Thursday, April 29, 2010

How to rear perfect children...

Well, I don't know how to rear perfect children.

Parenting is one of the most daunting responsibilities we'll ever know. I honestly think if we had any idea how hard it would be we wouldn't go there. But parenting can also be a great source of joy and awe. Sometimes we get both ends of the spectrum in the same day.

Just as we have our agency, so do our kids. They will make choices. Period. It's up to us as parents to sort out how to respond. Over time I'm learning (I've been a dad for almost 29 years, and I have seven kids) that the best responses are calm ones that allow consequences (good or bad) for choices our kids make. Parental anger doesn't do anyone any good (especially the angry parent).

My wife and I taught a parenting class at a stake women's conference last weekend. A central part of our discussion was the difference between rules and boundaries.

Rules are there to guide behavior. And they apply to everyone in one way or another. When we drive, we follow the rules – we stop at stop signs; we don't speed; we honor traffic signals. In our homes we follow rules, too. We go to bed on time (though not everyone may have the same bedtime); we treat one another with respect; we don't sing at the dinner table.

If someone breaks a rule, there's a consequence. Some are natural consequences – if you don't take an umbrella and it rains, you get wet; if you tell lies about your friend, she won't want to be your friend for long. Some are imposed consequences – if you come home late with the car, you can't drive for a week; if you play in the street, you have a time out on the step (because as a parent, I don't want you to have the natural consequence of getting hit by a car).

Of course rules need to be pretty simple or Mom and Dad are constantly in Police Mode. But consistency is also important if we want our kids to learn.

That said, sometimes our kids will choose to break the rules. They may want to test us and see if we'll be consistent. And maybe the "price" they pay is worth whatever benefit they get from breaking the rule that day. (How often do you think an occasional speeding ticket is "worth" being able to get there faster?) In fact we want our kids to break some rules so they learn from (or with) us how to overcome the resulting consequences.

As our children get older, their behavior may be more outrageous to us. In middle school kids will begin to be exposed to drinking and drugs, and some may try these. Sometimes our kids will make choices that offend us or may even endanger us. We can try rules, but the kids may ignore them. In that instance, we may also need to establish boundaries.

Boundaries exist to protect us, not to change our kids' behavior. If the always-angry teenage boy constantly yells at his mother, she can impose a boundary of simply not being available to listen to his tirade. (I realize that with very loud teenagers, just leaving the room may not keep us from hearing them, but at least we're not in the same room.) When we set a boundary, the consequence is something the boundary setter can do, not something the offender does. So in the case of the mom and the angry teen, Mom needs to take action – she leaves, she closes the door, she puts on noise cancelling headphones. It's her choice to do something she can control to protect herself.

Another example: If I need a certain number of hours' sleep, and if I need everyone to be home before I can sleep, then I can say to my teenager that I need to be in bed by 11 pm, and I need to have you home by then. If you aren't home by 11, I will lock the doors, and you will have to sleep somewhere else.

(By the way, boundaries work in many situations, not just with surly kids. You might establish a boundary with a co-worker or a spouse, too. Even people who normally have very positive and healthy relationships can have boundaries to keep those relationships positive and healthy.)

There are gospel principles underlying these suggestions. First, when Eve and Adam prayed after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, God gave them commandments. Those commandments were a sign of His love for them and their children, and provided a structure, a path, back to Him. Similarly, we have rules for our children out of love for them, so we can prepare them to be successful in life and in returning to God.

Second, even when our kids do things we don't like, we can still love them. Our love, however, is (or can be) universal, but not necessarily unconditional. Elder Nelson taught that God's love is not unconditional, because His blessings (a sign of His love) are conditional upon our obedience ("Divine Love," Ensign, Feb 2003). The boundaries help us to establish those conditions in our lives.

Finally, perhaps Mary was the greatest mom in the scriptures, because she allowed her son to reach His full potential. Granted, he had some divine help with that task, but as He was growing in wisdom and stature, it's likely he had some maternal influence, too. Mary trusted Father in Heaven to do His part. We can have the same trust in our lives, to allow our children to walk their own paths home to Heavenly Father. We may not always understand how that path twists and turns. But we can have faith that He understands. He loves our children as much as we do (perhaps even more), and He has just as much at stake in their eternal success. We're wise to let Him help.


  1. Some parents have a tough time understanding the difference between rules and boundaries, and their own expectations. It's incredibly painful when you're basically a good kid, but, try as you might, you're not what your parents want. You're not interested in the "right" things; you're not pursuing the "right" goals. For some parents, it's narcissism; for others, it's a desperate desire for their kids to be happy and successful, gone horribly wrong--"I know what's 'right' for you, even if you don't!" But the best advice I think I have, for parents, is focus on helping your kids be the best individuals they can be--don't try to force them to be someone else. All that'll happen is they'll end up feeling inadequate--and either give up on their own identities, or decide to be themselves anyway, possibly at the cost of a meaningful relationship with their parents. It's a horribly hurtful, frustrating situation, one where everybody loses.

  2. There's definitely more to be written about parenting, and a post on expectations is a good idea. I think nearly all my confrontations with my kids were about the difference in expectations.

    You also imply another great lesson: although we are not all parents, we are all someone's children, and lessons learned as someone's child are also valuable for parents.

  3. I think that, often, parents assume their children's failure to grow into the "correct" sort of person is willful disobedience on their part. I've spent my adult life, what there is of it, being told by other people that "your parents must be so proud of you", or "I'd be so proud to have you for a child", all the while knowing, inside, that my own parent is hideously disappointed with me.

  4. Very sad, that. Sorry.

    In my coming post on expectations will be the notion that we can take neither credit nor blame for our children's success or failure. We can, however, be grateful that they are good people, that they are earning a living, and that they may reflect what is good about us.