Principles of Parenting, Part 2

“Principles of Parenting, Part 2,” Ensign, Apr. 1975, 51

Principles of Parenting, Part 2

(Editor’s Note: In Part One of “Principles of Parenting,” the stages of moral development were discussed, including the capacities unique to children under eight, those characteristic of children between eight and 12, and those of children 12 and older. The importance of helping each child acquire those moral characteristics respective to each stage was stressed. Part Two discusses the influences available to parents in guiding the spiritual growth of their children.)

When a child knows right from wrong, what is it that causes him to choose the right? Where does moral strength really come from? As a parent, when I know what I should and should not do, what gives me the strength to do what is right?

We concluded in Part One that moral decision-making depends on motivational forces that are significantly spiritual in nature. Their origins are distinctly different from the physiological motives of hunger, pain, thirst, and so forth. At least seven of these spiritual forces seem to be described in the scriptures: (1) the power of positive example, (2) faith and works based on that faith, (3) realizing that we are God’s children, (4) aligning ourselves with gospel principles, (5) prayer and fasting, (6) the instructions of the Holy Ghost, and (7) the pure love of Christ. Each of these has two characteristics: (a) they are types of knowledge, kinds of awareness at the spiritual-feeling level, which stimulate, nourish, and allow our positive desires to grow and develop; and (b) they will never generate immoral behavior. For example, if a person uses profanity, some other influence is present besides these moral forces.

Using these forces effectively is a major challenge facing parents. Obviously, many parents are knowingly or unknowingly already using these spiritual teaching tools to one degree or another. However, their potential has not nearly been realized. Just as one can intentionally use a visual aid or a case study to appeal to a child’s sense of sight or hearing, or to his intellect through reason, so can one intentionally use example or faith or love as tools to influence his spiritual desires. The only difference seems to be that we are more capable of training people to consciously use the teaching tools that appeal to man’s intellect or to his physical senses than we are the tools that more directly affect his spiritual self.

The value of spiritual teaching tools can be illustrated by describing the importance prophets have placed on some of these forces and citing some illustrations of their application. Each parent has powers at his disposal that he may not have been consciously trying to apply in his role.

The Power of Positive Example

Example is the influence that emanates from one person and sponsors a similar response in another person. The power of positive example is probably the most common source of moral motivation, especially among children. (David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals, p. 419.)

Early Church leaders pointed out that “God became an object of faith” for the children of Adam through the influence of “human testimony.” It was this strength of example—parental commitment (testimony)—that stimulated the children to acquire a knowledge by their own experience. (See Lectures on Faith 2:56.)

This power that sponsors motivational impulses from one person to another seems to be a powerfully significant influence when it reflects a commitment in harmony with God’s laws. Christ recognized the power of example to influence the motivation of others:

“And the Lord said unto them also: Go forth among the Lamanites, thy brethren, and establish my word; yet ye shall be patient in longsuffering and afflictions, that ye may show forth good examples unto them in me, and I will make an instrument of thee in my hands unto the salvation of many souls.” (Alma 17:11; italics added.)

Example is a tool parents can consciously use to influence their children for good.

A contemporary illustration of the power of example is the case of the youth who was being pressured by his friends to drink a bottle of beer. After repeatedly declining, his friends asked him why he didn’t give in. His reply was simple: “My dad has been offered beer many times in my presence by his friends and he never accepted.” Another illustration is the young missionary who spoke in a public meeting about the kind of family life he thought to be ideal. The message he delivered was moving and comprehensive in its scope; the audience marveled at his knowledge. After the meeting he was approached, congratulated, and asked how he ever prepared such a magnificent sermon. He answered, “I just described my own home life.” President Lee’s invitation to those without testimonies to lean on his until they obtained one for themselves is yet another illustration of the power of example as a real tool in the hands of the righteous. (Church News, May 6, 1972, p. 3.)

Faith and Works—Knowledge with a Spiritual Confirmation

To believe is to think something with some degree of conviction. One’s belief may or may not be correct. One can think something regardless of its truthfulness or falsehood, its accuracy or error. To believe does not mean that one has faith, but it is the first step to obtaining faith. Elder James E. Talmage said, “The terms faith and belief are sometimes regarded as synonyms; nevertheless each of them has a specific meaning in our language, although in earlier usage there was little distinction between them, and therefore the words are used interchangeably in many scriptural passages.” (Articles of Faith, p. 96.) President David O. McKay added, “There may be belief without faith; there can be no faith without belief.” (Pathways to Happiness, p. 9.)

The Lord has clearly explained that he will bless those who labor in his vineyard with the mighty blessing of being table to believe the words of revelation which come through the prophets. (D&C 21:9.) This is something parents can do: work in the Church and encourage their children to do likewise.

Faith comes into existence after we have a belief, act on the basis of that belief, and receive confirmation from God. Faith is a gift of God; men cannot have faith without help from God. Furthermore, God will confirm only that which is true and beneficial to us; he will never confirm error. (Alma 42:13.) We are protected, then, from ever having faith in anything false or spiritually injurious. Men may believe with great intensity in things that are not true, but belief, regardless of its strength, is not faith, nor does it possess the power of faith.

The most critical truth in which we need to acquire faith is that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior of the world. Jesus clearly explained this process in his sermon on the bread of life delivered at Capernaum. He perceived that some of his disciples didn’t really have the conviction of faith in him. Explaining their inability to accept him as the Son of God, he said, “No man can come to me, except the Father which hath sent me draw him.” (John 6:44.) When we begin to acquire faith in Jesus Christ, we are led to the only follow-up system that can prepare us for celestial habitations: the gospel of Jesus Christ. No other program has the priesthood power to assist us in this preparation. Faith is a tool that parents can use to influence their children for good.

Faith can work in many ways to manifest the power of God and influence righteous action. The impact of Mary Fielding Smith, Hyrum’s wife, on her son, Joseph F. Smith, is well-known in the Church. Through her faith, which was repeatedly manifest during the trek west, she implanted a courage in her son’s heart that eventually blessed the entire Church as he guided it through some of its most perilous hours during the early 1900s. As parents, we have been promised that we can bind our children to us by exercising our faith; even if they go astray, this faith will influence them for good and will eventually qualify us to seek those of our children who become lost and to labor for their welfare and restoration in our families. (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 7:336, 11:215.)

Realizing We Are Children of God

Another source of moral motivation is the knowledge that reveals man’s spiritual and eternal nature to himself. It is the idea in the song, “I Am a Child of God.” This is the recovery or rediscovery of one’s inherent identity and worth.

The Apostle Paul treats identity and self-acceptance in his letter to the Romans, and relates that extensive development along this line is really dependent upon embracing the gospel of Jesus Christ and getting access to the power of Christ. He emphasizes that even a behavioral compliance with the law of Moses cannot stimulate true moral motivation. The command to be good does not make us good; all the law can do is call our attention to the gap that exists between what we are and what we are intended to be. (Rom. 7:7; 2 Ne. 2:13.) Emphasizing the gap between reality and the ideal provided by the law serves as a schoolmaster. It helps us realize that we need help. The help we need is that of Christ, and this help should be found in his Church. (Rom. 1:16.)

Paul explained the difference between being under statutory law and under the influence of the motivating stimulus of the gospel. He noted:

“I found the law to be holy, and the commandment to be holy, and just, and good … but when I was under the law, I was yet carnal, sold under sin.” (JST, Rom. 7:12, 14.)

Therefore, even though he possessed an awareness under the law, it did not help him to do the right thing even when he knew what was right. But after his conversion to and identification with the living gospel, he said:

“But now I am spiritual; for that which I am commanded to do, I do; and that which I am commanded not to allow, I allow not. …

“Now then, it is no more I that do sin; but I seek to subdue that sin which dwelleth in me.

“For I know that in me, that is, in my flesh, dwelleth no good thing; for to will is present with me, but to perform that which is good I find not, only in Christ.” (JST, Rom. 7:15–19, 23, 24. See also Jer. 31:31–33.)

Parents can influence their children by helping them realize they are spirit children of our Father in heaven; this leads them to accept Jesus Christ and his gospel. This sentiment was poignantly expressed by the repentant young mother who said, “I had given up all hope; I was full of despair until the words of the song, ‘I Am a Child of God,’ suddenly came alive in my soul. Now I know who I am and I feel the strength to go forward.” Like King Lamoni of old and his father (Alma 18–22), this young woman discovered that the knowledge of who she really was brought with it a power and a hope for the future. Making this knowledge come alive in our own souls and seeking to nourish it in the hearts of our children is a stirring opportunity.

The Influence of Positive Principles

Another motivational influence for moral behavior also occurs when one acts upon positive principles of truth. For example, we can choose to act upon faith or skepticism, virtue or vulgarity, knowledge or ignorance, temperance or indulgence, patience or impatience, kindness or cruelty, diligence or slothfulness. The kinds of principles we choose to activate in our lives and personalities determine the kinds of spirit or feelings we contribute to our relationships with others. When we embrace a principle, its influence actually radiates from us and can be felt by others. This is one reason the parent (teacher) is so important in religious education. He is the resource for conveying an influence of a particular truth to his children (students) so they can experience that truth, at least in part, and develop a desire to embrace it. (David O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness, p. 338.)

Principles, when activated by us, do have consequences. The Prophet Joseph Smith indicated:

“We are only capable of comprehending that certain things exist, which we may acquire by certain fixed principles. If men would acquire salvation, they have got to be subject, before they leave this world, to certain rules and principles.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324.)

Dorothy Law Nolte’s widely distributed classic expression of this principle applied to parents is well-known to most of us.

Children Learn What They Live

If a child lives with criticism, he learns to condemn.

If a child lives with hostility, he learns to fight.

If a child lives with ridicule, he learns to be shy.

If a child lives with shame, he learns to feel guilty.

If a child lives with tolerance, he learns to be patient.

If a child lives with encouragement, he learns confidence.

If a child lives with praise, he learns to appreciate.

If a child lives with fairness, he learns justice.

If a child lives with security, he learns to have faith.

If a child lives with approval, he learns to like himself.

If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.

Embracing a principle gives it life and turns loose its forces just as surely as striking the sulphur-tipped match on an emery cloth creates fire and releases its influences.

Prayer and Fasting

Another powerful influence upon the desire or disposition of man is prayer. Praying to the Father in the name of Jesus Christ is described in the scriptures as the maintenance procedure for sustaining righteous desires. Prayer also brings forth divine influences in behalf of the individual. (Mosiah 27:22; Alma 34:17–18.) But the major function of prayer in the day-to-day life of the individual seems to be preventive maintenance. (D&C 75:11; D&C 20:33; D&C 31:12; D&C 61:39; D&C 93:49; D&C 88:126; D&C 101:81.) Our spiritual machinery, like physical machinery, will begin to malfunction if it is not properly maintained.

This is illustrated by President Brigham Young’s warning: if we neglect our prayers, a spirit of darkness will come over us. (Journal of Discourses 10:300.) Prayer is so vital to spiritual health that it should take precedence over most other concerns. President Young counseled:

“It matters not whether you or I feel like praying; when the time comes to pray, pray. If we do not feel like it, we should pray till we do.” (Journal of Discourses 13:155.)

When Adam was driven out of the Garden of Eden, the Lord emphasized, among other things, the necessity of praying in the name of Christ. Adam was told to teach his children to pray. (Moses 5:6–8.) Some of his children did not heed the teachings and were deceived by Satan’s influence. But the record indicates that “Adam and Eve, his wife, ceased not to call upon God.” (Moses 5:16.) This habitual, continuous exercise of prayer seems to be the major key to preserving and nourishing our righteous or positive desires.

Prayer also seems to be a key to unlocking the doors to an increased understanding of the knowledge and powers of heaven. (3 Ne. 17:2–3.) It is a means for obtaining the spiritual strength to sustain correct knowledge. One of my friends told about his experience in changing his employment. For the good of his family, for his own peace of mind, and for his professional future, he knew it was right to make the change. But even with the support of his wife there was a worry and concern that lingered on. It blocked his action. Finally, through fasting and prayer, the peace came, and with it the confidence to act.

In a similar way another family worked out some communication problems between the parents and children. By kneeling together and each offering a prayer, souls were cleansed and harsh feelings dissolved that left the family free to begin growing together again. Sometimes we need the knowledge and powers of heaven to help us renovate and put in order our spiritually tilted and cluttered homes. On our own power we lack the strength.

Prayer, especially prayer ascending from a soul that has been prepared by fasting, can help us do things that ought to be done when they should be done. It even helps with simple things that may not seem important to some but that are of great personal concern to us, such as the anxiety of a young mother who fretted and worried over how and when to wean her first child. Though far away from either grandmother who might have offered some counsel, the prayerful yearning of her heart did not go unheeded. One night when her husband came home from work the task was accomplished. “How did you know today was the day?” he asked. “I just knew, and I knew for sure,” she replied. He understood.

Perhaps this is the most important of all: using prayer as an influence to bless and teach those whom we love and serve. The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that it is through the prayer of faith that we will know what to teach. (See D&C 52:9.) And all fathers are counseled to pray within their families in order to secure blessings for their wives and children: “Pray in your families unto the Father, always in my name, that your wives and your children may be blessed.” (3 Ne. 18:21.) Family prayers that request divine help in preparing children to go on missions, marry in the temple, avoid evil, and display honest, clean behavior have an influence for good on both the children and the parents in those family circles.

Ordinance or Priesthood Knowledge—Special Instruction from the Holy Ghost

The purpose of priesthood ordinances is to prepare us for entry into, and exaltation within, the celestial kingdom. (Joseph F. Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 2:328–329; Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 331.)

It is through these ordinances that the power of godliness is manifest and the mysteries of godliness are revealed. (See D&C 84:19–27.) The importance of being able to experience all the ordinances of the gospel is illustrated by the restrictions under which the children of Israel placed themselves at the time of Moses. Because they failed to cultivate the sources of moral influence available to them, they forfeited the opportunity to experience the ordinances that would have entitled them to the moral motivation associated with instruction from the Holy Ghost.

In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord indicates that these people were offered the gospel of faith, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, and the laying on of hands for the gift of the Holy Ghost, which would have entitled them to sanctification. (See D&C 84:23.) But because they “hardened their hearts” (rejected the incentive to develop morally), they were given the gospel of faith, repentance, baptism for the remission of sins, and the law of carnal commandments. (See D&C 84:27.) This removed them from access to the moral motivation that comes from the instruction of the Holy Ghost attendant to the higher ordinances of the gospel. The Prophet Joseph Smith was very explicit about the importance of knowledge that comes from experiencing the ordinances of the gospel. He warned:

“Reading the experience of others, or the revelations given to them, can never give us a comprehensive view of our condition and true relation to God. Knowledge of these things can only be obtained by experience through the ordinances of God set forth for that purpose.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 324.)

It is this kind of knowledge that imbues an individual with the most effective type of moral motivation and enables him to pursue his personal development toward perfection. The motivational influence of knowledge given by the Holy Ghost is so effective that individuals are under a special accountability when they come under the full influence of this knowledge. The total rejection of this influence has been identified as unpardonable. (Matt. 12:31–34; Heb. 6:4–6.)

The power and influence that follow administration of ordinances on a worthy candidate is attested by thousands who have come into the Church. One such young lady was touched by the Spirit and baptized. The radiant result surprised, mystified, and even frustrated her parents and brothers. As the months came and went the constant presence of her new light gradually had its influence. Now the other members of her family are faithful members of the Church, reaching out to others, sharing the light that shines through their own souls.

Just as baptism and partaking of the sacrament can bring an uplifting sense of understanding into one’s life, so the sealing ordinances of the temple unfold our vision of understanding and add power in our lives. The young couples who envelop their marriage in the safety of this unseen but definitely felt power are blessed. There is a motive power in the priesthood ordinances that not only expands our knowledge on how to be an effective wife, mother, husband, and father, but that also empowers us to become such.

Love—Charity, the Pure Love of Christ

Love, that special kind of love spoken of in the scriptures as charity, or the pure love of Christ, seems to be the supreme influence. It apparently has a special kind of motivational influence on man’s moral behavior. This love seems to be a power that exceeds our understanding. The Apostle Paul said that we should come to Christ in order that we might be “rooted and grounded in love.”

“May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

“And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.” (Eph. 3:17–19.)

Therefore, without pretending to understand love, and without trying to explain it, it is important to note that love is a motivational force for good. If the love of God enables us to keep his commandments, if perfect love casteth out all fear, if charity empowers us to endure all things, if the mark of discipleship is love—then the love that cometh of God is certainly a desirable and an essential tool to be used in the process of teaching right from wrong. Perhaps this love is the source of all moral motivation, and the various influences mentioned previously are merely expressions of it.


There are probably additional descriptions of moral influence that may not fit the categories used in this discussion. Making a list is not the important point; the important point is this: The motivational influences that will bring success to parents and teachers in the area of moral education are spiritual forces. They are different from and exist in addition to many of the psychological or physiological influences traditionally used in education. Moral influences seem to originate outside the individual. They are forces of divine origin and can be obtained and used only by adherence to the spiritual laws that govern them. A temporal system of motivation which appeals to the temporal nature of man will not suffice. It must be buttressed by a spiritual foundation of influences such as those described in the scriptures. The challenge to parents and teachers is one of recognizing that punishments and rewards, physical safety and warmth, poster pictures and color movies, transparencies and tape recordings, self-instructional games, worksheets, and simulated experiences are inconsequential time-fillers as far as teaching right from wrong is concerned if they are not used in concert with and subservient to spiritual forces.

Harnessing these forces of moral motivation in our own lives and then giving our children or students an opportunity to come under their influence is the key to success in preparing youth to make moral decisions—to choose the right instead of the wrong.

  • Neil J. Flinders is director of research and evaluation for the Church Department of Seminaries and Institutes, and serves as a bishop’s counselor in the Manila Ward, Pleasant Grove Utah Timpanogos Stake.

Photos by Lonnie Lonczyna and Frank Gale