There are many problems in parenting that require the wisdom of Solomon. Imagine sibling rivalry—bickering, hurting, spitefulness, jockeying—not a pretty sight. It is almost universal in this world. As we wrestle with such behavior, we are wise to turn to Heavenly Father and learn from His example. There are words by Joseph Smith that beautifully describe the parenting example that God has set for us:
Our heavenly Father is more liberal in His views, and boundless in His mercies and blessings, than we are ready to believe or receive (TPJS, p. 257).
I continue to be amazed at Heavenly Father’s inestimable goodness. I stand all amazed at His perfect plan for teaching and redeeming His children. I am awestruck by His kindness to our neighbors and ward members even in their undeserving. I am humbled by His graciousness in dealing with me.
The implications of God’s behavior for our parenting is clear. Even when our children have made serious mistakes, we should “have mercy upon them, according to God’s lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of His tender mercies, we may blot out their transgressions” (paraphrase of Psalms 51:1). While we do not have the right to provide heavenly forgiveness for our children’s misdeeds, we can offer the kind of lovingkindness and mercy that will point them to the Perfect Parent.
Yet there is more to Joseph Smith’s statement. After testifying of God’s goodness, he observes that
at the same time, [He] is more terrible to the workers of iniquity, more awful in the executions of His punishments, and more ready to detect every false way, than we are apt to suppose Him to be.
Apparently God will not look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (see D&C 1:31). He does not tolerate or excuse any degree of sin. He cannot; it is contrary to His nature.
Figuring out how to apply that observation about Father’s parenting to our efforts as parents is an interesting challenge.God’s instructions elsewhere give us a clue as to how we parents can do it.
And ye will not suffer your children that they . . . transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil, who is the master of sin (Mosiah 4:14).
We will not allow disobedience or contention. One of the ironies of parenting is that, in an effort to prevent contention, we often introduce substantial contention into our families: “You keep your hands to yourself you big bully!” In an effort to teach wise use of agency, we abridge it, “Just for that you have lost all privileges for a week!”
In most articles that I have written on parenting, I have stressed the importance of “persuasion, long suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love” (see D&C 121:41). There are two reasons for the emphasis. One is that love seems to be the first and central commandment of the gospel (Matthew 22: 37–40). The second reason is that love is the message that I need most. I am quite ready to set limits and enforce rules. It is not as natural for me to show kindness, patience, and compassion. When I write, I preach to myself.
The tendency to favor rules and limits over love and understanding is probably true for many people. However, there are probably some people like my dear wife, Nancy, for whom love, support, and kindness seem to come naturally. For such people it may be important to emphasize boundaries, rules, limits, and consequences in parenting. After all, God does not endorse permissiveness.
Since there is both a yin and a yang in parenting, there is great room for misunderstanding. Different experts on parenting will give different advice. One school of family experts accuses others of cruelty and another accuses their colleagues of being soft-headed and idealistic. That is why even the counsel of experts must be tested by gospel principles.
How can parents find the right combination of love and limits? How can mercy be balanced with justice? Such important questions do not have easy answers.
Let’s return to sibling rivalry. The traditional solution of letting children “work it out on their own”(translation: “fight it out”) has always left the weaker child at a continuing disadvantage and it neglects our responsibility as parents. God says we should not allow them to fight and quarrel with each other.
Finding a better solution requires discernment and inspiration. When one child takes a toy from a sibling, that child may only need some gentle re-direction: “Rebecca is playing with that right now. What would you like to play with?” However, if a child knowingly inflicts pain on a sibling, parents may calmly remove the child to a peaceful place while stating the rule: “We never hurt each other.” Gentle loving and soothing should prepare the child to return to family doings in the right spirit within a few minutes. (Children give us clues as to their readiness by their calmness or lack of it.)
We are easily caught in a pattern of overprotecting one child while over-accusing another. Not uncommonly there is at least one child in our family who irritates us. While the natural man will interpret irritation as a sign that the irritating child has a problem, a saint knows that irritation tells us that we are not in the right spirit to understand the person who irritates us.
When our young children would start fussing with each other while traveling in the car, Nancy would start them singing Primary songs. When our adolescent children found it difficult to do the dishes together, the contention was removed by having them wash the dishes alone.
Heavenly Father has designed our life experiences to teach us. When we work diligently at solving some problem and it does not get better, it is likely a sign that we are using an unbalanced approach. The parent who is too understanding and tolerant will not solve rivalry by using more tolerance. The parent who is too focused on rules will not solve continuing problems without cultivating love.
Each of us is wise to study the recurring problems that we deal with and draw on other family members to help us find balance. We can also pray for divine help. George Q. Cannon has recommended that,
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. . . . They are intended for this purpose. No man ought to say, “Oh, I cannot help this; it is my nature.” He is not justified in it, for the reason that God has promised to give strength to correct these things and to give gifts that will eradicate them. . . . That is the design of God concerning His children. He wants His Saints to be perfected in the truth (Gospel Truth, vol. 1, p.196).