When I was a boy, I used to go with my father to the Ogden stockyards. We lived on a small farm and occasionally sold a few animals there. During one of these visits my father taught me a lesson that has increased in its value over the years. It was a spontaneous bit of instruction and probably took less than a minute to deliver.
A Black Goat Named Judas
The holding pens for the cattle, hogs, and sheep were on the river bank. A fenced bridge spanned the river and connected with a ramp that angled up to the top story of a processing plant on the other bank. Since the animals to be butchered had to be herded across the bridge and up the ramp, the men who managed this operation developed a clever solution. They trained a black goat to enter the sheep pens, mingle with the sheep, and then lead the way across the bridge and up the ramp through the door of the processing plant. Once inside the doorway, the goat stepped aside, and the sheep pressed on to their ultimate fate.
I remember watching this scene as my dad explained the operation. He paused, then added, “Let that be a lesson to you; be careful who you follow. Make sure your know where you are being led.”
I’ve never forgotten that experience. When I think of fathers leading, teaching, spiritually feeding their families, I remember how my father did it—in simple but lasting ways. The opportunities to teach important lessons are not always planned. They often arise out of our day-to-day experiences—here a little and there a little, taking advantage of a teaching moment.
You Teach What You Are
Probably the most impressive lesson I have learned as a father is that my children are nourished as much or more on what I am than on what I try to teach.
Children are a constant revelation. They are like little mirrors toddling about reflecting back images of our own thinking, language, and mannerisms. The prayers my wife and I offer are also the prayers we hear when our children take their turns. The spiritual quality of the language in the home, the respect and consideration displayed, and the general atmosphere seem to inescapably mirror us, the parents. The way I treat my wife has an influence on how she treats our children. If we snap or shout at our children, they’re soon snapping at each other and at us. Our norms of behavior seem to become the norms of behavior in our family.
Relationships as Means of Spiritual Communication
Another challenge that tests me as a father is that of creating a relationship with my children more powerful than the relationships they develop with their friends. This doesn’t seem as difficult with the younger children as it does with the teenagers. Children love to play, and it hasn’t been difficult to roll on the rug, tickle, tell stories, and make funny faces. Besides that, I am gone during the day, and as Joan says, it’s easy to be a hero at night when you don’t have to be a sheriff and judge all day. At any rate, the younger children have always run to meet me with spontaneous kisses and hugs.
But after age ten or so, my competition gets stiffer. The older children tend to develop strong ties with their peer group even though they also still want our affection and attention. The challenge as I see it is to maintain a stronger relationship with each child than he has with others—to draw him to the family more strongly than he is drawn to any other group. This relationship allows parents to continue to be effective teachers of their children.
I have learned that building this kind of teaching relationship demands special experiences with each child. I have tried to have these experiences at least weekly—sometimes in big events and sometimes in small. A wilderness pack trip on horses or a fishing trip works well with my boys, but my daughters expect something different, and sometimes it’s taken me awhile to catch on. Teaching them an “old-fashioned” dance step, keeping up with their school and social life, explaining why young people do the things they do, or taking them out for a treat alone seems to work well with my girls.
A major secret is helping them to see the connection between what you do and what it means. Once in a while, let them see you sacrifice something they know you really want to do so that you can be with them.
Most parents regularly sacrifice personal desires to help their children, and most parents value their children more than anything else they have. But quite often, the children don’t see that it is a sacrifice for the parents. Morn sits up sewing on a dress because she wants to, doesn’t she? (Of course, parents shouldn’t go overboard. The “I gave you the best years of my life” routine doesn’t have much impact after the first time.) My challenge as a father is to make our family’s life-style communicate clearly to the children that they are of supreme value to us.
Developing a relationship that will “outdraw” their friends is important because it seems to form the basis for guiding our children. If the relationship is good, I can counsel effectively and they can receive it more willingly. If the relationship is full of weeds, it may even be impossible to deliver the message at all.
For example, the bishops in our area asked the high school girls to wear a dress to school once or twice each week. When I sustained this proposition, it created a conflict for our teenage daughter to go against the peer pressure to wear pants. The issue was really a test of which relationship was most important—with her father or with her friends. Once she decided which relationship she most wanted to preserve, it was easy to wear a dress. She also discovered, somewhat to her surprise, that this particular decision did not destroy her relationship with her friends. It merely notified them that they took second priority.
Losing a Few Battles
I have a wise friend whom I consider to be a successful father. He says, “We need to understand that being willing to lose a few battles may help us win the war.” I find that this is true. We want our children to develop enough mature independence to establish good homes of their own in which to rear our grandchildren. It is unlikely that they will do this successfully without making some decisions that vary from ours.
Husbands and wives need to give and take in marriage; so do parents and children. It’s a constant struggle for me to decide where to hold the line and where I should graciously accept “defeat.” It seems worth losing the minor skirmishes if my children line up on the matters I feel are too vital for compromise.
The Need for Divine Guidance
Knowing where to give in and where to hold the line emphasizes our need for divine guidance. I know from my own experience that unless I receive spiritual instruction I cannot give spiritual instruction. I learned a great lesson from President Brigham Young’s instruction to fathers to invite the Holy Ghost into their homes daily:
“Fathers, never cease to pray that your wives may enjoy this blessing [of being influenced by the Spirit of the Lord], that their infants may be endowed with the Holy Ghost, from their mother’s womb. If you want to see a nation rise up full of the Holy Ghost, and of power, this is the way to bring it about. Every other duty that is obligatory upon man, woman, or child, will come in its place, and in its time and season. Remember it, brethren. Let your hearts be pure before the Lord, and never cease to do anything you can for the satisfaction and comfort of your family, that all may enjoy the comforts of the Spirit of the Lord continually. If you do not come to this, your literary attainments will not exceed those of the world.” (Journal of Discourses, 1:69.)
I find that when I pray for my wife to have the influence of the Holy Ghost as she works with our children, I am more sensitive to what I must do as a father. Likewise, I find it easier to teach my children if I talk to God about my children as much as I talk to my children about God.
Builders Don’t Start with a Finished Product
Another aspect of spiritually nourishing a family is the simple recognition that it is daily labor—and some of it makes us pass through “tight places.” It’s sometimes comforting to realize we’ll be judged as parents on how hard we tried rather than on how perfect our children are.
In some cases, free agency and the pre-earth experiences of the individual apparently exert influences that are beyond the parents’ control. But parents are commanded to teach their children to pray, to walk uprightly, and to keep the Sabbath day holy. This responsibility cannot be escaped. Two consequences follow: We should not expect our children to grow up without ever embarrassing us or needing correction; nor should we pretend that we never have any problems with our children. Hypocrisy is a heavy weight to work against.
Fathers are spiritually nourishing their children when they make the difference between right and wrong very clear to them. If we do all we can as long as we can, then we are doing our part. The means is the end when it comes to being an effective father.
If children never had any problems they would have little need for parents. But if we panic over their problems, we don’t give them the room they need to grow. My wife and I learned a good lesson in not overreacting from one of our young daughters, who likes to leave notes under our pillows.
One night we picked up a scrap of paper that said, in effect: Dear Mom and Dad, I love you very much. You are very nice to me; you are the best mom and dad in the world; you are kind, patient, loveable, fun, good, etc., etc. Well of course we were willing to believe it even though something like common sense suggested a grain of salt. Then, less than two weeks later, the same messenger struck again. This time she informed us that we were always making her decisions, criticizing her clothes, nagging, and never doing any of these things to her brothers and sisters. Furthermore, she closed this note with the declaration, “And I don’t want to talk about this letter—tonight, or tomorrow, or any other day.” She signed off coolly, “Your Daughter,” and added, in case we’d missed the point, “And don’t talk to me about this.” The reality obviously lies somewhere in between these two notes; overreacting to either one wouldn’t help any of us very much.
Helping Children Develop Self-Confidence
One of the most rewarding experiences I have as a father is watching my children succeed. As our smaller children have performed in family home evenings or church programs, I’ve noticed that some are very timid, while others seem to be “hams.” But all of them want to succeed, and I feel that one of my spiritual responsibilities is to help them develop enough self-confidence that they can express themselves in some way compatible with their talents.
My wife has a great method. She frequently will stand before the family and call each child, one at a time, to her side and then tell us all some special things about that child. Each one blushes a little but beams a great deal, and our home is always a little brighter place following such an episode.
When they have questioned their own ability to do something, I have often remarked, “Well, of course, you can. You’re my son (or daughter), aren’t you?” This kind of emphasis helps develop self-confidence and family esteem. It reinforces the teaching that we are all children of God, and that’s important spiritual food.
Helping Others Teach Our Children
Another valuable way a father can spiritually feed his family is to make sure that his loved ones have the opportunity to be influenced for good by other noble men and women.
Taking my family to church, enrolling our children in seminary, interviewing school and Church teachers about their objectives and our children’s performances, encouraging my wife to attend Relief Society, and inviting good people into our home are all ways of ministering to our family’s needs. It’s an unwise father who thinks he has to do it all alone.
It’s been good for my children and wife to know that I want them to learn from association with good people. It’s as important as letting them know that I disapprove of other associations. Joseph Smith said that the “same sociality which exists among us here will exist among us there, only it will be coupled with eternal glory.” (D&C 130:2.) Men naturally want to associate with one another; but in an evil world these associations must be carefully selected. As a father, I feel it is my responsibility to encourage the good, as well as discourage the bad, associations of my children.
Marry a Righteous Woman and Help Her Stay That Way
Now, after all that a father can say about nourishing his children in righteousness, nothing he will ever do is likely to have quite as much impact as his selection of their mother. The greatest gift a father ever gives his children is their mother, because she, more than any other single force, is the major influence on his children. It is absolutely vital that she seek and nurture righteousness in her home.
Righteous leadership makes a true partnership when a man honors and magnifies his priesthood; it refines him, elicits the trust and respect of his wife, brings out in him specific righteous qualities and also makes him responsive and sensitive to those same righteous qualities in his virtuous wife—faith, virtue, knowledge, temperance, patience, brotherly kindness, godliness, charity, humility, and diligence.
A father can spiritually nourish his family, then, by striving for a noble relationship with his wife, and by expressing those feelings in actions: tell the children how you feel about her, respect her wishes, consult her opinions, be her friend, court—not demand—her interest and attention, express gratitude in word and act, share your own feelings and problems, show by your own time schedule that her interests are important, that you love her companionship and value her testimony. It’s hard for a woman to maintain spirituality in the home if the husband does not appreciate and respect her personal righteousness.
What Things Are Spiritual?
Sometimes our idea of spiritual nourishment is too narrow; and at such times it helps me to remember the Lord’s explanation that “all things” that pertain to him and this word “are spiritual.” (D&C 29:31–35.)
When I help my children see their whole lives in a spiritual perspective, I see more opportunities for supplying them with spiritual nourishment. At the same time, I find that I am spiritually nourished by them.
It encourages me to read Enos’ experience, showing that his father’s efforts to provide spiritual nourishment did not have their greatest impact immediately. (Enos 1:3.) Sometimes it may seem that our efforts are of little avail, that they are being ignored or at best grudgingly endured. But experiences such as the one I had as a young boy, watching a black goat named Judas, are witnesses to me that the return is worth the investment, even when it takes a while to gather interest.
Neil J. Flinders, director of records, research, and evaluation for the Department of Seminaries and Institutes in the Church, serves as Sunday School teacher and stake high priests quorum teacher in the Manila Ward, Pleasant Grove Utah Timpanogos Stake. Sister Joan Flinders, homemaker, serves as a Primary teacher. The couple have seven children.