Several years ago my family was asked to present the Sunday School program one fast Sunday at Christmastime. We prepared to have the children take turns reading parts of the Christmas story from the scriptures. We took our places on the stand, hopeful that all were prepared. Then, during song practice, the chorister invited several people to read a scripture before each song. When one began reading the same verses assigned to one of our sons, our son stood up and rushed out of the chapel.
After the program was over, I found him sitting in our car, embarrassed and determined not to go to class. “Why did she have to do that, Dad?” he asked angrily. I lamely began explaining that she was just trying to do her part. Then, floundering for something more comforting, I impulsively added, “Son, Heavenly Father has sent you here for an important work.” Suddenly all resentment and embarrassment vanished, and my son turned to me earnestly. “What is it, Dad?” After I talked about his mission, Church service, and future leadership, he sat thinking for a moment, then calmly suggested that we go to our classes.
At first I could not understand what I had done. As I thought about it later, I realized that under the direction of the Spirit I had helped displace his unhappiness by giving him hope for something better in the future. He saw some relationship between his future “important work” and the need to go to his Sunday School class.
Parents often motivate their children to practice skills in a similar way—inspiring young musicians by taking them to a concert or motivating aspiring athletes by taking them to college or professional games. But I have found that this principle can also be used to motivate children to develop character traits.
When we notice unique talents in our children, we can encourage them. “Maybe you will become a writer, or a scientist,” we might say. If we do this often enough and sincerely enough, our children may have the courage to try out our version of what the future could hold for them. When a trusted parent describes future possibilities, a child pays attention. We can influence our children by helping them define a vision of future possibilities.
My mother, an avid reader, helped me define my future by introducing me to books about great men. My boyhood dreams were shaped by biographies of Church leaders, statesmen, scientists, writers, and inventors. Thomas Jefferson seemed to me the perfect ideal. His accomplishments in so many fields and his contributions to government, education, architecture, and agriculture motivated me to read and study so that I too could acquire knowledge.
I have tried to motivate my children to develop good character traits by telling them about the lives of the prophets. During our story time on Sunday evenings, they have learned stories about Adam, Nephi, Alma, Joseph Smith, Spencer W. Kimball, and, of course, Jesus Christ. I have often wished that we could have a more detailed description of these men. The more true-to-life I make the stories, the greater the interest of my children. For some reason, the prophet Elijah has currently caught their fancy, and they often ask to hear about him.
But helping children gain a vision of their future and their character is also possible in everyday situations. As I finished my shower one morning, I found one of my sons sitting on the bed, head down, looking dejected. Seeing me, he looked up and asked, “Dad, are you coming to my game today?” Although I usually attended his ninth-grade basketball games, this one time I had planned to be away. When I told him, he said, “Good.”
I could tell something was wrong and asked, “What is the matter?” His voice broke just a little as he answered, “I couldn’t help it, Dad. I tried my best, but he made every shot.” As I inquired further, he told me that the coach had made the boys play one-on-one to see who would start the next game. Starting a game was a sign of status for the boys, and my son, who usually did start and now wouldn’t, was humiliated. “Do you think that matters to me?” I asked him. He didn’t answer, so I continued. “Sometimes a person can turn a failure into a success if he just doesn’t quit.”
Earlier that week I had been thinking that my son had not yet played up to his ability, and I now shared these thoughts with him. “Really, Dad?” he questioned, thinking I was making it up. Since it was the truth, I was confident in the reassurance I gave him both then and later as I dropped him off at school.
Recognizing that he needed my support, I cancelled some of my appointments and made it to the game late. His team was behind ten points and he had not yet played. Shortly after I arrived, his coach put him in the game, and as it turned out, he did have his best game. Going to the showers afterward, he walked by and said, “You were right, Dad,” and shook my hand warmly. I honestly do not know how to account for what happened, but I believe that at least part of his success was due to what he thought I believed could happen if he did not give up. I have since heard him tell other people about the importance of not quitting.
Once our children have seen the vision of future possibilities, our parental work is not finished. Often we need to show them how to achieve what they envision and then encourage them in their efforts. I have told one of my children who dislikes piano practice that practicing piano will help him become disciplined enough to be a better athlete, student, missionary, and father. I have also had to get up in the morning to sit with him as he practiced in order for him to begin achieving his future.
We also need to point out progress and help our children build mental bridges between what they are doing now and where it will lead them. They may not see, for example, how saving money, helping with household chores, or participating in family home evening will help them to reach their goals. Linking everyday activities with future possibilities will increase a child’s motivation.
As I have tried to apply these ideas in my relationship with my children, I have found a deeper appreciation for Heavenly Father’s way of dealing with us. I can understand that obedience to commandments results in the growth of our souls as we develop ourselves toward the future time and state of life we call exaltation. And I have begun to find the true joy of parenthood, which is found in helping lead our children toward immortality and eternal life.
A. Lynn Scoresby is a psychologist and assistant professor of family sciences at Brigham Young University. He is the father of eight and serves as Young Men president in the Highland Fifth Ward, Highland Utah Stake.