In an April 1994 general conference address, Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught: “Before I was called as a General Authority, I was in the automobile business, as was my father before me. Through the years, I learned to appreciate the sound and the performance of a well-tuned engine. To me it is almost musical, from the gentle purring of an idling motor to the vibrant roar of a throttle that is fully open. The power that sound represents is even more exciting. …
“On the other hand, nothing is more frustrating than a car engine that is not running properly. No matter how beautiful the paint or comfortable the furnishings inside are, a car with an engine that is not operating as it should is just a shell of unrealized potential. An automobile engine will run on only a part of its cylinders, but it never will go as far or as fast, nor will the ride be as smooth, as when it is tuned properly.”
Elder Ballard then likened a properly tuned car to a ward or stake that is functioning well. He urged Church leaders “to harness and channel spiritual power through councils.”1
The Church magazines recently met with Elder Ballard and his wife, Barbara, to talk about how the council system can be applied to families, some of which, Elder Ballard said, are hitting on only a few cylinders.
Question: Why do you feel so strongly about family councils?
Elder Ballard: There has never been a time when the world was in greater need of the strength and security that are best sown and cultivated in the deep, fertile soil of family love. The family is under heavy attack from antagonists bent on extinguishing this powerful source of light in a darkening world. Successful families have a wide assortment of tools, and one of the most useful tools is the family council.
Question: How might a family council differ from a family home evening?
Elder Ballard: Family home evening is a social and teaching time. In a family council we talk about the needs of the family and the needs of individual members of the family. It is a time to solve problems, make family decisions, plan day-to-day and long-range family activities and goals. It is a time to share one another’s burdens and joys and counsel together, to keep each family member on the right track spiritually. It is the time when we discuss family matters, much as a bishop or branch president does with his ward or branch leaders. It is when parents use the tremendous powers of the council system. A family council could certainly be part of family home evening, but it could also take place at any time.
Sister Ballard: Our seven children have been wonderful to raise, but we’ve had worries and concerns, and we’ve had to go through the normal anxieties and problems. This is why we needed family councils—and why we had lots of discussions and prayers. For example, when my husband was called to serve as mission president in Toronto, Canada, some of the children were not happy about moving there.
Elder Ballard: They cried all the way to Toronto. They cried for two months after we were there.
Sister Ballard: Yes, but they were good sports. It was harder for the ones in high school, but we discussed their feelings in many family councils. In time, they realized it was a wonderful opportunity.
Question: So how would you define a family council?
Elder Ballard: Whenever there are two or more members of a family together and a discussion is going on, that is a council! Family councils can be held in one-on-one talks between a parent and a child or among parents and several children. When a husband and wife talk to each other, they are holding a family council.
I think of the traditional definition that says a family council is a time when a father and mother sit down and go through a list of dos and don’ts with their children. I was never able to make it work that way. I found that when the list came out, it turned the children off. So I tried bringing up a specific problem—such as the garden needs weeding—and then simply asked the family, “What can we do about it? What are your ideas?”
A council is when parents let their children help solve the problem. And when everyone agrees to a solution, everyone will have ownership of the problem. If I tell the family, “You go out and pull the weeds,” there may be complaining or hurt feelings. But if I can help them to feel, “We all decided this,” then the family council is truly working. Before you know it, family members will be organizing themselves, saying, “You do this and I’ll do that.” That’s the power of a council.
Question: What are some ways parents can begin to make family councils work?
Elder Ballard: First, parents need to draw the children into the problem-solving process by letting them be heard. For example, I came home at times to find that the children had not cleaned their rooms or done other things they were supposed to do. My wife had her hands full with seven children to raise. So I called the children together for a short council meeting. We talked about what needed to be done and decided on a course of action. Talking about the course of action makes all the difference. If it’s mandated or dictated, there will usually be resistance. But if parents will establish a climate conducive to openness, where every person is important and every opinion is valued, they can create a kind of spiritual synergism in the home, where the combined action or cooperation that results is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Sister Ballard: Informal communication among parents and children is crucial. If children are old enough to talk, we should be showing them we care by listening to them. We should be asking them how they are and what they would change about their lives. It seems that one of the best times for a family council is right before children fall asleep. It may be just one child with a father or mother, but it can be a very important family council. You don’t have to have everyone sitting together in order to have a family council.
Elder Ballard: My feeling is that the more fluid, the more nonthreatening, the more natural a family council is, the more effective it is. Let children tell their perception of what needs to happen. Point out why you feel the way you feel. You can then start to connect and teach. But the exchange can’t be phony or staged. If it is fabricated, the council system doesn’t work. Communication has to be open and candid.
Question: How might a father and a mother work together in family councils?
Elder Ballard: A father, who is the priesthood bearer and patriarch in a home, has the responsibility to make the decisions. I emphasize the term responsibility—not the term authority. But it is far better if those decisions are made in a spirit of unity of purpose and pulling together as a family.
I think a mother is probably the key to making councils work. I say that because she is often more sensitive and gentle than her husband.
I remember a time when one of our daughters came home and I had a dialogue with her. I don’t remember the subject, but afterward she went up to her room. Later Sister Ballard came to me and lovingly said, “I don’t think you realize the impact of what you said to her. You’ve hurt her feelings.”
I said, “I did? How did I do that?” I didn’t have a clue, so Sister Ballard explained.
I went upstairs and sat down with my little girl. She was on her bed, crying. We had another family council. I asked her to forgive me. It was a great moment for us, and it was all done as we counseled together.
My wife has also been great at keeping even our formal family councils more relaxed and fun.
Sister Ballard: My husband and I made a pact long ago. If he disagrees with me or I disagree with him, we talk about it, whatever it is.
Elder Ballard: It seems to me that whoever is in charge of a council needs to have some idea of a desired outcome—perhaps a change in behavior—before discussion starts. Then both parents need to work with the children until things change for the better.
Question: How about single parents? Any advice for them?
Sister Ballard: I have compassion for single mothers and fathers. I don’t know how they do all they need to do.
Elder Ballard: Single parents often come home tired after a day at work. Then they’ve got to prepare dinner and help children with homework. They stretch themselves emotionally to the point that they may not have the energy or time to sit down and have a family council in a formal way. But the more stress there is on a family, the more important family councils become.
The key for a single parent—and other parents as well—is to take advantage of informal counseling opportunities with a child. They might be while driving in the car, doing the dishes, or in the morning and evening just before prayers. As tired as you may be, it’s wise to invest the time and attention it takes to make an effective connection with your children. It is far better to lovingly communicate in the beginning, while they are young, than to try and hammer it into them later when behavior changes more slowly.
Question: How about extended family councils?
Elder Ballard: I hope parents will not overlook the potentially powerful asset grandparents can be. Grandparents can be welcomed and listened to in formal councils or on informal occasions. They’ve walked the road of life 30 or more years longer than anyone else in the council. Even if grandparents live far away, grandchildren can call or e-mail; I know ours do. A single parent may have this resource and may not be utilizing it. Grandparents can be a tremendous resource.
Question: What other factors can make a family council successful?
Elder Ballard: We have to understand the circumstances of family members. Each child is different. All the counseling in the world won’t solve a problem if there’s a medical challenge. For example, one of our children has struggled with attention deficit disorder. When we were younger, we didn’t know what that was. Nobody knew what it was. We have grandchildren with dyslexia. That can be very tough for a child to deal with. Parents have got to counsel together about such issues, then hold a family council to discuss how to best deal with the situation. It is not enough just to tell them, “You can do it. Just try harder.” Additional outside help may be needed.
Siblings can also be a great help. Older children can become mentors, tremendous assets, if the father and mother will use the council system. In this way, a family is much like a ward. If a bishop knows how to involve his Relief Society, elders quorum, and Young Women president, they can make a huge difference in getting the work done in a ward. Father and mother need to see their children as mentors to each other. That way, the power of the family council is put to work.
Question: The relationship between a husband and wife is crucial to the success of family councils, isn’t it?
Sister Ballard: I’ve been very fortunate to have a husband with whom I could talk. Raising a family is hard enough when parents get along. If a father and mother disagree all the time, children learn to pit one parent against the other. And couples need to spend time together away from their children. When our children were little and my husband was serving as bishop, we would get a baby-sitter and go out at least once a week—nothing fancy but we spent some time together. We would sit down and try to talk objectively about our lives. I would ask, “How do you think we’re doing?”
Elder Ballard: And I would ask what I should be doing. They were great councils.
Sister Ballard: I still remember those times. All couples should take advantage of those opportunities. There won’t be many surprises, but once in a while there might be.
Elder Ballard: Let me share the advice I give to couples when I perform a sealing in the temple: Never retire without kneeling together and holding hands and saying your prayers. And those prayers should be prayers of gratitude. There is something that happens, even when a husband and a wife are upset with each other, if they kneel at the end of the day and pray together. I do a lot of counseling with people troubled in their marriages. I always ask, “Do you kneel and hold hands at the end of the day, praying for Heavenly Father’s blessings in your home?” Not once in a struggling marriage is the couple still doing that. So I send them home, saying, “Why don’t you do that for 30 days and then come see me?” Almost always, they return and comment, “Elder Ballard, we’re going to make it; we’re going to work it out.” When communication with Heavenly Father breaks down, communication between spouses also breaks down. And Heavenly Father will not interfere. He doesn’t generally intrude where He is not invited. But if we ask, great blessings will flow.
Question: Any final thoughts?
Elder Ballard: Let me say that leadership based on love brings incredible power.2 In these perilous times, we need the cooperative efforts of parents and children in the family because absolute vigilance is required on the part of all.
God never intended that His children should stand alone. We have the gospel, the scriptures, living prophets and apostles, and the Holy Ghost to help us. This is not man’s work nor woman’s work; it is God’s work, which is centered on the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
May God bless us all to find inspired consensus and unity as we counsel together in our families. Only in so doing can our families begin to approach their full potential.