Relationship Parenting: How Can I Fix My Kids


Imagine that our bishop, in an attempt to encourage sacrament meeting attendance, began handing out candy bars after meeting. He also hinted that there would be steak dinners and late-model automobiles available for the regular attenders. Attendance might increase. Yet many of us would be insulted.

Contrast that approach with the approach of a stake president who agonized over the less actives in his stewardship. In an effort to bring them back into the fold, he arranged with each of his bishops in turn to visit the homes of inactive members taking with them members of the stake and ward councils who love those members. As they sit with their lost brothers and sisters they invite: “We love you. We miss you. What can we do to get you back with us?” This approach has brought many estranged saints back into the circle of Church fellowship.

Satan works by bribery. God works by invitation. Satan is certain he can buy us with money. God redeems us with a relationship of love.

In like manner, if I, as a parent rewarded my child with attention, appreciation, and trinkets for behavior of which I approved, they would probably be insulted. They might become good little mercenaries but they would also become cynical and manipulative. When rewards become the currency of the realm, it suggests that the children are only valued when they are doing what I want them to do. Contrast that with Heavenly Father whose hand is always stretched out to us.

We might offer our children rewards for charitable behavior. But the system only works if they can make their behavior conspicuous and if they value the proffered reward. The appearance becomes more important than the motive. The Lord counsels against such an approach.

TAKE heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.

Therefore when thou doest thine alms, do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward (Matthew 6:1–2).

Years ago we were taught a valuable lesson by our tender daughter Emily. Emily, then an early teen, had been overwhelmed at stake conference as we sang “I Know That My Redeemer Lives.” She had a feeling of joy that caused her to weep. Later, at home, gathered around the dinner table, she asked us to help her make sense of her feelings. We told her that sometimes when we are doing or reflecting on something fine and good, God floods us with a joy that our mortal souls cannot contain. It spills out in a stream of tears.

On that Sunday years ago we began a family practice of sharing our best experience of the day at Sunday dinner. Each member of the family describes a remarkable insight, a feeling of peace, a jolt of love. To the untrained ear the experiences may not sound remarkable. Emily has often been touched by music or testimony. Andy has often shared an insight that came from a lesson. Sara has often told us of the joy of loving and being loved by the children of the ward. Nancy has often told of her love and compassion for struggling members of the ward. As we have learned to listen for heavenly goodness, even the modest experiences have come to be recognized as divine gifts.

No rewards or praise are offered to family members. Rather we unite in praise for a gracious Father who blesses us so richly. Sometimes we weep humbly at His inexpressible goodness. Those are cherished times. We want to cultivate in every family member an appreciation for the divine goodness that blesses and guides our lives. We want our children to feel a bond with God.

Bribes distract from eternal reasons. Relationships are the reasons. Parents can teach children the grammar of relationships. For example, a parent asked me how to motivate a balky son to wash the dishes. The usual methods are threats (together with punishments) and bribes. As every parent knows, neither is effective.

What is the relationship-based way of motivating dishwashing? The answer is: “It depends.” It depends on why the child doesn’t do dishes and what is motivating for that child and the quality of your relationship. One child may have a particular dislike for washing dishes and it may be wise to trade some other chore for the washing of dishes. It may be that the child has a hard time getting started and a few minutes of parental companionship will jump-start the process. It may be that the child feels insulted by the way the task is assigned or lonely in working alone. A sensitive parent may choose to chat with the child or read a favorite storybook while the child washes. It may be that doing the dishes right after dinner interferes with a neighborhood football game and the child would willingly do the dishes if the time were negotiated.

Relationships require us to study the personality and preferences of the person we claim to love. It does not mean that we give up limits and expectations. Yet lofty expectations are not incompatible with sensitivity and creativity.

God knows that the “rewards” of the good life cannot compare with the kick from drugs, gluttony, promiscuity, and greed. He refuses to enter into a bidding war with Satan. He offers very different outcomes. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith” (Galatians 5:22). Such fruit is largely found in the soul.

We follow God’s path not because of the rewards but because of a relationship of love. His gracious invitation is incomprehensible. “Come, my brethren, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come buy and eat; yea, come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (2 Nephi 9:50).

Research supports the vital role of love in parent-child relationships. The best predictor of favorable child outcomes is parental love. A modern prophet has expressed the essential role of soul-filling love better than any researcher.

Fathers, if you wish your children to be taught in the principles of the gospel, if you wish them to love the truth and understand it, if you wish them to be obedient to and united with you, love them! and prove to them that you do love them by your every word or act to them. For your own sake, for the love that should exist between you and your boys—however wayward they might be, or one or the other might be, when you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly; get them down and weep with them if necessary and get them to shed tears with you if possible. Soften their hearts; get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence, but argue, or rather reason—approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p.316).

Consider two examples of relationship-based parenting. A young child tugs on his daddy’s pant leg and whines from the time the father gets home until the little boy goes to bed. The father refuses to pick up the boy or play with him because he “does not want to reward bad behavior.” Yet maybe his little boy is trying to tell his daddy that he is lonely, that he wants to be a part of his life, that he wants a relationship. Research shows that parents who respond promptly and sensitively to infant distress have children who cry less. That cannot be explained by rewards and punishment thinking. It can be explained by relationship thinking.

Consider the example of a teen who wants to go to a movie that seems inappropriate. Refusing to let the child go out is likely to engender a power struggle. A parent could offer to pay the child’s admission as a reward for choosing an alternative movie but the savvy child will learn the great profits to be reaped by regularly threatening bad behavior. A relationship approach is based on good will: “I want to help you get what you want—in a way that I feel good about. Both of us should be respected in the decision-making process.”

A wise parent might ask the teen what she has heard of the movie. Together they might look up reviews in the newspaper or on the web. After gathering information about the movie, the parent can have the child reflect, “Do you think this is the kind of movie that will leave you feeling yucky or refreshed?” Unless both are convinced that the movie will be satisfactory they might consider other movies or even other activities. When someone genuinely has our interest at heart and is willing to use all of his or her resources to bless us, we are glad to work cooperatively.

There is one place where attention to rewards is critically important. Gerald Patterson at the Oregon Learning Center has shown that when children learn that the only way to get attention in their family is by acting out, they will act out. They coerce parental involvement through negative behavior. It is vital that we respond to the needs of our children before they turn to terrorism to get us involved in their lives.

Some people confuse love with indulgence. They are not the same. The perfectly loving Parent often denies our requests, but, if we know Him, we know that He always acts in our best interest.

“And whoso receiveth you, there I will be also, for I will go before your face. I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you, to bear you up” (D&C 84:88).

The core problem of using rewards and punishment is that it does not teach children to listen to their inner voice, that subtle recording of the contracts and promises written in the courts on High. To ignore those messages is to ignore our eternal purpose.

My friend Marilyn told me about the time when both Christmas and the departure of a daughter for a mission converged to overload an already strained family budget. What could they do? Mom and dad approached each child privately about contributing some part of his or her Christmas allocation to equip sister for her mission. On Christmas morning the family assembled. Every gift that was opened was for the missionary sister. As the soon-to-leave missionary realized the sacrifice of her siblings, her tears of appreciation provided a personal and lasting expression of love to every member of the family.

The children might have been disappointed about the gifts they had given up for their sister. They were not. They had no presents in their hands but the spirit of Christmas in their hearts. It was the family’s best Christmas.

When we immerse ourselves in His perfect purposes, we experience a peace that passeth all understanding. Only He can administer the rewards that matter. But we can point ourselves and our children to those sublime inner messages.

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