The young couple was ecstatic when they were able to adopt two infant boys. For several years, they enjoyed wonderful times together with their sons as the boys grew. They tried to make the Church a part of home and family life.
But when I first met the family, the boys were well into their teen years. Both had been expelled from high school, had been arrested several times, were using drugs, and were bullying or controlling their parents. What had gone wrong?
Many things had contributed to the boys’ problems, including their own bad choices. But one contributing factor was a poor relationship between father and sons. Some of his attempts to teach the boys had gone sadly awry.
Wanting to teach the value and rewards of work, for example, he had proposed that they raise animals. The father, however, was a perfectionist. If the boys did not feed the animals or clean the shelters properly, he let his sons know, impatiently and harshly, how irresponsible they were.
By contrast, a friend told me of a recent experience with one of his sons. A cow had died because the young man had improperly fed it. “What did you do?” I asked. “Well, first I remembered that I was primarily raising boys, not cows.” My friend corrected his son in a loving way. He maintained a close relationship, and his son became more responsible.
These two examples underscore the effect parents can have, by the way they teach, on the mental and physical well-being of their children.
Latter-day Saint youth have been advised by the First Presidency:
“The Lord has commanded that you keep your body, mind, and spirit healthy. Nutritious meals, regular exercise, and appropriate sleep are necessary for a strong body, just as consistent scripture study and prayer strengthen the mind and spirit. Even those who are challenged by some physical limitations will be physically and spiritually benefited by observing proper health habits. …
“When you observe the Word of Wisdom (see D&C 89) and other good health practices, you remain free and have control over your life. You gain the blessings of an undefiled body, an alert mind, and the ability to receive help and support from your Heavenly Father through the Holy Ghost.” (For the Strength of Youth, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1990, pp. 12–13.)
This counsel gives us a definition of health for the soul—the body and spirit as one. (See D&C 88:15.) Those who enjoy such health have the body and the spirit in harmony with each other and with eternal truths. Young people who value the health of their souls have less trouble keeping the Word of Wisdom and obeying other gospel principles and understanding how to treat their bodies as physical and spiritual temples, gifts from our Father. Those who go against this counsel become sick in spirit, sick at heart, and often sick in body.
Parents can promote their children’s spiritual well-being by helping them to: (1) respect themselves as capable people who are of great worth, and (2) develop the capacity to make good judgments, be self-disciplined, and be responsible. The three elements listed in goal two are grouped together because they are affected by similar factors.
1. Help them know who they are. In an address at the last general conference before his death, President Harold B. Lee said that those who choose the path of rebellion against truth usually do so for lack of self-respect.
“What a difference it would make if we really sensed our divine relationship to God, our Heavenly Father, our relationship to Jesus Christ, our Savior and our elder brother, and our relationship to each other. …
“Say again and again to yourselves, … ‘I am a [son or a daughter] of God’ and … make your life happier and more fruitful because of an awakened realization of who you are.” (Ensign, Jan. 1974, p. 6.)
One young woman was threatening suicide when her bishop asked me to meet with her as a therapist. She had been trying to tailor her thoughts and actions so she could fit into groups where she wanted to belong, without regard to who she really was. As part of her therapy, I asked her to read, ponder and personalize daily a set of statements, which I entitled “Who I Am,” from the scriptures and the words of modern prophets. After three weeks, her perspective on herself and her need for the approval of others had changed. “I have always known that I was a child of God,” she said, “but I have never really known until now. It has made all the difference.”
You can help your children experience this uplifting realization. Select spiritual “identity statements” from the scriptures and the words of our prophets. Help them to personalize these, and post the personalized statements where they will be seen frequently. For example, a personalized statement might read, “I am of great worth and value according to my Heavenly Father, who knows me perfectly.” (See D&C 18:10.)
2. Send “you’re capable” messages. When you communicate—and you are always communicating, in words or in actions—send messages telling your children that they are capable and of great worth.
Just spending meaningful time with children often helps communicate that we value them. I have a friend who takes his five-year-old son with him to swim every weekday. I commented one morning that the boy ought to become an excellent swimmer. “Maybe,” my friend answered, “but that’s not the reason I bring him. I want him to know that I love him and enjoy having him with me.”
Listening to your children—not only to their words but also to their feelings, while trying to discern the words that they don’t say—sends the message, “I love you, and you are of great worth to me.” In one of his radio broadcasts with the Tabernacle Choir many years ago, Elder Richard L. Evans of the Quorum of the Twelve said, “If we respond to them with sincere attention and sincere concern they will likely continue to come to us and ask [us their questions]. And if they find they can trust us with their trivial questions, they may later trust us with the more weighty ones.” (Ensign, Jan., 1983, p. 27.)
3. Spotlight their strengths. Focus on the things your children do well rather than their mistakes. Observations suggest that the typical parent makes four comments about a child’s mistakes for each comment about his or her successes. Just reversing these figures often has a dramatic impact. People move toward and become that which they accept as possible for themselves and continue to think about. If we constantly remind our children of their inadequacies, that is how they will be—especially when they are with us. If we reinforce their spiritual, intellectual, and physical successes, they are more likely to be strong in those things.
Our children also need to know that they are still loved and still of great worth to us and to God when they have made mistakes or sinned. They need to know that through repentance and the Atonement, they can be forgiven and healed and become whole again.
4. Help them face problems. By precept and example, help young people avoid “hiding” behavior—the concealing of unpleasant or threatening things from themselves or others out of fear. People sometimes do this by refusing to tell the full truth, rationalizing, justifying themselves, deceiving others, denying weaknesses and limitations, or saying “I can’t” when what they really mean is “I won’t” or “I don’t want to.” It is impossible for us to feel capable and of worth when we try to hide our errors or sins, when we do not follow our impulses to be open and do good.
5. Teach them to serve. Give your children an opportunity to contribute, in a way that will be meaningful for them, to something larger than themselves—your family, the Church, the neighborhood, or the school. In serving others, they will find meaning, relevance, and status in life. These things are typically missing in youth caught up in rebellious, unhealthy behavior. This is one reason why it is important that they have meaningful responsibilities in the home.
Young people who feel good about their capabilities and worth are prepared to expend the effort required to develop three qualities critical to the health of the soul and facing life maturely: objective self-judgment, self-discipline, and responsibility. In order to develop these qualities, people must have both a knowledge of good and evil and the freedom to choose. Parents have a central role in providing knowledge and in fostering wise use of agency.
Opportunities for parents to show children the difference between good and evil, between wisdom and foolishness, can begin at very early ages. As I was doing some home repairs, for instance, I noticed that my two-year-old grandson had put his fingers in the doorjamb where, if the door was closed, they would get smashed. I showed him what the door might do to his fingers. He learned—and without painful consequences.
It is also important to help young people learn to identify the feelings that accompany their thoughts and behaviors. As these feelings are recognized, identified, and compared to the fruits of the Spirit (see Gal. 5:22–24), they may learn to live by the Spirit—the most certain way to discern between good and evil. (See Moro. 7:12–19.)
Children must have the opportunity to learn from their own experience the difference between good and evil. This requires that they have limits and the opportunity of experiencing appropriate and meaningful consequences for violating or adhering to those limits. They must not be indulged, or “pseudo-loved,” by denying them the privilege of receiving the consequences of their behavior. By experiencing the consequences of their actions, children learn that the world is a place where they may choose their thoughts and actions, but not the consequences of those choices. Wise parents help children learn that every thought and act has a consequence to the health of the soul. As Alma taught us, “Wickedness never was happiness.” (Alma 41:10; see also Alma 42:22–26.)
Many of the essential requisites for development of the qualities of good judgment, self-discipline, and responsibility are evidenced in this touching illustration shared by Elder Marion D. Hanks. He told of a boy whose friend Bob invited him to a recreational activity that would take place on Sunday. When the boy told his mother of the invitation, she considered reminding him that he had duties on Sunday morning, that in their family they went to church together, and that when Dad returned later that night, he would not consider approving such an activity. But instead, she said, “Richard, you are twelve years old. You hold the priesthood. You are president of the deacons quorum. I am sure Dad would want you to make up your own mind and answer Bob yourself.”
Elder Hanks continued: “The boy goes back to the telephone, and the mother goes to her room and prays that their son will give the right answer. Nothing more is said about the matter, and on Sunday morning the lad and his parents go into town to church, park in the lot across the street, and are crossing, arm-in-arm, when a pickup truck passes. Two men and two boys are in the seat, snowmobiles in the truck bed, guns slung in the rear window. The boys wave to Richard as they pass. He pauses a moment and says, ‘Gee, I wish …’ The mother catches her breath a bit, and then Richard finishes: ‘Gee, I wish I had been able to talk Bob and Tom into coming to priesthood meeting this morning.’
“The mother, telling the story, thanks the Lord for this choice lad and his personal decision to do the right thing. And then she weeps freely as she explains how important that was to all of them. You see, their son was killed in a farm accident that week.” (Ensign, Nov. 1990, pp. 39–40.)
Except when there is a probability of harm to self or others, children must be free to choose and not be compelled.
If being a parent seems like a tremendous challenge, it is. “The whole process of raising a family is one of perfecting our own lives,” said President Henry D. Moyle, Second Counselor in the First Presidency. (Relief Society Magazine, Dec. 1960, p. 793.)
While we owe our children the best we can give in terms of love, example, and instruction, we do not have the responsibility to perfect their lives. We can only try to help them toward that goal. Elder James E. Faust of the Quorum of the Twelve has taught: “Let parents who have been conscientious, loving, and concerned and who have lived the principles of righteousness as best they could be comforted in knowing that they are good parents despite the actions of some of their children. The children themselves have a responsibility to listen, obey, and, having been taught, to learn.” (Ensign, Nov. 1990, p. 34.)
One reason we are given children on earth is to help us grow and develop as children of an Eternal Father. Child rearing is a process, and we can expect some setbacks because that is typical in any mortal growth. At those times, it will help to remember that health of the soul is an eternal goal, and when we lovingly point our children toward it, we are also steering ourselves toward becoming celestial beings.