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Agency and Parenting: How Can I Fix My Kids



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The battle really hasn’t changed. In the premortal life, the fight was over agency, and it is here as well (see Moses 4:1–4). Satan promised success in delivering all pilgrims home again with some costs in the area of agency. Yet agency is so essential to Father’s plan that He would not consider such an option. In fact, Heavenly Father’s unalterable commitment to agency came at the cost of having one third of His children sidetracked.

What form does the battle over agency take today? In the great revelation on righteous influence, the Lord teaches:

That [the rights of the priesthood, and presumably, all other roles of influence] may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man (D&C 121:37).

The words are very familiar. But do they apply to us? We certainly do not try to cover our sins or gratify our pride at our children’s expense.

Yet, if I am honest with myself, many impulses to unrighteous dominion come readily to my mind. I remember coming home from work and wanting my little son to come to me for a hugfest. But he was engrossed in his projects. I was irritated. I considered punishment for the indifferent boy.

I can relate to the story told by Francis Wayland, a university professor and president in 1831. He proudly recounts (McLoughlin, 1975) a Friday morning when he picked up his 15-month-old son who was “more than usually self willed” (p.35). But the boy “began to cry violently. I determined to hold him in my arms until he ceased. . . . I considered this a fit opportunity for attempting to subdue his temper . . . .”

The father locked his son up in a room by himself. He checked on him periodically, but the boy refused to come to his father. The father kept his son in his room all day Friday, Friday night, and into Saturday. He reported that his son “had fasted thirty-six hours. His eyes were wan and sunken. His breath hot and feverish, and his voice feeble and wailing.” Finally, Saturday afternoon, his son submitted to his father. Wayland advises parents: “Let [parents] 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” (p. 36).

It is very human to frame every issue as a power issue. Instead of trying to conquer his little boy’s will, he might have simply acknowledged his son’s preference. He might have looked for opportunities over the years of childhood to build a bond of love and teach the principles of eternity.

. . . when we undertake . . . to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man (D&C 121:37).

I wonder if there is special significance in the Lord choosing to specify “children of men” in the familiar warning about using control, dominion, or compulsion. Certainly the temptation to impose our will on our children is keen. “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39). Maybe parenting is the advanced test on respecting agency.

Something in us protests: “Children must learn to submit and it is parent’s duty to teach them to submit.” Granted, it is parents’ duty to teach their children. “And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:28). But our instinctive methods of teaching are flawed. We are tempted to use threats (“You do it or else!”) or rewards (“Honey, if you will do it, I will _____”).

A dear friend demonstrated a better way. On the way home from church her two boys were quarreling. The younger one, about ten years of age, attacked his brother with a string of obscenities. Mother was horrified and angry. When they arrived home she confronted the offender and said, “I can’t believe I heard what I did. I’m so angry I don’t know what to do. I want you to go to your room and think about what happened while I go to my room and try to decide how to respond.”

That wise mother made excellent use of time-out. It is properly used to give us time to find our best selves.

After the mother had found her best self through prayer and reflection, she joined her son in his room. She taught him why the words he used were so offensive to her. She expressed her love and hopes for him to be an honorable priesthood bearer. She told him that he had a choice. He could suffer for his mistake through a period of grounding or he could repent. He wanted to know more about the repentance option.

“Repentance is where we fix what we have broken” the mother taught. “You have hurt your relationship with your brother and with your Heavenly Father.” The boy seemed genuinely contrite. “Mom, how can I fix it?” With the mother’s guidance he developed and delivered an apology to his brother. Then he knelt by his bed and, with his mother’s help, made amends with his Heavenly Father. On that day that young man learned vital lessons about repentance and about God’s great plan of redemption.

The wise mother used the Lord’s program of influence:

“No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, 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).

In a telestial world we are tempted to suppose that we have only two options with children: we can be permissive—allowing them to run wild and hoping that their better instincts will rule—or we can control them—taking strong action to assure their right behavior. The Lord’s program of influence is different from either of those options. He recommends that we teach the doctrines of the kingdom through our words and our actions. Teaching is better than punishing, manipulating, bribing, threatening, or neglecting. It does not rely on our superior power or resources but on our eternal love.

In the next installments of “Myth of the Month” we will examine the temptation to use rewards and punishments or to use power to influence our children. We will show that the Lord’s way is indeed better than our instinctive ways.

References:

McLoughlin, W. G. (1975). Evangelical child-rearing in the age of Jackson: Francis Wayland’s view on when and how to subdue the willfulness of children. Journal of Social History, 9, 21–34.

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