Latter-day Saints have a unique view of law. For us, law is not a quirky and mysterious invention God uses to test His creation. Rather we understand that law governs the universe, and God Himself obeys it. According to our doctrine, if God violated law, He would cease to be God (Alma 42:13, 22, 25; Mormon 9:19). So God is not only a lawgiver; He is also a law follower. His very example teaches us that we should take the law very seriously.
Law and Parenting
But there is more to God’s example. While He faithfully honors law, He is also willing to make every sacrifice to advance His children’s development and glory. Rather than allow the law of justice to skewer us, He provides the sacrifice of His Beloved Son to satisfy that law. Doing so activates the law of mercy in our interest. While being perfectly submissive to law, He is also perfectly redemptive.
What an example God is for mortal parents! While we parents must teach our children to honor law, we must never allow justice to bludgeon mercy—or mercy to rob justice. It is clear that the dilemmas of parenting stretch us to appreciate God’s perfect plan.
Most parents tend to excel at one or the other—love or law. Most of us neglect one while over-emphasizing the other. It is not uncommon for parents to polarize across this difference. Often dads insist that children must learn responsibility while moms plead for mercy and compassion.
It is a serious mistake to make law and love into enemies. We should follow God’s example by honoring both love and law. This requires more than the wisdom of Solomon; it demands the inspiration of heaven.
Teaching a Respect for Law
God has declared that:
There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—
And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated. (D&C 130:20-21)
This is a vital lesson for parents to teach and children to learn. As an example of the challenge to teach both, my wife, Nancy, observed an overwhelmed single-mom trying to get her son to eat his dinner. He threw his beans on the floor. Mom was frustrated with him and offered him a hot dog. He threw that on the floor. Exasperated, mom declared, “OK! I’ll give you a candy bar and you can be sick.”
What did that little boy learn? He learned that his own preferences can conquer his mother’s wisdom. He learned that terrorism pays. He learned that his own will can govern in his world. These are not lessons that prepare him for healthy adulthood and joy in eternity.
Most of us have fallen into traps like that into which the mother fell. At the grocery store, children ask for candy bars. We want to be sensitive to children—but a nagging voice tells us that candy bars are not good nutritional choices. The child ups the ante: “I want a candy bar!” We hate to cave in—but we also want to get our shopping done peacefully. Often we try to reason: “We’ll be home and have dinner in only half an hour!” The children sense that their drip torture is working on us: “I’m hungry! I want candy now!” Many of us, for the sake of peace, cave in. We grudgingly grab candy bars for the children. Our conscience groans at our concession—but we don’t know what else to do.
That which breaketh a law, and abideth not by law, but seeketh to become a law unto itself, and willeth to abide in sin, and altogether abideth in sin, cannot be sanctified by law, neither by mercy, justice, nor judgment. Therefore, they must remain filthy still. (D&C 88:35)
That’s pretty strong language! While young children do not “altogether abide in sin,” we sense that ignoring reasonable limits is not good for their souls.
So how do we set reasonable limits while, at the same time, showing love and compassion? How do we reconcile law and love, limits and nurture?
Reconciling Justice and Mercy
1. Set clear limits and follow them consistently.
When we took our young children to the store, we faced the same dilemma that all parents face. We were hurried and harried. The children were tired and bored. They begged for candy. But we knew that surrendering to their demands in order to keep the peace would guarantee continuing war. It would teach our children that by continually whining and begging, they could override the limits that we set.
We told our young children that we would never in the course of their mortal sojourns buy them a candy bar to be eaten while in the store. We were willing to buy them a unit-priced piece of fruit or a box of animal cookies. But we would never buy them a candy bar for in-store consumption. And we stuck to that rule.
Some would argue that our rule was arbitrary. They are right. Animal cookies are not significantly superior to candy bars. But that misses the point. The point is for the child to feel respected while experiencing sensible limits. Your rule might be that they can have up to 3 oz. of any treat they like. Or you rule may be that they can have raisins or dried fruit. What matters is that you set a limit that makes sense to you and then apply consistently.
In fact, many of our rules—unlike the rules that God makes—will seem somewhat arbitrary. There is no scriptural mandate restricting cookies from living rooms, requiring that piano practicing be done before dinner, or demanding that young children be in bed by 8:30. But some arbitrariness is okay. What matters is that things are done in “wisdom and order” AND that children learn to respect law.
One of the most important mottos we developed as parents is related to this point: “It is our job as parents to help children get what they want in a way that we feel good about.” In other words, we honor their preferences–but within the bounds set by wise and loving parents. This approach moves love and limits from endless and divisive brawling into beautiful and growth-promoting harmony.
There should be a sensible (if not scriptural) basis for family rules. We should be able to articulate reasons for rules—though wise parents know that it is futile to discuss the rationale behind rules when children are angry or combative. There are times when endless “Why” questions are children’s terrorist tactics intended to keeps us off balance. We should discuss the rationale behind rules only when our children really want to understand our reasons rather than argue about them.
There are also times when rules and limits are negotiated and adjusted. But this should almost never happen in the heat of battle.
The Nature of Children
Some of this discussion about children’s terrorist tactics may seem to dishonor the hallowed belief unique among LDS that children are born innocent (See D&C 93:38). While we cherish the understanding that children do NOT come with the taint of original sin, we also understand that a fallen world can progressively poison them.
And the Lord spake unto Adam, saying: Inasmuch as thy children are conceived in [a world of] sin, even so when they begin to grow up, sin conceiveth in their hearts, and they taste the bitter, that they may know to prize the good. (Moses 6:55)
Our parenting can feed the natural child or nourish the child of Christ. Teaching law in a context of love is the way to do the latter.
2. Be proactive.
There is a second thing we can do to be sure that our children learn to respect law. It is called proactive parenting. It is the opposite of reactive parenting which waits for problems to break out and then reacts with threats and punishments. Reactive parenting tosses us to and fro with every wind of family emotion. It raises our blood pressure while damaging children’s spirits.
Proactive parenting involves planning ahead—whether it is for a trip to the store or a summer vacation or preparing for church. Returning to the grocery store example, before parents take children into stores, they are wise to consider what they want to have happen and how to make that more likely. There are ways to have peaceful trips. For example, young children might ride in the cart and keep a list of groceries. They might check items off as they are found. They become proud helpers. A creative friend blows up a produce bag for her child and invites the child to play with it as they wend the aisles. A parent can also make a child a food guardian: “Would you hold on to the sweet potatoes?” Children can be invited to name the colors of the produce. The possibilities for keeping children happy and engaged are limitless—if we plan ahead.
Somewhat older children might help parents find sought items. Nancy invites our young grandchildren to be “store troopers” and help her find items on her list (and protect her from Darth Vader). It keeps them busy, active, and happy. We can even invite their input on selected decisions: “What vegetable would you like us to buy for dinner?” “Is there a new fruit you would like to try?” The proactive parent might set limits on decisions that could go off the rails, like which breakfast cereal to buy: “I’m looking for a healthy cereal to buy. Do you think we should get Cheerios or shredded wheat?”
When the child begs for Coco Pops, we have an opportunity to use what we have learned about compassion. “I know you love those. You wish we could have them this week. Maybe we will buy some for our next holiday.” They will whine. You can say exactly the same thing with great earnestness. There is no need to become indignant and accusatory. We can show that we are absolutely determined to honor the limit—while being perfectly pleasant.
This underscores a vital truth of parenting: We do not require children’s assent to act wisely. They may insist that death is imminent and only Coco Pops will save them. We can say: “Wow! You really wish you could have Coco Pops!” Wise parents are not any more afraid to have their children upset with them than God is that we are occasionally upset with Him. We can act in their best interest even when they wish we would cave to their immediate wishes.
3. Stay tuned.
Even God watches for compliance: “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed” (Abraham 4:18). God might have barked a command and gone about other business. He did not. He gives directions and watches to see that all is done correctly.
In our frantic family lives, we often give directions to children and then rush to the next crisis. Fairly often children know that we are distracted and they ignore our directives. When we do not stay tuned—being sure that our directives are taken seriously–children learn that laws have meaning only on those rare occasions when parents happen to notice their non-compliance. They learn that we are not serious about the rules we make.
We inadvertently teach children that blessings come without effort, crops grow without work, and rules are made to be ignored. They do not learn the law of the harvest.
Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap. (Galatians 6:7)
In my experience, the consistency that matters most in parenting is not the consistency between mom and dad but the consistency between our words and actions. When we give directives we need to be sure they are taken seriously. Wise parents may decide to have fewer rules so that they can enforce them more consistently. They know that casualness about laws is bad for the soul.
Much of this article is focused on preventing problems with children. In the next article we will describe three kinds of control used with children and suggest ways to control effectively.
If you are interested in additional ideas for effective parenting, you are invited to sign up for a new, free resource, we have created at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. Navigating Life’s Journey is a weekly e-mail series that offers helpful ideas on parenting based on research so you can trust they will work in real life. There are also two other series available on couples relationships and personal well-being. To sign up for any or all of these resources, go to www.arfamilies.org/family_life/life_journey
Thanks to Barbara Keil, Deanna Smith, and Nancy Goddard for their insightful contributions to this article.
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I recently found you through an article you had published in Meridian Magazine. I am so grateful for the insights you share on the Internet so freely. I really appreciate your emphasis on compassion and empathy.
I know this is not an “Ask Dr. Wally” website so I feel rather presumptious asking you for some advice, but I am desperate enough right now in looking for new ideas to do so.
My oldest child who is almost 14 regularly and frequently insults his younger brother (who is almost 3 years his junior). He calls him “idiot” or “stupid” several times a day, particularly during the long summer vacation days. We have talked to our son on several occasions about compassion and caring about his brother, but the habit persists. For some time now, we have given him extra chores when the insulting continues (normally doing some of his younger brother’s work). I am just wondering if you have any other thoughts about the situation. I realize that there are limits on how much I can communicate about our specific family situation in a short comment. I am only asking this sort of question here because I deeply respect your views and I suspect that other parents might have issues with the same type of thing. No problem at all if you are not able to address this issue at this time. I would just love to hear any thoughts you have on raising teenagers either now or in the future.