What is the real role of parents? That seems like a strange question to ask. However, in observing Mormon families through my priesthood, Primary, and scouting activities, as well as in knowing how I have interacted with my own children, I think it is a question that needs to be answered. Be aware that in answering this question, I am giving my own opinion and interpretation of the scriptures. Many Mormons will disagree with me, and that is fine.
The Role of Forcing Behavior
A lot of parents seem to believe their role is to get their children to have behavior that would bring them back to God’s presence in the Celestial Kingdom. These families try to teach their children Gospel principles and standards, but when their children misbehave, these parents resort to threats and force to get desired actions from their children. The relationships between these parents and their children become contentious and struggles for power.
The Real Role as Defined by the Lord
Let us turn to the scriptures to see what the Lord has said about the real role of parents. The Book of Mormon prophet King Benjamin said this.
And ye will not suffer your children that they go hungry, or naked; neither will ye suffer that they transgress the laws of God, and fight and quarrel one with another, and serve the devil…. (Mosiah 4:14)
“Aha”, say parents who force their children to be good, “that proves we’re right. We must not let our children disobey God or fight with each other.” However, King Benjamin went on to say how we should keep our children from disobeying God and from fighting.
But ye will teach them to walk in the ways of truth and soberness; ye will teach them to love one another, and to serve one another. (Mosiah 4:15)
Benjamin said that our role as parents is that of teachers.
Nephi (another Book of Mormon prophet) recognized that parents are to teach their children. He remarked that he had kept his religious-history of his people as a way of teaching his children.
For we labor diligently to write [on the plates], to persuade our children, and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God; for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do. (2 Nephi 25:23)
In revelation to Joseph Smith, the Lord said the following about our role as parents.
And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.
For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized.
And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord. (D&C 68:25-26, 28)
It is a law in Zion that parents are to teach their children.
Further evidence that the Lord considers very important our role as teachers is given in the chastisement of Frederick G. Williams for not teaching his children.
You have not taught your children light and truth, according to the commandments; and that wicked one hath power, as yet, over you, and this is the cause of your affliction. (D&C 93:42)
How We Should Teach Our Children
In Sections 4 and 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord explained how we should teach our children.
Remember faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, diligence. (D&C 4:6)
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 thy soul without hypocrisy, and without guild–
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; (D&C 121:41-43)
We are to teach our children by using the attributes of Jesus Christ, as if we were Jesus Christ himself.
I recently experienced an example of a mother teaching her child through love. My daughter-in-law, Kristin, and her four-year old child, Jasmine, were visiting with me. It came time for them to leave, but Jasmine strongly announced she didn’t want to go. Instead of telling her that they had to go and to “come along”, Kristin kindly took Jasmine in her arms and talked with her about their schedule, the things they had to do, and that they needed to leave if they were to accomplish all their goals. She explained that they would come back to visit grandpa; I came in at that point and made an appointment to have them come the following Monday. Jasmine accepted these comments, said goodbye to me, and voluntarily left with her mother.
Why We Should Teach Our Children
Many reasons why we should teach our children could be given, but let me cover them all by saying this. We are stewards over our children to prepare them to become adults. Our children have agency, the God-given right to chose their own destiny. We are not responsible to see that our children obey God. We are not responsible to see that our children reach the Celestial kingdom. Our children are responsible for those things, because they are free (Helaman 14:30).
While our children are young, we are to teach them how to make decisions and choices, such that when they become eight years old, they will be ready to become accountable to the Lord. During their school years, we are to give our children more freedom about their lives, and we are to teach them to be accountable for their decisions. By the time they become teenagers, if our children are to have positive attitudes toward the church, they must be attending church and living Gospel standards because they have chosen to do so, not because we make them attend. If we force our children to be active in the church, there is a strong probability that when they reach adolescence, they will begin to rebel and when they finish high school their rebellion will peak in their rejecting Gospel standards and their flipping to opposite standards.
We must learn to discipline through love and not through force. Disciplining through love means that we teach our children to make wise decisions about their lives and then we give them freedom to make those decisions. Because our children have agency, they won’t always accept our teachings (even if we have disciplined with love). Even though their rebellion will bring sadness to us, we must recognize that allowing rebellion is part of God’s plan in giving us agency. We can find peace in Jesus Christ that we have done our best to teach and prepare our children to make choices, and that we are willing to give them their agency to choose for themselves.