On Parental Controls
First, my credentials: I’ve been a parent for over 31 years, and I’ve been someone’s child for 53. Other than that, I’ve had no specific parenting training, except a few parenting classes and lectures that I’ve attended and taught and a few books for the “lay” parent that I’ve read.
Second, my success rate: My kids are still alive, and still love me, as far as I know. Some are gainfully employed and others still in school. The two minor ones still live at home, in relative peace. Some of my older children no longer participate in church. Child #5 is my first to serve a mission and recently left the MTC. Some members of my family are dealing with addiction and mental illness.
Of course, citing my children’s successes, accomplishments, even status, and referring to it as my success is wrong. Particularly the adults, but even the adolescents still at home, are responsible for their own choices: they deserve the credit for their success and the consequences of their mistakes. I do not suggest that I have no influence, but influence is all I have, not control.
The Doctrine and Covenants teaches us great lessons about parental leadership in Section 121:
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion (v. 39).
The Doctrine and Covenants continues that no power should be maintained by virtue of the priesthood (or any other authority, I would add). Instead, the revelation teaches how we can (and should) have influence, since practicing unrighteous dominion isn’t the Lord’s way:
By long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile (D&C 121:21-22).
That list is not particularly easy. It’s not easy for the parent who has a timetable to keep. It’s not easy during the last five minutes before rushing out the door to church. It’s not easy after waiting up past curfew for a teenager to return home. It’s not easy after a child has left her chores to chat on the phone for half an hour with friends. It’s not easy when a toddler fusses on an airplane and other passengers are looking for relief.
But it is the Lord’s way. Let’s look at the list again, and what it might mean for parents:
- Long-suffering – Don’t expect immediate results; be patient with a child and understand what is developmentally possible.
- Gentleness and meekness — Staying gentle in the face of a temper-tantrum-fueled pre-adolescent know-it-all will test your long-suffering, for sure! Being gentle and meek does not mean being weak, but it does mean being gentle.
- Love unfeigned — It’s easy to love those kids when they are sleeping; it’s even easy when they are laughing; it’s more of a challenge when they’ve used your living room walls as a canvas for their latest work of art, or the family car in an unintended physics experiment with the immovable mailbox, but it’s precisely in those difficult moments that the “unfeigned” part of the love shows.
- Kindness — A saying I’ve learned recently and tried to apply: Say what you mean; mean what you say; don’t say it meanly.
- Pure Knowledge – Sometimes our kids need to know why, and it’s ok to tell them. And sometimes pure knowledge is communicated spirit to spirit; that’s not likely to happen without the other qualities on this list.
- Enlarging the soul — We get better at this with practice. And so do our kids.
- Without hypocrisy and without guile – My 13-year olds (I’ve had six so far) love to cry hypocrite when my requests are beyond my own level of perfection; a friend reminds me that we are not hypocrites, but we are also not perfect: we are aspirational in what we teach.
But wait a minute, you may say. As a parent, I’m supposed to correct my child, to teach him the right way! And you’re right. Section 121 tells us how to do that, too:
Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; that he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death (v. 23-24).
Elder Theodore M. Burton (a chemist before his call as a general authority) taught me on my mission that the sharpness in this verse is the sharpness of a clear photograph, not the sharpness of an acid. When we reprove quickly (that’s what betimes means) with sharpness, we take the teaching moment as it comes and teach clear and simple truths, listening carefully to the spirit (which will not counsel us to lash out in anger, but will coach us how to show love), and showing plenty of love to our child.
Do our children know our faithfulness to them is stronger than the cords of death?
Parenting is a high stakes game. There are plenty of moral pitfalls out there, and I’m not just talking about the latest episode of some sketchy show on TV (though that may be one, too). We fear for our children’s lives, and a natural response to that fear is to hold tighter and tighter. If we did that literally, we’d suffocate them. And if we do it figuratively, we may suffocate them in other ways – emotionally or spiritually.
It has taken me years to recognize my own weakness in this particular arena. For two-thirds of my parenting career I was convinced I could control the outcomes in my family. Only after substantial disappointment and heartache did I come to know how wrong I was. My efforts to control outcomes in my family spanned years of significant service in the church and regular temple attendance. I was (and continue to be) a faithful active Latter-day Saint, albeit one who was wrong about this thing.
I’m happy to note that I learned a great lesson during a sacrament meeting a decade or so ago. The sister speaking made reference to the fact that we would not be organized in the next life the way we are here in wards and stakes, but that the family would be the central organization. In that moment, I felt the Holy Ghost’s hammer hit me in the head (the way it happens in Looney Toons cartoons), and I realized that if I wanted my children in the eternities, I should be more concerned about having them with me around my dinner table than around me at church. With that tender mercy began a journey of personal repentance and relationship repair that is bearing fruit today.
What has helped you to shape your parenting approach to allow your children to exercise their agency, to feel your love, and to make wise choices?