What My Daughters Taught Me


Parents are supposed to teach their children, right? But one of the best things about parenthood is that your children teach you right back—without even meaning to.

I remember when I was teaching my children how to skate. It was an afternoon of terrible carnage, and the band-aid box was empty halfway through. At last I said, “Let’s put these skates up for a while. Maybe a three-year-old and a four-year-old are just too little for roller skating.”

They protested, even though there were still tears on their cheeks from the last painful spill. “We can’t stop,” Jane, the four-year-old, said.

“Why not?” I asked. “I want you to live to be five. Count the bruises.” There were three on each leg, and a couple of bumps as well.

But still she insisted. “It’s so much fun, Mommy!”

I was surprised. “Fun? What’s fun about hurting yourself?”

But Jane was impatient with a mother who just didn’t understand: “Mommy, it hurts now. But it’s going to be terrific when I get it right!”

I’ve thought of that lesson she taught me dozens of times since then, as struggles and efforts seemed so painful that I wanted to give up. I just tell myself that it’s going to be terrific when I get it right.

Perhaps it’s because little children are only a few short years away from living in the presence of that Being who understands all things; or perhaps it’s because children, unhampered by years of experience, are not in a rut yet—they still see things through fresh eyes. Whatever the reason, my children have often shown a surprising maturity and sometimes as they have unconsciously taught me great lessons, I have been a little abashed that I had not already learned.

Like the time my husband and I bought four-year-old Shawnie a new winter coat. Our children were already used to getting quite a few hand-me-downs from relatives and friends—it seemed so pointless to buy new clothes that would no longer fit in a matter of months. But Shawnie needed a coat immediately, and so we bought one for her.

It was a beautiful coat, and I liked to look at her in it as she trotted off to play. And then one day I saw Shawnie’s coat on a little neighbor girl—and Shawnie began wearing a hand-me-down received from a neighbor shortly after we had bought the new one. I was a little surprised. I was even more surprised, though, when the neighbor girl still had Shawnie’s coat the next day.

They came together through the front door to play in Shawnie’s room, and the little girl asked where she should hang the coat.

“Why not in Shawnie’s closet, where it belongs?” I asked, having firmly decided that loaning one’s brand-new clothing was not a good idea.

But Shawnie turned to me and said, “Mom, she doesn’t have to put it in my closet. It’s her coat.”

I asked Shawnie to join me in the kitchen. Then I quietly reminded her that Mommy and Daddy had paid for that coat. “And we don’t give things away, especially expensive things like coats, without asking first. It’s not a good idea at all.”

Shawnie got the expression on her face that she always gets when she’s having to be very patient with a grown-up who simply doesn’t understand. “Mommy, how many coats do I have?”

“Two,” I said.

“Well, do you know how many coats Veronica has?”

“No, I don’t, Shawn.”

She moved in for the kill. “She has none coats, Mom and it’s raining.”

How could I discourage charity? I then resigned myself to seeing that lovely new coat on another little girl. But it was no surprise that I got more pleasure out of watching that little girl wear an emblem of my daughter’s love and unselfishness than I ever got out of watching my daughter wear a brand new coat.

Another lesson: Jane took great care of her things, especially her tricycle. Because we lived on a busy street then, we had avoided buying her a two-wheeled bicycle because of the danger—so at the age of five she was still chugging along the sidewalk with her knees sticking out under the handlebars. Yet because Jane was so careful, always bringing it into the garage and never letting it get wet or dirty, it still looked like new.

Then one day a neighbor child left the tricycle behind our pickup truck, and a short time later our sixteen-year-old son, armed with a new driver’s license, backed out of the driveway in a hurry. The tricycle emerged from the encounter about seven or eight inches high, with a steering wheel that permanently faced the back.

That tricycle had accompanied Jane through three years of happy childhood, and we were not looking forward to telling her about it. We didn’t have to—her sisters were eager to give her a full report of the disaster. When we got home from picking Jane up from kindergarten, she ran to the driveway and looked at the wreckage, then fled to her room and closed the door. I almost went in, but hearing her sobs I decided that it would be better to let her cry it out alone. She emerged a short time later, dry-eyed, dressed in play clothes, and ready for lunch.

About an hour later she visited the ruined tricycle again, and again spent twenty minutes behind a closed door in her bedroom.

When our sixteen-year-old son, Tracy, got home that night he was apprehensive, to say the least, and he felt even worse when Jane came into the room, saw him there, and immediately fled back to her bedroom to cry again. He didn’t know how he could make amends to her—but it turned out it wouldn’t be as hard as he thought. Only a few minutes after Jane had left the room she returned and walked right up to Tracy.

“It looks like the Shrinker got my bike,” she said with a silly smile.

“It wasn’t the Shrinker, Jane, it was me,” Tracy said grimly.

She didn’t even wait for him to ask forgiveness. She just patted his arm and said breezily, “I know. It’s all right, Tracy. You didn’t mean to.” He never saw her shed a tear—nobody did. The incident was forgotten—because it had been forgiven. Forgotten, that is, except that the spirit of forgiveness had been strengthened in our home by a little girl who could swallow her own hurt in order to make her brother feel better.

It’s not just our family that gets the benefit of my children’s innocent wisdom. Jane’s teacher came to me once, tears in her eyes, to tell me that Jane had told her not to worry about the serious operation her daughter was about to go through. “I’m praying for your little girl,” Jane had said, “and Heavenly Father will make her well.”

Jane’s influence has touched schoolmates, too. She went to a rough school, with children who often used bad language. There were periodic fights on the schoolgrounds, and frequent vandalism, and it was with a great deal of hesitation that I took my fragile little girl to school for her first day there.

And so I stayed in the car at the curb to watch as she bounded up the sidewalk to the gate of the schoolground. But just as she reached the gate, a small boy with an unpleasant expression on his face closed the gate and wouldn’t let her in.

I expected her to break and run, and if she had I would gladly have let her back in the car and taken her home. But she just stood at the gate and spoke to the boy, and he talked back, and she spoke again—and suddenly he opened the gate for her and ran away. She went cheerfully inside, and I drove home, wondering what had happened.

At lunchtime I picked her up. “How was school?” I asked, expecting her to tell me about the hostile greeting given her at the schoolyard gate.

“Fine,” she answered.

“I’m glad to hear that,” I said. “Did you have any trouble today?”

“No,” she said cheerfully.

“Well, I mean, was anyone mean to you today?” I pried.

“No,” she answered.

I decided that the subtle approach wasn’t working. “Jane, what about the little boy who closed the gate in your face?”

She was unconcerned. “Oh, did you see that? He wasn’t mean, Mom. He just didn’t understand. He thought I was a brat, but I’m not. And he said I didn’t belong there, but I do. So he went away.”

Since then I’ve seen Jane endure some unkind treatment from time to time, but her answer is always the same: “She’s not mean. She just doesn’t understand.” I’ve never seen her get angry with anyone at school, and it’s been a long time now since anyone has been unkind to her. Why should they? She refuses to notice!

Of course, in between times when I look at my children and believe with all my heart that they’re absolutely perfect, there are times when I look at them and despair of ever teaching them anything! There has always been much that they needed to learn, and I’ve tried to teach them.

But sometimes I think that teaching children is as much helping them keep the purity and spirituality they bring with them as it is helping them learn new things.

And the rewards of parenthood are not just watching your children grow and develop; the rewards include the development you see in yourself as you learn the lessons your children teach you.

[illustration] Illustrated by Del Parson

Sharon Elwell, a homemaker and mother of three, is Relief Society spiritual living teacher in the Napa, California, Third Ward.