“Provoke Not Your Children,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, 41
Whenever my wife and I contemplate our many responsibilities in this life, seeking to rank them in order of their importance, we always think of our children first. The oldest, Markus, just turned nineteen and is preparing for a mission. Matthias is seventeen and has begun training for a profession. Maja, our only daughter, is sixteen. Daniel, the youngest, is twelve and has just received the Aaronic Priesthood.
We have great affection for our children and a deep feeling of thankfulness to our Father in heaven for committing them to our care. We feel that the greatest joy we could experience in this life would be to see all of our children develop into happy human beings who master their stewardships in complete harmony with the laws of God.
But we are acutely aware of the delicate nature of the human soul—especially the souls of young children. When a new life begins in the animal world, it is equipped by nature with almost everything it needs, and instinct supplies the small missing part. With human beings it is different. Not only does a human child generally require more physical nourishment and care, it is also fully dependent upon its parents for spiritual and moral development. Accordingly, we believe that it is crucially important that children be introduced to life—and this is a process of years, of course—in an atmosphere of joy and love in the home, or as the apostle Paul said, in an atmosphere of “charity, which is the bond of perfectness.” (Col. 3:14.) We like Paul’s further description of ideal relationships within the home:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.
“Husbands, love your wives, and be not bitter against them.
“Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.
“Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (Col. 3:18–21.)
Nearly every parent wishes to do the very best for his children, to help them cope with the world, to raise them up to the highest possible level of achievement, to “provoke them not” to bitterness or lives of meaningless protest. Nevertheless, Satan has great power in the earth, and he has placed many stumbling blocks in the paths of well-intentioned men. In the schools and media are portrayed the teachings of materialism, hate, dishonor and unworthiness, immorality and sorrow—all packaged in smart and intellectual phrases. False religions and philosophies abound, and many are the distractions into which we pour so much time and energy, as we attempt to improve our external living circumstances, to make life comfortable and simple—all the while remaining ignorant of our true needs.
Although all men are enlightened by a measure of the Spirit of Christ and have a degree of knowledge of what is good and right, most really have no hope of a sanctified home life, for they lack the full knowledge made possible by the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith. My wife and I also were once in that state.
Therefore a deep bond of gratitude binds us with the parents, most of whom we do not know, of the missionaries who came to us early in our marriage with the message of the Restoration. This is one thing that distinguishes the members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from all the rest of the world—the sure knowledge of who we are, where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going, and of course the power to get there.
This knowledge gives meaning to all of our family relationships and keeps foremost in our minds our love for and responsibilities to our children. As our Mormon pioneer forefathers were forced to flee through endless plains to build a civilization in a desert, so also do we have the feeling that we live in a spiritual desert, with the responsibility to build a living nation from the oasis that the community of the Church represents. Without the power of the priesthood, and without the auxiliaries and other programs such as seminary, we would be lost and alone as parents. We shrink from the thought of facing these responsibilities in ignorance of the saving principles of the gospel.
To be a father or a mother means to learn to think in priorities. Children are never perfect. Children have deficiencies, sometimes so great that we are appalled, that we are tempted to act in ways that would “provoke them to anger.” But to do so could turn them away from their ultimate destination, eternal life.
What, then, do we do with the mistakes, deficiencies, and errors of our children? I believe this is the deciding point. As a home teacher I once heard a young man say, in the presence of his parents, that he was never praised. His father’s reply was, “I would gladly have praised you if you had ever done anything praiseworthy.” I was shocked. To what emotions would such a statement provoke a child?
How quick are our eyes to see everything about others that is not quite right, to see everything they do wrong. How slow we are to see people as they really are or as they could become if properly led—children of God, adorned with all the costly attributes of godly purity and godly virtue.
No one suffers more from imperfections than does the individual, children included. They know their mistakes; they know their weaknesses. But how can they muster up the courage to repent, courage to turn around, if this courage does not come from the parents?
My wife and I agree that in the process of maturing spiritually, children have what might be thought of as a right to make mistakes, to have deficiencies, to do things wrong even after they have been corrected ten times. And we believe that it is the duty of the parents to understand, to withstand, and to forgive, “lest they become discouraged.” So we have become authentic detectives, digging out the buried talents and abilities of our children, for their smallest beginnings toward acquiring positive gifts need to be seen, mentioned, and admired. How beautiful it is to sit together for family home evening and think about this and to name each others’ good qualities and abilities. How badly we each need someone who strengthens our good intentions, who shares our sadness when we fail, who helps us formulate the goals that reorient us toward the things of eternal worth.
We try to guide our children toward self-respect and worth and mostly leave it up to them to judge themselves. We have experienced the fact that one is not as good a teacher when one discovers and points out mistakes—being a “schoolmaster,” as we say in Germany—as when one helps a child to discover for himself that he is doing wrong. When a child can comprehend his mistakes himself, the first step to change has already been taken.
I remember once how we asked our son, after a transgression, to set his own punishment. He decided that he should not be allowed to watch television for one month. That seemed to us to be considerably too severe, but how happy we were to hear from his grandmother that while visiting her he had insisted she was wrong to encourage him to watch a certain television program, even though his parents would never know. I don’t think there can be a greater joy for parents than to see a child handle himself well in a difficult situation.
It is adults who most endanger mankind and destroy it—some adults with their bad examples or their hypocritical or cynical philosophies of life. What a proof of the godly origin of man it is to see pure, innocent children; what a disappointment when we experience how insensitive and unloving some parents can be with them.
Closely analyzed, the duty of a righteous stewardship over one’s children is comparable to a struggle, a daily struggle with ourselves to become so spiritual, so pure, so full of devotion and love, that we can become examples and partners. The more we learn, as parents, to consciously listen without interrupting and to absorb what is said, the simpler it will be to teach.
I heard of one leader in the Church who said a silent prayer each time he was about to enter his home—a prayer for the strength to righteously carry out his responsibilities as a father and husband.
It is not easy to rise above all the tiny irritations every day in worthiness and harmony, and we have found that it is hardly possible to overcome this problem unless we have the daily habit of studying the scriptures and learning to allow ourselves to be led by the Spirit, even in small decisions. So we have experienced special family home evenings, evenings that were completely different from what had been planned simply because the order of the hour demanded it. What a danger it is to see the family home evening simply as a program that fills the letter. We have found that it is good to vary the location and order of events, to have surprise moments, and to have only one goal: to give the hearts of the participants greater love, greater hope, and greater faith.
It has been our experience that the spirituality of the family grows in quality as the children take part in planning and preparation. We have found family councils to be one excellent instrument for organization and order. On one occasion we all sat together in a family council in an effort to determine how we could improve our family life, deepen our affection, expand our joy. We decided that one problem was that our morning family prayer, though full of love and devotion, was suffering because we always seemed to come to it half asleep, unprepared, unable to concentrate. Together we decided that we should get up a quarter of an hour earlier than was usually necessary. We would sit together, sing a hymn from the hymnbook, and read together from the scriptures or an address from one of the General Authorities before kneeling in prayer.
This procedure, strengthened by our children’s own commitment, has been a source of great joy for us, for after our spirits are nourished and strengthened from the fountain of living water, we kneel to think, to sense, to be open to all that is important and not to be forgotten. What a blessing it is to be led to that level of prayer where the spirit leads us and gives us the power to successfully meet the challenges of each day.
How proud and thankful I am when our youngest son, without his mother telling him to, gives me a goodnight kiss and says, “I love you.” Or when the smile of our daughter shows us that she is happy; or when the look on our seventeen-year-old’s face tells us, “You are okay”; or when our oldest son tells us something that shows that his trust in us is complete.
We experience as parents the greatest blessing—to be partners with God, partners in the creation and development of new life and new hope.