Learning to Lead Our Family—“Without Compulsory Means”


When Jackie and I were married, we brought together two families—twelve children, eight of whom would be living with us the first summer. Three of the children had lived away from home the previous year, some for longer. Yet we knew that this summer might be the only opportunity for them to become acquainted with each other, to feel loved, needed, and part of our family.

We wanted the overriding influence in our home to be one of love, but at the outset we made a notable discovery: setting proper and lofty goals made no one perfect, neither the children nor us. At the first, we may have been hopeful. But hope soon changed to reality. Could we really expect the children never to be demanding, never to be irritable. Would they volunteer for extra chores, homework, home-evening assignments, and always be on time?

Of course not, even though they are wonderful! And what of their parents? Would we never again experience anger, frustration, or—on occasion—even despair? In retrospect, of course, we would.

Our challenges regarding governing wisely and without compulsion have stemmed from some reoccurring issues. The first was no exception—late-night exuberance. It started the day we joined our families together and continued throughout the week. The children worked hard so they could go to the beach together. When they came home, they were still having fun and stayed up laughing and talking. Mostly laughing.

During this period, only two, besides dad, had to get up early for work. And these seemed to have considerably more stamina than I. It was this same week that the neighborhood discovered the new girls at our house. Suddenly, boys were at our home every evening. The noise level did not diminish.

Patience and long-suffering were being tested very early in our marriage. The testing was made more difficult because three of the children had lived away from home and felt a great measure of independence. It is not easy to match parental needs with young-adult needs, or grammar-school-age needs.

Having carefully studied Doctrine and Covenants 121:34–46, we were aware of the problems and promises of authority. The Lord promises us “an everlasting dominion” which will flow unto us forever “without compulsory means” (D&C 121:46) if we learn to handle authority with righteousness. However, he warns that “it is the nature and disposition of almost all men [and women], as soon as they get a little authority, … [to] immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.” (D&C 121:39.)

We could see that aspects of these verses applied to our home and family. The Lord says “no power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood” (D&C 121:41). We thought it interesting that such power cannot be maintained by virtue of our authority. If authority were the sole basis for control of individuals, families, quorums, auxiliaries, churches, nations, or the world, then difficulties would soon be everywhere. Authority alone—without any other virtue—is simply dictatorship.

For all these reasons, we concluded that any progress toward solving family problems must be based upon principles of love. We knew, also, that force, fear, or compulsion would immediately alienate. There seemed an intuitive as well as scriptural need to govern our family “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41.)

Thus, to establish rules about when friends could come over, how late they could stay during the week, how late on weekends, when dates were to end, and so forth, we came up with the answer: the traditional Latter-day Saint family council.

We held many of them in those early days. What was specifically said or done may not have been vitally important; as we look back, it was probably the way things were done rather than what was said that mattered most. We tried to get agreement on rules, with special assistance from the young adults and teenagers. We tried to be flexible: if the rules were good, we kept them; if we found them unworkable, we changed them. We found that a reasonable amount of flexibility adds to, rather than detracts from, a sense of trust and responsibility.

One thing we learned early is that, for us, a good night’s sleep is a great remedy for muddled thinking. We learned not to discuss problems, even with each other, late at night. We are simply too tired. It is almost impossible to feel the guidance of the Spirit in thinking positively when you’re tired, especially over-tired. Mornings have a way of dissipating darkness, of chasing away the clouds of a stormy evening. Challenges may be met with a fresh perspective, with better creative thinking. Often the problem does not seem nearly so big in the morning; sometimes it simply goes away.

A few times, however, we thought the rights of parents were being trampled upon. One Saturday we retired leaving young adults and youth downstairs. They knew the rules. Soon, we received a call from a friend whose teen was not yet home. By the time we got downstairs the lights were out and everyone was in bed. We didn’t say much. We knew better. But we both had trouble going to sleep that night. In the morning, the anger was still there. Darkness had not dissipated; light did not prevail. We were both tired, grumpy, angry, and convinced that this time there would be some necessary chewing out.

Fortunately, we waited until after church. Then we waited past dinner. Finally, the time came; but by this time, we were in control. Our strategy was planned. We spoke softly and questioned calmly. To our surprise, the children had talked among themselves. They knew they were wrong. But there were some mitigating circumstances, mixed with obvious errors in judgment, which we gave them a chance to voice. The result: we were able to correct with patience and love. Some restrictions were imposed, but not in anger. Each side spoke freely and easily. And the result was a good feeling of fellowship and communication. Before it was over we were laughing and enjoying one another. We were a family again.

We learned something that day—it is usually best to wait. Wait until morning. Wait until the darkness passes. Wait until the anger dissipates. But, whenever possible, wait. It is surprising how many potentially explosive situations can be controlled simply by waiting until the emotion is gone. You are in control. You have many creative ideas about the problem. Now you can approach with calmness, communicate freely, and, if necessary, discipline—with love.

It is gratifying to know, however, that we can reprove, and still not grieve the Spirit. In fact, sometimes we will be moved upon by the Spirit to reprove. (See D&C 121:43.) Our striving to live the principles of righteous dominion does not mean in the least that children will be left without discipline. But if we strive to use correct governing principles, they will be guided sooner to develop self-discipline, which is the only lasting discipline.

For example, a special problem presented itself with one of our boys. Even though he and his six-year-old brother played well together, five years without a father had caused him to frequently correct the younger boy. Often there were “accidents” and the younger boy ended up crying. Repeated counseling and warnings did no good. Jackie and I counseled together about the apparent need for discipline. One evening as I was leaving to go home teaching, there was another “accident,” and the six-year-old was on the floor crying.

Instinctively, I picked up the offender and took him to his bedroom. There we had an “accident” on the seat of his pants. I explained that any more “accidents” from him would result in “accidents” from me in the same place. I also told him to stay in his room until I returned. The look on his face was one of shock. I wondered if I were doing the right thing. How would I ever be able to build a relationship on this basis? I knew that spanking, if ever used, was only to be used rarely.

As my older son and I left for home teaching, we had a prayer. The Spirit was there, and it came to me that I was not at all angry. There was simply a need to reprove. When we returned, I went immediately to the room of the boy I had spanked. His mother had already spoken to him, so he knew I was on solid ground. I tried to talk to him in a way that he could understand. Then I complimented him on some positive things he was doing, and told him that I loved him. We talked for a while.

The improvement in behavior was dramatic, not only immediately, but thereafter. And I learned that if I took time to encourage and to look for meaningful ways to compliment him, his behavior continued to improve.

The challenge seems to be that after we correct, we must show forth “an increase of love toward him whom [we have] reproved, lest he esteem [us] to be his enemy.” (D&C 121:43.) We will make mistakes. But we can show forth greater love every time. We can admit error when it is made; we can repent and improve. And we can explain our reproof with kindness, gentleness, and love unfeigned.

Even when we know correct principles, however, it is difficult to follow them, especially with older children. Often, I have tried to assess my feelings after an encounter with one of my teenagers or young adults. When I am angry, my heart pulses in my throat. I feel the emotion. Thoughts race rapidly through my mind. “How dare she say that? Can’t she/he see that I am right?” If I say anything during this period, I may win the battle, but Satan wins the war.

A minor family incident may illustrate. One morning one of our daughters was running late getting ready for work. My wife, who was preparing breakfast, kept pressuring her to hurry. When the daughter finally did come down, she wanted a quick egg, but I had eaten it because she wasn’t there. Exasperated after being pressured to be down to breakfast and finding nothing prepared, the daughter made a flippant comment to her mother. I intervened, exclaiming that her mother had not caused her to be late. I also used the situation to make a sharp comment about a previous unrelated matter. (Not too bright for one hopeful of using righteous principles.)

The daughter and I rode to work together. As we left the house, we were both sullen. I was, by now, in one of those heart-in-the-throat, rapid-thought, self-justification moods. Fortunately, I’ve learned such moods do not help anyone. Had I let my thoughts out, there would have been more anger. My daughter would have reacted in kind, or at least with more sullenness and withdrawal. This minor incident might have taken a day or two to overcome—repeated consistently, a lifetime.

Instead, as we rode along, I repented. It took five or ten minutes. When I knew I was in control, not just a partial control with lingering resentment, but total control with the easy, understanding feeling of the Spirit, I spoke. “Sweetheart,” I said in a mild voice, “is your heart in your throat, or can you talk?” The rest of the way in, we communicated.

This privilege of marriage and family is a great learning experience. Here, in these laboratories of mortal life, the doctrines of righteous government may distil upon our souls as the dews from heaven. (D&C 121:45.) And bit by bit, in homes sanctified by the influence of the Spirit, we may learn correct principles and struggle to impart them to our children.

It is not an easy process. But the growth and change, the experience and testing are possible in no other way. Such marriages, sanctified in holy temples, tempered by the sacred influence of the Comforter, teach us “line upon line, precept upon precept” (2 Ne. 28:30), and prepare us for dominion in the eternal world.

Few fathers, mothers, husbands, or wives exercise these principles perfectly in mortality. Jackie and I certainly do not. But isn’t it wonderful that the Lord, in his long-suffering towards us, will forgive us for our mistakes as we repent. How beautiful, as Elder Neal A. Maxwell has said, that he allows us to enlarge the borders of our behavior and to advance those borders bit by bit. (See Ensign, May 1976, p. 26.) He does so perfectly with us what he would have us do with our children.

“I teach them correct principles,” the Prophet Joseph Smith said, “and they govern themselves.” (See George Q. Cannon, Life of Joseph Smith the Prophet, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, Co., 1958, p. 529.) And as we, in our homes, learn the principles of celestial government, we are promised life as God lives it in the world to come—“without compulsory means … forever and ever.”

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Without Compulsory Means,” you may wish to consider some of the following questions:

1. How do the scriptures define “unrighteous dominion”? (See D&C 121:34–40.) Conversely, what would be the definition of “righteous dominion”?

2. What ideas mentioned in the article could help you in your efforts to lead your family in righteousness? What other methods have you found successful?

3. Read D&C 121:41–46. How could you apply the principles discussed in these verses to your leadership in the home?

4. Do you hold regular family councils? How have they helped?

Photo by Michael McConkie

Arlyn L. Jesperson, evaluation supervisor for the San Diego Gas and Electric Company, serves as Sunday School teacher in his El Cajon, California, ward.