Chicken Coop or Church? Influencing Our Children to Righteousness

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“Chicken Coop or Church? Influencing Our Children to Righteousness,” Ensign, Aug. 1980, 16

Leadership at Home and Church

Chicken Coop or Church?

Influencing Our Children to Righteousness

When I was growing up, there was one thing that I sure didn’t want to be known as—what in those days we called a “sissy,” or a gentle sort of guy. Instead, I wanted to be known as what we called “tough.” And I believe I could have been “tough” if it hadn’t been for some nontouch feelings that I had inside of me and the influence of my parents. It seems like they were forever pushing and pulling and loving me away from that kind of toughness.

At age fifteen I stayed out late one Saturday night like tough guys do. The next morning mother awoke me and told me it was time to go to priesthood meeting.

I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep.

A few minutes later my father came in from doing some early morning chores. I heard him proclaim in a loud voice, “If he isn’t going to priesthood meeting, there is a chicken coop that needs to be cleaned out.”

Hearing that, I bounded from my bed, and a few minutes later I was off to priesthood.

That is just one illustration of how my dad motivated or influenced me away from the course I sort of wanted to follow.

My mother was equally as “guilty” (or should I say responsible) for rearranging my life’s course. Once, while she and some other ladies were making a quilt in our front room, I was out in the kitchen. I could hear them talking about some of the tough things the students were doing at the high school. My mother finally said, “I don’t know if the other kids at the school are doing the things you say, but (then she raised her voice so that I could hear) I know my son George isn’t doing those things.”

I stopped what I was doing and thought to myself, “If she has faith in me, I can’t let her down.” I realized then—and many times since then—that it sure is hard to act tough when your mother doesn’t want you to.

When I was a college freshman, I still wanted to be tough and so my grades weren’t too good. I decided to quit school and get a car. I had for a long time felt that the right kind of car would give me a more “tough” appearance. But again my mother got in my way. She said, “Don’t quit school.”

I was firm and replied, “I’m quitting.”

She begged, “Don’t quit.”

I countered, “I’m quitting.”

She replied, “Don’t quit because what you are going to do in life you have to go to school to do.”

I asked, “What am I going to do in life?”

She answered, “I have no idea, but you must go to school to do it.”

Unconvinced, I held firm. “I’m quitting.”

She cried.

I couldn’t take it and said, “I was just kidding. I won’t quit.”

I’m sure glad they didn’t say, “How do we know what is good for George? He should choose for himself. We shouldn’t impose our will on him. Let him make up his own mind.”

My parents frequently got involved in my life. But now when I look back, I’m sure glad they did.

I’m grateful they believed that the Lord has given parents not only the right but also the responsibility to motivate, influence, teach, urge, pray, hope, persuade, reward, punish, love, and encourage their children to do right. And the best thing about it is that I feel they did it in a loving way. As a matter of fact, they were partners with Heavenly Father in all of this. Like him, they never forced me to choose the right. Instead, they loved me, told me the truth, acted in my interest, and wanted the best for me—not just for today but forever.

Now as a mother and father, Marilyn and I have decided to use the same approach.

Marilyn plays a very strong role in influencing the children. When we lived in Kentucky our oldest son, a junior in high school, wanted to go to Florida with the vast majority of students for spring vacation. She didn’t feel good about his going and told him so frankly. Because of her effective involvement, he didn’t go. It is my feeling that his not going on that trip has had a definite positive effect on his life’s course.

I remember when Marilyn called me at work and told me that she had persuaded our son not to go on the trip. I was deeply grateful that she had been so firm. I’m glad that, when so impressed, she is firm and unyielding in keeping our children moving toward good things. Sometimes the children think she is unbendable, but they know she loves them and is interested in their overall well-being more than she is in her own.

On the other hand, I’m more of a softy. Don’t blame me. Blame my parents. As I’ve already explained, they made me that way!

To motivate our family members I say, “Children, whoever does best in this activity gets a prize.”

They ask, “What is the prize?”

I reply, “You’ll see.”

They say, “Is it a kiss from you like usual?”

I smile, and they know they guessed right.

The only trouble with my approach is that they don’t seem to try to win. I suppose it is just because they aren’t competitors.

But kisses do work. At least the love that is behind kisses works. It amazes me how much influence we can have on our children if they know that we love them.

My mother didn’t cry to manipulate me to stay in college. She cried because she loved me, and it broke her heart to see me turn my back on what I could become. That’s why she cried. And I did as she wanted me to because deep down inside I knew why she cried.

But all parents love their children. Why then do some children rebel and go against the desires of their parents? I believe it is because sometimes out of love we begin to use force in our relationships with them. Have you noticed how forced things seldom seem to go the way you had hoped?

I know a seminary teacher who agreed at mid-term to allow a student who had been expelled from a high school class to enter his seminary class. On the first day the new student began attending, he walked in ten minutes late. He sat at the back, put his feet on an empty chair in front of him, and sneered at the teacher. All the other students had turned to watch the late arriver enter. Now that he was seated, all looked to see the teacher’s reaction. The teacher wanted to establish proper control from the beginning. He knew the time for force had come. He said, “You sit here in this chair on the front row.”

The student stared at the teacher but didn’t move.

The teacher, pointing at the chair but staring sternly at the student, spoke again, “Did you hear me? I want you here in front.”

Silence filled the room as all in the class saw the tension building up in the teacher.

Seconds passed and the student didn’t move.

“Get up here,” the teacher said with anger in his voice.

Still the student held his ground. In this time of crisis, the thought flashed into the teacher’s mind: “If I do not force him to come up, I will appear weak in the eyes of the other students, and I will lose face with them.”

The students continued to watch the teacher for his response to the situation. And then from somewhere the thought came to the teacher: “I am not here to use brute force or to save my face. I am here to save his.”

The teacher’s expression softened. A twinkle came into his eyes, followed by a smile. With this wonderful unspoken message came a relief from the cold war tension.

He spoke again, “All right, you stay there. But if at anytime in the future you ever want to sit up here, I’ll save this chair especially for you.”

Three weeks later the teacher hurried into the room just as the bell rang. As he began to call the roll, he looked out at the class and saw, not a foot away, the student grinning at him.

Many of us, especially parents, would have insisted that the young man move the first day. We make crises out of little things—as if there were no tomorrow. After all, we are the boss. That is our God-given right! (Or is it our Satan-influenced inclination?)

This wise teacher knew that it takes time to influence people. Time to show them that we love them. Time to establish trust. Time to show with our actions as well as our words that we do care.

And in the midst of an established and understood love, it is our duty to bring them onto the right path. We can and should use every godly approach to achieve this goal.

Can we use pressure to exert influence on our children? Of course we can. Our Heavenly Father does. We can say, “Our family has a great heritage. Grandfather and grandmother were always honest and good. We have a family of which we can be proud. Never do anything that will bring any shame or dishonor to the family’s name.” That’s putting pressure on them.

We can say, “Jason, you are twelve years of age and you are the oldest of our four sons. It is your duty to be a good example for the other three. Never do anything like cheating or lying or stealing that would cause the other boys to do wrong because of your example. I’m glad you are our oldest son because I’ve known for a long time that I can trust you and you will not let me down.” Is that pressure? Yes, it is.

We can say, “Boys, please don’t argue, because I love you both so much. It makes me feel upset. Please don’t argue.” That’s also pressure.

A heartbroken father can say as Alma did, “I can’t effectively teach others the gospel if you continue in your disobedience. They will have difficulty believing in the truthfulness of the gospel when they see you going in just the opposite direction from that which I’m teaching them. Please, son, for their sake and for your own, change your ways” (see Alma 39:9–13). That’s pressure.

But in none of these is them any unrighteous force involved. The interest of the child is the primary concern.

Can we use rewards and punishments to exert influence? Yes. God uses rewards and punishments in his dealings with his children. He has said, “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundation of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—

“And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20–21).

We can do the same. A promised story at bedtime, a trip to grandma’s, a ball game, a hike, and a party with ice cream and cake can make children want to do good things.

If I had a boy with potential who was failing in high school, I’d try all the motivation I could to get him interested. I’d tell him that if he’d get his grades up I’d take him fishing, or to a dinner at an all-you-can-eat restaurant, or to a major league ball game, or whatever else I thought might work but wouldn’t harm him.

Just think, if through a reward I could influence him to do better in school, it could change his entire life. If he said, “I’m just doing it for the reward,” I’d say, “That’s all right. Just do it.”

If I knew it wouldn’t cause rebellion, maybe I’d even be willing to try some appropriate discipline. “Son, if you don’t shape up in school, your mother will be over there three days a week to sit with you in class. I’ll be there the other two.” Or, “I don’t think you should go anywhere on any night until your homework is done.”

If that kind of discipline would work without causing worse problems, I’d use it. I’d rather use the rewards, but I feel a responsibility one way or the other to try to get him to do well in his school work, because to me far more is involved than just the grades.

If we begin to use strong influence based on love and firmness and rewards when children are young, we can avoid problems that occur down the road.

If we insist that a child go to Primary and make going pleasant through rewards and encouragement, then when the child is older he will be willing to attend seminary. Again, if we make seminary pleasant through encouragement, he will want to go on a mission. If we apply all the righteous pressure we can for him to go on a mission, he will likely marry in the temple.

We don’t take anyone’s free agency away by using loving pressure, firmness, appropriate punishment, and rewards. In fact, if we don’t use these approaches, Satan may soon entice them to give their agency to him.

For example, unrighteous advertising leads one to believe that manhood and cigarette smoking are synonymous, that beautiful people can live together without being married, that immorality is just part of growing up. Some teachers portray the point of view that those who are religious are naive and bigoted, that to believe in a creation of the world by God is ridiculous. Those enticements can cause people to choose Satan’s way—and that way inevitably leads to entrapment and sorrow.

Satan will remain the master influencer unless we enter the battle on the other side. His techniques are based on lies such as, “Ye shall not surely die” (Moses 4:10). Truth ultimately wins if it is presented. But it must be presented.

As we strive to influence others, we must constantly examine our motives. If any influence we exert on others is based upon selfish benefits for ourselves, then we leave the Lord’s camp and operate on Satan’s ground. I recall once when I was serving as a mission president, a young missionary was having emotional problems of quite a serious nature. I had called the family and the local Church leaders. They seemed to feel that if I handled things correctly the boy’s problems could be solved. I tried everything I could, and still the problems worsened.

I began to feel as though I was a failure. I knew that many important people knew of the case, and I wondered what they would think of me if I couldn’t solve the problem. My personal pride became a subtle but real factor.

One night I could not sleep for my mind was going like a speeded-up phonograph record asking over and over, “What will people think if you lose this missionary?” Finally, in desperation I threw off the covers and arose from my bed. I went out under a large tree in front of the mission home. The hour was late and I was alone. I knelt and prayed with all the energy of my soul for peace of mind. In response, a voice in my heart said, “Why are you so desperate? Your concern is with yourself and your own pride. Forget yourself and help the missionary.”

With that great insight I suddenly felt a release from the despair. I focused my prayer in a different direction. Thereafter I had the freedom that comes when we strive to serve another more than ourselves.

Because of the strong influence we can sometimes have on someone who knows that we love him and who trusts us, we should be extremely cautious in what we do. We should ever remember that decisions must be made by the individual and not by us. We can take him near a decision but we must not push him, even if he is totally willing, to make our decision rather than his own.

God has said, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by longsuffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned” (D&C 121:41).

To ensure that we do not go too far, we must influence others as guided by the genre whisperings of the Spirit. And we must seek to influence our children so that the Spirit becomes the greatest influence in their lives, not us. This principle is shown in a case of a father whose son is a fine athlete. There was much pressure on this young man not to serve a mission. Many felt that he could do more good by playing ball and using that great fame that comes from so doing to influence others, especially the young admiring fans who would listen to and follow his every word.

But the father felt that his son should serve a mission. Because of the relationship of love and mutual respect that existed between the two, he felt that he had an unusually great influence on the boy. Thus, he felt that, if he chose to do so, he could talk the boy into going on a mission.

The father searched his own soul, for he had heard people say, “You seem to feel that missions are important. What about your son? Is he going?” At times it was almost as if the father were on trial.

One day the two were eating dinner after a practice in which the son had played exceptionally well. The son spoke, “Father, things sure look promising for me in athletics. What should I do about a mission?”

The father replied, “That’s up to you.”

“Yeah, but how do you feel?”

“Son, it’s up to you. It’s your life. It’s not what I feel but what you feel.”

The son seemed almost disappointed and silently continued eating.

The father attempted to sit in silence, but after a few seconds he felt the inward promptings that come from a divine source. He could not restrain himself and said softly but with considerable power, “Son, let me tell you how I feel. I have dreamed all my adult life that each of my sons would serve a mission. And you would be such a great missionary. You’d be far better at that than you are at playing ball.”

The son was no longer eating. His knife and fork were set aside. He looked deep into his father’s eyes.

The father continued, “Son, I love you with all my heart. And I love the Lord. The Lord needs you out there, not here. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true. God lives. Go tell the world that.”

The son replied, “Dad, I feel that you are right.”

After a few seconds of silence, the father spoke again, “But, son, it’s your life. It isn’t what I think that matters.”

“Yes it is, Dad. What you think really matters. I’m glad you told me just how you feel. I really felt the Spirit as you spoke.”

He continued, “I need to get away by myself and think.”

Did the father go too far? The son had such a promising future as an athlete. Was the father concerned with his own effectiveness as a father more than with the boy’s future in sports? Did the father apply too much pressure? On the other hand, how can you help applying pressure when you love someone, when you have feelings, when you feel prompted by the Spirit to state those feelings?

I asked the father if he felt like he had manipulated his son who has now decided to go on his mission, He replied, “I don’t know. I’ve wondered about that myself so I wrote him a letter and asked him how he felt about it.” He then showed me this reply from his son:

“Dear father:

“You asked if you had manipulated me to go on a mission. I suppose that means, did you put pressure on me to go?

“You sure did. But it wasn’t the pressure of your words. It was the pressure of your example. All my life you have shown me by the way you lived that I should go.

“Dad, you’ve never really forced me to do anything, but you’ve always let me know the right way.

“You didn’t pressure me or manipulate me. One of the main reasons that I’m going is because I know that you want me to. And I also know God wants me to. But the real reason why I’m going is because I want to.”

Yes, as a boy I had many of the makings of being a tough guy. I believe I would have made it if my parents had just let me go. But because of their constant interference or motivation or influence, I turned from that to the truths of the gospel. And I have found that the gentle course is the way my soul desired to go all along.

Now, as parents, we try to be sure to let our children know that if they don’t want to go to Church, there’s a chicken coop that needs cleaning. That way they will choose Church and won’t get all fowled up!

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Chicken Coop or Church” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a family gospel study, period:

  1. Do you think the athlete’s father in this article exerted righteous or unrighteous pressure to serve a mission? Why?

  2. What do you think about the system of “appropriate punishment and rewards” that was discussed?

  3. Why is it important that each family member have the opportunity to make his own decisions? What’s wrong with using force?

  4. Why is it important that we be conscious of the consequences of our decisions?

  5. What are some ways little children could learn to make proper choices and to be responsible for their decisions?

  6. Why is it important to frequently evaluate our motivations for influencing the actions and decisions of others?

  7. This article says: “It amazes me how much influence we can have on our children if they know that we love them.” Why do you suppose this statement is true?

  8. Are there times when you feel pressured by—or feel an obligation to pressure—family members? Help each other understand your feelings, and try, to work out some solutions.

Illustrated by Preston Heiselt