Setting Limits For Our Children

In my other essays I have encouraged parents to give a lot of freedom to their children so the children can develop individuality and not be overly influenced by their peers. Parents, however, must be cautious, because scientists who study adolescent behavior say that children who are given too much freedom are affected in the same way as children who are given too little freedom: they are insecure and have low esteem. The children blame others for their own problems. They don’t trust their own opinions, and they learn to lie to please their parents. It seems we must find a middle ground in giving freedom if we are to have healthy children.

The Lord’s Way

In a revelation given in 1833, the Lord explained what that middle ground is. He said that we have agency because we live in environments in which we are restricted by boundaries. It is paradoxical that we have freedom to choose because we are subject to limitations, but that is the case.

All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.

Behold, here is the agency of man, and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. (D&C 93:30-31)

In that revelation, the Lord explained that truth exists in “spheres”. In creating “spheres of truth”, God placed boundaries around pieces of his truth. He declared that truth is independent within those boundaries and that our agency results from bounded truth. That is, we have freedom to choose because we have limits placed on our environment and activities. If we were given all truth, we would not be able to handle that degree of freedom because we are not exalted, and we would live in chaos and would be destroyed by it. Thus, God gives us as much truth as we can handle and places limits to prevent us from accessing truth that is beyond our capabilities.

Because we are different from each other, we have different “spheres of truth”. Our “spheres” expand and contract as we progress or retrogress during our stay in mortality. A newborn baby has a “sphere” that is very small. The baby has freedom to live, eat, cry, and mess in his or her diapers, and that is about all. As the baby grows, its “sphere” expands, giving it more freedom to choose.

In the verses quoted from Section 93, the Lord said that truth was independent within the sphere in which God placed it. This implies that the boundaries set by God are consistent and stable. To understand this, let us consider the law of gravity as one boundary to our “spheres”. Because we know this law is a consistent law, we have freedom to behave within the bounds set by that law. We are not tempted, for example, to drive across a river at a point where there is no bridge, because we know our automobiles will fall into the water. If we did not know from one moment to the next whether the law of gravity was in operation, we would be afraid to move because we would be unable to predict the outcome of our movement. We would have less freedom to act. Hence, consistent boundaries establish stable environments in which we can predict the outcome of our decisions and activities, and we can make rational choices about those activities.

Mistakes Parents Make

Many parents set inappropriate limits on their children’s behavior. They set limits that give too much or too little freedom. They set limits but don’t give freedom within those limits. They set rigid boundaries and refuse to modify them as their children grow through experience.

OK, but What does This Mean?

All of this sounds good in theory, but what does this sphere concept mean to us parents who want to raise healthy children?

I remember reading in a book on parenting about a family that had a teenage son. He wanted to paint his bedroom black. Even though the parents weren’t excited about a black bedroom, they held a family conference to discuss the matter. They explained that if the son painted the room black, he would be expected to restore the room to its present color when he left home. The son agreed and got his black bedroom. A few years later, when he went to college, the parents got back their white bedroom. The parents set a limit that any color change wouldn’t be permanent and that the boy would restore the original color. The boy had freedom within those limits to choose the color. It was a win-win situation.

One day I was talking with the wife of my Bishop about one of my kids and a poor decision the child had made. The Sister made a comment that has since become one of the pillars of my relationship with my children. The Sister said, “After explaining the situation to him, you let him have another chance, didn’t you?” The Sister was encouraging me to use the situation as a teaching moment to help my son learn from his mistake, and in order for my son to fully understand his mistake and to to profit from it, it was necessary that he have another opportunity to make that decision. Such it is with limits. When our children make unwise decisions, we help them learn from those experiences, and then we return their agency to them so they can make choices within the boundaries of their limits.

We must seek guidance form the Spirit to set appropriate limits, and we must be sensitive to the reactions of our children to those limits. We must be willing to expand or contract the limits until we find the amount of discipline that will be good for our children. And, we must recognize that all of this changes as our children mature. Through setting wise limits on the behavior of our children and giving freedom to our children to make decisions within those limits, we can raise healthy children who will be strong individuals and won’t follow peer pressure in attempts to be accepted by their peers. They will respect their own individuality more than they will respect the acceptance of their peers.

In summary, as parents we must

  • Set wise limits on the behavior of our children
  • Give freedom to our children to make decisions within those limits
  • Modify the limits based on the choices made by our children
  • Seek guidance from the Spirit in all of these things
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