The war in heaven was fought over agency—the ability and privilege God gives us to choose and act for ourselves. The war on earth continues to be about agency. That enduring war extends into our homes where agency is the key issue in most parenting struggles.
There are many schools of thought in parenting. One that appeals strongly to frustrated parents is behaviorism which teaches that children can be shaped by the rewards and punishments they experience. When we ignore or punish bad behavior and appreciate or reward good behavior, the philosophy goes, we can make children into responsible people.
The fundamental assumption at the core of behaviorism is that we humans have no core personality or character. We simply learn to do the things for which we have been rewarded. As a result, it is vital that parents do not give attention or encouragement to the behaviors they want to extinguish and that they do give attention to those actions they value. That is the way to shape children or animals.
This fits perfectly with Satan’s declaration that you can buy anything in this world with rewards and punishments.
Despite its problems, there is a valuable lesson in behaviorism. We should be sure we are not inadvertently rewarding bad behavior. If the only way our children can get our attention is by misbehaving, many will learn to misbehave.
But behaviorism violates a fundamental truth. We have eternal spirits with a whole set of preferences and inclinations. We are not clay to be formed or a slate on which anyone can write. We are children of God “trailing clouds of glory.” We come to earth with a whole set of tendencies, talents, and strengths.
God does not give us children to manipulate. His intention is for us to teach and guide our children with respect for their divine nature and eternal destiny. We are to activate the truth within them. It is painful to me that so many popular parenting programs among the saints have had behaviorism as their foundation. It should not be so.
There is another major distortion in parenting philosophies. Any program, book, or teaching that puts natural consequences center stage in parenting is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is true that God grants blessings according to laws. When we obey His laws, we enjoy the blessings (D&C 130:20-21). But any family system that puts justice at the center, does not understand the atonement of Jesus Christ or the great plan of happiness.
Mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice (Alma 34:16)
Friedrich Nietzsche suggested that we “distrust all men in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” God’s objective is not to exact revenge but to help us fill the measure of our creation. Earth provides the opportunities to learn by our own experience to know good from evil. Fortunately, as we navigate those learning opportunities, we always have access to repentance, mercy, and forgiveness.
At the heart of every family system should be those same principles: opportunities to experience growth with access to repentance, mercy, and forgiveness.
There definitely is a place for natural consequences in effective parenting. But a wise parent uses consequences only to help children learn the blessings of good actions.
Even timeout can communicate to children that we do not value them. It must be used sparingly and wisely—mainly to allow both parent and child time to regain their composure so they can have a peaceful conversation. When timeout conveys to a child that they are annoying or rejected, we are not conveying that our “faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death” (D&C 121:44).
Any parenting program that features consequences as the core of the program is not consistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
What are the core principles of godly parenting?
The foundation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and of effective parenting is love. “Whatever problems your family is facing, whatever you must do to solve them, the beginning and the end of the solution is charity, the pure love of Christ.” (Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, Family Overview, church website)
Disciples of Christ love others the way Jesus loves us (John 13:34-35). He loves redemptively, patiently, infinitely. Love is the foundation of both good discipleship and gospel parenting. The quality of our love will also show up in the way we guide our children.
There is a little-known influence technique recommended by research. It is called induction and is defined as efforts by the parent to get voluntary compliance by reasoning with children and helping them understand the effect of their behavior on others. It is associated with all the positive outcomes in parenting. In other words, it works.
When I first learned about parental induction in graduate school, it struck me that the idea was in perfect harmony with the Lord’s instruction on leadership.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of [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)
This is a remarkable example of God and research recommending exactly the same thing. This is parenting that helps children to be calm, think about the ways their behavior affects others, and develop an internalized concern for others—or conscience. This is a method that shows respect for children’s agency. It activates the voice of compassion and the voice of God within them.
This approach is consistent with the emotion coaching methods recommended by John Gottman’s research.
There is far more to discuss about parenting than we can cover in a single article. Before you adopt any book or program as your parenting bible, be sure that it is consistent with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have written (or edited) several parenting books that draw on the truths of the Gospel and good research.
Discoveries: Essential Truths for Relationships which includes additional discussion of induction as well as guides for personal well-being, marriage, and other parenting principles.
The Soft-Spoken Parent: 55 Strategies for Preventing Contention with Your Children helps parents to find alternatives to the anger that damages both children and our relationships with them.
Bringing Up Our Children in Light and Truth discusses the five foundational principles of parenting.
Between Parent and Child by Haim Ginott, revised by Alice Ginott and H. Wallace Goddard. Ginott was the genius of showing compassion while setting wise limits. Every parent should study his approach.
Thanks to Barbara Keil for her helpful additions to this article.