicted with quirky fallenness.

The other key to managing our persistent differences is positivity—the willingness to keep our focus on what is good, admirable, and loveable. Van Wyck Brooks issued the invitation: “How delightful is the company of generous people, who overlook trifles and keep their minds instinctively fixed on whatever is good and positive in the world about them. People of small caliber are always carping. They are bent on showing their own superiority, their knowledge or prowess or good breeding. But magnanimous people have no vanity, they have no jealousy, and they feed on the true and the solid wherever they find it. And, what is more, they find it everywhere.” (Brooks, V. W. (1948). A Chilmark Miscellany. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., p. 6)

So the jarring differences between the two halves of our marriage can lead to frustration, contention, and discord. Or they can lead to amusement, patience, and charity. Every time we choose to use humility, compassion, and positivity, we choose to create a strong home.


We all feel irritation in marriage. The difference between successful and unsuccessful relationships depends on what we do with that irritation. Notice your irritation with your spouse. Become a private investigator; see if you can figure out the logic behind your spouse’s choices. Then apply compassion; find appreciation for that point of view. Then keep your focus on the many things you love about your partner. Try it. It will make a difference.


The perspective of marriage as a God-given and character-building enterprise is the focus of my book, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage. It recommends gospel thinking and covenants as the path to relationship success.