Teaching Our Children to Love and Serve Each Other

Quarreling and bickering among siblings are painfully common in family life. While children are declared innocent because of the atonement (D&C 93:38), it is also true that “when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts” (Moses 6:55). Everyone who works with children knows that they can be not only charming, sweet, and delightful, but also selfish, pouty, and demanding. They are not automatically or naturally cooperative and peace-loving.

Quarreling and bickering among siblings are painfully common in family life. While children are declared innocent because of the atonement (D&C 93:38), it is also true that “when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts” (Moses 6:55). Everyone who works with children knows that they can be not only charming, sweet, and delightful, but also selfish, pouty, and demanding. They are not automatically or naturally cooperative and peace-loving.
In spite of the challenges in getting children to be kind and considerate, the Lord offers this sobering injunction to parents:
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, who is the master of sin. (Mosiah 4:14, emphasis added)
It seems that God equates children’s fighting and quarreling with transgressing the laws of God and serving the devil. Since fighting and quarreling are so common, this commandment establishes a sobering challenge for parents. How can parents prevent contention between their children?
The Natural Parent
There are two popular methods for dealing with sibling conflict. One is parental intrusion. Parents separate the children, figure out who is the offending party, and punish them for their contention. This method can only work as long as there is a parent available to intervene in the conflict. Even if this method interrupts the conflict it does not solve the problem; children do not learn new ways of dealing with their differences with their siblings.
The second method is lecturing. The main problem with lecturing is that it doesn’t work—and it generally insults and demoralizes children. Children respond to accusation with defensiveness; they blame their siblings and excuse themselves. The result is an increase in the contention in the family. That cannot be what God has in mind when he commands us to prevent fighting and quarreling. What’s the solution?
Decades of research have established that the best method for parents to influence children is something that developmentalists call “induction” which is defined as parents reasoning with children and helping them understand the effects of their behavior on others. Induction, as defined by scholars, is strikingly similar to the methods of influence recommended by the Lord:
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood [or, presumably, parenthood], only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121:41-42, emphasis added).
God has been teaching us from the beginning of time that we cannot teach goodness with harshness. We must use gentle and wise principles of influence. His recommendations from section 121 deserve a lifetime of study.
We can compare that instruction from the Doctrine and Covenants to directions given by King Benjamin immediately after counseling us to help children avoid quarreling and fighting:
But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. (Mosiah 4:15, emphasis added)
Parents almost universally will agree with that objective. We want our children to love and serve each other. We want peaceful homes. We yearn for loving and helpful relationships between our children. But how can we make this happen?
Helping Children Find Something Better than Quarreling
Imagine that your 5-year-old daughter wanders into her older brother’s room. He is concentrating on building a Lego structure. Sister is fascinated by brother’s building. She watches and asks her brother questions for a time and then picks up some Legos to do some building of her own. He grabs the Legos from her, pushes her toward the door and shouts that she should stay out of his room. Little sister runs to you crying.
You are frustrated and angry. You are tempted to lecture your son about being kind and inclusive with his sister. Or you may want to lecture your daughter about respecting your son’s space.
But neither of these responses teaches the children to love and serve each other. Neither response helps the children work together. What would God have you do? The vast research on moral development gives us clues as to how to apply God’s counsel to our parenting . That research together with God’s perfect guidance can help us establish five steps.
Let’s imagine that your focus is on helping your son respond to his sister more helpfully. Here are five steps that summarize the counsel of research:
  1. Engage your son in a gentle way.
  2. Give your son credit for anything you can.
  3. Show that you understand your son’s point of view.
  4. Draw your son’s attention to his sister’s distress and dilemma.
  5. Once your son feels understood (as evidenced by being calm and peaceful), then we can help him think of a way to make repairs.
These steps are consistent with the research on moral development and the research on emotion coaching. In the next post, I will give more details about these five steps.
You may be interested in Brother Goddard’s books such as Soft-Spoken Parenting, Drawing Heaven into Your Marriage, and Between Parent and Child.  For more information about his books or his schedule at Education Week, visit

For scholarly sources, see Martin L. Hoffman, Empathy and Moral Development: Implications for Caring and Justice; John C. Gibbs, Moral Development and Reality; Wendy S. Grolnick, The Psychology of Parental Control. For applied approaches, see Haim G. Ginott, Between Parent and Child; John Gottman, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.

7 replies on “Teaching Our Children to Love and Serve Each Other”

Thank you. I’ve tried the induction many times, but the hurdle for me was my frustrations. I still to learn to CALM DOWN before I spur words out of my mouth. The time it works is when I put the responsibility back on my children to come up with a solution to the problem. One day my two daughters were fighting about a book because they both wanted to read this particular book. I turned to the older one who was crying because the little one had it and asked her what she thought could be done. Through her tears she said, “I can wait until she is done with it, then I can read it.” What happened and interesting and funny was that the older one didn’t even remember that she wanted the book in the first place. She was occupied with another activity…hmmmm…But, my heart was softened by my little girl’s teary response.

Thank you for the reminder on how to help children learn to love and serve one another.

Nearing the end of raising 5 children I’ve learned many things. Being a judge and giving out punishment or lecturing never work. They roll their eyes at the parent and glare with hate in their hearts at the offending party. I remember one day we thought our two sons were going to kill each other. My husband and I couldn’t think clearly at the moment and made the two join hands and sing “Love at Home” the rest of the family encircled them and prayed. Almost 20 years later our children still remember that day and laugh about what happens when you fight in our home. While we thought we were lacking inspiration at that moment proved to be great inspiration because all of our children thought twice about tearing into each other after that day. They actually learned to kneel together and pray about the problem and usually found the answer together before they had to ask for help from us. Parenting with the Lord is much easier than doing it alone!

Dr. Wally,
Thanks so much for this clear message. We are parenting two year old twins and just starting to scratch our heads as to how to handle the inevitable conflicts. They are young but I’m amazed at how much they understand when we bring kindness into the equation instead of frustration. I look forward to your next post.

I enjoyed the article and thought I’d pass on a technique that we used in our family that proved very successful. It was motivated by reflection on this scriptural passage. The counsel that King Benjamin gave to not suffer that our children “fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil” seemed to me to be very strong. He’s not saying “teach them not to quarrel.” No, he unabashedly tells us not to LET THEM.
When our children would have a contentious disagreement, rather than intervene and try to settle the issue, we imposed a joint time-out. We would have them sit on chairs in the spare bedroom, and later used the garage or some other out-of-the-way place where they could be by themselves, without any distractions. The “time out” was over as soon as they could come up with a mutually agreeable solution to the difficulty. We asked each child if they were satisfied with the solution, and if each one so indicated, we congratulated them on solving the problem themselves and the “time out” was over.
We noticed, as time went on, two particular positive outcomes. First, the time outs gradually became shorter and shorter and less frequent, and by the time they were high school age they were unnecessary. Second, in spite of having children with very strong personalities, it seemed that our family had very little of what other families considered typical sibling rivalry.
As they got older, we noticed that there was one particular relationship where one older son tried to dominate and the other, the peacemaker, repeatedly would back down. I was tempted to intervene and overrule what I considered unfair solutions, but decided to honor their decisions. Their relationship continues to be strong, the younger son has grown up to be a spiritually strong individual, and, from this vantage point, I believe we did the right thing in letting them figure out their own solutions.

Good idea! I think this is especially likely to be effective when done in combination with the teaching of true principles.


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