Short of forcing my children to conform to my standards, what can I do?

“Short of forcing my children to conform to my standards, what can I do?” Ensign, Oct. 1983, 32–33

I don’t know what to do about some of the activities of my children. They’re good children, but I’m uncomfortable with much of their music, dancing, fashions, ideas, and fads. Short of forcing them to conform to my standards, what can I do?

A. Lynn Scoresby, associate professor of Family Science, Brigham Young University. I believe that every parent eventually faces this challenge. There comes a time in almost every youth’s life when he or she becomes different from parents in an attempt to be separate from them. This isn’t necessarily bad. For a child to seek his own individuality is a normal part of growing up; that separation should not be discouraged—unless the child’s motivations are wrong.

Those motivations are the first thing you as parents should look at. Is your child simply growing and maturing? Or is a deeper problem at work—is he actually rejecting your standards and values? How can you tell the difference?

If your youth is separating himself from you in a positive way (meaning, simply, that he is maturing), you will probably see these signs:

1. The child will retain some display of affection for you, even though it may be infrequent.

2. On occasion the child will seek your advice—even though he will still be protective of his possessions, desire privacy, and avoid talking with you about many things.

3. The youth will usually keep companions who have fairly high standards, even though he may still engage in activities that are different from what you want.

If the above signs are not apparent in your child’s life, you and your child may profit from outside ecclesiastical or professional help. But if these signs are apparent, you can generally feel confident that he isn’t rebelling. He’s just growing—however painfully! What’s the best way to respond to such a child?

First, unless he is involved in activities that are definitely illegal or immoral (in which case they should be stopped as quickly as possible), you can stop criticizing and start giving “tacit permission.” Tacit permission is not openly opposing what the child is doing, but not encouraging it either.

Some parents hesitate to try this idea. They fear that the child will begin to run wild. But all children will eventually declare their independence from their parents. The important thing is to make sure they’re taught correctly when they’re still young, to lay a good foundation. Then it is more likely that they’ll make correct choices later on.

A second thing you can do is to openly recognize that your child may be genuinely different from you. Tell him that you accept those differences—and then encourage him to try positive new experiences. This approach can be very effective, for it takes the option of rebellion away from the child.

Third, you can try some new things yourselves. Sometimes when fathers and mothers view their child as a bit wild, they try to counteract the situation by becoming more and more unchanging. But that approach may backfire: the more controlled and “traditional” the parents become, the more the child may be motivated to become different.

On the other hand, if parents are trying new things, if they also are changing and growing through new experiences, a child’s motivation to be different will often diminish.

Try going on trips to new places, taking a class, reading different kinds of books, making new friends, getting more involved in the community—something different. If you are growing and progressing in new, interesting ways, your child will have to make some adjustments, and that may bring some balance into the relationship.

Fourth, encourage good behavior, rather than focusing on the negative. Sometimes we are so busy thinking about how to stop disapproved actions that we fail to explain clearly what is desired instead.

Most concerned parents are fearful that children who do different things will eventually stray from the gospel. As a result, they try to stop any behavior that may be different from the expected or the desired. Certainly some behavior ought to be discontinued—but in general, parents are more successful if they try to foster positive behavior instead of attacking negative behavior. The most effective parents seem to keep one step ahead of their children by teaching and encouraging desirable things. Clear communication is vital—your child needs to know what you really want.

Fifth, help your child clarify his values. Asking pointed questions can be useful: “Why do you think that?” “What do you think about this issue—and why?” “What do you think is best for you?” Then you can later respond kindly to his answer, pointing out both reasonable and unreasonable ideas.

If you respond on the spot, however, your child may feel like you are attacking his ideas, no matter how kind and caring you try to be—and he may become defensive. It may be most effective to wait a day or two before making that response: “We were talking the other day about staying out late and you shared your feelings. Well, I’ve been thinking about that, and I have a couple of ideas I’d like to talk over with you. …”

This kind of discussion can help the child think about how he really does feel. Sometimes when a person honestly tries to explain his reasons for thinking or doing something, he can see that he has no real justification. But don’t make the child feel like you’re interrogating him. If you do, he’ll most likely defend his actions and feelings, which may only push him further into that position.

These suggestions will usually help resolve conflicts that arise from a youth’s increasing independence. They will also help him stay closer to his parents, so that if he wanders, it won’t be far.