As we pursue our quest of Eternal Life, we realize that our most important activity in mortality is being partners with the Lord to provide his spirit children with mortal tabernacles.
Children come into the world clean and free of sin because of the Atonement of Jesus Christ, and during their early childhood they are not capable of committing sin because Satan has no power to tempt them (D&C 29:46-47). Children do make mistakes, such as being disobedient to their parents and telling lies, but they are too young to be accountable for their actions, and the Savior’s Atonement removes their mistakes (Mosiah 3:16). As they grow and develop, children must make transitions from being not accountable for their actions to being responsible for what they do.
The Lord has charged parents to assist their children with these transitions: parents are responsible to train their children and help the children prepare for successful lives as adults (D&C 93:40). This charge to teach our children is an awesome responsibility, because children are susceptible to influences from adults. Indeed, one of the Proverbs says Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6). Regardless whether parents train their children with righteous or unrighteous principles, parents have strong influence over their children. The Book of Mormon contains examples of this influence(1). Because of the magnitude of the influence they have on children, it is important that parents take seriously their roles as parents. It is critical that they train their children according to parenting techniques the Lord approves.
Children Have Agency
One of the important conditions of mortality is that we are free to choose to follow God or to follow Satan. Our Heavenly Father will not force us to do his will. The scriptures clearly teach that we have agency(2) , and those teachings apply to children who have reached the age of accountability as well as to adults. If we are to help our children have positive growth experiences as they enter adolescence and then adulthood, it is important that we respect their agency and provide opportunities for them to make choices and become accountable for their actions.
Agency Results From Limits
The Lord, in a revelation given in 1833, explained 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, for example, 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.
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 a 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 be pulled 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.
Parenting the Lord’s Way
The Lord explained how his children should be raised. His counsel stands forever (Psalms 33:11), and if we follow it we will be wise parents (Proverbs 19:20). As we discuss the scriptures that give his guidelines, let us remember that these guidelines are to be used in environments in which our children have agency. We are not to destroy that agency in any way. Rather, we are to follow the counsel of the Lord to help our children have proper limits to their activities and to exercise their agency within those limits. Let us remember that as our children make wise choices, the boundaries to their “spheres of truth” and the resulting domains of their agency increase. Thus, our role as parents is to help our children grow in their ability to make wise decisions. As our children use their agency wisely, we are to give them more freedom by broadening the limits we place on them. In other words, we are to train our children to be self-sufficient people.
Jesus Christ is our Example
Jesus said, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me (John 14:6). If our children are to become exalted and be with the Father, they must do it through Jesus Christ, and we must perform our parenting as Jesus would do it. He is our role model.
Many of the Lord’s parenting skills are described in Section 4 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In that section, the Lord was referring to missionary work, but his comments apply to child-raising, for raising children to become like the Father is the most important type of missionary work.
The Lord said that we should embark on this work with full intent. We are not to take our roles as parents lightly. The Lord continued by saying that this work would be a fruitful endeavor in which we would bring salvation to our souls as well as to those with whom we labor. He then enumerated several skills that we should use in raising our children.
And faith, hope, charity and love, with an eye single to the glory of God, qualify him for the work. (D&C 4:5)
We are to use faith in God as the basis for raising our children. This faith leads us to have hope that our families will be successful. That hope leads us to have charity and love for our families. The charity spoken of is the pure love of Christ (Moroni 7:47), and that phrase has two meanings. It means that our love for Jesus Christ is pure; we honestly love him and are grateful for his suffering in our behalf as he paid the price for our sins. The phrase also means that we have for our families the same unselfish love that Jesus has for us; this love is to be the basis of our interpersonal relationships.
The Lord then explained how we use charity to raise our children. He said we should have the personal traits that he personified during his mortal ministry.
Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (D&C 4:6)
Our relationships should be based upon faith in him. Those relationships must be based on virtue, for he is clean. We are to study parenting skills so our actions will be based on knowledge. We are to avoid extremes in our behavior by using temperance and consistency with our children. We are to remember that learning comes by way of frequent, small steps, rather than infrequent large jumps, and we are to teach our children with patience and allow them to learn from their experiences. Because our relationships with our children are to be based on charity or pure love, we are to have sincere kindness towards our families, and we are to exhibit godliness towards them. We are to be humble that we may be led and taught by the Spirit of God (D & C 42:14; 28:4; 75:10) and by our church leaders, for we are also learning as we teach our children. We are to be diligent, steadfast and faithful to the end. Not all of us will have righteous children, and none of us will be “perfect” parents, but we are to do as much as we can and then leave the rest to God.
In the final verse of Section 4, the Lord counseled us to be prayerful as we raise our families, and he promised that the way would be opened for us to accomplish our missions.
Exerting Righteous Influence
In Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord, speaking through Joseph Smith while the prophet was in the Liberty jail, gave further counsel to help us fulfill our stewardships as parents. He first counseled us that we can exert positive influences only if we follow principles of righteousness. He enumerated those principles.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, 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)
We are to raise our children by using persuasion to influence them. We are to be patient and long-suffering with them as they learn from their experiences. We are to treat them with gentleness, meekness, kindness, and honest love. Because our children are God’s children, we are to treat them as we would treat the Lord himself if he were living in our homes.
The Lord went on to say there will be times when we must give correction to our children, but we must correct them only when we are inspired by the Holy Ghost to do so. He said that after we give correction, we must give increased love to our children so they will realize we acted out of love for them.
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (D&C 121:43-44)
Many parents give correction out of frustration and anger rather than out of love. One can tell if his or her actions come from love or from anger. Love is positive and strengthens self-esteem while anger is negative and belittles and destroys the self-image of both the child and the parent.
The Lord emphasized that charity and virtue must be the foundations of our families, and he promised that those families who live as he lived would receive great blessings.
Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever. (D&C 121:45-46)
Avoid Domination of Children
Before giving us the counsel on positive parenting skills that we have discussed above from Section 121, the Lord warned us that we might exercise unrighteous control over his children. He first explained that the powers of heaven can only be used in righteous ways.
That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness. (D&C 121:36)
He then explained that we can receive positions of authority, but if we exercise unrighteous control, domination, or compulsion over his children, the Holy Ghost will be grieved. If our unrighteous acts are continued, we will lose our companionship of the Holy Ghost and our right to represent God here on earth. If that happens we are left alone to shrivel in our shells of bitterness.
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins; or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to 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; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God. (D&C 121:37-38)
The Lord then said that almost all people exercise unrighteous dominion when they receive authority.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. (D&C 121:39)
It seems that many parents believe they have a right to excessively control their children, that to spare the rod is to spoil the child. Those parents sometimes point to verses in Proverbs as justification for their being strict with their children (Proverbs 22:15; 23:13; 29:15). As we read those verses, it is important that we understand them within the context of all of the Lord’s teachings on child rearing. We have discussed that the Lord wants us to establish wise boundaries for our children, for those limits allow our children to have and exercise agency. The verses from Proverbs are referring to such boundaries–correction and guidance given under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost. There is no excuse for parents to use those verses to justify authoritarian control of children in ways that cause physical, emotional, and spiritual harm.
Scientific Corroboration of Parenting Skills
We have discussed the Lord’s way of parenting. Let us now turn to science to see if scientific research is confirming the Lord’s methods.
A parent who places limits upon the behavior of the child but allows freedom within those limits is using a parenting style that a scientist named Diana Baumrind calls Authoritative parenting.
This parent provides a high degree of emotional support to the child and creates a warm, loving environment in the home (Ingersoll, p. 208). Baumrind suggests that parents develop rules with their children and be affectionate with them (Santrock, p. 195). Authoritative parents give greater emotional support to their children (Ingersoll, p. 208), and they listen to and are responsive to their children’s points of view. Children from authoritative homes believe they are in control of their own lives, because they are involved in the making of decisions about themselves. They try to do what their parents want, because their desires are mutual desires (Hetherington, p. 51, 79, 509).
Research is showing that children need secure family relationships to have successful peer relationships (Hetherington, p. 172). Positive family relationships contribute to greater self-esteem, and that helps children have the emotional strength to survive in the world of their peers. Parents must give more independence (less control) to their children as their children progress through adolescence (Ingersoll, p. 214).
Scientists are learning that parents who are either overly permissive or overly strict with their children cause serious harm to the children. The parenting style in which the parent exercises very little control over the child is referred to by Baumrind as Permissive parenting. Researchers have defined two types of permissive parenting. The Permissive-indifferent parent is not involved with the child while the Permissive-indulgent parent is very involved with the child. In both cases, the parent allows the child to do anything he or she wants to do (Santrock, p. 196). Parents who are overly strict with their children use methods of discipline that Baumrind calls authoritarian discipline. The effects of permissive parenting on children are very similar to the effects of authoritarian discipline, and the following discussion, that is given within the context of authoritarian discipline, covers both types.
Methods Used By Parents to Control.According to a scientist named Dorothy Briggs, the authoritarian parent has four ways to enforce discipline: give up, nag, enforce by punishment, or enforce by rewards. (Briggs, pp. 233-234). In addition to these methods of control, guilt and shame are used. (Hurlock, p. 255). These methods of discipline frequently take the following forms: spanking, scolding, withdrawal of love, withholding of privileges, isolation of the child, bribery, not letting children “own” their own feelings, and ordering the children to perform the parents’ solutions to problems (Briggs, pp. 97, 234- 236).
To clarify her statement that parents do not let children be responsible for their own feelings, Briggs gives the following example. Teddy (a ten-year old) screams that he wants a candy bar. His mother tells him that he doesn’t want candy now because it will spoil his lunch, and she promises that he can have candy for dessert. Teddy’s emotions told him that he wanted candy, but his mother told him that he did not want candy (Briggs, pp. 97-98).
To explain what she meant by ordering the child to perform the parents’ solutions, Briggs tells of nine-year old Brian who hit his younger brother. His mother stops the fight and commands that Brian apologize to his brother. Brian’s mother solved the dispute between him and his brother by dictating that Brian was to make peace (Briggs, p. 97).
Many parents are not aware they are using authoritarian parenting techniques. They are following the disciplinary methods used by their parents, and those techniques seem normal. In addition, parents will say “do this” or “do that” to their children without realizing they are controlling their children by telling them what to do–the parents feel they are merely giving suggestions to their children. However, the point is not what the parents think about the disciplinary methods they use but how those techniques affect their children.
Effects of Control. The following information about the effects of authoritarian control is from Dorothy Briggs (pp. 234-236).
Spanking has been a traditional method of discipline. In the short term, children respond to spanking because they want to avoid being hurt. Spanking, however, teaches fear, and to avoid the spanking children learn to lie about their activities. In addition, spanking is a form of aggression.
Scolding causes intimidation, rejection, shame, and humiliation, and it seriously affects self-esteem.
Withdrawal of love teaches children that their value is conditional on their behavior. “Mommy won’t love you if you do that.” Sending children to bed without supper is a form of withholding of love, because children associate that punishment with their parent’s feelings about them.
Withholding of privileges does cause children to obey their parents, because it uses items or activities of value to the children to coerce them into behavior desired by the parents. This punishment, however, causes resentment in the children and reinforces with them that they are helpless and must meekly obey their parents.
Isolation of children by sending them to their rooms prevents honest communication between them and their parents and forces the children to work out by themselves the emotions of their problems.
Bribery (“You’ll get a dollar for every A”) teaches children that their parents are the source of power in their lives. There is danger that children will consider the bribe more important than the activity for which they received the bribe, and in future situations it is possible that if bribes are not present, the activities will not be performed.
Feelings About Themselves. Children from authoritarian families frequently lack courage to try new things, and they prefer to have behavior they know will be accepted by their parents. (Hetherington, p. 40). Because of this, they suffer from insecurity and low self-esteem. Briggs states that authoritarianism damages self-esteem because it teaches the children to not trust their own opinions and abilities to make decisions. The children learn that their parents lack faith in their (the children’s) ability to work cooperatively with the family. (Briggs, pp. 237-238)
Children who look to others for direction in their lives, tend to blame others for their problems rather than taking responsibility themselves for the problems (Hetherington, p. 41). These children have difficulty adjusting to the demands of becoming adolescents, and they may become shy and withdrawn.
Relationships With Parents. As they experience adolescence, children are trying to gain independence and become self-sufficient adults. Children in authoritarian homes experience frustration during adolescence because they have been trained to be submissive to authority. This frustration may cause the adolescents to become alienated from their parents (Hurlock, p. 303).
Research evidence shows that when parents give strong, controlling commands, children comply as long as the parents are present, but they do not comply as much when their parents are gone (Hetherington, p. 79). These children hold resentment and guilt inside of them, and that breeds hostility. When their parents are absent, these children frequently run wild; authoritarian parents are never fully free to be absent (Briggs, p. 237).
This alienation from their parents can have long-term effects on the children. Baumrind believes that the so called “generation gap” is widened in authoritarian families (Ingersoll, p. 212). Other researchers agree that authoritarian parenting damages long-term relationships. Many times, when children from authoritarian homes finally break away from their parents, they avoid close relationships with their parents because they do not want to be smothered again (Nelsen, p. 122).
Relationships with Peers and Society. Research evidence shows that children from authoritarian homes are likely to be socially withdrawn and distrustful of others (Hetherington, p. 509). The children have difficult interpersonal relationships with their peers, and they are dominated by their peers (Hetherington, p. 40).
Briggs, D. C., (1970). Your Child’s Self Esteem, Garden City, NY: Doubleday
Hetherington, E. M., (Ed.), (1983). Socialization, Personality, and Social. In Mussen, P. H. (Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology, (Vol. IV), New York: Wiley
Hurlock, E. B., (1973). Adolescent Development, New York: McGraw-Hill
Ingersoll, G. M., (1989). Adolescents, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall
Nelsen, J., & Lott, L., (1991). I’m On Your Side, Rocklin, CA: Prima
Santrock, J. W., (1993). Adolescence, An Introduction, Madison, Wisconsin: Brown & Benchmark