Free Agency and Ice Cream


Is time-out effective for children? Is spanking acceptable? Are consequences the best way to teach children? Is reasoning with children a waste of time?

The answers become much clearer when we realize that there is only one purpose for that class of parenting behavior that is variously called discipline, guidance, training, correction, or punishment. The purpose of all parent guidance is (drum roll) to help children learn how to use their agency in wise and compassionate ways. All guidance activities can be judged by their contribution to children’s appropriate use of agency. Period.

Time-out, for example, is often used to punish children. We are told to put children in the most uninteresting place in the house and enforce total dullness. The apparent object is to bore them into submission. It is clear that such a tack cannot work with the child who has an imagination. Such a child will actively use time-out to imagine new plots against family members and neighbors.

Time-out does have its place. It is useful for soothing people when they are not in the right frame of mind to be civil. It is as likely to be as useful for parents as for children. But boredom is not essential for soothing. There are times when a child who is guilty of misdeeds needs hugging in grandma’s rocking chair or snuggling and gentle singing.

The inevitable question is, “Won’t the child feel that he got away with his misdeed?” The answer depends on which theory of child motivation best fits. If it is true that the key to children’s moral development is swift retribution, the answer to the question is “yes.” If it is true that the key to children’s moral development is activating and educating their compassion, tenderness, and empathy, the question is meaningless.

President Hunter has described the perfect way that God teaches the wise use of agency.

To fully understand this gift of agency and its inestimable worth, it is imperative that we understand that 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. He loves us too much to do that, and doing so would run counter to his divine character (Howard W. Hunter, “The Golden Thread of Choice,” Ensign, Nov. 1989, p. 18, emphasis added).

There are important things we can do to help children cultivate their wise and compassionate use of agency.

  1. We honor children’s needs and preferences. There are thousands of small ways that we can show consideration to our children. We can provide appropriate activities for them as they sit in long meetings. We talk with them while we shop in the store. We can listen to them. To honor their needs shows our respect for them. Kindness begets kindness. Or, as the Lord has expressed so eloquently:

    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 88:40).

  2. We give children many opportunities to make choices. We let them pick the storybook we read to them. We encourage them to draw the pictures that they see. We generally tolerate their choice in clothes. We are glad to honor their preference for scrambled eggs over fried ones. Children learn to use their agency wisely by using it often.
  3. All of this may seem to suggest a very permissive stance. But wise parents are not afraid to set limits. While we may understand the desire for mountains of ice cream, we are quite willing to take a stand: “Wouldn’t it be fun to eat all the ice cream in the world! Tonight we will start with two scoops. Which flavor do you prefer?” When the child objects, we can repeat the same message. Limits are a vital part of life.

There are many things children may be interested in that simply cannot be allowed. They will not be allowed to start Uncle Harry’s moustache on fire while he sleeps or throw rocks at a sunbathing neighbor. Unlimited ice cream is not an option. But the way we establish a limit is important.
As Haim Ginott points out, if a guest left an umbrella at our house, we would not call them up and berate them. “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you remember anything?” The same civility that we offer our guests should be provided to our children.

There never was a finer instruction on how to cultivate the proper use of agency than that given by the Lord. He recommends that we influence

by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul . . . (D&C 121:41–42).

Fortunately the universe is on our side. Kindness is always sweeter than cruelty. Goodness begets peace. Love is the foundation of life.

We should point our children to the truths woven in eternity.

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