Parenting: Everything to Do with the Heart

This is an edited version of the talk given by Sister Holland at the parents’ fireside broadcast from Temple Square 27 January 1985.

When a four-year-old was asked recently why her baby brother was crying, she looked at the baby, thought for a moment and then she said, “Well, if you had no hair, no teeth, and your legs were wobbly, you would cry too.”

We all come into the world crying—and a little bit wobbly. For parents to take a newborn infant, who is then only a bundle of potentialities, and love and guide and develop that child until a fully functional human being emerges is the grandest miracle of science, and the greatest of all arts.

When the Lord created parents, he created something breathtakingly close to what he is. We who have borne children innately know that this is the highest of callings, the holiest of assignments—and that is why the slightest failure can cause us crippling despair.

Even with our best intentions and our most heartfelt efforts, some of us find our children not turning out the way we’d like. They are sometimes very difficult to communicate with. They might be struggling in school or emotionally distressed or openly rebellious or painfully shy. There are lots of reasons why they may still be wobbling a bit.

And it seems that even if our children are not having problems, a nagging uneasiness keeps us wondering how we can keep them off such painful paths. At odd moments we find ourselves thinking, “Am I doing a good job? Are they going to make it? Should I spank them or should I reason with them? Should I control them or should I just ignore them? Reality has a way of making the best of us feel shaky as a parent.

I just reread this recently from my journal, written when I was a young and a very anxious mother:

“I continually pray that I will never do anything to injure my children emotionally. If I ever do cause them to hurt in any way, I pray they will know I did it unwittingly. I cry often inside for things I may have said and done thoughtlessly, and I pray not to repeat these transgressions. I pray that I haven’t done anything to damage my dream of what I want these children to become. I hunger for help and a guide—particularly when I feel that I have failed them.”

Well, rereading that after all these years makes me feel my children are turning out surprisingly well for having had such a basket case for a mother. And I share that with you because what I have wanted most of all to convey to you is that I am one of you—a parent, carrying a bundle of guilt for past mistakes, shaky confidence for the present, and fear of future failing. Above all, I have wanted every parent within the sound of my voice to have hope.

Inasmuch as almost none of us is a professional in child development, you can imagine why I was so encouraged to hear this from one who is. A faculty member at Brigham Young University said to me one day: “Pat, parenting has almost nothing to do with training. It has everything to do with your heart.” When I asked him to explain further he said:

“Often parents feel the reason they do not communicate with their children is that they are not skillful enough. Communication is not nearly as much a matter of skill as it is of attitude. When our attitude is one of broken-heartedness and humility, of love and interest in our children’s welfare, then that cultivates communication. Our children recognize that effort on our part. On the other hand, when we are impatient, hostile, or resentful, it doesn’t matter what words we choose or how we try to camouflage our feelings. That attitude will be felt by their discerning hearts.”

Jacob in the Book of Mormon said we must all come down in the depths of humility and consider ourselves fools before God if we would have him open the gate of heaven to us. (2 Ne. 9:42.)

That humility, including our ability to admit our mistakes, seems to be fundamental both for receiving divine help and for earning our children’s respect.

My daughter is a musically talented young woman. For many years I felt that this talent would not be developed unless I loomed over her at the piano and insistently supervised her practice like a Simon Legree. One day, sometime in her early teens, I realized that my attitude, probably once useful, was now visibly affecting our relationship. Torn between a fear that she would not fully develop a God-given talent and the reality of an increasingly strained relationship over that very issue, I did what I had seen my own mother do when faced with a serious challenge. I sequestered myself in my secret place and poured out my soul in prayer, seeking the only wisdom that could help me keep that communication open—the kind of wisdom and help that comes from the tongues of angels. Upon arising from my knees, I knew what action I must take.

Because it was just three days before Christmas, I gave to Mary as a personal gift an apron from which I had conspicuously cut the apron strings. There was a tiny pocket on the apron in which I tucked a note. It read: “Dear Mary, I’m sorry for the conflict I have caused by acting like a federal marshall at the piano. I must have looked foolish there—just you and me and my six-shooters. Forgive me. You are becoming a young woman in your own right. I have only worried that you would not feel as fully confident and fulfilled as a woman if you left your talent unfinished. I love you. Mom.”

Later that day she sought me out, and in a quiet corner of our home, she said: “Mother, I know you want what is best for me, and I have known that all my life. But if I’m ever going to play the piano well, I’m the one who has to do the practicing, not you!” Then she threw her arms around me and with tears in her eyes she said, “I’ve been wondering how to teach you that—and somehow you figured it out on your own.” Now, by her own choice, she has gone on to even more disciplined musical development. And I am always nearby to encourage her.

As Mary and I reminisced about this experience a few years later, she confided in me that my willingness to say “I’m sorry, I’ve made a mistake, please forgive me” gave to her a great sense of self-worth, because it said to her that she was worthy enough for a parental apology, that sometimes children can be right. I wonder if personal revelation ever comes without counting ourselves as fools before God? I wonder if reaching and teaching our children requires becoming more childlike ourselves? Shouldn’t we share our deepest fears and pain with them, as well as our highest hopes and joys, instead of simply trying to lecture and dominate and reprove them again and again?

I would like to close with an experience that occurred just this month.

For three days in a row, my son Duffy (who is our eleven-year-old linebacker) leaped from some hidden corner of our home to throw a body block on me, Super Bowl style. The last time he did this, in my effort to avoid the blitz, I fell on the floor and knocked over the lamp and found my fight elbow wedged up somewhere near my eyebrow. I completely lost my patience, and I scolded him dearly for making me his tackling dummy.

His response melted my heart when he said with tears rolling down both cheeks, “But, Mom, you’re the best friend a guy could have. I thought this was as much fun for you as it was for me.” Then he added, “For a long time now I’ve planned what I will say in my first interview as a Heisman Trophy winner. When they ask me how I got to be so great, I’ll tell them, ‘I practiced on my mother!’”

Every child has to practice on his mother, and in a more important way, every mother has to practice on her child. That is God’s way for parent and child to work out their salvation. I mentioned earlier that we all come into the world crying. Considering all the humbling purposes of life, perhaps it is understandable that we will continue to shed a tear or two from time to time. But it helps us to always remember that these are God’s children as well as ours. And above all, it should give us a perfect brightness of hope to know that when we need help we can go through the veil to get it.

I testify that God will never give up on us in this heavenly-designed experience, and we must never give up on our children—or on ourselves.

[illustration] Illustrated by Dilleen Marsh