“Keeping the Door Open and the Stew Hot: Loving and Helping a Wayward Child,” Ensign, Aug. 1982, 9
Latter-day Saint parents know that living the gospel in the home is the best way to keep their children active in the Church. But on occasion, a child will stray—sometimes for just a short while, sometimes for a long time.
“When our children were younger,” a middle-aged woman remembers, “people used to look at us and say, ‘Oh, what a perfect family.’ And we thought so, too. But when our oldest son became a teenager, there were no boys his age in the ward—he was all alone. He started going around with a group of LDS boys two years older. When they left on their missions, he was alone again.”
The boy developed some bad habits and undesirable friends, and he stopped going to church. “Life has been a nightmare since then,” she says. “We’ve wept bitterly.”
It’s hard to watch a child reject his upbringing and choose an unacceptable life-style. For some parents, it becomes an endless ordeal: hints of hope are replaced over and over by helplessness, frustration, and disappointment.
But parents keep hoping. And, reminiscent of three of the Lord’s parables, they keep doing all they can to restore that which is lost. When the shepherd lost a lamb, he left his ninety and nine and scoured the hillsides relentlessly until he found it. When the woman with ten pieces of silver lost one piece, she lit a candle and swept the house until her search was fruitful. The father of the lost son had a more difficult task: respecting his son’s agency, he stayed at home, waiting and watching, until the boy “came to himself” and decided to return. (See Luke 15:4, 8, 11–20.)
In each of these parables, the lost was found. But today, many parents are still waiting. A number of Latter-day Saints who have carried this most difficult burden have been willing to share the following insights on dealing with and preventing waywardness.
Exercise Charity. “The first Sunday my son told me he wasn’t going to church,” a mother says, “I felt like crying all day. I felt angry that he was rejecting the things that were so important to me.”
At a time like this, a parent is confronted with a host of painful feelings—bitterness, resentment at being rejected by a loved one, humiliation over what others might be thinking or saying, depression over personal failure.
These feelings can be tempered by love, but love also increases the pain—it is the very ingredient that turns disappointment to grief, frustration to mourning. “My feeling for my son was a great sadness,” relates a mother, “a terrible, terrible sadness. He had been such a good child, eager to obey and to do what was right. To see a beautiful soul wither away. … Sometimes I thought death would be easier for me. But I loved him no less.”
Because of the child’s unresponsiveness and the war of emotions within the parent, love can become harder to express. And feelings of closeness can become strained. “The difference in our standards created an uncomfortable feeling at times,” one woman explains.
Nevertheless, loving a wayward child—no matter what he does—is the first step. And expressing that love through words and actions is crucial.
John was what you’d call a lost cause. Anybody could tell you that. No one knew what to do with him. But there was one place where he was welcome—home. And there were two people who welcomed him—his parents.
“When he would bring his friends to our home,” his mother says, “they’d all go down to his bedroom in the basement. I knew they were doing things they shouldn’t. But I loved my son and just couldn’t send him and his friends away as some of my neighbors thought I should. Instead I went into my bedroom and closed the door and got down on my knees and asked Heavenly Father what I should do.
“Should I send them out onto the street and wonder what they were doing and where they were going? Or should I let them stay here and do things I disapprove of? They weren’t bad boys—just confused, frustrated, and hurting.
“I stayed on my knees until I received some direction. Others might have received a different answer, but for me the impression each time was the same: ‘Get up off your knees and go put on a pot of stew for them. And love those boys.’”
Friends condemned her for it. “You’re not upholding Christian standards,” they told her, “by having those boys around.”
“I had but one answer: ‘I am trying to live those first two great commandments.’”
Being allowed to remain at home while working through his problems kept him close to his parents. He learned to trust them—even to confide in them. When everyone else seemed against him, he knew his parents still loved him. Eventually his relationship with them made it easier for him to seek activity in the Church again.
In other situations, the wayward child is so unwilling to follow family guidelines that parents find it necessary to identify the limits of his choices: he needs to follow the basic family guidelines or find somewhere else to live. But even this approach can be carried out with charity. Elder Loren C. Dunn of the First Quorum of the Seventy tells of a couple who discussed with their wayward son his choices. “We love you and will help you,” they told him, “but if you are to live in our home, you are expected to abide by the guidelines.” When the boy said he’d rather move out, the parents helped him find an apartment, made curtains for him, took food over occasionally, and did what they could to involve him in the family. Their actions as well as their words told him he was still an important member of their family and that he was always welcome to come back home. “It wasn’t long,” Elder Dunn says, “before the boy thought it over and moved back, willing to abide by the guidelines that governed the home.”
Charity can soften hearts; it can be the catalyst for the prodigal’s homecoming. But it carries no guarantee. Sometimes the young adult needs to leave home for a while. And sometimes the child’s life-style may not change. Just as a parent’s righteous example often—but not always—encourages children to be faithful, exercising charity may—but won’t always—keep them close. But even when love isn’t reciprocated and when the prodigal does not return, an anguished parent’s love must be the kind that “never faileth” and “endureth forever.” Surely a parent’s love for a wayward child “suffereth long, and is kind, … beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. … And whoso is found possessed of it at the last day, it shall be well with him.” (See Moro. 7:45–47.)
Teach Correct Principles. Elder Boyd K. Packer has stated that “the very steps necessary for prevention are the ones that will produce the healing. In other words, prevention is the best cure, even in advanced cases.” Family home evening, says Elder Packer, is “a very practical and a very powerful place to begin, both to protect your children and, in the case of one you are losing, to redeem him. … There is much … to all of these special lessons—subtle, powerful magnets that help to draw your child closer to the family circle.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, pp. 107–8.)
Adapting the lessons to the needs of family members, discussing questions and doubts, bearing strong testimony—these are things parents can do to strengthen a child’s testimony of the gospel, even if his love for the Church or people in it might wane temporarily. Showing an example of personal integrity can reinforce lessons and discussions.
Having taught correct principles through the years can be a source of great comfort and hope later on. “There is a scripture,” says one father, “that promises, ‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ (Prov. 22:6.) We hang onto those words like a life preserver because we know we did our best when our daughters were growing up. They haven’t come back yet but we feel they will.”
Others wish they had started teaching their children earlier—and are determined to begin sooner with the younger ones. “I want to show them while they’re young the rewards of doing the will of the Lord,” one mother says. “They need to gain a testimony earlier than their teens.”
Many parents find that their inactive children are receptive to continued gospel training at home. “Our three inactive teenagers respect our Church activity and the teachings of the gospel,” says one father. “They’re agreeable to family home evening and family prayers, and are usually cooperative on fast Sunday. They’ll get back into the Church some day. They know it’s true.”
Build Self-esteem. Some of the greatest contributors to a child’s rebelliousness are feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy. Rejected for some reason by peers, he tries unacceptable ways to become accepted.
When a child feels good about himself and about his ability to make friends, he is less likely to have to prove by unacceptable ways that he is of value. Latter-day Saint psychologist Victor B. Cline says it’s important for a child to excel, to do something well enough to receive honest praise and recognition: “The child tests and evaluates his own worth by how well he performs, how well he develops the skills and abilities that are important to him. His achievements in schoolwork, sports, social interaction, debate, rappelling, drama, music, housework—all of them contribute to his view of himself. …
“Teach your child to be competent. If your child is to have confidence, to think of himself as a competent person, he has to have some objective proof that he is competent. And the only way he’ll get that is if you introduce him to experiences that he can succeed in.” (How to Make Your Child a Winner: Ten Keys to Rearing Successful Children, New York: Walker and Co., 1980, pp. 24, 28.)
Along with helping their children gain self-esteem, parents can help make wholesome activities available to them. They can make home a place where their children like to bring friends. They can regularly plan fun activities together—some just for the family, others with friends—especially if there is a lack of worthy entertainment in the community. They can assume the responsibility to organize activities in the neighborhood if Church activities are limited. While maintaining a proper parent/child relationship, they can become friends with their children on a one-to-one basis, letting them know they are likeable and fun to be with.
“We’re trying to make it easier for them to be close to kids their own age who have set high goals,” a mother says. “And we’re helping them come in contact with young people who have achieved some of their goals, like newly returned missionaries or young couples married in the temple.”
Take Time to Listen. The most common complaint of rebelling children is that their parents don’t understand them. They want chances to express themselves; they need their parents to listen.
“I find that if I take the time, even if it’s 3:00 in the morning, my son will really talk to me,” a mother reports. “That’s how I found out he was on drugs; I never would have known otherwise.”
Spontaneous chats, dinner table discussions, regularly scheduled father’s or mother’s interviews, family councils—there are plenty of opportunities to talk and listen, to let the child know he’s important.
“I’m trying to listen more,” says one parent, “to hear the things said and unsaid.” “I find we communicate better,” another adds, “when I separate my son’s behavior from him as a person. I can listen better, and my son realizes that I love and accept him, even though I don’t agree with his actions.”
One couple found out almost too late that their lack of awareness had contributed significantly to their child’s inactivity: “We thought that because we loved the Lord with all our hearts and raised our children in a good LDS home, we wouldn’t have so many of the problems others were having. Consequently, the problem had a chance to develop considerably before we were ever aware of it. If we had communicated with him more during that crucial time, we would have been able to do something a lot sooner.”
Give Him Room to Breathe. Trying too hard to be helpful, some parents set their children’s goals for them, and then they don’t allow them the freedom to make mistakes—or the blessing of learning from them. They attempt to maintain their power and influence by force, instead of “by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge. … Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love.” (D&C 121:41–43.)
“We were to blame for a lot of our son’s behavior,” one mother laments. “All we meant to do was correct him, but we were always on his back, always putting him down.”
Another mother agrees: “Our mother/daughter relationship wasn’t as good as it should have been. My perfectionism made life difficult for her. If I had it to do again, I would try to be different—more patient, less demanding of perfection.”
If a child becomes inactive, parents find an even greater need to support rather than condemn, to invite rather than insist, to encourage rather than discourage. “We have a long way to go because of my daughter’s Word of Wisdom problem,” a mother says. “But I try not to be judgmental. I keep her informed of Church activities and invite her to come along with us. Meanwhile, we’re delighted with the rapport we have. During a recent crisis, our daughter called and asked for our prayers—which we gladly offered. We’re trying to be available without being demanding.”
“Any forcing would drive our daughter away from us,” another parent says. “We want to keep her close, so for now, we’re just taking it easy.” And, having learned some important lessons from her oldest child’s inactivity, a mother reports, “I am more appreciative of the younger ones, giving them more praise and encouragement. We have learned to value each child for his own worth and importance.”
Never Give Up. “You who have heartache, you must never give up,” Elder Boyd K. Packer has said. “No matter how dark it gets or no matter how far away or how far down your son or daughter has fallen, you must never give up. Never, never, never.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 109.)
And Elder Loren C. Dunn has urged: “When the hard times come—and they will—who is going to care if the parents don’t? …
“Oh, parents, no matter what the difficulty, may we never desert our children in some dark and dangerous thoroughfare of life, no matter what prompted them to get there. When they reach the point—and for some it may be a painfully long time—when they reach the point that they need us, I pray that we might not let them down. (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, pp. 63–64.)
It’s important to try to keep children involved in the activities of the rest of the family, to help them feel comfortable and part of the group. Vacations, birthdays, family celebrations, and projects can help. One mother describes the special preparations she made for her son’s first visit home: “I redecorated his room and cooked all his favorite meals for him. We also enjoyed a family camping trip for three days. I made more of an effort to treat him with respect and love.”
Families with long-distance loved ones should make a point of keeping in touch: “We write our son often—positive letters,” a parent says, “always expressing our love and encouragement.” Another adds: “We have five children still at home, and I encourage each one to take a few minutes on Sunday afternoon to write their brother a note. Then I mail these out one or two a day throughout the week. Sending the hometown newspaper is another way to keep his heart close to home.”
Members of the Church can also help by providing emotional support. Bishops and other leaders can give counsel and spiritual guidance, both to parents and to children. Home teachers and visiting teachers can give important assistance: “One of my home teachers wrote some members of the Church where my son lives,” says a mother, “and asked them to visit him and encourage him in Church activities. They have done a wonderful job of giving him the needed fellowship. And he seems to be responding well to it.”
Persistence and patience can pay great dividends. “Our daughter is coming back to Church now,” a mother reports, “and she thanks us for not ever giving up on her. And we are thankful to her for not giving up on us as parents!”
Hope and Pray. “Where did we go wrong?” parents often question themselves. Some point to their own inadequacies; others feel they were too hard or too permissive on their children. Blaming themselves unmercifully, they feel that every one else must be blaming them, too.
One mother reflects that her guilt feelings were the hardest thing for her to accept: “We had tried diligently to teach our children and had been faithful with home evening and family prayer—and we couldn’t understand why our two oldest children hadn’t followed the formula. Even though no one ever said anything, we felt others must be accusing us.”
She went to her bishop in tears, saying she couldn’t continue teaching the Mother Education lessons in Relief Society. “The bishop very gently told me that I was the one the Lord wanted to teach the class. There were other mothers in the same situation, he told me, and they needed me as their teacher. That helped a lot. When I got over my guilt feelings, I didn’t feel condemned by others any more.”
It’s not uncommon for parents to become so despondent that they doubt their worthiness to seek the Lord’s help. But Elder Packer encourages parents to turn to the Lord: “If you are helpless, he is not.
“If you are lost, he is not.
“If you don’t know what to do next, he knows.
“It would take a miracle, you say? Well, if it takes a miracle, why not.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 107.)
A mother tells of a dramatic way the Lord came to her rescue: “I find it very difficult when members of the Church stand and talk about how successful their families are. On one such occasion, I felt in the depths of despair. I was able to understand the pride the speaker felt in his accomplishments, however, and forgave him in my heart. At that moment, words came to my mind forcefully, just as if they were spoken or written: ‘The Lord loves you. Your son will one day be strong in the Church.’ And so I know that the day will come when my prayers will be answered. I am grateful to the Lord for his love and reassurance.”
Some parents fast and pray regularly in behalf of their wayward children. One mother tells of a soothing feeling accompanying her prayers. Each morning after he had left for school, she knelt and prayed in his room. “I felt a peaceful feeling each time. I knew he would come back.”
Another says prayer improved her communication with her child: “I was constantly praying. I told the Lord everything. I didn’t want to keep things bottled up, for fear I would unload those pent-up emotions on the very one I didn’t want to hear them. When the times came for communication with my child, I was able to be patient enough to hear the promptings of the Holy Ghost.”
The miracles Elder Packer refers to are happening. When one young man decided several years ago to leave home, his parents did everything they could think of to keep him from going. “We pleaded, we prayed, we coaxed, and we bribed. But he said, ‘No, I’m going! I want to know what this life is all about and where I belong in it.’ Finally we gave him our prayers and our blessings.
“Later he told us of his experience. He said it took him just one afternoon, walking the streets in the large city where he ended up, to decide he had seen and learned enough. Depressed by the experience, he hiked to a nearby park to spend the night. Tired, he thought of home, said a prayer, and finally went to sleep. In his dreams, he found himself standing in our kitchen. He walked into the living room and down the hall into our bedroom, where he saw his dad and me. And he said to himself, ‘Yes, this is where I belong.’”
He hitchhiked home the next day. “Later, when he told me this story, I asked, ‘What time was it when you said that prayer?’
“‘About 10:00 P.M.,’ he answered.
“‘You know,’ I told him, ‘at 10:00 last night I felt impressed to look at the clock, and I went one more time to my room and got down on my knees. So we were both praying at the same time. God brought you safely home.’”
Loving the lost sheep. Never giving up. Always keeping the door open and the stew hot.
“God bless you heartbroken parents,” says Elder Packer. “There is no pain so piercing as that caused by the loss of a child, nor joy so exquisite as the joy at his redemption.” (Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 109.)
I have sometimes seen children of good families rebel, resist, stray, sin, and even actually fight God. In this they bring sorrow to their parents, who have done their best to set in movement a current and to teach and live as examples. But I have repeatedly seen many of these same children, after years of wandering, mellow, realize what they have been missing, repent, and make great contribution to the spiritual life of their community. The reason I believe this can take place is that, despite all the adverse winds to which these people have been subjected, they have been influenced still more, and much more than they realized, by the current of life in the homes in which they were reared. When, in later years, they feel a longing to recreate in their own families the same atmosphere they enjoyed as children, they are likely to turn to the faith that gave meaning to their parents’ lives.
“There is no guarantee, of course, that righteous parents will succeed always in holding their children, and certainly they may lose them if they do not do all in their power. The children have their free agency.
“But if we as parents fail to influence our families and set them on the ‘strait and narrow way,’ then certainly the waves, the winds of temptation and evil will carry the posterity away from the path.
“‘Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.’ (Prov. 22:6.) What we do know is that righteous parents who strive to develop wholesome in influences for their children will be held blameless at the last day, and that they will succeed in saving most of their children, if not all.” (Ensign, Nov. 1974, pp. 111–12.)
After reading “Keeping the Door Open and the Stew Hot,” individually or as a family, you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a gospel study period:
1. If your family lives in a location where there are few Church members, discuss what family and/or individual activities you can organize to encourage the keeping of gospel standards and principles.
2. What are some of the reasons a child might go astray?
3. If your family has a wayward son or daughter, spend a home evening discussing positive ways to express love and caring for that child. Are any of the ideas cited in the article appropriate to your situation?
4. The author points out that “when a child feels good about himself and about his ability to make friends, he is less likely to have to prove by unacceptable ways that he is of value.” Discuss ways in which parents can help their children build this important self-esteem.
5. If a child in a family has gone astray, what are some things parents can do to help their remaining children stay close to the Church and live the gospel?
6. What would be your feelings if a neighbor invited her wayward son and his friends into her home, where they openly participated in undesirable activities? Would it make any difference in your relationship with that neighbor? Would your attitude be one of support or condemnation? How would the Savior react in similar circumstances?