When I was a boy, I used to go with my father to the stockyards. We lived on a small farm and occasionally sold a few animals there.
The holding pens for the cattle, hogs, and sheep were on the river bank. A fenced bridge spanned the river and connected with a ramp that angled up to the top story of a processing plant on the other bank. Since the animals to be butchered had to be herded across the bridge and up the ramp, the men who managed this operation developed a clever solution. They trained a black goat to enter the sheep pens, mingle with the sheep, and then lead the way across the bridge and up the ramp through the door of the processing plant. Once inside the doorway, the goat stepped aside, and the sheep pressed on to their ultimate fate.
I remember watching this scene as my dad explained the operation. He paused, then added, “Let that be a lesson to you; be careful who you follow. Make sure you know where you are being led.”
I’ve never forgotten that experience. When I think of fathers leading, teaching, spiritually feeding their families, I remember how my father did it—in simple but lasting ways. The opportunities to teach important lessons are not always planned. They often arise out of our day-to-day experiences—here a little and there a little, taking advantage of a teaching moment.
Probably the most impressive lesson I have learned as a father is that my children are nourished as much or more on what I am than on what I try to teach.
A challenge that tests me as a father is that of creating a relationship with my children more powerful than the relationships they develop with their friends. This doesn’t seem as difficult with the younger children as it does with the teenagers. Children love to play, and it hasn’t been difficult to roll on the rug, tickle, tell stories, and make funny faces.
But after age ten or so, my competition gets stiffer. The older children tend to develop strong ties with their peer group even though they also still want our affection and attention. The challenge as I see it is to maintain a stronger relationship with each child than he has with others—to draw him to the family more strongly than he is drawn to any other group. This relationship allows parents to continue to be effective teachers of their children.
I have learned that building this kind of teaching relationship demands special experiences with each child. I have tried to have these experiences at least weekly—sometimes in big events and sometimes in small. A wilderness pack trip on horses or a fishing trip works well with my boys, but my daughters expect something different, and sometimes it’s taken me awhile to learn what to do. Teaching them an “old-fashioned” dance step, knowing about and being aware of their school and social life, explaining why young people do the things they do, or taking them out for a treat alone seems to be effective with my girls.
A major secret is helping them to see the connection between what you do and what it means. Once in a while, let them see you sacrifice something they know you really want to do so that you can be with them.
I have a wise friend whom I consider to be a successful father. He says, ”We need to understand that being willing to lose a few battles may help us win the war.” I find that this is true. We want our children to develop enough mature independence to establish good homes of their own in which to rear our grandchildren. It is unlikely that they will do this successfully without making some decisions that vary from ours.
Husbands and wives need to give and take in marriage; so do parents and children. It’s a constant struggle for me to decide where I must stand firm and where I should graciously accept “defeat.” It seems worth losing the minor skirmishes if my children stand firm on the matters I feel are too vital for compromise.
Knowing where to give in and where to stand firm emphasizes our need for divine guidance. I know from my own experience that unless I receive spiritual instruction I cannot give spiritual instruction. I learned a great lesson from President Brigham Young’s instruction to fathers to invite the Holy Ghost into their homes daily:
“Fathers, never cease to pray that your wives may enjoy this blessing of being influenced by the Spirit of the Lord, that their infants may be endowed with the Holy Ghost, from their mother’s womb. If you want to see a nation rise up full of the Holy Ghost, and of power, this is the way to bring it about. Every other duty that is obligatory upon man, woman, or child, will come in its place, and in its time and season. Remember it, brethren. Let your hearts be pure before the Lord, and never cease to do anything you can for the satisfaction and comfort of your family, that all may enjoy the comforts of the Spirit of the Lord continually. If you do not come to this, your literary attainments will not exceed those of the world.” (Journal of Discourses, 1:69.)
I find that when I pray for my wife to have the influence of the Holy Ghost as she works with our children, I am more sensitive to what I must do as a father. Likewise, I find it easier to teach my children if I talk to God about my children as much as I talk to my children about God.
Parents are commanded to teach their children to pray, to walk uprightly (see D&C 68:28), and to keep the Sabbath day holy. This responsibility cannot be escaped. Two consequences follow: We should not expect our children to grow up without ever embarrassing us or needing correction; nor should we pretend that we never have any problems with our children. Hypocrisy is a heavy weight to work against.
Fathers are spiritually nourishing their children when they make the difference between right and wrong very clear to them. If we do all we can as long as we can, then we are doing our part.
One of the most rewarding experiences I have as a father is watching my children succeed. As our smaller children have performed in family home evenings or church programs, I’ve noticed that some are very timid, while others seem to be “hams.” But all of them want to succeed, and I feel that one of my spiritual responsibilities is to help them develop enough self-confidence so that they can express themselves in some way compatible with their talents.
My wife has a great method. She frequently will stand before the family and call each child, one at a time, to her side and then tell us all some special things about that child. Each one blushes a little but beams a great deal, and our home is always a little brighter place following such an episode.
Another valuable way a father can spiritually feed his family is to make sure that his loved ones have the opportunity to be influenced for good by other noble men and women.
Taking my family to church, enrolling our children in seminary, interviewing school and Church teachers about their objectives and our children’s performances, encouraging my wife to attend Relief Society, and inviting good people into our home are all ways of ministering to our family’s needs. It’s an unwise father who thinks he has to do it all alone.
After all that a father can say about nourishing his children in righteousness, nothing he will ever do is likely to have quite as much impact as his selection of their mother. The greatest gift a father ever gives his children is their mother, because she, more than any other single force, is the major influence on his children. It is absolutely vital that she seek and nurture righteousness in her home.
A father can spiritually nourish his family then, by striving for a noble relationship with his wife, and by expressing those feelings in actions; tell the children how you feel about her, respect her wishes, consult her opinions, be her friend, court—not demand—her interest and attention, express gratitude in word and act, share your own feelings and problems, show by your own time schedule that her interests are important, that you love her companionship and value her testimony. It’s hard for a woman to maintain spirituality in the home if the husband does not appreciate and respect her personal righteousness.
When I help my children see their whole lives in a spiritual perspective, I see more opportunities for supplying them with spiritual nourishment. At the same time, I find that I am spiritually nourished by them.
It encourages me to read Enos’ experience, showing that his father’s effort to provide spiritual nourishment did not have their greatest impact immediately. (Enos 1:3.) Sometimes it may seem that our efforts are of little avail, that they are being ignored or at best grudgingly endured. But experiences such as the one I had as a young boy, watching a black goat named Judas, are witnesses to me that the return is worth the investment, even when it takes a while to gather interest.