In the previous post we described a common sibling squabble and two of the most popular methods parents use to stop the battling: parental intrusion and lecturing. Both methods have a serious problem, they fail to teach children how to navigate their disagreements. I suggested five steps to help us engage our children and teach them to love and serve one another. In this article I discuss those five steps in more detail.
1. Engage your child in a gentle way. Harsh approaches arouse anxiety and block learning. The child becomes focused on our anger, entering a survival mode of thinking, and completely misses the message we are trying to communicate. Further, when we are upset, we are not able to parent effectively. In order to truly engage our children gently, we may need to take time out to get peaceful. If a situation requires immediate action, we might invite our children to also take a timeout in their rooms to prepare for a productive dialogue. But, even without their cooperation, the point is for us to get peaceful. It may take locking ourselves in our bedroom in order to pray and ask for guidance. When we’re finished, our spirits will be more at peace and ready to teach. God counsels us to use persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and genuine love. It is important to get his attention without arousing fear: “Son, we need to talk. Your sister is very upset by the way you treated her.”
2. Give your child credit for anything you can: “I’m sure you didn’t intend to hurt your sister’s feelings.” We are often tempted to magnify the misdeeds in order to get our children to take our messages seriously. Yet when we “exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved” (D&C 121:37). In contrast, when we see our children through the lens of charity, we set the stage for love and learning. Just as we want to know our Heavenly Father still loves and sees the good in us when we mess up, our children need to know the same about their earthly parents as well. When we appreciate our children’s good intentions and sincere striving, we are more likely to find common ground.
3. Show that you understand your child’s point of view: “You just wanted to build without being distracted or interrupted.” Compassion is the key to connecting. When accusation rather than compassion is in our hearts, we alienate. When, in contrast, I see from the child’s point of view, I am able to guide effectively. It may help us to remember how we felt when we were children and felt attacked or thwarted. Compassion is the heart of the healer’s art. Once the child is comforted, he is ready to learn.
4. Draw the child’s attention to the distress of the victim: “When you ordered your sister to leave you alone, she felt sad. She felt that you don’t like to have her around. Maybe she even felt that you don’t like her.”
There are really two parts to this step. Just as the Lord teaches us in our minds and in our hearts (See D&C 8:2), so we must inform our children’s minds and hearts. Both are essential for right behavior.
We teach the mind about the law of the harvest—that timeless truth that we cannot sow weed seed and harvest a bounteous crop of grain. When we are unkind, we damage relationships. It is better to invite the child to learn his sister’s point of view: “I think your sister just wanted to be with you.”
We also train our children’s hearts. This is delicate work! Heart surgery cannot be done with sledge hammers. Rather we gently invite our children to feel love and compassion for their siblings. “You might not know that your sister looks up to you. She wants to be like you. I hope you can find a way for her to be with you while still accomplishing the things you set out to do.”
The objective in this approach is not for your son to be sunk in guilt but to be stirred to empathy and compassion. When we use harsh approaches with our children, they focus on their own distress and are likely to become stubborn and defensive. That’s not what we want. We want to help our children get outside their provincial view of their own needs and be able to see the needs of others.
We cannot rush this process. When the child protests, “But she is the one who messed up my work!” we do not have to argue. We return to the third step, showing understanding for his point of view: “It’s pretty frustrating, isn’t it!” When the child feels genuinely understood, then he is ready to learn in his mind and in his heart.
Help the child to feel genuine compassion for the one he has hurt. If we want our child to show compassion, we must model compassion. Naturally your child will resist your challenge: “She can’t start grabbing Legos when I’m building something.” We can argue that he shouldn’t be so unkind to his sister. And he will argue with us about his sister’s misdeeds. Rather than squabbling with the boy, we can show empathy: “It’s hard when you’re in the middle of a project and she interrupts you or starts using your Legos.” He does, after all, have a valid point. When we show him compassion, he is more able to show compassion for his sister. Incidentally, it may take several rounds of expressing understanding and compassion before he is ready to show compassion for his sister. Healing through compassion takes time, or, in the Lord’s language, “longsuffering and gentleness.”
5. Once the child feels understood (as evidenced by being calm and peaceful), then we can help the child think of a way to make repairs: “How could we help your sister feel loved and welcome without messing up your project?”
When hearts are right creativity can rule. “Maybe I could help her build a house” or “I could provide her with some of the blocks.” It is a joyous surprise when children feel safe and loved and naturally love and serve each other.
Any parent might reasonably protest that this process takes a lot of time. You’re right! Parenting is not quick, simple, or convenient. Parenting is a large and continuing sacrifice. Yet it is also true that, when we teach children correct principles, they are more likely to govern themselves in righteousness. An hour spent teaching them in their youth can save years of conflict, struggle, and waywardness.
In the midst of sibling conflicts, it is common to try to figure out which child is the offender. This is rarely productive. Each child makes mistakes. One child intrudes, another is stingy. Rather than try to weigh offences, we invite all toward repentance. In the above process, the focus was on the son’s repenting, but a parallel process could operate with the daughter. We could show her compassion and help her understand her brother’s need to be able to concentrate.
Getting our Hearts Right
Perhaps the greatest challenge to effectively teaching children is that we simply cannot do it right unless our hearts are right. We cannot teach peace while our souls are at war. We cannot teach them the principles of love and goodness while bubbling with anger or annoyed by distractions.
We draw on more of King Benjamin’s wisdom to learn God’s process. Let’s apply his general counsel to the task of parenting:
“For the natural [parent] is an enemy to God [and children], and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit . . .”
We must yield to the gentle promptings and invitations of the Spirit if we are to be good parents. A parent who does so . . .
“ . . . putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint . . .”
Becometh a saint! We become true followers and disciples of Christ. Through repentance we acknowledge our limitations and turn to Christ for better ideas and motivation. When we have the mind of Christ, we are prepared to parent effectively—to teach our children the right ways to relate to each other. How is this change in our approach accomplished? What power changes us?
“ . . . through the atonement of Christ the Lord . . .”
As Elder Bednar has taught us, the atonement not only cleanses us, it enables and strengthens us . It is my conviction that we cannot parent as we should unless we allow the sweet peace and goodness that flows from Jesus to fill our hearts and souls.
What does the atonement look like in the daily lives of parents? It includes simple but powerful principles: having faith in the Lord, repenting of our improper acts, feelings, and thoughts, making promises to God, and drawing on the power of the Holy Ghost to change our souls.
Consider the wise counsel give by Amulek—and its application to the challenges of parenting:
Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening. (Alma 34:17-19, 21)
The Christlike parent recognizes our dependence on God, calls out for mercy, continues in prayer, and draws on the power of heaven. In parenting as in all things, He is the way, the truth, and the life.
The process of forming our children’s souls requires great wisdom and patience. This should not surprise us. God gives us the opportunity to care for His precious children in His effort to make us more and more like Him—the Perfect Parent.