There are a lot of challenging questions that parents ask about childrearing. “How can I get my child to eat?” “How can I get my child to do chores?” “How can I get the children to get along?” “How can I deal with tantrums?” There are hundreds of challenging questions.
Many parents hope that there is some new parenting widget that will solve their current painful challenge. For such parents there is bad news: There is no new parenting widget. There are intriguing discoveries and there is good sense. There is patience, love, and wisdom. There is no magic trick that parenting experts can offer.
There is, however, one answer that addresses every parenting question. “What can a parent do to deal with this or that?”
The universal answer: “It depends.”
The answer may seem like a professorial dodge. “I don’t know to the answer to your question but I still want to look smart.” Yet any expert who prescribes remedies without understanding history and symptoms is a quack. The answer to any parenting question depends on the personality of the child, the child’s present circumstances, and past experiences.
A frustrated mother once asked me a question after a parenting workshop. “Lately my 3-year-old son gets very upset every time I vacuum. He screams and runs around the house. I must keep our house clean but I don’t know how to deal with our son’s outbursts. What can I do?”
The answer: “It depends!” I asked the simple question: “Has anything changed lately in your family life?” The mother responded, “A few months ago we had a baby. Now that the baby spends time on the floor, I feel a need to vacuum every day.”
We are the fish who are blissfully unaware of water. We fail to notice our own stress and its effects on our children. We are unaware of the dilemmas and disappointments that weigh on our children. The addition of the baby to the family undoubtedly made mother less available for the 3-year-old. It also changed her vacuuming habits to accommodate the baby’s floor time.
After making the connection between her increased vacuuming and her son’s distress, the mother asked, “So what do I do? I cannot just stop vacuuming.” The answer requires equal parts compassion for our children and appreciation for their agency. A parent’s job is not to find reasons to judge a child but to find ways to bless. We can move from irritation over the child’s “misbehavior” to earnest helpfulness.
I suggested that she explain to her son that she likes to vacuum every day to keep the floors clean for the baby. But she would like to vacuum at the time that is best for him. Would he like her to vacuum while he plays at the neighbor’s, while he eats lunch, or while he naps? The objective is to show respect for the child’s needs and to give him some control over his world.
One week later at the next parent meeting the mother reported that she had talked with her son about factoring in his preferences into her vacuuming schedule. They had set a schedule. Her son had made peace with the vacuum. The crisis was resolved.
Not every parenting problem is resolved so quickly. Some are embedded in habits and differences that are harder to discover and difficult to remedy. Yet the difficulties in parenting are a blessing. Challenges are our friends. After all, parenting is not a pat formula for raising children. As much as anything else, parenting is a process for helping adults become wise, balanced, compassionate people. Parenting is for parent growth as well as for child development.
Most of us have a recurring pattern in our parenting problems. Some parents are loving, compassionate, and considerate but they have a hard time setting limits. They so much want their children to be happy that they can never stand to set a limit or enforce a disagreeable rule. My colleague, Steve Dennis, calls them marshmallow parents. The kindness is a great gift but it must be balanced with wise and firm limits.
There are other parents who are strong and decisive but may find gentleness and compassion to be more difficult. They may be good at setting and enforcing limits, but they find it difficult to convey their love. Unwittingly they may convey to their children that the only thing that matters is obedience. A child of such a parent may feel like a pawn in a parental board game. This parent must pray for the gifts of compassion and charity.
A perfect Heavenly Father gives the formula for dealing with our limitations:
I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them (Ether 12:27).
George Q Cannon gave related counsel:
“If any of us are imperfect, it is our duty to pray for the gift that will make us perfect. Have I imperfections? I am full of them. What is my duty? To pray to God to give me the gifts that will correct these imperfections. If I am an angry man, it is my duty to pray for charity, which suffereth long and is kind. Am I an envious man? It is my duty to seek for charity, which envieth not. So with all the gifts of the Gospel” (MS, Vol. 56, pp. 260–261, Apr, 23, 1894).
Family life is the advanced course in Christian living. No person can be an excellent family member without living the principles taught by Jesus. We should not be surprised when parenting draws us to deeper thinking, more earnest study, and heartfelt prayer in the process of making us finer people.