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When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

Robin Zenger Baker
04/27/17 | 5 min read
When two of my daughters decided to leave the Church, I felt like somehow I had failed as a parent. In my conversations with other parents who are in similar situations, I discovered that the sentiment of failure is not uncommon. But parents don’t need to carry this burden.

We have a saying in the Church that “no other success can compensate for failure in the home.” That statement, frequently quoted by David O. McKay, no doubt reminds us that the work we do in our homes is vitally important. But for years that statement made me worry and wonder how I was measuring up as a parent.

When two of my daughters decided to leave the Church, I couldn’t help but think of this quote and feel that because I hadn’t succeeded in keeping my whole family active in the Church, I had somehow failed as a parent.

In my conversations with other parents whose children have chosen to leave the Church, I discovered that the sentiment of failure among parents is not uncommon. But parents don’t need to carry this burden.

I love this quote by Harold B. Lee: “No home is a failure as long as that home does not give up.” To me, this means that the time or effort we put into our children is valuable and can lead to success. The goal is to keep on trying and keep on loving our children no matter what. It’s also important to realize that success in the home is measured along multiple dimensions. Whether your child believes in the Church is just one aspect of their journey and doesn’t have to be the only factor we consider when we measure our success as parents.

Sometimes that’s easier said than done. But it’s possible to get rid of some of that guilt and blame when your kids choose to live differently from what they were taught. Here are six lessons I’ve learned that have helped me navigate the difficult and often painful road of having a child choose a different path.

When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

When your child tells you they don’t want to live the lifestyle you’ve taught them, it’s tough to hear. It can be easy to respond, “No, you don’t really think that way” or “Too bad—it’s my way or the highway,” but those kinds of reactions can be destructive and damaging. Listen to your child and try to figure out why they feel the way they do. Find out the reasons behind what they’re saying and stay curious about where their thinking is taking them. Always show love, and remember that a little understanding goes a long way. And if they don’t want to talk, that’s okay too.

When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

When a child is still living at home, parents do their best to teach them whatever they possibly can about being a good person, living the gospel, and how gospel principles can benefit their lives. But at the end of the day, it’s up to children to use their agency to choose what they believe. When our children were living at home, we recognized that we could not dictate their beliefs, but we still wanted to be sure they learned about God. At one point, my daughter didn’t want to go to church anymore, but we felt it was still important for her to get a religious education, just as she needed to get a secular education at school. After some prayerful consideration, we gave her the option to find a different church if she didn’t want to attend ours. She ended up deciding that it was easier to continue attending ours. Of course, it’s up to individual families to determine what will work for them. You can get creative about the rules you set for your home, but remember that everyone has agency, and belief cannot be forced.

When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

Even when we don’t always love our children’s choices, we can let kids know we love them and want more than anything to stay connected. Some ways to do this include listening, acknowledging children’s feelings, and trying to understand their point of view. Especially when children become adults, there comes a time where it is important to fully accept that these are your children’s choices right now, even if you don’t agree with them. Ideally, you can continue to hope that things will change, but also accept that this is how things are right now. Now is the time to focus on other aspects of the relationship that we can enjoy, outside of their choices about church.

Know You’re Not Alone

Another helpful strategy is to remember that you are not alone. I appreciated being able to turn to people who had been through similar struggles who could offer me perspective and empathy. Prayer also helped me feel less alone. I would pray and say, “Okay, Heavenly Father, help me know what I need to learn today. What kind of conversation do I need to have now that will help me understand my child better and help me meet their needs?” In my case, my prayers were often answered with conversations and encounters with people. Many conversations came at just the right time to strengthen me and offer helpful insights and support. God wants to help us, if we will just invite Him in.

When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

When my daughter first left the Church, I thought, “What did I do wrong? How could I have blown this so badly? How can I fix this RIGHT NOW?” And I couldn’t help but worry that people would think our family was deficient in some way. When I was so distraught, I found it helpful to read about a woman who was going through something similar. She talked about gaining strength from going to the temple regularly and praying fervently. After 10 years of weekly temple attendance, she found that her children had not yet come back to the Church but that she had changed. She recognized that she had become a different person, that her heart had softened, that she was better able to understand the goodness of her children, and that she was better able to see the tender mercies of the Lord in her own life. She became more attuned to other people’s stories and struggles. It’s useful to remember that God doesn’t always answer our prayers by changing others but that sometimes we are changed as we reach out to the Lord.

When Your Child Chooses a Different Path

One of the best ways to keep perspective is to remember that we don’t know where we are in the story of our family’s lives. Who knows what the next chapter will be? Who knows when or if children will come back? There can be all sorts of different endings we can’t even imagine yet. Keeping a healthy perspective means remembering that sometimes our assumptions aren’t always true. We can choose to stay close to our families, despite differences between us. We can focus on our relationships rather than the principles that divide us. And we can choose to see this experience as an opportunity and not a tragedy. While I may not necessarily have wished to have children choose another path, there have been many important gifts of understanding I have gained along the way. Life is full of twists and turns, and the story is not over. There may yet be many wonderful surprises around the next corner.

To hear more about how to deal with judgments from others when your child chooses a different path and how to overcome feelings of inadequacy at church, watch or listen to this full episode of Gospel Solutions for Families on the Mormon Channel.

Robin Zenger Baker
Robin Zenger Baker is a mother, wife, and clinical therapist who lives in Massachusetts and recently completed a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from UMass Boston. She enjoys birdwatching, boogie boarding, and playing with her two adorable granddaughters.