How responsible are parents for the behavior of a rebellious child?

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“How responsible are parents for the behavior of a rebellious child?” Ensign, June 1982, 34–35

How responsible are parents for the behavior of a rebellious child if they have done their best (all they have known to do) to bring the child up in the ways of the Lord?

Arthur R. Bassett, Associate Professor of Humanities, Brigham Young University. A parent’s awareness of the weighty responsibility of parenthood must be tempered with the realization that many will probably not succeed as well as they might like to in bringing their children up in the ways of the Lord. Some will not succeed because they have not made their family responsibility a significant priority. Some will not succeed because they lack the talent, but not the desire. For these there is great hope, since education is an eternal principle, and God a masterful teacher. A third group will not succeed, but through no fault of their own. This is because of the God-given right of their children to exercise their agency. For them there is the consolation of having done their best. And, of course, there may be elements of all three groups in a situation.

Children are not clay to be molded according to the parent’s will into pre-determined forms; they are not puppets who are to dance at the parent’s direction. They are thinking, feeling individuals, co-eternal with their parents and capable of choosing to accept or reject the life-styles of the families in which they are reared. While young and impressionable they will often find it more to their advantage and peace of mind to conform, within limits, to the desires of their parents. But as they grow older and come to recognize a wider range of possible life-styles, they will follow those life-styles that seem most desirable to them.

Wise parents will recognize the limits of their influence and not blame themselves when a child deviates from the life-style they would have him follow. Many capable, caring parents have seen their children make decisions that seem to carry them further and further from the patterns suggested by Christ. However, such parents will never quit working with the child in the manner suggested by their Heavenly Father’s own example.

Our Heavenly Father seems to have lost a third of his children (if the traditional rendering of Revelation 12:4 is to be taken literally). Adam and Eve lost many of their children who were born after the gospel was revealed to them. (See Moses 5:12–57.) Noah had serious problems with at least one of his (see Gen. 9:18–27); Lehi and Sariah lost Laman and Lemuel. Accounts in the Book of Mormon, especially those of the Jaredites, are filled with incidents in which sons rose up against righteous, well-meaning parents. (See, for example, Ether 7–10.) To this list of disappointed parents we might also add the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, and their wives, as well as other luminaries of the scriptures.

Fortunately the scriptures also include accounts of individuals such as Alma and Mosiah and their wives, who lived to see astonishing reversals in the lifestyles of their children. It is instructive to note that in part these reversals occurred because the parents never gave up. The angel informed the younger Alma that his father had prayed with much faith concerning him that he might be brought to recognize the truth. (Mosiah 27:14.) Many other parents have also lived to see dramatic reversals in their children over time.

The Lord has placed a sobering importance on parental responsibility. As early as 1831 he warned the Prophet Joseph that parents who do not teach their children to understand the first principles and ordinances of the gospel before the children are eight years old will be held responsible for that neglect. (See D&C 68:25.)

Two years later, in May of 1833, the entire First Presidency of the Church, in company with the Presiding Bishop, received a severe reprimand from the Lord for neglecting their responsibilities as parents. (See D&C 93:36–51.) We often hear the much-quoted statement, “The glory of God is intelligence” (D&C 93:36), without realizing that it is part of a preamble of sorts to this chastisement. One by one, calling them by name, the Lord chastised these brethren for not giving more diligence to their calling as parents. Even though they were carrying the major load of responsibility for the directing of the kingdom, that did not excuse them from their equally important responsibility in their families. (See D&C 93:42, 43.)

Since that time the Lord has had much to say about the role of parents, stressing that the nurturing of an eternal soul is not a task to be treated casually. What parents are doing now is all part of a preparation for eternal responsibility of great magnitude.

For those who have done their best in righteousness, and continue to do so, the point to make is that we may not succeed as parents in the way we might like to. Yet at the same time we must not give up; our love must remain constant. If we quit, we also fail with them. Perhaps in these situations, as in no other, we need constant reminding of those godlike qualities that have proved most successful over time: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. With kindness and pure knowledge, without hypocrisy and guile, we will ultimately reap the consolation of knowing that we have done our best.