While studying child development classes in college, I came across a variety of theories on how to raise children. Many of these theories seemed to have a ring of truth to them, but they often contradicted each other. The more I studied them, the more unsure I became. Trying to select what I thought was the best from each left me even more confused.
Knowing that guidance on our problems can be found in the scriptures, I decided to search the standard works for advice and compare what I found with the theories I was studying.
One day, while reviewing some of the theories, I came to appreciate more than I ever had before the counsel the scriptures offer to parents. One research project particularly caught my attention—a controlled experiment designed to study the impact an adult’s example has on a child’s actions. (See J. H. Bryan, “Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Model Inconsistency and Its Effect on Self-sacrifice,” Research Bulletin 68–16, Princeton: Educational Testing Service, 1968.)
The researchers used adult models who behaved in either a charitable way or a greedy way in front of the children while preaching either charity or greed at the same time. Sometimes the model’s behavior was in harmony with what he was advocating; other times it was contradictory. The experience showed that moral preaching alone did not influence a child’s behavior. If the model acted charitably, the child did also, even if the model had preached greed. If the model preached the virtues of charity while acting selfishly, the child again followed the model’s actions instead of his words.
I was impressed by how strong the power of example really is—that a child will often follow it even when it goes against what he is told. The scriptures, of course, have a number of things to say about the power of example.
With this principle of example in mind, I found much more in the scriptures relating to teaching our children. If we want our children to have charity, we must have charity. If we want our children to respect the Sabbath day, we must respect it. The scriptures may not tell us what specific techniques to use to train our children, but they tell us fully and completely what we must do to perfect ourselves—and, consequently, train our children.
I could see examples of this in my own family. As I overheard my daughter saying authoritatively to her younger brothers, “OK! I’ve had it!” I heard myself loud and clear—the same words, the same intonation, the same air of frustration.
As a family, we enjoy taking surprises to friends and neighbors—unexpected cookies, flowers, or a warm loaf of bread. And my husband occasionally surprises me with flowers or candy that the children have helped him choose. How rewarding it is when we see our children exhibiting some of these positive behaviors they have observed.
Our seven-year-old son, Bret, often comes to me and says, “Call Tony and keep him with you while I make his bed,” and then proceeds to surprise his five-year-old brother with this or another act of kindness. Occasionally, upon receiving this surprise, Tony comes to me and asks me to do the same with his sister so that he can surprise her.
Last week our nine-year-old daughter did something that touched our hearts. It was a simple thing in a way, but very difficult for a child with limited spending money. Our children get a small monthly allowance which doesn’t go very far. Jennifer had lost an item and had been saving her allowance for a couple of months to replace it. Without spending money for some time, she had fed the neighbors’ cat while they were gone and had just been paid what amounted to four months’ worth of allowance. After paying tithing, missionary fund, and savings, she still had more money than ever before. The next day I overheard her asking each of her brothers what they would like if they could have anything in the world. She came to me next and asked, “If you could have one wish, what would you wish for?” I mentioned a few abstract things, but she pressed me for something concrete. Knowing my love for flowers, she asked, “Would it be flowers?” Sensing what might be coming, I told her truthfully, “Yes, I always love flowers.”
I spent the day debating whether to discourage what I thought she had in mind and tell her to spend the well-earned money on something for herself, or to let her experience the joy and satisfaction of giving unselfishly even though it did mean quite a sacrifice for her. I decided not to say anything. That night she went with her father on an errand and came back with a bouquet of flowers for me and bubble gum for her brothers, her money gone. How uniquely special those flowers were, and how she beamed with justified pride as she gave them to me!
Children seem to have innate goodness. Sometimes their efforts backfire, and sometimes they haven’t the self-discipline yet to be consistent in their good behavior. But most generally they want to please others. They just don’t always know how to go about it. As in acquiring any other skill, children must be trained in acts of kindness. That training is, in part, accomplished by proper example.
These experiences caused me to examine what kind of person I really am. I realized more than ever before that I must work diligently to perfect my own life, knowing that what I do my children will more than likely also do.
Of course we can’t rely on example alone. We must also verbally teach our children the gospel and its precepts. The Lord chastized Frederick G. Williams, Sidney Rigdon, Joseph Smith, Jr., and Newell K. Whitney for neglecting their responsibilities in this regard. (See D&C 93:40–50.) What the Lord says to Frederick G. Williams seems to apply to the others: “I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth. But verily I say unto you, my servant Frederick G. Williams, you have continued under this condemnation; You have not taught your children light and truth, according to the commandments.” (D&C 93:40–42; italics added.)
Modern-day prophets have also made it very clear to us what our responsibility is in this regard. President Spencer W. Kimball has counseled us to “develop respect for others’ property and rights in [our] growing children by example and precept.” Explaining the importance of actually teaching them, he has said: “When children go off to school or to play with their friends, parents cannot be totally sure of what they are learning. But if parents take time at home each evening to explain the gospel program to their children, it will offset the negative things they may get during the day.”
President Kimball also makes it clear that the responsibility to teach belongs to parents, not to others: “Parents should therefore not leave the training of children to school teachers or to the Primary or the Relief Society or the Sunday School or Mutual. The father and the mother must undertake this great responsibility, using the Church programs to assist them. … We must plan and organize our home life and bring our children up to be followers of the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ensign, Apr. 1978, pp. 2–5; italics added.)
Both example and precept are required in the proper training of children. The two methods complement each other. We train most effectively, however, if we work diligently to perfect our own lives while we teach creatively and lovingly the laws of God. It is in this way that we lay the most enduring foundations of future happiness and fulfillment. The scriptural admonition is a challenging one, but the promise is reassuring, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” (Prov. 22:6.)