Barbara’s mother boarded a bus one Thanksgiving time to ride thousands of miles across the United States to help Barbara, who had just given birth to our first child. As we all rode home from the hospital, she said, “Joe and Barbara, with the birth of this baby, you have assumed a responsibility you can never entirely relinquish.”
That thought has weighed on us for years. Now that all our children are grown, most of them married with children of their own, we know it is true.
We have felt that we have no greater responsibility than to teach our children the gospel. “Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25.)
Such truths can allow our children to build their lives on a firm foundation. And the Lord expects us to make these principles available to the children he has given to our care.
We asked several spiritually committed young adults what experiences at home had most helped them learn to love the gospel. Not surprisingly, the most frequent answer by far was, “The example my parents set.”
One young man we interviewed said, “I always knew that to my parents, the family and the Church were most important. I grew up feeling the same way. On Sundays there was never any doubt in my mind that we would attend church.”
A young woman who is a voracious reader explained: “My folks had a philosophy that if a book, movie, or TV program wasn’t appropriate for us children, it likely wasn’t good for them either. And Dad always said if I read a book a week for the rest of my life, I could only read a fraction of the total. I learned to be very choosy about the way I spend my time.”
Children are extraordinarily sensitive to hypocrisy. But if we are striving to live well ourselves, we can be a powerful influence for good. An experience that Joe had many years ago has been an impressive reminder of the effect of good parental example:
“As a small, somewhat nervous seventeen-year-old college freshman, I went into a bank in Logan, Utah, to cash a check. After carefully examining the check and me, the teller ushered me into the office of a bank officer. Peering over his glasses and solemnly rubbing his chin, the officer studied me for what seemed a long time. Finally he asked, ‘Who is your father?’
“‘Joseph A. Christensen.’
“‘Where are you from?’
“His eyes brightened. ‘Well, that’s different. Your father is an honest, hard-working man. You can cash a check here anytime for any amount you need.’”
As important as good example is, however, more is needed. We have learned that our children are best motivated to learn from and to follow our example when the atmosphere in our home is conducive to learning. We have found that loyalty, respect, confidence, trust, and love give parental example “staying power” with children.
Children need to know that the family will support them in their efforts and will not advertise their faults. They need to feel that they belong. Family loyalty helps make home a safe place to learn and to grow.
One woman we talked to recalled: “When I was in first grade, I sang duets with a friend. Our family was large; my friend was the only girl in her small family. She always got a new dress for special performances. Once we were to sing in an important program in a neighboring town. As usual, she had a new dress. We were at her house about to leave when I saw my mother coming down the road on a horse she had bridled herself. She was bringing me a dress she had worked on through much of the night and had just finished. I can’t express how much that expression of support meant to me.”
Another son said, “Other people’s names were safe in our home. My parents never criticized church leaders or neighbors, and I knew they treated my name with the same care. I never wanted to do anything that would make me unworthy of that support. I wanted to follow their teachings.”
“My parents respected me,” commented one young man. “And they helped me see myself as someone worthy of respect. Somehow, problems like acne, or not having a date for the big dance, or not dressing in style seemed to fall into more realistic perspective.”
One mother said, “If I had it to do over again, I’d criticize my children less and do everything I could to help them see themselves as God sees them.” Children deserve to be respected and valued as individuals. After all, they are children of our Heavenly Father, in whose image they were created and in whose likeness they can become.
When children understand their divine parentage and their eternal worth, their prayers can become more than mere form. They can receive instructions from scripture personally, as counsel from a loving Father. They learn to treat themselves and others with respect.
Something positive happens when we show our children that we have confidence that they can rise to the best that is in them. When Vaughn J. Featherstone was just becoming active in the Church as a teenager, his Scoutmaster said to him, “Vaughn, you have a lot of leadership ability, but we cannot use you because you are rowdy in troop meeting. When you get squared away, we need you.”
Elder Featherstone said, “Having come from a large inactive family that was poor, I had little personal attention. My father had never told me that I could be anything. I gave a great deal of thought to my conduct. I decided to change. The following Tuesday I hardly moved an eyeball. I was as near perfect as I knew how to be.
“Bruford Reynolds was true to his word. I became an assistant patrol leader, a patrol leader, assistant senior patrol leader, then senior patrol leader. He believed in me and had a profound impact on my life.” (Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 38.)
Communicating confidence to children will help them become the best that is in them.
We have found that we must trust our children enough to let them become responsible and independent. They must be allowed to make decisions as early as they are able to, and must have the opportunity to make increasingly significant and complex decisions.
One young man remembers, “My dad was a good mechanic. He could fix anything. One day he left me to do some tractor work alone while he was gone. The job had to be done, but by midmorning the implement the tractor was pulling had broken down. I had to take the implement apart, find the problem, drive to the parts store, buy a replacement, put it back together, and then finish the job. His trust in me gave me confidence when I faced other challenges. I felt trusted and responsible.”
The whole plan of salvation rests solidly on the idea that our Heavenly Father trusts us enough to let us leave his presence, to let us learn to make our own decisions. We learn through being trusted. As we extend trust and responsibility to our children, they will learn to choose the truth on their own without parental coercion.
An atmosphere of love is indispensable to a home where effective teaching of spiritual values takes place. President Joseph F. Smith said, “You will observe that the most potent influence over the mind of a child to persuade it to learn, or to accomplish anything, is the influence of love.” (Gospel Doctrine: Sermons and Writings, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1939, p. 294.)
A mother was once asked, “If you could teach your children only one thing, what would it be?” She answered, “I’d teach them that we and their Father in Heaven love them. For as they learn to feel this love, they will learn to give love, and in giving love, they will keep all the commandments of God.”
While we served at the Missionary Training Center, we noticed that the missionaries who felt loved were more self-confident, more able to express love to others, and were more able to overcome challenges. Those who felt deprived of love often struggled to adjust and to grow in spirituality.
Jesus emphasized that the ability to love is central to the question of whether or not we are his true followers: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:35.)
When your children experience love, they also learn how to love. And if love is a significant part of a child’s experience, when he is far away from you and times are challenging, the spirit and reality of your love will influence him to remember your teachings and your example. Your children will also be able to better understand the love of our Heavenly Father and will return that love by keeping his commandments.
We must teach our children the truths of the gospel. And our children will be more receptive to our word and example if our homes are places of loyalty, respect, confidence, trust, and love. Our example can then become our most powerful ally in fulfilling our responsibility to teach truth to those most precious to us—those whose care we will never entirely relinquish.
When you finish reading “Nurturing Gospel Values at Home,” you may want to consider, individually or as a family, some of these questions and ideas:
1. How can parents who are themselves imperfect set an example for their children that is worth following? How can being honest about your own weaknesses help your children trust you?
2. Are there any areas where you have established a double standard—one for adults and another for children? What about “adult” reading material and entertainment?
3. How can an atmosphere of mistrust or contention undermine all a parent’s efforts to teach?
4. What specific changes might you need to make to improve the trust level in your home?
5. What are several specific ways you can show confidence in your children ?
6. What are some creative ways to show your children you love them?