On Nurturing, Punches in the Mouth, and Unearned Love
[Given by Chris Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents August, 2016.]
Tonight I would like to speak on three different topics. They may or may not seem like they are related, but they all are core to our task and privilege of parenting and so they do share some commonality.
I will use a slide to illustrate each of my three topics.
Topic 1: Nurturing Your Faith and Testimony
Let me describe for you a simple scenario that I experience frequently. It’s a Sunday or a weekday evening and in the context of my calling I am meeting with a man or a woman (or both) from our stake. He or she arrives and I invite him or her into the office and I ask the question, “How is your testimony? Tell me about your testimony.” And the person answers in any of a large variety of ways ranging from describing why their testimony feels so solid to acknowledging that their testimony is thin or even non-existent. And then I ask, “Do you nurture your testimony?” Which isn’t a very good question to ask because it’s a “yes/no” question, but I ask it anyway—and I never get a straight “yes” or “no.” Very frequently the answer is comprised of words like these: “I could do better.”
Now, pretend you’re me. You’ve just asked someone if they prioritize time and energy to nurture their testimony and they answer with “I could do better.” What does that mean? How do you interpret that answer? Of course we can all do better at everything, so it doesn’t really answer the question.
It sounds like an answer driven by some sense of guilt, but it’s still ambiguous. On the one hand, a person might do nothing or next-to-nothing to nurture his or her testimony and so “I could do better” is just a gentler way of saying “no,” perhaps without wanting to say so so abruptly. On the other hand, Mormons—and particularly Mormon women, perhaps—are really good at making up reasons to feel guilty when in fact they are doing plenty to nurture their testimony.
I bring this up, though, because in too many cases it seems evident after some discussion that we really don’t prioritize the nurturing and development of our own faith and testimonies enough. We are busy Moms and busy Dads and taking time for spirituality is easy to neglect and too many of us are neglecting something that will take its toll on our children.
I’m not sure that it’s true that we have to love ourselves before we can love someone else or that we must learn to forgive ourselves before we can forgive other people. The scriptures don’t seem to support those ideas very clearly.
But where it comes to nurturing testimony and where we are talking about parenting, I do not believe we can escape the reality that you are going to have to take care of #1, so to speak, if you’re going to be able to help #2 and #3 and… #8.
I have on a few occasions encountered a less-active parent who believes their child will benefit from an upbringing in the Church in spite of their own inactivity and so they facilitate getting their kids to Church but do not back that up through their own practices at home or by their own consistent attendance at church. How well does that work?! You can love and forgive a child even while you are in the process of learning about Heavenly Father loving and forgiving you. But the likelihood of your children ending up with deep spiritual roots in the gospel is pretty low when you are not establishing strong roots, yourself.
Why are faith and testimony so important for both you and your kids? Let me suggest four reasons:
- Salvation. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Way—the only way to overcome the effects of our sins and errors which separate us from a perfect God. We cannot go the Savior’s way without exercising faith in Him. Faith in Him is the first principle of the gospel and neither we nor our children will realize a cleansing from our sins without faith in Him. Your children are much more likely to exercise faith and nurture a testimony if you
- Happiness. We believe that the greatest, most genuine happiness—both ultimately in eternity and immediately in the present—are found through the Savior and in realizing His We learn to see ourselves and others the way He does and we discover our own value and acceptability through Him. The highest form of happiness is only available to those who truly and deeply receive the Savior. And your children are much more likely to nurture a testimony and receive the Savior if you do.
- Adversity. Faith and testimony provide a firm, resilient foundation during the inevitable storms that come to each of us during our lives (and which do not appear to be meted out equally; some people seem to face more difficult storms than others). The Savior spoke of having a house built upon a rock. Helaman spoke of that rock being Christ, himself, and about wind, whirlwinds, hail, and mighty storms that will not “drag” us down to “misery” if we build upon the rock of faith in Christ. Your children will be better equipped to understand and withstand adversity if they do so from a position of faith, which they’re more likely to develop if you
- Family. We believe that the greatest family unity depends upon family members choosing the Savior and receiving the ordinances and observing the covenants made available to us in temples. This is true in eternity where we believe such marriages and families can live in an exalted unified state. It is also true in a very practical sense right now on the earth. This is painfully illustrated when two church members marry in the temple under the belief that their spouse will maintain beliefs in Church doctrine and maintain a commitment to commandments and covenants—but then one of those two parties changes their mind post-marriage. In such a case, the difficulties in the marriage and family can be staggeringly painful and the family may not survive intact. The promise of strong eternal families is much more likely to be realized for your children if you nurture your own faith and testimony and help them do the same.
So faith and testimony are important. For your kids, your example is huge. Your setting a good example, won’t guarantee anything, but it will increase the chances. Whether you set a good example or a poor example in this regard, it will be noticed!
Now, how do you nurture your testimony?
- You speak to God personally through prayer morning and night. You won’t be nurturing anything, though, if you just go through the motions. You pray meaningfully morning and night.
- You seek out and listen to God’s voice daily through scripture reading and through paying careful attention to the words of modern prophets (of which there are 15 on the earth today, not just one).
- You make the temple and temple worship part of your life. You do work for the dead and return again and again to learn and to renew covenants. If the ceremony and ritual of the temple are uncomfortable to you, come see to me or one of my counselors and let’s talk about it.
- Lastly, and very importantly, you live the gospel like you’re truly committed to it. Let me give some examples:
- You maintain high standards for your consumption of media. How serious do our kids think we are about the gospel if they know we watch inappropriate media. After all, I can still get a temple recommend after watching R-rated movies, so what’s the big deal?!
- You make family prayer a priority. How serious do our kids think we are when they hear references to family prayer over and over again in church but it doesn’t seem important to their father or mother?
- You approach modesty as if your body really is sacred and that words of Church leaders matter. How serious do our kids think we are when we wear immodest exercise clothing or swimwear and/or don’t seem very anxious to get back into our garments?
- You honor the Sabbath in meaningful, noticeable ways. How serious do our kids think we are when our Sabbath consists of three hours of Church followed by hours of football and other things that really have no basis at all in worship?
Some will accuse me of over-emphasizing the letter of the law and being Pharisaical with such examples, but here’s the deal: 1) These are exactly the kind of things that strengthen or weaken our children spiritually. And, 2) You are not nurturing your testimony if you are not striving to live the gospel in deep and meaningful ways, including observing practices that invite the spirit. The Savior taught that those who do the will of God find out the truthfulness of his gospel. Those who go primarily just through the surface-level visible motions are far less likely to be increasing in testimony.
Brothers and Sisters, for your children’s sake, please place a significant priority on nurturing your own faith and testimony. And do all these things with an attitude of gentleness, love, and affection toward your children that they may know that this is a gospel of love and not come to suspect that it is just a gospel of strict rule-keeping.
Topic 2: Punched in the Mouth
There is a quote that seems to be attributed to the boxer Mike Tyson, although I’m not sure it originated with him. He was apparently asked once, just before a fight, about his plan. And in talking about what he wanted to do and what the other boxer was expected to do, Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
Most Mormon children, during their childhood or during their youth or during their adult years, eventually get punched in the mouth. Some seem to get punched extremely hard. Some seem to get punched over and over and over again. Many here in this room probably know what it is like to be punched in the mouth.
How do we help our children prepare for this? There is much we can teach them to help them avoid adversity in life and the troubles that will come to them through their own poor decisions. We can teach them to follow the prophet, to keep the commandments, to stand in holy places, to understand agency and consequences. And if we teach them these things and they adhere to them, they will, in fact, avoid a lot of trouble.
But it will not exempt them from troubles that come through the poor choices of others or the troubles that are simply inherent in this mortal experience. It will not exempt them from the very purposes of mortality, which include testing and gaining experience with opposition, temptation, and agency, including others’ agency. It may not exempt them from abuse at the hands of others or from tragedy through the fault of no one in particular.
Do we teach our children the doctrine of adversity and opposition? What is the doctrine? The doctrine is that, for our own benefit, there must be opposition in all things and that that opposition isn’t pretend or hypothetical—it’s real. The doctrine is that we came here to learn under different and more difficult circumstances than existed in the pre-existence. The doctrine is that a veil exists so that we can make choices and deal with opposition with faith and without a perfect knowledge—and without immediate relief from difficult circumstances every time we ask Heavenly Father to provide the relief we want in the way we want it.
Let me mention three specific types of punches to the mouth that we need to be prepared for and that we need to prepare our children for. These three things can overlap each other.
First is the broad category of unexpected life-changing challenges, disappointments, and tragedies. This includes things like loss of a loved one; a sudden physical or mental health challenge, loss of a job, birth of a seriously limited child, abandonment from a parent, betrayal of a spouse, divorce, absence of an acceptable marriage offer, inability to have children, etc. You could add other things to that list.
Keeping the commandments does not exempt us from difficult things in life—including very painful experiences and tragedies that come to us through no choice of ours. Can bad things happen to good people? Can horrible things happen to good people? Yes. And they do every day. Might they happen to us? Yes. How do we prepare for them?
- We understand the doctrine of adversity and opposition.
- We accept that we are not exempt even though we may do many things correctly.
- We develop faith and testimony.
- We develop deep, sincere, real humility and submissiveness.
- We develop a work ethic.
We can soften the pain of life’s inherent unfairness by understanding and accepting the doctrine and by recognizing that, while each of us is special, we are not special in the sense of being exempt. Then, when extreme hardship or tragedy comes, we turn to the Lord, we place our submissiveness on the altar and our trust in Him, and then we humbly but resolutely and patiently go to work on whatever it is we need to do or endure. As we know, the Lord is not likely to change or remove even the worst circumstances during the moments that we are on our knees asking Him to change them. What He will do is enable us to work through or around those things—or sometimes to simply endure them—after we plead with Him and then go about doing our best to resolve or handle the difficulty.
More easily said than done. But that is what makes such elements of preparation all the more important.
We need to teach these principles to our children. We also need to model them.
Second is the category that I will refer to as the Absent God. It sometimes comes immediately upon the heals of the types of challenges, disappointments, and tragedies I just listed. In some cases, a person turns to God—perhaps repeatedly—but doesn’t feel like He’s listening and then wonders if He’s even there at all. It can also happen when a person seeks a testimony through a personal spiritual witness but doesn’t feel like that witness has come. In these types of situations, it seems like God is absent.
He is not absent. But connecting with Him can seem elusive to the point of generating doubt and disbelief. When you get punched in the mouth and turn to God and do not immediately find Him or evidence of Him, but you expected to, it can feel like you’ve just been punched in the mouth again and are going down for the count.
What is the doctrine? The doctrine is that God is our father. And the doctrine is that He wants us to become like Him, which surely means that we eventually become spiritually and in every way self-reliant and capable, just as He is. In order to help us do so, there will be moments where he helps us in obvious ways and there will be many moments where He offers His love and emotional support, but allows us to lean into the wind ourselves. There are simple but profound truths here. A parent cannot help a child become all that the child can become without allowing the child to experience growth through struggle.
Our daughter, Anne, just went through her first transfer—or six-week period—of her mission in Texas. She was assigned to a trainer who would not or could not work. Her trainer was dealing with depression to the point that she could not bring herself to leave their apartment until very late in the afternoon and so Anne became—or at least felt like—a bit of a prisoner in that apartment. It was very hard for her. She left the MTC excited and was anxious to be a missionary and to learn how to be a missionary. Getting up at 6:30 in the morning and having nothing to do for the next 10 hours but read your scriptures, study Preach My Gospel, and practice Spanish verb conjugations, mostly by herself, was hard. In fact, it was miserable and, perhaps worst of all, she felt a lot of guilt and began feeling very depressed, herself.
As her parents, we were very worried about the situation. I knew it was taking a toll on her and I felt very tempted to intervene. I imagined conversations I might have with her mission president. I thought about calling her. Texas isn’t so far away I couldn’t have just gone to see her! Anne would have liked a hug from her Dad and Mom. She would have appreciated a phone call. She probably would like to have exchanged texts and letters every day. Instead she heard from us once or maybe twice each week in a letter or email and she was mostly left to herself to work her way through it.
Meanwhile, she was turning to her Father in Heaven, but he didn’t send any angels to help her and things seemed to get worse and worse before they got better.
What happened, though, is that Anne turned to the Lord and then went to work on loving her companion and developing patience. To make a long story short, she came to love that companion and she found meaning in their experience together. She grew in ways that those difficult circumstances encouraged. Neither her earthly father nor her Heavenly Father intervened to make the problem go away and at moments were or seemed absent. But these things ended up fostering instead of hindering her growth.
Even the Savior, at the most extreme moment in human history, was left by His Father to struggle through something staggeringly enormous on His own. Apparently that was necessary.
We must teach our children the purposes of mortality and the meaning of growth and struggle and effort and the ways in which our Father in Heaven will and won’t help us or reveal Himself to us. We must teach our children also about the ways He communicates with us, which occasionally may involve an intense “burning in the bosom” experience, but most often is more quiet and subtle—sometimes to the point of not even being noticed.
My third category of being punched in the mouth regards those members of the Church who have not been exposed to criticisms and difficult-to-resolve questions in Church history. And then when they are exposed to them, feel very much punched in the mouth and, in some cases, worse, like they’ve been betrayed by Church leaders they trusted who, they may feel, actually conspired to keep truths from them. For some members, this picture behind me is a fairly accurate representation of how they feel. To make matters much worse, some members in those circumstances become suspicious of who to trust and who not to and they develop fears over the response they’ll receive if they confide their fears and concerns and doubts and questions and mistrust and sense of betrayal in church members they should be able to trust and lean on.
So, of course, there are two categories of things we should be doing about this. The first relates to nurturing our own testimonies. Moms and Dads need to understand their own faith and how to approach these issues. It may help to begin with the reality that while the internet can connect you with many disaffected members of the Church, you also have, right here within an arm’s reach, members of the Church who are very familiar with the issues, appreciate the doubts and questions those issues can inspire, and who are yet full of faith and devotion to God and His Church. We are happy to listen and happy to share and we don’t condemn, accuse, or belittle people who have honest questions. And you will find us reasonably capable both of us using our brains objectively and approaching spiritual matters spiritually.
Now, do I think that you need to do hundreds of hours of research into each of these issues in order to become secure in your faith and testimony? No, I don’t. Faith comes through agency and testimony comes through evidence. And the fact is that agency can be exercised and evidence can be accumulated independent of exploring criticisms of the Church. However, there is a problem. While a person can have a strong, legitimate faith without being expert in Church criticisms, you run a risk as a parent if you cannot be somewhat conversant on these issues and, perhaps, if you cannot say, “Yes, I am familiar with those things but here are my answers and here is why I am not losing my faith and testimony because of things critical, unpleasant, or unknown.”
Some people feel that the Church’s approach to helping members build faith and testimony has amounted to a betrayal because the Church has not made an open discussion or even rebuttal to these issues part of Church curriculum or Sacrament Meeting talks. Similarly, our children may lose confidence in their parents where they think their parents are unwilling or unable to address a faith-based approach to the issues.
My suggestions tonight are that 1) you become comfortable with your own testimony, 2) that you do so with some familiarity with the issues your children will surely encounter and question in the digital age, and 3) you teach your children a faith-based, thoughtful and honest approach toward spirituality and toward evidence and unknowns.
A couple of years ago, the Church was about to release its essay on Joseph Smith’s polygamy. While our family culture has always invited awareness and questions and I have talked to my kids about various critical topics and they certainly have known that Joseph Smith was a polygamist, I had never spoken with them in any detail about Joseph Smith’s polygamy and about the particularly difficult-to-understand aspects of it. I knew, though, that I wanted them to hear about that from me before they heard about it from someone else and began to feel critical of either my “ignorant faith” or of my “withholding information.” So I gathered them together and we talked about it.
I invite you to understand faith, agency, testimony, evidence, and unknowns and to teach the related principles to your children.
By the way, don’t raise your kids in an overly black-and-white environment. Not all doctrine is settled; answers to both historical and present questions of “why” are often not readily available; people’s motives are not always known; and faith, by definition, includes uncertainty. There must be opposition in all things. Agency matters. All these things indicate that while God will give us spiritual helps (confirmations, etc.), he is still asking us to live by faith including with matters of uncertainty and things that are not entirely known.
Topic 3: Consistent Unearned Love
My third and final topic this evening relates to these pictures…
…both of which focus on the father of the prodigal son. I am particularly fond of the picture on the left. I think that artist captured very well in the father’s face the anxiousness and concern and focus of a father who loves his son and yearns mightily for his happiness. I have long believed that the whole point of the Savior telling that story was to teach us not about the son but about the father because he is a representation of Heavenly Father. We note from this story that the father respected the son’s agency, that he watched for him, and that, at the first sign of his son’s willingness to accept him, the father closed the gap between himself and his son and embraced him.
I wish to emphasize one point. We must not condition our children to believe that God’s love for them and His acceptance of them is conditioned upon their performance. On the contrary, we must help them be receptive to the idea that at their very worst moments of life, including moments of extreme personal shame, embarrassment, and disappointment, their Father in Heaven will love them and accept them in His arms. We will do this by their seeing this type of treatment from us.
When our children do poorly, which, of course, we have all done, whether it is by mistake, poor judgment, or outright rebelliousness, at these moments we need to withhold criticism or any kind of “I told you so!” or “Why didn’t you just listen to me?” or “See! That’s what I’m talking about!” or “Didn’t I warn you?” or all those kinds of things. Instead, they need to find us at their worst moments receptive to them, patient and understanding and empathetic.
When we hug our children and lavish praise on them after they do well and then we distance ourselves from them, perhaps by sending them to their rooms, or stopping talking to them or withholding affection from them when they have done poorly in our eyes, then we are conditioning them to believe that this is how God is, which isn’t true.
At each of our worst moments in life we need the Lord and we need the support of those who love us and whom we should be able to trust to have patience with us. Let us help our children to find safety in us at those tough times just as each of us can find safety in our Heavenly Father and in the Savior at our worst times. By the way, I believe I can say with complete confidence that there are nine bishops in this stake [now 10] along with myself and my counselors who you can trust to be supportive of you and not judgmental and condemning when you have erred. All of us are familiar with our own shortcomings and errors.
So, brothers and sisters, I am suggesting three things tonight:
- Make a priority of nurturing your own faith and testimony.
- Teach your children how to prepare for and handle adversity.
- Help your children discover that your love is not conditioned upon their earning it.
Brothers and Sisters, we have the true gospel. We don’t know everything, but we know the critical things. We do know the path to happiness and peace and wholeness. Parenting is a sacred privilege and it is one of the great schools of mortality. It is certainly tough.
Do not waste time lamenting your shortcomings. It’s good to recognize and acknowledge them and to work on them. But it’s no good to marinade in feelings of inadequacy. Were all inadequate. That goes without saying and it’s just the way it is. I always think of that book, “I’m OK, You’re OK.” We could write one called, “I’m Inadequate, You’re Inadequate. So What?”
We do have a Father in Heaven. He will help us in our inadequacies. He will help us work on or around our shortcomings. He will be with us and magnify our efforts. He loves and cares about your children—His children—with a perfect love and enjoys a perspective of seeing the end and not just the present. The fact that He knows how this ends and is happy must surely tell us something.
God bless you. You are wonderful. Whether listening to Becky and me tonight was worthwhile, your coming speaks very highly of your interest in being a great parent. May the Lord bless you and may you increasingly feel his presence in your life. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Left-Handed Smoke Shifters (and raising our kids)
[Given by Becky Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents, August 2016.]
It was the summer of 1984 and I was 16 years old. My sister was the Girls Camp Director at Camp William Penn, a camp in the Pocono mountains for underprivileged children from Philadelphia. One of her counselors needed to leave abruptly before the last 2-week session of camp and I was asked to fill in. A few days after my arrival, our 9- and 10-year-old group went on an overnighter which consisted of walking about a half a mile around the lake, heading into the woods, and camping in tents for the night instead of in the regular cabins. When we had almost arrived at our camp site, the head counselor of my unit asked me to return to the main camp for the forgotten left-handed smoke shifter.
Now, I’ve never been accused of being the sharpest tool in the shed and, remember, I was 16 and the new kid. So I dutifully headed back to camp to retrieve the left-handed smoke shifter from the nurse who’d reportedly had it last. Surprisingly, she didn’t have the left-handed smoke shifter, so she sent me to the Activities Director who sent me to my sister (Benedict Arnold) who sent me to the Head Cook, who finally took pity on me and told me that there was no such thing as a left-handed smoke shifter.
Well, I went to my cabin, laid down on my bunk, and pouted for a while; then returned to the camp site and took my revenge. But that is a story for another day….
So I ask you: What are the left-handed smoke shifters of our day? What are the views the world presents to us as fact and truth, which simply are not?
- “Wealth = happiness.”
- “If you’re busy, you must be important.”
- “You CAN have it all.”
- “You’re an unsuccessful parent if your children can’t read, multiply single-digit numbers, and play the hymns on the piano before they go to kindergarten.”
Tonight I’d like to address one left-handed smoke shifter that I feel we sometimes struggle with as parents in Highland, Utah. It’s the lie that our children need to be good at everything or the best at something; that our main job is to keep them busy, whatever the cost; and that being at home is somehow second best. (So I guess that’s actually three lies!) I think buying into these lies stems from the harmful practice of comparison and the sin of pride—both of which I’m sad to say, I know about first hand!
I know that all families are different. All children are different. Only you can know (with the help of the Holy Ghost) the best way to avoid the worldly lies that you might struggle with. But may I suggest six things we did in the Juchau home to combat those dreaded left-handed smoke shifters. And if you’re tempted to leave feeling depressed or inadequate; please don’t. These are just ideas that you’ll hopefully consider.
Before I begin, let’s be clear. We were not and are not the perfect parents. Here are some painful examples:
How about the time when our daughter Sarah stepped in a hole while playing night games and came home with a swollen toe and a big cut on the bottom of her foot. We looked at it, pronounced her fine, told her to “walk it off” and sent her to Girls State in Cedar City the next day. When she came home a few days later and we finally took her to the doctor (because her foot was oozing, bruised, and still swollen) we found that she had a broken toe and an infection in the cut.
Or the time our daughter Anne left on her mission and Chris and I both sent our emails to her old email account so she didn’t receive an email from either of her parents her first week.
Or the literally hundreds of times I’ve called one of our kids by the wrong name (mostly I got them mixed up with each other, but sometimes I called them Otis, who is the dog).
Or the times we disciplined out of anger.
Or the times I was impatient when one of our normally quiet kids felt like talking—usually around 11:00 at night.
Here’s a note our daughter wrote to us when she was in first grade (she was very precocious).
[“Derar family, I Do Not Want To Give you enethin Agen Bekols No Won Is Paeien Atenchen To Me. From: Emily”]
I don’t know what’s more pathetic: the content of this note or that I think it’s kind of funny.
Here’s another note (from Anne; with each letter glued onto the page separately, serial killer style).
[“DEAR DAD I’M SORRY I HIT Adam IN THE STUMICK! Anne”]
Anne must have spent an hour painstakingly placing all of these stickers. She probably had plenty of time after she was sent to her room for her misbehavior. (Please don’t tell President Scoresby that we sent our kids to their rooms!)
We aren’t the perfect parents. We don’t have perfect children. We didn’t do the following six things perfectly. But we tried to do them (then tried again when we failed) and I think they were all important.
#1: “Quiet time”
Every day before our kids went to school, and also in the summers when they were school age, our family spent one hour a day having quiet time. This was time to nap (for young children) or to quietly play by themselves or to read. Through this practice, our kids learned how to amuse themselves, they learned to be creative, and they learned to recognize that they could be quiet for a little part of each day. It wasn’t a punishment because we started it way before they knew normal people didn’t do it and we were consistent.
The world today has so little peace. Children need to learn how to be reflective and how to be by themselves (and not have to be entertained by electronics!). I found that we even got along better after an hour apart each day. And maybe children have a greater capacity for reverence at church when they spend some regular time being quiet at home.
I recognize that most of us are past the stage of very young children and an official “quiet time” isn’t an option, but I hope you’ll recognize the need for older children to have time to be quiet, too. At the Mt Timpanogos baptistry they encourage all patrons to spend a few moments in the quiet chapel even if the font is empty when they arrive. The temple presidency believes that our youth need time to sit quietly, read the scriptures, and think. I agree.
Psalm 34: 14 says: “…seek peace, and pursue it.”
#2: Family Home Evening
Prophets have been counseling us to have Family Home Evening since 1951—that’s longer than most of us have been alive! It’s hard, I get it! If it was easy, we’d all be perfect at it and we’re not.
My husband is an organized fellow. This is how he handled family home evening assignments for many years.
Every Sunday night this spreadsheet would appear magically on the refrigerator. We would look at our assignments for the following evening and prepare to varying degrees. Sometime after Chris became a bishop, the spreadsheets stopped appearing on the fridge. As time became more limited, our family home evenings became a lot more casual. Now, many years later, with just Adam at home, our family home evenings consist of prayer, a calendar review, a short gospel discussion, and scripture reading. Sometimes we go to a movie or we go bowling. Sometimes we go out for a treat.
Family home evening, no matter how messy or imperfect, teaches our families that we try to follow the prophet. It teaches our families that we have a desire to share testimony and gospel principles with them—that we don’t just rely on the church to instruct us. It shows a commitment to Heavenly Father and His plan.
#3: Read with your children
Some of my most tender moments with my children have happened with a book open in front of us—whether it was snuggling with a toddler at bedtime or reading aloud all day the very first day a new Harry Potter book came out. We read to our children every day and our children read to us every day [when they were young]. Our kids received books as birthday and Christmas gifts.
Jim Trelease wrote The Read-Aloud Handbook which was the text used in my Teaching Reading class at BYU almost 30 years ago. He has since printed six additional editions which include lists of great, current read-aloud books. If you want to know why you should read with your kids, read his book. If you want the short answer, Mr. Trelease writes:
“Students who read the most, read the best, achieve the most, and stay in school the longest. Conversely, those who don’t read much, cannot get better at it.” (readaloud.org)
To those of you who can’t fit your children on your lap anymore, may I suggest setting an example for your older children of reading often and reading varied material. They will learn that you value learning and knowledge and education, all without one parental lecture!
Please read the scriptures together as a family. When you do, you send the message that Heavenly Father and His word are a priority in your family.
#4: Eat dinner together
Those of you who know me well know that around 3:00 every afternoon I am shocked and dismayed to remember that I’m expected to feed people in a few hours. I frankly find it annoying that my family wants to eat every single night and that there should probably be some vegetables involved. Making dinner is not my strength. But I know family dinner time is important. Elder Oaks knows it’s important, too. That’s why he encouraged it in his talk, “Good, Better, Best.”
Researchers have found it to be important, also. Dr Anne Fischel, a family therapist and professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School wrote in 2015,
“For school-age youngsters, regular mealtime is an even more powerful predictor of high achievement scores than time spent in school, doing homework, playing sports, or doing art. Other researchers reported a consistent association between family dinner frequency and teen academic performance.”
She also wrote:
“In most industrialized countries, families don’t farm together, play musical instruments, or stitch quilts on the porch. So dinner is the most reliable way for families to connect and find out what’s going on with each other…. Kids who eat dinner with their parents experience less stress and have a better relationship with them….” (Washington Post; January 12, 2015)
It doesn’t matter what you make for dinner or how well you make it. It does matter that you are spending time together talking and laughing and listening; that children are learning how to help with food preparation and clean-up. Which leads me to # 5.
#5: Work together
Elder L. Tom Perry said:
“Teaching children the joy of honest labor is one of the greatest of all gifts you can bestow upon them.” (The Joy of Honest Labor; Oct 1986)
Every family handles work at home differently. Some parents ask their kids to make their beds and have a tidy room before they leave for school every day. Some parents have chore charts. Some parents pay their kids to do jobs and that’s how their kids earn spending money. I’m not sure that there is a right or wrong way to teach your children to work but I do think children should learn to work. They should have responsibilities that contribute to an organized and (at least, relatively) tidy house and yard.
The fundamental reason we’ve had a garden the past sixteen years is to give our kids a job in the summer—we certainly never had any intention of harvesting or actually eating what we grew!
There is nothing better than waking up on an early summer morning and looking out of your back window to see your child squatting over the vegetables, weeding before it gets too hot. Now, to be honest, that only happened a few times over the past sixteen years, but it did happen!
Teaching kids to work is difficult. It takes a lot of consistency and a lot of effort. I’m not suggesting our kids be our slaves and that we make their lives a drudgery, but I am suggesting that unless you were born a Kardashian, you need to learn to work. You need to learn to start and finish something, even if it’s not fun. You need to learn to clean up after yourself. You need to learn to contribute to a household.
Sometimes we think we can do a job better and more quickly than our kids so we just do it ourselves. I have been and still am guilty of this. Make sure you work with your children so you can show them how to get things done.
Sometimes we are quick to hire people to do work in our homes and yards that our children can and should learn to do. We think, “Our kids are too busy.” Or, “We can have more fun as a family if certain chores are hired out.” Or, “We have more money than time.” This is, of course, an individual family matter, as every family’s circumstances differ, but Elder Neal A. Maxwell said:
“Work is always a spiritual necessity even if, for some, work is not an economic necessity.” (Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel; April 1998)
#6: Carefully consider out of home activities
Sometimes we believe the left-handed smoke shifter that says, “If my kids aren’t really busy with lots of worthwhile activities, they’re sure to become overweight, unhealthy, unambitious, couch potatoes who play video games all day and eventually turn to a life of crime!” This kind of frantic and false thinking can come from many sources, all of which lead back to Satan. When deciding which activities are best for your children, ask yourself:
How will this activity benefit my child? Will it benefit our family?
Why do I want my child to participate in this activity?
Is it something I wish I’d gotten to do as a kid, but didn’t?
Am I trying to keep up with what my neighbors are doing?
If I’m completely honest, is my pride dictating this choice?
Will this extra activity cause stress in our home?
Are we already too busy for one more thing?
And maybe the most important questions: Who do I want my child to be and will this activity help him or her become that?
Picking and choosing activities would be a worthwhile discussion in a family council. Be deliberate and careful in your choices and plan well so you have the time and energy to be a family!
Please understand that I’m not against every sports team and music lesson and dance class. The Juchau children were involved in all of those (and more) worthwhile activities. Our kids need lots of opportunities to learn and grow outside of the home. I hope, though, that we can be excellent at “intentional parenting” as Elder Nelson has encouraged, and not just let our kids’ activities run our family lives.
Elder Oaks said:
“The amount of children-and-parent time absorbed in the good activities of private lessons, team sports, and other school and club activities also needs to be carefully regulated. Otherwise, children will be overscheduled, and parents will be frazzled and frustrated. Parents should act to preserve time for family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, and the other precious togetherness and individual one-on-one time that binds a family together and fixes children’s values on things of eternal worth.” (Good, Better, Best; Oct 2007)
And President Uchtdorf said:
“Strength comes not from frantic activity, but from being settled on a firm foundation of truth and light.… It comes from paying attention to the divine things that matter most.” (Of Things That Matter Most; Oct 2010)
What divine things matter most to your family? How can you pay attention to them?
I’ve never been a big fan of the artist, Vincent Van Gogh, but a few years ago my daughter and I visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and I discovered something that made me appreciate him much more. In that beautiful museum, there is a room filled with Van Gogh’s art depicting houses and rooms and people at home. Apparently, he had a bit of a fascination with every day, ordinary home life. He liked to use the Dutch word, “menessesten,” translated into English as “people-nest.” He loved to think of, and paint, families cozy and safe in their homes the way birds find comfort and shelter in their nests. I, too, love that image. Home should be a place where our children find safety and refuge.
I like to think of our homes filled with reading and gospel learning. I like to think of them filled with fun family dinners and a little quiet time. I like to think of our children learning how to work at home. I like to think of us being “intentional parents” and helping our children choose wisely the activities that take us away from home and each other.
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson said:
“All of us—women, men, youth, and children, single or married—can work at being homemakers. We should make our homes places of order, refuge, holiness, and safety. Our homes should be places where the Spirit of the Lord is felt in rich abundance and where the scriptures and the gospel are studied, taught, and lived. What a difference it would make in the world if all people would see themselves as makers of righteous homes. Let us defend the home as a place which is second only to the temple in holiness.” (Defenders of the Family Proclamation; April 2015)
I pray that this school year and always, we will find ways to make our homes holy. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
On Mental Health
[Given by Emily Juchau at the Back-to-School Fireside for Parents, August 2015.]
The Juchau family doesn’t believe in “grounding.” When we get in trouble, we have to speak at stake events.
I’d like to start out by telling you a happy story. About ten months ago, my family went on a brief trip to Disneyland. And that’s the end of the happy part of the story; it’s all terrible from here on out. When you go to Disneyland, you don’t really expect to leave with the kind of life lessons you can talk about in church, but that’s just a reminder that horrible things can happen to you anywhere. Constant vigilance.
Anyway, we were all looking forward to the trip, because it’s Disneyland, the alleged “happiest place on Earth.” I was especially excited because my job was and is pretty high-stress. Disneyland seemed like the perfect way to de-stress, especially considering that I’d been feeling anxiety for about a month before the vacation. Just little, uncomfortable moments when I experienced fear when there was nothing to be afraid of, but it was manageable, and I figured that by getting out of Utah for a while I might also get out of my own head.
To my eternal chagrin—and this is an example of the kind of classic irony that would make my life a great sitcom—the opposite happened. Instead of feeling better, I felt worse, and two days into our trip, while we were standing in line for a ride, at Disneyland, I experienced my first-ever full-fledged panic attack.
It was horrible. I was weak and nauseated and cold—my whole body was shaking, and I thought I might faint or throw up or drop dead. It was so terrifying that my parents took me out of the park to a nearby Urgent Care. There, the nurses took samples of my blood and an EKG, and the doctor diagnosed me with a basic panic disorder. I remember that he came into the room where I was waiting with my parents to receive this information, and he said, “Well, Emily, what in the world are you so worried about?”
At the time, I was too ill to think clearly. If I’d been in my right mind, I may have responded, “Well, doctor, I’m a junior in college studying English in a world where an English degree won’t get you anywhere. The cost of tuition is rising, and so are nationwide unemployment rates. I work in a field that is shrinking more and more by the minute. I don’t know why I’m shaking; I don’t know why I want to vomit; I wish my body would remember how to breathe. Meanwhile the Ebola virus is running rampant on the other side of the world, earthquakes ravage and ruin lives in Chile, China, and Nepal, and you can’t even go to a movie theater or a first grade classroom without wondering whether you’ll get shot. What in the world, doctor, shouldn’t I be worried about?”
What I actually said was something like “Ebola and stuff.” So he prescribed Xanax, and I spent the last two days of our vacation in a drugged stupor.
I wish I could say that everything’s been uphill from there, but that isn’t true. Thanks to the marvels of modern medicine, I can take a little white pill every morning and feel just like normal. But it took a while to find the correct dosage, and until then I continued having occasional panic attacks, sometimes at home, sometimes at work, sometimes in class. Sometimes I still have moments of anxiety. I never found a good therapist, and in fact it’s nearly impossible to schedule a first-time appointment fewer than four months in advance, which ought to tell you exactly how prevalent my problem, and problems like mine, are.
Mental illness, I think, isn’t a topic we’re very comfortable with, despite how widespread it is. We live in a society that stigmatizes it. We know how to sympathize with cancer patients and amputees, but we freeze up when we hear about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder or anxiety and depression. Our brains are our most important assets; when they fail, even if it’s only for a minute, we get very nervous. We don’t even want to talk about our own struggles with mental health, because we worry that we’ll seem crazy or needy or pathetic. Although we’re social creatures who require the acceptance and warmth of others, we believe that if we stay silent, our minds will heal themselves and we can return to normal independently.
I will be the first to tell you that there are wounds you can keep to yourself. Frankly, no one cares about a papercut—you put a Band-Aid on it, it’ll be all better within two days, and complaining won’t get you anywhere. But for some reason, we have the same attitude about mental health, and that’s about the dumbest move we could possibly make, because you can’t fix a disorder of the mind with a Band-Aid. A depressed person cannot simply square their shoulders and smile to feel better, and someone having a panic attack can’t just tell themselves to calm down. When I’m having a panic attack, believe me, I would like nothing more than to calm down. The problem is that my brain won’t let me.
The Shakespeare play Hamlet comes to mind, probably because I’m an English major and I’ve studied it about seven times in the last three years. Hamlet’s mental health is one of the most important conflicts of the play; he seems to be depressed and struggles with thoughts of suicide. Early on in the play, long before his famous “to be or not to be” speech, he outlines what he’s going through, from his father’s death to his mother’s rapid remarriage, to how horrible and betrayed it makes him feel. He wishes that he could explain these problems but feels he can’t. “Break, my heart,” he says, “for I must hold my tongue.”
He chooses, fatally, as it turns out, for himself and for his friends and family, to stay silent. Break, my heart, for I held my tongue.
My friends, we are not meant to suffer in silence. God did not make us social creatures only so we could deny ourselves and each other sympathy and aid in our times of greatest need. We don’t read of many instances of mental illness in the scriptures, but I am reminded of the moments leading up to the Atonement, when Christ requested that Peter, James, and John stay awake and pray while he went into the garden to do what would amount to the greatest and most difficult act in the fabric of our universe. While Luke focuses on Christ’s physical agony and the drops of blood like sweat from his every pore, Matthew lingers on his emotional state, writing that Christ was “sorrowful” and “very heavy.” It seems to me that Christ, when he was about to face the greatest possible pain known to the history of the world, felt the kind of depression and fear that can render us immobile. And although he was empowered with divine strength and courage, he asked for help. He wanted his friends. He needed his Father. That didn’t make him weak or pathetic or needy. It serves as a reminder to me every day that some things I cannot and should not do alone.
I urge you to be open about your mental health, with yourselves, with each other, and especially with your children. Kids sort of believe that adulthood means having the solution to every problem and never needing help, when in fact the opposite is true. It’s the hope of every parent that their child or children will grow up to be happy and healthy and successful, and I promise you that they will be happier, healthier, and more successful for having grown up in a home where mental illness isn’t a secret, where they have learned to respond to their own inner problems and to empathize with the problems of others.
Your kids are entering a new school year, whether they do so as college students, like me, or as teenagers or even as smaller children, and although I am not a parent, it is my incredible privilege to give you parenting advice anyway.
First, promote mental wellness in your homes. The first thing my physician told me when I visited him about my anxiety was that I should focus on following a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and getting an appropriate amount of sleep. These steps are crucial. Our mental health is intertwined with our physical health. If you’ve ever pulled an all-nighter, you know that the following day is usually miserable—lack of sleep makes us irrational and cranky. But the symptoms of sleep deprivation are immediate, whereas improper dieting and a lack of exercise may take more time and have subtler results. Provide an example for your children by taking care of yourselves, and encourage them to do the same.
Our mental health is also related to our spiritual health. Does that mean every inactive church member suffers from depression? Not at all. Does that mean that having depression or anxiety makes you spiritually deficient? Again, no. When we talk of spirituality and spiritual health in the LDS Church, I think we often try to simplify it into an easy, understandable check list. Do you say your prayers every morning and night? Do you read your scriptures? Do you go to church on Sunday? Those steps are important, but remember that atheists can still be mentally healthy, and people who attend religious services every week can still be mentally unwell. What matters is your own, deeply personal relationship with God. If you feel that your spiritual health is suffering, despite checking everything off your to-do list, counsel with your bishop.
Remember also that you can’t force spirituality. If you have a child who is suffering a crisis of faith and no longer wishes to attend church, there are healthier ways—for you and your child—to deal with that than by compelling them to go. Be open and communicative with your children; listen to what they have to say; again, counsel with your bishop; and above all, remain faithful. Sometimes all we can do is wait.
Second, understand that adolescence is much harder now than it has ever been. In our economy, getting a job isn’t guaranteed. Understandably, we try to raise children to be hireable in an extremely competitive job market, so of course they have to go to college. But to get in to college, they’ll need a 4.0 GPA and a 36 on the ACT, not to mention AP classes and extracurricular activities. So your kids have to study whenever they’re not at mutual or after-school soccer practice or learning to play the harp or going to the literacy center to teach less privileged children how to read. And, they have to pay for college, while tuition costs are rising every year. So your kid also needs a part-time job, the second they turn sixteen and the state will let them work. And we wonder why they’re falling asleep in class!
As pressures rise, so does the importance of taking care of mental health. What’s the point of getting your kid into college if, after they get there, they struggle so much with depression or anxiety that it’s impossible to get out of bed in the morning to go to class? In our quest for a future, we’re forgetting the present, which should be unforgettable. Relax. Let your kids relax. Don’t expect perfection; don’t demand perfection. We all need a mental health day now and then, so I say, let the kids cut class and take them to a movie. Yeah, they need a job eventually, and they should get an education, but you can find a balance between building hireable adults and having happy children.
Third, mental illness isn’t always explainable. Sometimes it just happens. We might be doing everything medically possible to stay sane—exercising and sleeping well and eating correctly; we might be handling daily stresses in an appropriate way—but there can and will still be times in our lives and in the lives of our children when we simply become overwhelmed, the same way you might get the flu even if you’re washing your hands frequently. You can’t vaccinate yourself against mental illness. In Romans we read that “we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience; and experience, hope; and hope maketh not ashamed.” I love the use of the word glory. We don’t just deal with hard things, we welcome them; we’re proud of them. It’s hard to remind yourself that tribulation worketh patience, and patience, experience when you’re in the middle of a panic attack, or when you feel so depressed that you can’t get out of bed. It’s hard, when we’re feeling broken, to remember that, in the words of Jeffrey R. Holland, “we chose to live in a fallen world where for divine purposes our pursuit of godliness will be tried again and again.” But we did choose this world, with all its tribulations, and for that we have great reason to hope.
Lastly, I ask you to take your children’s mental health very seriously. If your child came to you with a broken bone, you wouldn’t tell them to walk it off—you’d rush them to the hospital. Similarly, it is unacceptable to dismiss even the less evident signs of breakage in health as the result of hormones or teenage mood swings or just discouragement. Elder Holland says that depression, and here I will add that this could refer to any form of mental illness, is “an affliction so severe that it significantly restricts a person’s ability to function fully, a crater in the mind so deep that no one can responsibly suggest it would surely go away if those victims would just square their shoulders and think more positively.” Depression and anxiety are not exclusive to adulthood. And even if it is just a mood swing, listen and learn. Validate their feelings. Express love and acceptance, no matter what.
Your children may not always tell you what they are going through. That’s the Band-Aid mentality. As a teenager, the last thing you want to do is ask for help from your parents; you want to prove that you’re independent and can fix it by yourself. That’s why it’s critical to be open about your own mental health, and to display love and acceptance for those who struggle with mental illness. You can also be on the look-out for warning signs, which include fatigue, insomnia, consistent aches and pains, difficulty concentrating, and changes in personality. Though there’s no easy fix for mental illness, you can help by offering comfort, educating yourself on what they’re going through, and ultimately seeking help from professionals.
Mental illness isn’t anyone’s fault. It’s not an indicator of spiritual deficiency; it is not God’s way of punishing us. It is just something that happens—in the broad spectrum of mental malfunctions, many, many things can go wrong. In Biblical times, mental illness was understood in terms of demonic possession—Christ healed many men and women who were “possessed” by devils, which probably simply meant that they struggled with their mental health.
As Christ offered healing then, so does he now. In the ninth chapter of John, Jesus heals a blind man on the Sabbath. It’s one of the most beautiful stories in the Bible. It starts with Christ’s disciples indicating the blind man and asking, “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
And here I might point out that you can substitute blindness with any infirmity, physical or mental. Who did sin, this child or his parents, that he was born with major depressive disorder? That he was born with crippling anxiety, or debilitating phobias, or compulsions, or manic-depressive mood swings? Who did sin?
“Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”
I can’t imagine being that man, being blind from birth, living in total darkness, believing that you’ll never see the sun, or the earth, or your loved ones’ faces. That you’ll never read, or walk in new places without help, or understand what people mean when they speak of color and light. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like, after a lifetime of blindness, to have an entire new world made accessible to you because one man stopped, and made clay, and rubbed it in your eyes. Sometimes mental illness can feel like total darkness, but I testify to you that He is the Light. He is the Way. He can open our eyes, and even if that’s not tomorrow, even if that’s not in the moment when we feel like we need it most, it will happen.
And until then, we live our flawed and broken lives so that the works of God should be made manifest in us, and we must remember that the paramount work of God was the Atonement of his Son, to which we have access every day. The Savior didn’t come here to save perfect people. He came here to save us, and for that reason, we need not be ashamed of our hope. He loves us; He died for us; He wants us to be happy, and He knows that long-term joy and divinity can only be achieved by doing hard things now. Our path may not always be easy, but the obstacles in our way are mere blips in the grand scheme of eternity, and with His help and grace, we can overcome them. Our future is so, so bright.
I testify of the love of our Savior and of our Heavenly Father. I testify that no matter what you are enduring, you are very much not alone. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” So keep going. You will find that your Savior walks beside you. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Parenting: Love and Patience Win
[Given by Chris Juchau at a Saturday evening adult session of Stake Conference April 26, 2015.]
I would like to address my remarks tonight to parents. I recognize that not everyone who wishes to be a parent is yet. And I recognize that not every parent feels equally yoked with their spouse. But I also acknowledge gratefully that everyone who makes and keeps sacred covenants with a broken and contrite heart will, in fact, be eligible for all the blessings of Abraham, including the blessings (and surely the challenges) associated with parentage and the blessing of sharing the rewards and challenges of parenting with another.
My purpose is primarily to encourage. I hope also that I may share an idea or two that will have practical benefits. I pray that my comments will reflect God’s will and that the Holy Ghost will continue with us while we visit together. It has been a rewarding evening thus far.
I would like to begin by giving away the ending to what I think is the best piece of fiction I know. It is the 19th century Russian novel, Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky. To me, it is more of a parable than a piece of fiction. Its message continues to have a very heavy influence on my understanding of the nature of God and of the Plan of Salvation.
Crime and Punishment is the story of a young man, a college student named Raskolnikov, who decides to test a philosophy which promotes that some great people are destined to be above the law—and above other people. And so, wishing to be such a person, he tests this theory by committing a murder, which unexpectedly becomes a double murder of two extremely innocent and helpless women. Dostoevsky intentionally chose a horrific sin to illustrate his message.
Raskolnikov, who has no faith in and perhaps very little understanding of the Savior, begins to suffer greatly as a result of his awful crime. His suffering affects him in every way—emotionally, physically, mentally, and spiritually. As is too common with us when we are burdened with guilt, he withdraws from those who love him the most and that causes his suffering to intensify.
While this is happening, he meets a girl named Sonia. Sonia is a symbol for the Savior. She is well acquainted with suffering and is in the process of wearing out her life for those she loves. She has two parents who are sickly and incapable of caring for their children and she has two younger siblings who are destitute. The five of them manage to eat only because of the money Sonia brings in as a prostitute.
There are, for me, three major highlights in the story—all involving Sonia and her responses to Raskolnikov.
The first occurs when she recognizes that he is suffering terribly but she doesn’t yet know why. She reads to Raskolnikov the 11th Chapter of John, the story of the raising of Lazarus, to teach him that no one—not even a dead man—can outdistance himself or herself from the Savior’s ability to heal.
The second occurs when Raskolnikov confesses his crime to Sonia and she responds—not with anger or scolding or by recoiling in disgust, but with compassion and empathy for the unbearable suffering she immediately recognizes he has been and is still enduring.
The third occurs at the end of the book. At Sonia’s encouragement, Raskolnikov confesses his sin both publicly in the market square and formally to the authorities. He is sentenced to labor in Siberia and Sonia follows him. In Siberia he lives inside a fenced prison work camp. For a very, very long time, he seems shut down emotionally and spiritually. He is rather cold-hearted and unresponsive to the kindnesses Sonia shows when she visits him at the fence and brings him food. But she is committed to loving him for however long it takes and, at the end of the book, reminiscent of Lazarus’s response to the Savior’s call to come forth, her steadfast, consistent love for Raskolnikov finally wins. His heart softens and he receives her love—and the love of God. He who seemed lost was found. Love and patience won.
Sixteen years ago in one of my very first priesthood meetings in the Highland 12th Ward (three wards and stakes ago though we’ve never moved in those 16 years!), I had a small but, for me, very profound experience learning about parenting. I was sitting with a group of high priests, who I was just barely beginning to know. The topic of the lesson had to do with parenting. At one point, a discussion broke out which turned into a mild debate with some brethren positing that good parenting requires strictness and rigidity and others countering that a softer, more permissive approach yields better results.
And then “the man” spoke. I didn’t know him yet, but I quickly noticed that when he spoke people paid close attention and I later learned that he was the stake patriarch. His name was Brother Adams. He said (nearest I recall) something like this: “I decided years ago that specific techniques of parenting are of relatively little consequence when compared to one important principle—which is that my children know that I love them and that my love is sincere, genuine, and constant. When I committed to that principle as a guiding principle of my parenting, I became a better parent.”
That seems like a simple concept. It is consistent with something I have also come to believe about our Father in Heaven which is that, more than anything, He wants us to know that He loves us. Love and patience win.
I know a lot of wonderful parents. Recently I have come to know two parents who are prioritizing consistent, demonstrated love in their parenting and who I believe are winning and will win with their children even though circumstances are very difficult and even though it sometimes seems hard for them to discern a light at the end of the tunnel.
One is a mother of a middle-aged son who is in prison. He made some horrible choices years ago which landed him there, but though he is still there, he is a different man today than when he was committing his crimes. He is going about, as best he can under limiting conditions, doing good and helping others. He has a strong relationship with the Savior and with his Heavenly Father. Moreso than many of us, perhaps, he has reached a level of humility that has almost entirely stripped him of pride, pretense, and guile. Though in prison, he enjoys the freedom, ironically, of hiding nothing. He accepts his errors and his failings. He also accepts the embrace of the Savior—and the embrace of his mother. His great progress today is due in no small part to the consistent love of a mother, who might tell you, herself, that she is not a perfect mother but she is winning and so is her son.
Another is a father of a teenage son who is going through intense personal anguish and openly questioning whether he will choose to reject many of the things his parents hold most dear. His suffering has lead him to question God’s role in his life and whether the Plan of Happiness really applies to him. As parents do, his parents are suffering along with him through many tears and little sleep. Recently this father told me that his highest priority is maintaining a warm, loving, accepting, and communicative relationship with his son, no matter what choices his son makes. I am very optimistic for this young man and for his parents, notwithstanding the current acute difficulties.
I am reminded of a story Sister Richards, our stake RS president, brought to my attention a few months ago. It was published in the Ensign quite a few years ago.
It is the story of a young man who told his mother he wouldn’t be going to church any longer and openly quit living the standards of the Church, much to his mother’s distress. Distress so great, she recalled, “Sometimes I thought death would be easier for me. But I loved him no less.”
The writer of the story notes, “John was what you’d call a lost cause. Anybody could tell you that. No one knew what to do with him. But there was one place where he was welcome—home. And there were two people who welcomed him—his parents.”
His mother wrote, “When he would bring his friends to our home, they’d all go down to his bedroom in the basement. I knew they were doing things they shouldn’t. But I loved my son and just couldn’t send him and his friends away as some of my neighbors thought I should. Instead I went into my bedroom and closed the door and got down on my knees and asked Heavenly Father what I should do. “Should I send them out onto the street and wonder what they were doing and where they were going? Or should I let them stay here and do things I disapprove of?
“I stayed on my knees until I received some direction. Others might have received a different answer, but for me the impression each time was the same: ‘Get up off your knees and go put on a pot of stew for them. And love those boys.’” Friends condemned her for it. “You’re not upholding Christian standards,” they told her, “by having those boys around.” “I had but one answer: ‘I am trying to live those first two great commandments.’”
Being allowed to remain at home while working through his problems kept him close to his parents. He learned to trust them—even to confide in them. When everyone else seemed against him, he knew his parents still loved him. Eventually his relationship with them made it easier for him to seek activity in the Church again.
I was also reminded a couple of weeks ago by Bishop Sumner of Joseph Smith’s need for his parents when he first began having to endure tremendous hardship when, as just a young boy, faced with having part of his leg bone cut out without painkillers, he requested that his father stay with him and hold him, and that his mother leave so as to not hear the difficulty of it.
I recently read a statement by a Catholic priest who said, “It is through the sacrament of marriage that we learn what God’s love is like.” I do believe that marriage and parenting are schools—schools that teach us much if we will apply ourselves to the lessons.
I have heard people chortle at the notion of joy and rejoicing in our posterity. Parenting is a school. It is a school for our children and it is a school for us. It provides for us a broad range of experiences and emotions, including joy, which has the potential to become permanent—and which potential is strengthened by our sealing covenants and by our keeping our covenants.
May I briefly offer a few suggestions for parents who seek the joy of parenting, whether you feel like you experience much of that joy now or whether it sometimes feels elusive or even distant. I do so at the risk of having some of my own children present who have been witnesses to the poorest parts of my own parenting—but with appreciation to the good things I have learned about parenting from my own parents.
First… Be loving above all else. Don’t just love your children with your heart (although we must do that!). Love them with your words and be affectionate with them. For some people, sarcasm and criticism are a way of life, but it’s a discouraging lifestyle. I do think it’s possible to over-shower a child with praise, but as a rule, our children need to hear much more positive aimed at them from us than criticism. They need to feel love by seeing, hearing, and feeling us take sincere interest in them. Our words should include frequent “I love you’s” and we should be liberal with hugs and physical affection.
Second… It is important that our children sense that we delight in them. I will try to explain what I mean by that. I believe that human beings have a built-in ability to perceive the stance of another human being’s heart toward them. If you have read The Anatomy of Peace or are familiar with The Arbinger Institute, you’re also familiar with the phrases “heart at war” and “heart at peace.” When our hearts are at peace—when they are soft toward or receptive to our children—I believe our children sense it and that results not only in a better relationship, but in more confidence in themselves and a greater sense of courage. When our hearts are at war toward our children—when we are focused on their shortcomings or on our frustrations with them and our hearts are harder or defensive—I believe they also sense that and the result is distance in the relationship, a lack of confidence, and perhaps worst of all, discouragement: literally a reduction of courage. Delighting in your child doesn’t mean acting silly or over-the-top with them, it means having a heart that is truly soft toward them as the Savior’s is toward us. They do sense the stance of our hearts toward them.
Third… Be committed to the gospel and to the Church. (Both matter.) Your children also perceive the posture of your heart toward the gospel and toward the Church. It cannot be faked. When parents show that their lives are genuinely anchored in the Gospel of Jesus Christ; that they are serious about their covenants to keep the commandments; and when they hear them teach positively and often about the gospel… Those children have a greater sense of stability, optimism, and resilience. They have greater confidence in their parents and in themselves. The things that are important to you will transfer more effectively to them.
Fourth… Help them learn to manage their agency and become independent. Talk to them about choices and about consequences, including positive consequences. Let them experience choices and consequences. Let them make as many decisions on their own as their age and maturity allow. Teach them to think critically and independently. Teach them about money and work and responsibility. (A teenager having a job is about as important to me as them doing well in school.) Be sure that along with your goal of always maintaining a close, loving relationship with your child, you also have a goal to help your children be able to function and thrive without being dependent on you.
God sent them here to learn to use their agency without undue influence from parents. Be sure your parental control over their exercising their agency diminishes as they mature. Most children will generally force that anyway, so work with them on this cooperatively.
Lastly… Involve your families in the “work of salvation.” Or, if you are already doing so, continue looking for ways to be even more effective. Counseling together as families and working on missionary work and family history and on loving less active neighbors and family members will strengthen your children.
Brothers and Sisters, my father has many sayings. One of them is this: “It’s a good life if you don’t weaken.” That saying means increasingly more to me as I get older. Parenting is a long-term arrangement. It includes joy and sorrow, delight and frustration, love and growth. It is one of the things that can refine us if we exert ourselves and yield ourselves to its lessons.
I offer my encouragement. I have said before, there are two kinds of parents: those who have been humbled by their efforts to parent and those who will be. But remember: the children in your care are Heavenly Father’s children. His love for them is perfect. His desire for them is no less than that they may become like Him. He sees their potential and, unlike us, His perspective is complete and unimpaired. Do your best and then trust in Him as your senior companion. The Savior, too, is our partner and much more. He will mediate and advocate for you and for your children. Remember that love and patience win.
Let us do all that we can and press forward with commitment, courage, and a sense of optimism; with faith in Christ and in our Father in Heaven. I pray that we will experience joy along the journey and ultimately in our Heavenly Father’s presence. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
Three Keys to Happy Relationships
A year or two ago, we administered an anonymous, on-line survey in the Highland 22nd ward among the adults. 62 people responded, including 25 men and 37 women. Most had been married between 10 and 25 years, but some less and some more – and a few not at all.
In the survey, we asked five questions, including these three for which they had to come up with their own answers:
- If I had a daughter, I would advise her to look for the following 1-3 characteristics in a potential husband.
- If I had a son, I would advise him to look for the following 1-3 characteristics in a potential wife.
- I appreciate these three things the most in my spouse.
After tallying up the answers and identifying the top three responses to each of the questions, it was interesting to note that all three questions yielded the exact same top three answers. The more I have thought about those three things, the more profound they have become to me – their simplicity contributing greatly to their profundity. It you want to be a good spouse, you should (in no particular order, according to our survey):
- Be nice
- Be committed
- Be productive
Recently I’ve wondered if these aren’t also three critical keys to being a good parent. I’m fond of thinking that parenting might be best measured using the same yardstick Preach My Gospel promotes for measuring missionaries – by our commitment to bringing souls to Christ. The three ideas of being nice (including a whole host of kindness-related attributes), being committed (to Christ; and also to our families), and being productive (demonstrating our commitment through discipline and hard work) seem like three important ways we can help our children know and love the Savior.
Here’s a quick look at what these three things do and don’t look like. Without beating yourself up about your imperfections (seriously! my goodness, ladies, give yourself a break – God does!), ask yourself if being better at something here wouldn’t improve your effectiveness as a spouse or parent (or probably fill in the blank for any other relationship).
Being nice looks like:
- Being patient
- Showing interest in their interests
- Being gentle
- Being affectionate
- Acting happy to be with the person
- Pulling your weight
Being nice does not look like:
- Being critical or sarcastic
- Using harsh language
- Ignoring people or being non-communicative
- Being manipulative or controlling – even with kids
Being committed looks like:
- Acting as well at home as we do at church
- Worshipping privately
- Attending the Saturday evening session of stake conference (and similar)
- Serving in callings; loving those we serve; and magnifying the calling
Being committed does not look like:
- Putting anything else in our lives ahead of the Savior, his gospel, and his church
- Worldliness, including the pursuit of things or excessive emphasis on our own appearance
- Selfishness or a lack of humility
Being productive looks like:
- Being busy / “anxiously engaged”
- On the things that matter to the Lord
- And that matter to our spouses and children
Being productive does not look like:
- Watching T.V.
- Living an unordered life in an unordered home
- Over-indulgence in hobbies and personal interests
- Being the person who never shows up to help someone move or clean their home
The Savior showed us these three things. Living prophets today also demonstrate them. The better we are at them, the better our relationships can be. And relationships are everything. Don’t you think?