Chafing, rivalry, contention, and jealousy are the thorns and weeds of mortality. They spring up without any encouragement. When they appear in our own family garden, they are doubly troublesome.
Rivalry has bedeviled the human race since the first family. Cain was quite sure that he would not be happy until he was rid of Abel. Little did he know.
Yet sibling rivalry serves a divine purpose. Our children’s rivalry provides us a chance to practice heavenly charity. Managing the natural contention in a family is good preparation for His work, which is to manage the natural contentions in His family while never losing sight of the eternal purpose.
Still, God commands us to ban contention from our homes.
And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, . . . he being an enemy to all righteousness (Mosiah 4:14).
There is hardly anything that serves the devil’s purposes as well as when we turn our energies against each other. There are four ways to deal with contention.
The first is prevention. There are certain combinations of togetherness that are toxic. That tired and hungry hour before dinner is not the time when cooperation will come easily to siblings. The wise and proactive parent will plan that time of day so that children are busy—in different parts of the house. In fact we know from experience just where most family land mines are. We can coordinate our togetherness in wise ways.
Mom had us sing Primary songs as we traveled together in our cramped family car. She knew that hearts filled with sunshine were not likely to break into storms.
The single most important preventive is a bond of love. Our children need to know that our “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44). Our children love us because we first love them (1 John 49)—even when they are fretful and contrary.
We show our love to our children by celebrating the heavenly blessing they are. But we know that the best way to demonstrate our commitment is by investing ourselves in their lives. We take time to listen to their playground triumphs. We join them in watching box elder bugs on the sidewalk. We know that a walk around the block is likely to include precious discoveries that look like mere sticks, gutters, gravel to the uninitiated. We weep with their disappointments.
But we cannot always prevent contention. Sometimes we must interrupt it. We are not wise to expect rational thinking from children in their most emotional moments. So we interrupt conflict. “Both of you are very upset. Let’s not try to settle this right now. Tommy will you please help me prepare dinner. Susie, would you please read us a story.” Children may be directed toward chores or activities. It is generally better to be a coach than a referee.
One of the big surprises is that we should respond to distress and even error with compassion more than with correction. We have a high priest who is touched by the feeling of our infirmities (Hebrews 4:15). In fact, God weeps when He witnesses His children’s suffering (Moses 7:37).
One of the surest marks of our fallen state is our readiness to correct other people. Parents often consider it their responsibility to study their children’s faults. We have our six-shooters cocked and ready to fire off accusations of carelessness and selfishness.
That difference underscores the vast difference between Satan’s and God’s human relations recommendations. While Satan wants us to provide “constructive criticism” to each other, God recommends charity.
The nearer we get to our heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs. . . . if you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 241).
For the child who blurts out, “I hate my brother!” we do not have to offer correction or accusation. We offer compassion. “Right now you wish you didn’t have a brother.” We will reach more children with compassion than with accusation.
The final way to deal with contention and rivalry is to teach our children the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is clearly not the same as preaching. It means that we practice faith by making Jesus an essential part of our family life. It means that we use repentance to draw heavenly power into our own and our families’ lives. We know that the core of our gospel covenant is to “succor the weak, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees” (D&C 81:5).
The Lord’s command to “love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) must reach to the child who is cranky and speaks ungracious words. When we are filled with the Good News, we turn evil into good as Joseph of old:
But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive (Genesis 50:20).
We return blessing for cursing and generosity for stinginess. Joseph can teach us much about dealing with mistreatment and misunderstanding.
We know, as Grandfather Adam and Father Lehi knew, that some contention resists our best efforts. But we also know that the grace and goodness of God will eventually win all souls that will allow Him room.