In my last Myth of the Month, “Charitable Parenting,” I described the central importance of love in raising healthy children. Love is simply the first law of parenting— just as it is the great commandment in the law. Nothing matters as much as love in helping children develop into healthy adults. What’s more, the quality of love has an impact on the effectiveness of all other parenting efforts.
In dealing with parenting dilemmas, it is hard to tease apart loving and disciplining (or guiding, as we say in the field of child development). Many issues we think of as control issues are really, at root, relationship issues.
There is far more that can and should be said about effectively loving children. But I promised to write in this column about the other key dimension in parenting. It goes by several names: control, guidance, or structure. I like to think of it as teaching.
The Control Dilemma
I begin this discussion with another bit of counsel from the same parent columnist described in my last column. In a recent column he responded to another inquiry about feeding children. There are two parts of his counsel that I want to focus on. First, he said that children should not be allowed to complain about the food they are served for meals at home. It is rude, he said. Second, he took to task a parent who would create an alternative meal for a child who was not happy with the offered one.
Before discussing his counsel, let’s set the stage for thinking about control. What is its purpose? To prevent problems? To keep children out of trouble? To make life run smoothly?
Control Out of Control
One commentator has suggested that the solution to most of our childrearing problems is to keep our children from having sex or using drugs until they are 25, since most people are unlikely to initiate extramarital sexual behavior or drug use after 25. This is akin to saying that we should keep our children from any physical activity until they are 25 so they won’t break any bones. After all, children are at a higher risk of breaking bones than adults are.
I hope you see the fallacy. We can protect children from breaking bones but the cure is worse than the disease. The child who was immobilized until 25 would be a cripple. Likewise the child who was protected from any decision-making related to sex or drugs might be kept pure but would be entirely disabled in decision-making ability.
That describes Satan’s plan precisely. He promised to get us all back home, but he would accomplish it by denying us any agency. Heavenly Father could not allow such a plan. The price is simply too high.
The Purpose of Control
I believe that there is one primary purpose for parents to exercise control in their children’s lives: to teach them to use their agency wisely. Certainly control should also be used to keep children safe from threats for which they are not prepared. But this fits within the larger purpose of parental control—helping children learn to use their agency.
There are many ways to abuse parental control, but the many ways can be classed into two broad categories for the sake of this discussion: too much and too little.
Too Much Control
Those who exercise too much control may be trying to prevent their children from making mistakes but, in the process, they hamper the development of their children.
The solution is not to provide unlimited agency to their children. The solution is progressive agency. We honor the baby’s preference for goo-ing with the parent or resting—but remain available when the child is interested. We allow a preschooler to pick the book to be read at bedtime, but usually not the time for retiring. We allow a school age child to pick the clothes to wear to school—providing subtle coaching. Most adolescents are allowed to make many decisions, under wise and gentle parental guidance.
Progressive agency is much like helping a child learn to ride a bike. As children get closer to being ready to learn, we provide a bike with training wheels. As they get more experienced, we might adjust the training wheels up or even remove them. For a short time we run alongside children as they learn—coaching on steering, braking, and balance. Eventually they learn to ride on their own. Along the way most children get some bumps and bruises. But wise parents provide just enough guidance to prevent damaging or discouraging accidents. We give children all the freedom for which they are prepared. We even coach them to help them be ready for more freedom.
Examples of Control
A couple of examples might be useful. When first-grade Sara wanted to stay up on school nights as late as her older siblings, we understood her preference. But we also knew from experience that staying up later wasn’t good for her state of mind or family well-being. So we would respond, “Yes. It would be fun to stay up later. You wish you could. Do you want Mom or Dad to tuck you in?”
“I want to stay up!”
“Yes. You wish you were older so you could stay up later. Do you want Mom or Dad to tuck you in?’
Children should be given choices within the bounds set by loving and wise parents. And we do not have to become unpleasant as we set limits. One of our parenting mottoes has two vital parts: It is our job to help our children get what they want in a way we feel good about. We care deeply about our children’s preferences. But we set some bounds based on their readiness. We did not let our young children decide whether they wanted Hershey bars or green beans for dinner. But we might offer a choice between green beans and peas.
Another example: When 17-year-old Andy asked us if he could go to the lake with his friends on an upcoming Friday night, we took seriously our responsibility to help him make a good decision. But we also honored—based on good experiences with him—his good sense and maturity.
So I asked, “How do you feel about going?”
“I think it will be fine. We’ll play ball and have snacks.”
“So you don’t see any problems with the gathering?”
Andy paused. “Well, I do have a question. I know some of the guys will be bringing marijuana but I won’t be using any so it shouldn’t be a problem, right?”
I managed my shock. We had a calm discussion about potential problems. I encouraged him to think about it for another day or two. He ultimately decided that he didn’t need to be at a party with drugs. In fact, he offered an alternative gathering at our house.
The Gentle Art of Progressive Agency
Progressive agency is an art. It requires wisdom and faith to provide children abundant opportunities to make decisions while not setting them up for disaster.
When does setting bounds become unrighteous dominion? Perhaps the answer is “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” (D&C 121: 37).
But this is not a tidy answer. Satan claimed noble purposes for his devilish plan. It is only when we have the Spirit of love in our hearts—both for God and for our children—that we can set bounds wisely. Charity must guide the purpose and enlighten the practice of progressive agency with wisdom as her fair companion.
Back to the Food Issue
So I disagree with the parenting columnist about children expressing their dislike for foods. I do not consider it rude within a family for a person to express that he does not have a taste for a certain food. The expression can be phrased with consideration for the people who provide and prepare the food. But a child should be able to express feelings.
And we can model civility ourselves. We do not need to rant or shame them. We can set a standard that seems reasonable: “I ask that you try one bean. Then, if you do not want more, you may fix yourself a peanut butter sandwich.”
Even in making such simple requests we avoid stark confrontation. Psychology teaches us to minimize power as a relationship issue. It tends to get in the way of helpful guidance. As Wendy Grolnick, an insightful psychologist, has observed: “[Humans] simply do not do well (or feel well) when we are made to feel like pawns to others, whether at work, at school, or in our personal relationships” (Grolnick, pp. 32–33).
And, as President Howard W. Hunter observed, “God’s chief way of acting is by persuasion and patience and long suffering, not by coercion and stark confrontation. He acts by gentle solicitation and by sweet enticement. He always acts with unfailing respect for the freedom and independence that we possess. He wants to help us and pleads for the chance to assist us, but he will not do so in violation of our agency. (Howard W. Hunter, ”The Golden Thread of Choice,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 18).
We would do well to follow the example of our perfect Father.
In the eating arena, we provide lots of nutritious foods and let children make choices. Yet I agree with the columnist that a parent probably should not jump to prepare an alternate meal for the child. And I would not allow the child to eat just anything. I would probably have an alternate meal in mind that was acceptable to the child. That would set appropriate bounds.
So, having discussed the exercise of excessive control, let’s turn our attention to insufficient control.
Too Little Control
Many parents cannot tolerate children’s displeasure. They are not willing to set firm boundaries. They may lecture and threaten but they do not deliver on their threats. What do children learn from such parenting? They learn that the key to getting what you want is to keep your parents constantly on the horns of your displeasure. They learn to be family terrorists.
Most of us have seen parental caving in action. In fact, most of us have done such caving ourselves. For example, we have all seen a parent insist to a child in the supermarket that he cannot have a candy bar under any circumstances. But after some whining, nagging, and maybe even a tantrum, the child gets the candy bar. What did the child learn? A little persistence pays handsome dividends. So children learn to become efficient tormentors of their parents.
Children learn just what combination of whining and demanding will get them what they want. And many parents learn to be endless lecturers. So both sides lose. Both parent and child lose dignity in the battle over a candy bar. We teach children to surrender character and become mercenaries. And we become chronic grouches.
Like most parents, we faced the candy-bar dilemma with our children. Nancy and I set a standard. We wanted to be sensitive to our children’s hunger—especially in the supermarket with so many tantalizing options. But we wanted to be clear. So we told our children that we would never during their mortal lives buy them a candy bar to be eaten while in the store. But we would be willing to buy them a small box of animal cookies that they could eat while we shopped. When the children knew we were serious, there was no whining or begging. They ate their cookies while we shopped. Peace reigned.
There are other ways of exerting too little control. One of them is to use threats as a control technique. Frustrated parents may threaten to withhold Christmas presents or to keep a child home from a party. Both parent and child know that the threat is unlikely to be enacted. It is merely a stick swung threateningly in the air. Feeling insulted by the unjust attack on their dignity, the child resists. The parental anger and threats escalate. Childish indignity grows.
This can’t possibly be the best way to teach children how to use their agency.
The drama would be comical if it were not so tragic. Just as Satan would have it.
Guidelines for Guidance
So sensible rules for guidance include at least the following:
1. Be careful about the rules you make. Avoid idle threats. Do not make big issues out of little behaviors that should be ignored.
2. Consistently enforce the rules you make. The action behind the promise is the only way children learn that we—and nature—are serious about the rules we make.
3. Use consequences. Let nature—rather than angry diatribes—teach the law of the harvest. When we do not sow, we do not reap. If we do not finish our chores, we do not go out and play.
4. Keep the relationship positive. We should probably deliver at least five positive experiences for each negative one. And even the negative encounters should be done with “persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned.”
5. Give children lots of real choices. It takes regular practice for them to learn to use their agency well. (See Goddard, “Something Better than Punishment,” in Principles of Parenting for more details on these five principles.)
A Concluding Example
Nancy and I once attended a birthday party for a graduate student. The hostess was greeting all of her guests even as she tried to finish preparations for the party and manage her two children. We tried to help, but we noticed trouble brewing. Four-year-old Emma was standing at the kitchen table, nose-to-nose with the cake. She clearly had designs on the frosting.
This is a crossroads in parenting. The mother may choose to do nothing. She may harpoon her with threats. Or she may set Emma up for success.
Mom followed her poorer instincts. She threatened. “If you touch that cake you’re in trouble!” and shot the threatening glare. Emma returned the glare with the hidden message: “I can make you suffer for a lifetime for treating me this way.”
Having offered her severest intimidation, Mom returned to preparations for the party. Emma returned to frosting-lust.
Obviously the maternal injunction had not created a mighty change of heart for Emma.
Emma lingered near the cake and Mom continued to leer at Emma. When Mom got busy taking snack items to the party area, Emma snatched a frosting-rich corner of the cake. When Mom returned and spotted the telltale signs of the crime, she screamed, “I told you not to touch that cake!” Emma felt mistreated and Mom judged her to be a bad child. This approach does not lead anyone to Zion.
Some would say that Emma should be obedient. Some would say that she should be punished. I would say that parents can set children up for success. When the Mom spotted the high-risk situation, she might have done any of several things.
1. She might have gotten Emma a snack. This would be especially appropriate if Mom knew that Emma was hungry.
2. Mom might have gotten Emma busy helping, inviting her to take supplies and snacks to the table.
3. Mom might have cut a slice of cake for Emma to eat right away.
4. Mom might have moved the cake to the top of the fridge.
Which is the best response? It depends. It depends on Emma’s disposition and current state of hunger. It depends on Mom’s need to deliver an uncut cake to the party. It depends on how long it will be before the cake is cut and served. That is the unique challenge of parenting. There are no simple, pat answers. There are just sensible, considerate processes.
Ideally Mom wants to help Emma get the experiences she wants. In addition, Mom wants to help Emma learn to use her agency well. We don’t want to set her up for failure. We don’t want to punish her into resentful submission for being a normal child. We want to help Emma learn to use her agency well.
No Simple Answers
Hundreds of thousands of words have been written about parenting. This short article is likely to arouse more questions and objections than solutions. As the great parenting educator, King Benjamin said, “I cannot tell you all the ways in which you can sin.” Parenting does not have a simple formula. Ultimately good parenting requires us to have a change of heart, to be filled with charity, and to enjoy inspiration in our dealings with children.
Yet there are clear principles. Grolnick’s summary is compelling: “Providing rationales and clear consequences for behavior in the context of choice, acknowledgement of feelings, and minimization of pressure should facilitate the active process of [helping children do right things for right reasons]” (Grolnick, 2003, p. 64).
Brigham Young said it elegantly: “I will here say to parents, that kind words and loving actions towards children, will subdue their uneducated natures a great deal better than the rod, or, in other words, than physical punishment. . . . Children who have lived in the sunbeams of parental kindness and affection, when made aware of a parent’s displeasure, and receive a kind reproof from parental lips, are more thoroughly chastened, than by any physical punishment that could be applied to their persons” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.10, pp.360–361, November 6, 1864).
May the Lord bless us all as we train His beloved children for Eternity.