“If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15.)
Learning to put these simple words into practice is one of the premier lessons of life. And for parents who want to influence their children to keep the commandments, the challenge often seems perplexing.
Almost as perplexing for parents is how to encourage their children to obey them. Parental complaints—“Jim won’t do his share around the house,” “Sharon chooses the wrong kind of friends”—are common.
The truth is, obedience—to God, to parents—is ultimately an attribute of the spirit, gained by learning the lessons of love. And the first lessons come in the home.
When it comes to obedience, children learn best from example. No matter what we tell our children, they will ultimately be more influenced by our examples than our words. President Joseph F. Smith says that parents ought to live “so that you can say, ‘My [children], do as I do, follow me, emulate my example.’ That is the way [parents] should live, every one of us; it is a shame, a weakening, shameful thing for any member of the Church to pursue a course that he knows is not right and that he would rather his children should not follow.” (Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, p. 285.)
Our children are not likely to feel committed to obeying the laws of the land if they see us consistently exceed the speed limit. They will probably not get the message if we tell them to speak kindly of others, then watch us gossip about a neighbor or criticize a church leader. They will not feel that the prophets’ words are very important if we do not hold family home evening, daily family prayer, and family scripture study as the prophets have counseled us to do.
Even our children’s feelings about obedience itself will be influenced by our attitudes. If we grumble about the amount of budget the bishop has asked us to pay or complain that we have too many meetings to go to, our children will begin to feel that obedience is hard and burdensome. On the other hand, if our children see us enthusiastically attending our meetings, serving in the Church, doing missionary and genealogical work, and following the other counsel we have received, they will see that we love God and that a life of obedience leads to happiness. They will begin learning the great lesson that “peace, joy, satisfaction, happiness, growth, contentment—all come with the righteous living of the commandments of God.” (Spencer W. Kimball, Faith Precedes the Miracle, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1972, pp. 223–24.)
Throughout history God’s love for his children has led him to discipline them when they disobeyed and bless them when they kept his commandments. Their obedience yielded good fruits; their disobedience yielded bad.
Children need to know that “wickedness never was happiness” (Alma 41:10), and that the fruit of obedience is joy.
Parents can teach these vital principles by supplying consequences for both undesirable and desirable behavior. Children who are arguing can be sent to their rooms; those who have shared a toy could be praised. If a son is to have the car home by five o’clock so his sister can take it to work, and he is late, he may be restricted from the car for a time. If he shows that he is reliable and follows instructions, he may be given more free use of the car.
Although most parents can force their children to obey (especially when the children are small), force will not teach obedience. It is only through long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned that children can be persuaded righteously to obey. (See D&C 121:41–43.)
One young woman recalls the consequences she experienced one time when she disobeyed her father. “Dad had just been called as bishop, leaving Mom alone to watch the four of us children during meetings. With only one adult to supervise us, we were quite a handful. One week we were especially noisy, and when we came home from church, Dad gathered us together for ‘a talk.’ He told us that our behavior was inappropriate for the chapel, that we knew how to behave, and that he knew we could behave, because we had done so before. He also told us that our conduct in the chapel told Heavenly Father that we did not love and respect him or his house. He said he was disappointed in us, and if we behaved that disrespectfully again we would be disciplined.
“But the next meeting was just too much of a temptation, and we were noisy again.
“Ours was a subdued home when we came home that night. Silently we helped our mother set the table and waited for Dad to come home from his meetings. We knew what was ahead of us, and we were right. He came home and quietly expressed his disappointment in us. His disappointment hurt. And for perhaps the first time we understood that our father’s feelings mirrored our Heavenly Father’s feelings. We suddenly wanted to be good.”
This father might have excused his children with “Oh, they’re just young,” or he might have just scolded them. Worse, he might have established consequences for their misbehavior and then failed to follow through. But he loved his children, and he loved the Lord. He wanted his children to develop a sense of reverence for the Lord’s house and for His day. He wanted it enough to do his part as their father, even if it was inconvenient or embarrassing to him.
As children consistently experience consequences for their behavior, they will begin to understand obedience. They will begin to see that laws and commandments are given by loving parents, both earthly and heavenly. They will begin to see that obedience brings happiness and disobedience, unhappiness.
Children obey for many reasons. Perhaps they feel a need to have their parents’ approval. Perhaps they fear punishment or desire some privilege. But the greatest motivator is the feeling that their parents and Father in Heaven love them with a pure love. Many children, when asked why they obey their parents or keep the commandments, say they do so because they don’t want to hurt their parents or disappoint a loving Father in Heaven.
One father tells of reading Old Testament Stories with his children. “They were very involved with the story of Cain and Abel, especially one line in the story which reads, ‘[Cain] loved Satan more than he loved God.’ (p. 19.) They could not comprehend such a thing. We discussed together that who we choose to follow, as evidenced by our thoughts and actions, shows who we really love. When we are disobedient, we show that we love Satan more than God. This idea had a great impact on them.”
Children are quick to feel love based on something other than their welfare. Parents who want their children to obey for no reason other than that they will appear to be model parents aren’t fooling their children. Neither are those parents who simply want the power such obedience seems to give them. These immature attitudes and others like them can lead to a harvest of rebellion. The lessons of obedience are best learned in an environment of love unfeigned.
George Durrant tells of an incident in his life when his mother’s genuine concern for his welfare helped him choose to stay in college. (See Ensign, Aug. 1980, pp. 16–18.) As a young man he wanted to present a “tough” image. This meant dropping out of school to buy “the right kind of car.” When he told his mother of his decision, she pleaded with him to stay in school. He refused to listen, and when she realized that he was serious, she began to cry. The tears—a manifestation of his mother’s genuine concern—convinced George to stay in school. He knew that she did not want him to stay in school because she wanted the prestige of a son with a college degree, but because she knew that her son needed such a degree to do what he would want to do with his life.
Because our children have their agency, they may choose not to obey God’s laws. No matter how good we are as parents, we cannot guarantee that all our children will be obedient. But if we are obedient ourselves and if we follow the principles our Heavenly Father follows, always showing love, we can help our children learn the divine principle of obedience. And it is only through obedience that they can become like God and enjoy eternal life.