Principles of Parenting, Part 1

There are three stages of moral growth for children—and the Lord has given parents guidelines on what to teach at each level

Editor’s Note: Part Two of Principles of Parenting will discuss moral motivation. It will deal directly with the question: When a child knows right from wrong, what is it that causes him to choose the right?, and will suggest ways parents can guide their children in making correct decisions.

The Lord identified four characteristics of successful parents when he described the Saints who would inherit the earth in these last days. (See D&C 45:56–59.) First, they are wise. Second, they have received the truth. Third, they have taken the Holy Spirit for their guide. Fourth, they have not been deceived. Seventy-three years before the first coming of Christ, the prophet Alma declared that the ministry of the priesthood was to prepare the minds of the people, “that salvation might come unto them, that they may prepare the minds of their children to hear the word at the time of his coming.” (Alma 39:16.)

Scriptural counsel such as this sets our feet, as parents, on the proper path. But what can a parent do—specifically? Any anxious parent who has tried to educate himself with courses, classes, books, and magazine articles about raising children knows there is an abundance of conflicting and confusing opinions. Nearly all of these opinions seem partially correct, at least under certain circumstances. How can one be wise and avoid being deceived, as the Lord has counseled?

This confusion that seems to come with too many “answers” and too many opinions can be overcome by relying on clearly defined and correct principles. Even though correct principles don’t always supply ready-made solutions, they do give us the vision necessary to proceed in the right direction. Correct principles are proper tools for parents.

The Lord has provided many correct principles for parents—more than we might realize. Using what we are given from revelatory sources makes it much easier to discern the good from the bad in what we hear and see around us.

President Joseph F. Smith, for example, cuts to the very center of today’s educational dilemmas when he says:

“The education then of our desires is one of far-reaching importance to our happiness in life. … God’s ways of educating our desires are, of course, always the most perfect, and if those who have it in their power to educate and direct the desires of children would imitate his prudence, the children would be much more fortunate in combating the difficulties that beset men everywhere in the struggle for existence.” (Gospel Doctrine, pp. 297–98.)

The principle seems clear. Our major concern should be that of influencing our children’s desires or dispositions—not appealing to their intellects or their physiological natures. We must strive to influence their spiritual dispositions. Appealing to the child’s intellect or his physical senses, as is the popular approach toward education, may serve some purposes, but if that is all we do we are shortsighted and will probably be deceived.

Religious or moral development—learning to choose right from wrong—differs in some important ways from our intellectual and physical development. Morality is independent of genetics; it is nonintellectual in some ways, and it does not seem to be fully self-motivated, but derives its power over the will of man by his invitation to divine influences that originate “outside” himself. Characteristics such as these make intellectual or physiological approaches to moral training inadequate.

Man is a spirit child of heavenly parents. While in mortality, each individual faces the test of bringing his mortal body and all of its attendant temptations under the subjection of his spiritual body and personality. President Brigham Young summarized this situation in the following statement:

“In the first place the spirit is pure, and under the special control and influence of the Lord, but the body is of the earth, and is subject to the power of the devil, and is under the mighty influence of that fallen nature that is of the earth. If the spirit yields to the body, the devil has power to overcome both the body and the spirit of that man.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 2, p. 256.)

The challenge, then, is for parents to help their children keep spiritually aligned with the “special control and influence of the Lord” that President Young mentions. This is difficult for two reasons. First, each child born into mortality is subjected to the traditions and environmental influences of others. When these traditions are false and the environment is wicked, the child fails to receive the developmental help he really needs. If the traditions are in accordance with God’s laws and the environment is righteous, it is easier for the child to choose the right and find happiness.

The second reason it is difficult to stay in tune with the influence of the Lord is that each person, as he matures, becomes solely responsible for exercising his agency—his power and opportunity to choose. His choices in mortality are made against the tension of the influence of Satan. To consistently make correct choices after reaching the stage of accountability demands divine help. We cannot do this alone. Success depends on divine assistance.

What can a parent do? First, he can realize his own role, and second, he can recognize the three stages of moral development through which his children pass and how they can best be helped in each of these stages. They are: birth to age eight, ages eight to twelve, and age twelve to adulthood. These are not rigid categories, but they are descriptively correct.

Stage One: Birth to Age Eight

By nature, a little child is very wrapped up in his own pleasures and needs, and usually acts on the basis of what will result in pleasure for him. But, at the same time, the child is almost completely subject to the will of others: he is not physically “free” to satisfy every desire; furthermore, he is not psychologically “free,” since it is very easy for him to hear an adult’s wishes as expressions of his own will.

Because the child can’t differentiate social cues, he needs authoritative guidance, first from his parents, then from teachers and other adults, and later from institutions his parents esteem, like the Church and school. The mother’s influence is paramount, since she sets the standards and expectations that the child is most aware of. Until he is eight, to be good is to be obedient. What the parents want is “right.” The expectations of the mother, reinforced by the father, become the child’s moral system.

One of the best ways of teaching the young child good behavior is to tell him stories that will expose him to moral behavior outside of his own experiences. Inspirational stories about scriptural characters are ideal. He can identify with hero-type authority figures, and this is reinforced when his parents sanction such identification.

This means that if a parent expects a child to act lovingly and the parent presents a model of loving behavior, it is very easy for the child to “practice” acting lovingly.

Consequently, there is no better time to teach obedience than during these very early years. The child naturally wants pleasure, but is dependent on others for that pleasure; therefore, he is anxious to please others. Before a child can say “I ought,” he must have the experience of responding to the commands of “you must.”

What does this mean to parents? Obviously, they need to be with their children; they need to provide clear standards and expectations. What a child needs is freedom with responsibility, patience with understanding, and tolerance with consequences. “Permissive” child-raising is usually just a kind of indulgent negligence.

Another implication is that reasoning about morality with small children is seldom effective. When Johnny jumps up and down on the couch and tips over the lamp, the permissive mother says, “Now, Johnny, that wasn’t very nice. We don’t want to ruin Mommy’s new furniture, do we?”

The learn-from-experience approach isn’t much more successful. When Mary is choking the kitten, Daddy says, “You’d better be careful, Mary, or you’ll get scratched. See? Daddy told you. Next time you’ll listen, won’t you, darling?” For young children, these approaches are confusing. The child doesn’t know what his parents think is wrong, and he gets attention for misbehavior. Of course, he’ll feel that impulsive self-expression is more rewarding than sacrifice and self-discipline.

What Johnny and Mary need to know is what their parents want them to do. If the parents are confused, the children will be, too.

Clearly establishing and enforcing standards for young children does not mean parents should be dictators. The parent-child relationship should be loving and emotionally supportive. Children are natural learners. They are very inquisitive and seem to ask endless numbers of questions. Parents have many opportunities to stimulate a child’s learning by taking time to explain how and why things happen. Children often seem to enjoy hearing reasons and explanations. But responding to and stimulating a child’s curiosity should not be interpreted as the basis for leaving the young child on his own to decide what is right and what is wrong. Parents err when they assume that explaining the reasons for, or consequences of, certain behavior to a five-year-old releases them from the responsibility of seeing that he does the right things.

In moral matters the parents’ will is still the child’s “rod of iron.” Reasons may or may not be attached to a parent’s commandments for this age group. For example, a father may say to his three or four-year-old: “Daddy doesn’t want you to play in the road because a car might hit you.” The child may or may not be hit by a car, but he should still learn to obey because his father said so. For the child of this age this is usually reason enough.

During this first stage of a child’s life, he is almost totally defenseless against the influence of his parents. This testing situation is frighteningly real and inescapable for parents, because the Lord is appraising their worthiness to remain parents throughout eternity. In D&C 29:46–48, he explains that little children are not held accountable so “that great things might be required at the hands of their [the children’s] fathers.”

Stage Two: Eight to Twelve

During these fairly quiet years, a child acquires the capacity to distinguish between his father’s will and the abstract rules that govern his father’s behavior. He’ll notice that his father slows the car down in the 35-mile zone, and speeds up in the 55-mile zone, and will question discrepancies between the speedometer and the posted speed limit.

In other words, children in this stage like rules. They develop an enormous respect for them and are keenly sensitive to them. Any playground is arbitrated by “It’s not fair,” or “But those are the rules.” A child at this stage is capable of more sensitivity to others’ feelings, but the rules are usually more important. This has some disadvantages, but a child who has developed a feeling for duty and obligation can obey the rules, even if they conflict with authoritative personalities.

These years are an ideal time to teach him to do chores, take responsibility, learn citizenship, and memorize the Ten Commandments and the Articles of Faith—and even the missionary scriptures.

Most important, a child in this age group develops the basic disposition that will determine major decisions such as what kind of person he will marry, whether he will go on a mission, what kind of living he wants to make, what style of spending he feels comfortable with, and how much reverence is paid to parents and God.

The decisions themselves may not be finalized here, but the underlying values can and ought to be established during these quiet years before the developing powers of procreation unleash their shock waves, before intellectual doubts, peer group pressures, and social self-consciousness begin. Now is the golden period to establish anchor points so that the child will have something to hang on to. As President Young taught:

“These noble, God-like principles should be instilled in them [children] in their youthful days, that when they grow up, they may never feel a disposition to deceive, or to commit iniquity, or turn away from the holy commandments of the Lord, but have power to control and govern themselves, subduing every inclination to evil, and every ungovernable temper, that they may secure to themselves eternal life.” (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p. 368.)

Stage Three: Age Twelve to Adulthood

The young child wanted to know, “Who tells me to do it?” The accountable child wanted to know, “What are the rules?” The teenager wants to know, “Why should I do it?” He begins searching for meanings. He wants experience, discussion, and abstract thought. Sometimes his search for meaning becomes the question, “Why shouldn’t I do it?”, straining his relationships with adults to test the perimeters of his freedom, rebelling against what he interprets as injustice or hypocrisy. He is not just posing intellectual questions; he is exploring spiritual questions, as a child of God whose moral awareness is expanding.

The adolescent becomes sensitive to people in a new way. As a youngster, the rules were all-important, but now he begins to see conflicts. “Should I lie if it’s for my best friend?” he asks. Adolescents are hungry for the truth that lies behind the rules. They seek their real identities. For all of these reasons, children between the ages of 12 and 14 are in the time of real religious awakening. (See David O. McKay, Man May Know For Himself, p. 296.)

The adolescent’s feeling about authority is different from feelings of children in the other two stages. The four-year-old sees authority as a personality, usually that of his parents. The ten-year-old sees authority as the rule that even his parents have to obey. The 18-year-old, however, is capable of perceiving true principles and governing himself by those principles; the authority of a parent or teacher now becomes a testimony to the authority of the principle. He is capable of moral maturity, of voluntarily obeying the influence of eternal principles and the will of our Heavenly Father.

The different attitudes toward authority should tell a parent something about the methods he should use for each of these three stages. The four-year-old will accept direction and feel good about it if he clearly knows that “I’m your father and I want you to.” The ten-year-old will feel better about obeying and respecting authority if he can see a connection to a rule that transcends personality. By the time John is 17, however, neither of these methods is completely satisfying.

His habit of questioning rules to find the principles is a good one, for if he finds enough good principles behind the rules, he will develop faith that there are principles that validate even those God-given laws that transcend his capacity to understand. This faith will guide him through the legalism of the law into the spirit of the gospel.

If parents understand these principles, they will be careful not to restrict moral growth by habitually using the wrong approach at any given stage. Pressuring a small child to reason things out is both unrealistic and frustrating if what he really needs is simply, “Because Mommy wants you to.” If adolescents, on the other hand, are not allowed to reason things out, they may either rebel or become morally retarded, constantly dependent upon an authority figure to make their moral decisions.

Motivation to Choose the Right

Understanding these principles, of course, will not solve all of a parent’s teaching problems, for even after the child has learned the difference between right and wrong, there is a need for motivation to choose the right. This is not easy. One of the differences between moral and intellectual development is that reasons aren’t enough. Moral behavior seems to be motivated by outside influences, and our free agency, to a certain extent, can only take us to the point of selecting the influences that we will be under.

How can parents help their children keep spiritually aligned with “the special control and influence of the Lord”? How can they help their children want to do what’s right?

[photos] Photography by Lonnie Lonczyna

[photo] From birth to age eight, children are most receptive to learning obedience. If Mom and Dad tell them stories exemplifying moral behavior, they will identify with and reflect the actions of the heroes.

[photo] From age eight to twelve, children feel most comfortable following rules. It is a good time for parents to teach them to do chores, take responsibility, and memorize the Ten Commandments and other scriptures.

[photo] After age 12, young people search for meanings, reasons, and principles. This is the time for parents to discuss things with them in depth, while allowing them to reason for themselves.

Brother Flinders is director of research and evaluation for the Church Seminaries and Institutes of Religion. He serves as a counselor in the Manila Ward bishopric, Pleasant Grove Utah Timpanogos Stake.