When I was learning to sew, I became very frustrated as my mother very carefully explained how to put a zipper into a piece of clothing. No matter how hard I tried to listen and comprehend, I couldn’t follow her instructions beyond a certain step. Then I had to go to her again for more directions on how to do it.
Finally I discovered that if I looked at a finished zipper while she gave instructions, and if I referred to that zipper while sewing my own, I could do it.
Since that discovery, I have found that this principle can apply in other areas of our lives. Words alone are not enough when communicating new information. Often, a mental image or picture must in some way be conveyed for the communication to be effective.
A few years ago, an impressive experience helped me realize how important this mental image is to my spiritual development.
All my life I had heard about the rewards of daily scripture study, but had never successfully formed the habit. Then one day I found myself on a committee working with five people who had each firmly established the habit of scripture study in their lives. I noticed their command of the scriptures in solving problems and teaching others. I marvelled at the way they used the scriptures to avoid personal discouragement and to receive counsel. As I watched them I began to imagine how much better my life would be if I had the scripture habit. The next thing I knew, I was studying the scriptures daily.
Forming a good mental image of who we are and what our values are can help determine who we become and how we live. Our self-image helps us define ourselves—and leads us to act accordingly. Mental pictures and ideas precede our every action. They can help or hinder our righteous progression.
Satan, for example, uses the principle to lead people to bondage. If he can lead us to imagine ourselves as innately sinful, we become uncomfortable in church or near righteous people and we withdraw from the ways of the Lord. Having defined ourselves as sinful, without hope or desire for redemption, we seek ways that are comfortable to our perception and persist in sin until we are “bound down by the chains of hell.” (Alma 13:30.)
On the other hand, if we think of ourselves as children of God, we are more likely to act accordingly. As this mental image of ourselves grows and matures, we find ourselves striving for the qualities and traits that are our inheritance from God—gentleness, love, honesty, consideration, and cheerfulness. Liberty, rather than bondage, is the result.
Alma encouraged his people to develop and maintain a righteous self-image. “Have ye received his [Christ’s] image in your countenances?” he asked them. “… Do you look forward with an eye of faith, and view this mortal body raised in immortality, and this corruption raised in incorruption, to stand before God to be judged according to the deeds which have been done in the mortal body? …
“Can you imagine to yourselves that ye hear the voice of the Lord, saying unto you, in that day: Come unto me ye blessed, for behold, your works have been the works of righteousness upon the face of the earth?” (Alma 5:14–16; italics added.)
Alma knew that an important step to helping people try the ways of the Lord is to help them form the mental picture of themselves performing the works of the Lord.
As parents, it is our responsibility to plant these mental images while our children are young, so the images can help guide their behavior.
One of the most profound means of instilling a righteous image in our children is through the use of scripture and family stories. My own image of what I wanted to be began with stories of my great-grandfather, Robert D. Young. He lived to be ninety-five years old and died when I was fourteen years old. But I love the man as much as if he had walked with me and taught me every step I was to take.
I have few recollections of my own concerning him, but I was raised on stories about him. One of my favorites told of how as a young teenager he had hired on with a group of cowboys to run a herd of cattle from Colorado to Texas. During the first few days of the journey, the owner of the herd, a very wealthy man with no family of his own, rode with the group, but then left to attend to other business. As the cowboys made their way to Texas, the other men, all older than grandfather, spent their free time in pursuits that grandfather didn’t consider worthwhile. Instead of joining them, he would find a quiet spot and study mathematics and engineering.
The night before they arrived at their destination, the other cowboys decided they wanted to go into a nearby town and celebrate their safe arrival. They tried to get grandfather to go, but grandfather insisted that he had been hired to tend the cattle, and he would do just that. Later that night, the owner returned to find grandfather alone with his cattle. He was so impressed that he offered grandfather one-half of all he owned if he would become his business partner. Grandfather would have never again wanted for anything, but he refused. He said he just didn’t feel like that was what the Lord wanted him to do.
Many times during my youth I remember thinking, “I want to be just like my grandfather!” Other times I would ask myself, “Now what would grandfather do?” and then act accordingly.
Uplifting stories from family history can help children develop the image of their divine potential. We can further guide them to identify with good examples through phrases such as, “You’re a lot like that,” or “That sounds like something you’d do.” But we must avoid the temptation to preach, or we may lose the effectiveness of the stories.
I’ve come to realize that my grandfather, being human, must have had faults and shortcomings. But no one has ever told me what they were, so I’ve been free to think only of the good. That is one of the secrets of instilling a righteous image in our children. Dwelling on the negative, unless there is an important lesson to be learned, helps no one. But relating the positive creates a mental image that the child can cling to and identify with.
In this same way, our extended family members, or neighbors, teachers, leaders, and others can serve as good examples to the children. A great deal of good is accomplished by verbally identifying the virtues of these individuals and using opportunities for these people to share their faith-promoting stories and testimonies when our children are present.
One evening I watched my daughters’ reactions as a beautiful friend visiting in our home told the story of meeting her husband. Her eyes sparkled as she explained that if she had disobeyed her father as she had been tempted to on that occasion, she would not have been present to meet the man she later married. Like thirsty sponges my daughters drank in her words. The story made a great impression on them. If I had tried to explain the same principle, they might have labeled it “preachy.” But my friend’s enthusiasm, spirit, and love made the experience memorable and helpful.
On another occasion, I shared a hospital room with a delightful woman in her eighties who had broken her hip. Despite her intense pain, she was determined to walk again and was full of faith and optimism. A few weeks after the hospital stay, I took my daughters to meet this good woman and her husband. We had a wonderful visit. They told us many stories of faith and love for the gospel. Now, four years later, the girls still retain an impression of the faith, joy, and love that comes from growing old in the gospel.
While exposing our children to as many positive role models as possible, we realized that two of their strongest examples should be us—their parents. However, like most parents, I often find myself discouraged because my children so easily pick up my faults despite my efforts to preach against them. I know that the very best way to give my children the proper image is to be what I want them to be. One of the greatest helps to doing this is for each marriage partner to use every opportunity possible to build up the other in the eyes of the children.
A wise man once told me that early in his marriage he and his wife realized that bad habits and character traits make themselves prominent because of their unpleasant consequences, while good traits go largely unnoticed, especially by a child who has had little experience with the world. To help their children identify the proper images, this couple determined to point out each other’s virtues to their children at every opportunity.
This little piece of advice is worth gold! For example, as the children and I wait in the car while my husband goes into a gas station to pay for gas, I take the opportunity to say, “Just look at that special man. He’s a man who loves God and tries so hard to keep the commandments.” Other times I am more specific. “Do you know one of the things I love about your father?” I’ll ask as I serve lunch. “I like his tenderness. Did you notice the tears in his eyes yesterday when Sister Jones bore her testimony?”
Not only does this build an image, but in effect I am also saying to the children, “This is what I value; this is what is important to me. These are traits that will make me proud of you, too.”
Another way to define a righteous image for children is to help them understand their patriarchal blessings. These blessings speak of the inheritance that can be theirs, the lineage they are a part of, and some of their promised blessings. Usually there are also phrases which tell of righteous characteristics and traits they possess. As we stress these traits and use them as living descriptions of the child, they can actually become part of the child’s self-image.
Phrases such as “Your Father in Heaven is pleased with you” help the child define himself as being good and accepted.
We needn’t wait until the child gets a patriarchal blessing to stress virtues, however. Nor do we need to limit ourselves to the particular virtues mentioned in a blessing. Parley P. Pratt has said, “An intelligent being, in the image of God, possesses every organ, attribute, sense, sympathy, affection, of will, wisdom, love, power and gift, which is possessed by God Himself.
“But these are possessed by man, in his rudimental state, in a subordinate sense of the word. Or, in other words, these attributes are in embryo; and are to be gradually developed.” (Key to the Science of Theology, 4th edition, Liverpool, England: Albert Carrington, 1877, p. 101.)
Since our children already possess virtuous character traits, our job is to help the child recognize them, allow them to grow, and keep them from being overlooked.
About the time she entered school, our daughter Anissa, who is nick-named Niss, began greeting each day with a negative attitude that affected the entire family. So I started calling her “Happy Niss.” That may seem strange, but it wasn’t a lie because I knew that happiness was and is an innate quality of her spirit.
“Good morning, Happy Niss,” I’d call in my most cheerful voice; and she’d call back, “I’m not happy. I’m just Niss.”
But I persisted in calling her Happy Niss. Things began to ease, but she still had grumpy mornings. Then one night as I tucked her into bed I said, “Do you know what I love, Happy Niss?”
“What?” she asked.
“I love to see that beautiful, bright, big smile of yours first thing in the morning. My whole day goes better when your smile is the first thing I see.”
She didn’t say a word. The next morning I was preparing breakfast when I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see straggly haired, sleepy-eyed Anissa with the strangest forced grin stretched across her face.
“What is the matt—” I started, then stopped, remembering my words of the night before. “Oh, that smile!” I cried, and threw my arms around her. “I just know it’s going to be a good day now!” And it was.
The real climax to that experience came in a recent home evening when each of us was asked to describe one trait that made us unique or special. Anissa’s immediate response was, “I’m always happy.” The idea had now become part of her self-image.
Giving our children a righteous image to follow is perhaps one of the most important things we can do for them. If they can imagine themselves as righteous people, their actions commonly follow accordingly.
Ultimately, the image we use to determine our actions must be the image of Christ. As Alma said, “Have ye received his image in your countenances? Have ye experienced this mighty change in your hearts?” (Alma 5:14.) Before we can lead our children to receive his image, we must adopt that image ourselves. To do this we must read and study the life and teachings of the Savior, sharing what we learn with our children. We must become so familiar with these things that they are not just words—but concepts, ideas, images in our minds of who and what we are.