Forewarning Your Children: Arming Them Against Temptation

In consequence of evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days, I have warned you, and forewarn you” (D&C 89:4; italics added).

Each day we forewarn somebody about something. Mothers warn daughters about staying out too late. Fathers warn sons about using harmful drugs. Friends warn each other about potential problems.

We assume that a forewarned person will be more resistant to an unrighteous suggestion. But does warning an individual of future temptation actually increase his resistance to it? Fortunately, the answer is yes—if we forewarn properly.

Simply cautioning your son that someone will attempt to influence him to do wrong may not sufficiently offset the persuasion he may feel. Effective forewarning, which is more than just verbal counsel, is a process. We suggest four elements to make forewarnings more effective.

1. Stimulate a defense.

This is the most important thing you can do to forewarn. To help your teenager resist the arguments and enticements that may be used to persuade him, help him establish counterarguments. Merely supporting his beliefs does not increase his resistance to attack on those beliefs. It could be helpful to feign several mild attacks on his viewpoint, similar to the ones he might get from friends. Give him an opportunity to refute those attacks, point by point.

For example, say that several young fellows of his age have started skipping their Sunday School class. They may try to tempt your son to follow their example by saying, “It will be fun” and “One time won’t hurt you.” Present your son with these arguments before someone else does. In the safe climate of your presence, with parental support, he can develop a powerful defense for his beliefs by refuting the “fun” and “once won’t hurt you” arguments.

Resist the urge to create defenses or rebuttals for him; that robs him of the motivation to think through his own reasons, thereby weakening his defense against later persuasive attacks. Most young people can come up with defenses more extensive and effective than any you might anticipate for them.

2. Tie beliefs together.

Since it is more difficult to change several beliefs than to change one, you can increase your teenager’s resistance to persuasion by tightly linking several of his beliefs. If you help your daughter recall that her testimony of prayer, her belief in the Holy Ghost, and her feelings about the restoration of the gospel are all supported by the Book of Mormon, you help her link many beliefs together to form a firm anchor against adverse suggestions. An attack on one of her beliefs then becomes an attack on several beliefs, and she becomes much more resistant. If you can also help her relate her beliefs to desirable goals and admired people, you will further increase her ability to resist persuasion. If she respects her mother’s views on virtue and admires the prophet and his similar view, she will not be prone to change her beliefs quickly.

3. Evaluate the source.

We tend to believe ideas that come from people we consider trustworthy and knowledgeable. In naive enthusiasm, a person may fail to recognize what he is believing, or where the beliefs come from. One way to strengthen a person against an unrighteous suggestion is to lower the credibility of the source of the message. Often a child is influenced by a person who has limited knowledge and who has proven dishonest or untrustworthy. If your child understands that the source is not credible, he is less likely to be adversely influenced.

4. Announce your position.

You can help your child become more committed to his beliefs by encouraging him to bear public witness of them. Similarly, if he can become involved in a visible project that identifies with his belief, he is less likely to give in to an attempt to change that belief. For example, a teachers quorum president who announces his disgust with the idea of cigarette smoking and organizes a fireside to encourage adherence to the Word of Wisdom increases his ability to resist that temptation. Ex-smokers who publicly display “I Quit” buttons tend to reinforce their commitment to refrain from smoking.

We should remember, too, that in forewarning children, timing is important. Building defenses after an attack is much less effective than doing it before. McGuire, a social psychologist who in the 1960s gave us the first major theory concerning resistance to persuasion, suggests that forewarning should precede the adverse influence by at least two days. Then the person has time to think through the warning and prepare himself. A passive defense (one in which you merely offer the person verbal support for his beliefs) usually becomes ineffective in two to seven days; but an active defense (one in which the person develops counterarguments) can be developed effectively in about two days and has greater long-term resistance.

We all forewarn, and we all need forewarning. Sometimes we successfully warn; sometimes we do not. But we can unquestionably make our attempts more effective. It is true that to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

[photo] Photography by Marilyn L. Erd

Eric and Sandra Stephan are parents of seven children. They live in the Thirteenth Ward, Provo Utah Edgemont South Stake, where Eric, professor of Interpersonal Communication at Brigham Young University, serves as a Sunday School teacher and Sandra as a counselor in the ward Relief Society presidency.