I wouldn’t say I’m the greatest father in the world, but I’m the only one our children have—and I certainly want the best for them. I don’t know how they could do any better in the line of mothers—Sherri’s terrific—but a couple of years ago I discovered a principle of Church government that seems made to order for young patriarchs who aspire to righteous leadership. It’s known as the personal priesthood interview.
My motivation for discovering it was my uneasy realization that with the best effort I put forth to keep the family running smoothly it still chugged along, barely surviving a day without some contention, some chores not done, some degree here and there of rebelliousness. When matters reached the state of minor crisis, I found myself getting involved with the children (at that time, girls ages 14, 13, and 8, and boys ages 7 and 3) quite swiftly and directly, and usually pretty authoritatively. I understand my motivation: I wanted to be the power in my child’s life—a force for good—even if it involved unpleasantness at times. It’s true that my “reproving betimes with sharpness” really did bring us closer together when it was followed by “showing an increase of love” (see D&C 121:43), but I was uneasy about the cycle of rebuke and affection. Wasn’t there some way to keep it consistently positive?
Consistently positive. It suddenly came to me that family home evening, a real power in our family, was like sacrament meeting in exactly that way. It was consistently held every week and its regularity gave us repeated chances to focus our lives on positive spiritual matters and set commitments for the coming week. And if home evening worked in that way for the family as a whole, why wouldn’t a regular, consistent session with each child work as well? Wouldn’t it help take the element of crisis and contention out of the everyday contacts among individuals in our home? That’s when the model of the personal priesthood interview occurred to me. I couldn’t wait to try it out with my family.
But when? Before or after home evening meant uncomfortable time limits, even though it had the advantage of being a night when I never had any other commitments. Sundays were busy early and late with Church assignments, except for fast Sunday. Since we fasted from evening to evening and our testimony meeting was always held right after Sunday School, that left a long, hungry stretch of four or five hours.
So, resisting the urge to sleep out the long wait, one fast Sunday I announced my desire to meet with each of my six children that day. They naturally wondered what they had done wrong now. Beaming, I assured them it would be a good time just to talk, to tell me their problems, ask for help, or otherwise use the time as they saw fit. Dubiously, they each came in that day with very little to say.
“Well, dear, how are things?”
“Good! [long pause] Any problems?”
“Can’t think of any.”
“Can I help you with anything?”
“Oh—I don’t know. Everything is just fine.”
That was when I learned my first lesson. Because I’d set up a new and somewhat formal way of relating to my children, they were a little nervous and uncomfortable with the change and so was I, even though some warmth peeped through the awkwardness. I kept thinking something was missing. What did my priesthood leader and I do in our personal priesthood interviews? I could remember feeling a little awkward the first few times there, too, a little reticent to set goals, to say what I felt. But we had prayer together. All right. Prayer! Next month, so would we—opening and closing.
“Prayer?” they said. “Just you and me? Okay, if that’s what you want.”
So the younger ones prayed that those who didn’t come this time would come next time. The older ones stammered through a sentence or two, not quite sure what to say. Come to think of it, neither was I.
But the Spirit was there. They were a little less self-conscious. I felt good about just the consistency of following through by holding the interviews two months in a row. They opened up a little more this time, but hesitantly. I responded by biting back all recriminations, accusations, lectures, advice, counsel. We focused only on what they wanted to discuss.
The next month, I had proof that they had begun to believe I was serious, that they really could say what they wanted and that I really was available to them for whatever they wanted to talk about. And I had the shock of my life. What I heard were unsparing criticisms of me as a father. Floods of them. Everything they had ever wanted to say came blurting out. They cried—I cried. I listened. I bit my lip and listened some more. I checked my feelings and listened again. Then I hugged each one, we prayed, and I called in the next one.
The family surrounding the table was quieter that evening, more contemplative. Eyes were soft, a little embarrassed, a little apologetic. I smiled. I didn’t say a word. Their good-night hugs were especially tender that night. I hugged them back. After all the things they said, they needed assurance that I still loved them—and I think they were trying to let me know that they loved me.
Their tenderness increased throughout the month, and a surge of excitement grew in me as fast Sunday approached. What was the next one going to be like?
I should have been able to guess what would happen. Having released their feelings toward me, they now began to release them about the rest of the family. If their comments came out sounding selfish, they knew it was allowed. We asked the Lord (less self-consciously now) to help us discover our problems and find ways of overcoming them. A big problem, the teenage girls decided, was mother. Cross, unappreciative mother. Someone always got more attention; the younger ones had all the restrictions and none of the privileges. Again, I listened. I hugged. We closed with prayer. Around the table that evening were fearful faces, wondering if I would betray a confidence and talk about what they had said against each other. I smiled. I kissed each of them warmly that night.
Then my wife, Sherri, our stake’s Laurel adviser, went to June Conference, the historic last MIA conference in 1975, and came home bubbling about an achievement program entitled “Behold, Thy Handmaiden.” She was anxious to implement the program in the lives of our Laurels in the stake, but she could also instantly see the possibilities for our own teenage daughters, who were not yet Laurels. We discussed it and decided that after our daughters met with me, they would then meet with her to set specific goals: short-term goals for the next month and long-term goals for the coming year. This meant extra organization, since she wouldn’t have time to get dinner ready while we were having our interviews—but it was worth it to both of us.
She divided a notebook into sections, one for each daughter in the family. Then she wrote down the same areas of focus discussed at conference: spiritual awareness, homemaking arts, recreation and the world of nature, service and compassion, cultural arts and education, and personal and social refinement. In her interviews she asked them each to write down one thing they would like to achieve during the month in each area. The next month, they would evaluate the goals together, make new ones or renew old ones, and discuss other things done during the month that also fit any of the areas of focus.
The first obstacle was the magnitude of the goals they set at first—for spiritual awareness they would say: Read the scriptures. At the next interview they hadn’t read any at all. One daughter decided to be more specific: the Old Testament next month. Sherri was enthusiastic: our daughter was a good reader and the Old Testament would be her seminary course of study the coming year. Predictably, that month she’d read only a few pages of Genesis and was pretty discouraged. But the discussion pinpointed another problem: she’d chosen a goal that she felt Sherri felt she ought to have. When she realized that she was really free to pick what she wanted to do, she came up with goals that were a lot more realistic—and goals she was much more motivated to work on.
We all got caught up in helping the girls achieve their goals. One wanted to sew a dress for her homemaking goal. Her younger sister hadn’t set that goal herself but got involved and ended up making one for herself. Another daughter wanted to swim a mile without stopping. The whole family made it to the pool so often that three of the children mastered it instead of one.
It became so much fun that it kept spreading. Our boys were younger but they participated in their own version. And when Sherri had to present the program to the ward Laurel advisers, the whole family pitched in to help. I got out my camera, Sherri wrote a script, and we started taking pictures of our girls, other girls, their advisers, the bishop, the stake presidency—we even added pictures of Elder Franklin D. Richards, who was the visiting General Authority at stake conference—and we put it all to music.
What a blessing it was to us! Taking pictures of our girls sewing, cooking, jumping on the trampoline, cycling, swimming, reading the scriptures, listening to good music, taking food to the sick, giving a talk, and attending church, among other activities, emphasized many active, worthwhile goals that I don’t believe they will ever forget. The presentation was given at the stake post-June Conference meeting, and the advisers loved it.
Enthusiastic leaders soon had excited girls following the program, but most important for our family was how close together it brought Sherri and our teenage girls. It made living together richer; our lives became filled with doing and growing. They began to feel better about themselves, and they sensed our growing admiration and love for them.
Some private goals became family goals, because in some instances it was difficult to do things alone. For instance, each one felt she needed to study the scriptures every day; but in the mad dash to meet schedules, it never got done. So we got together and decided that just before morning prayers we would all even the smallest—meet in the living room and read together. We felt real growth through this short daily time, and we are still doing it. The children find given passages more quickly; and when we kneel for prayer, our sense of love and devotion is much stronger than it was when prayer was a race with the school bus. In our interviews, the children have expressed a special gratitude for this kind of help.
We are still having those monthly interviews, although we’ve changed a few things. Now when we meet, we have prayer only at the end. Having it at the beginning seemed to focus our minds on problems rather than on feelings. I always make sure I am in some kind of physical contact with them. Many times they will lay their head in my lap or on my shoulder. That contact keeps the tone constant, warm, and tender. Their feelings flow; sometimes the tears do also, but through it, the touch remains steady and warm and tender. We are able to look each other in the eye when we are through, and then we kneel together. All of the blessings of the priesthood that each child needs specifically are poured upon his head, and our fasting is dedicated to his special needs along with the family goal we have previously selected.
There is no doubt when the interview is over of the special love we share—and it is sweet, sweet enough to help preserve us from temptation throughout the month. I find myself wanting to give my life for them. They sense it and return my love for them by steadfastly living the principles of the gospel. Our family unity grows stronger every month; each part of the whole is in better working order. Sherri and I found that our own communications became more honest and more accepting, too. As husband and wife, we’ve never been closer.
We have begun to look forward to fast Sunday, for the time goes all too quickly now. There is a relevance to the fast that we never felt before. I see a glow of spirituality on their faces and my own spirit soars. I believe I’m beginning to experience “fatherhood” in a more complete way. Our children come to me now throughout the month, confident that counsel comes with their best interest truly in mind. Rebelliousness has virtually ceased; we are all striving to overcome lingering bad habits, but we now have a foundation of love and trust that encourages us all toward more righteous ends.