Helping Children Build a Moral Framework for Life
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“Helping Children Build a Moral Framework for Life,” Ensign, Aug. 1986, 30

Helping Children Build a Moral Framework for Life

Seventeen-year-old Susan left on a date at seven. She was home by eight-thirty, wondering if she and her date could pop some popcorn and play Ping-Pong.

“Sure,” her father responded, “but I thought you had gone to a show.”

“We did, but after fifteen minutes we could tell what was coming. We decided we didn’t need to pay to be exposed to crude life-styles.”

Almost any parent would like to have more of that kind of experience with his or her children. It shows a definite maturity in moral stature. Not only has Susan learned that certain behaviors are wrong, but she has gained a conviction of the principles upon which those behaviors are based—principles such as integrity, respect for others, and reverence for life.

This kind of moral commitment, or personal righteousness, is the foundation of quality family relationships. A moral attitude toward the power to create life, for example, is more than merely avoiding certain practices. It means holding the same reverence for the power to create that Heavenly Father does. When procreation is seen through godly eyes, it is never expressed in a self-centered, demanding, insistent way. Its purpose is to bless. It is always associated with family—with commitments and covenants across generations.

And the same can be said for other aspects of family life. Principles such as taking responsibility, rendering service, treating others fairly, and showing concern are all better integrated into a child’s life when he or she understands and believes the moral principles that underlie those behaviors. It’s a little like building a house: Help the child lay a firm foundation, and the behavioral framework he builds on it will also be sound.

That kind of moral foundation is built day by day as parents, by their example, by discussing the moral meaning of behavior, by examining consequences, and by teaching principles about the sacred nature of the family, show their children the blessings of God’s commandments and help them gain the moral maturity to apply gospel principles in their daily lives.

Being Examples

Parents who wish to be proper examples must remember that “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart bringeth forth that which is good … for of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaketh.” (Luke 6:45.) Our hearts must be in our actions if they are to be the example we wish them to be. It is unlikely, for example, that a father’s midnight watering turn in the welfare orchard will serve as a positive example to his son if he complains the whole time. If the father sees the orchard assignment as a burden—just one more assignment to get out of the way—his example communicates to his son that gospel service is a drudgery. Such weariness in well-doing does not communicate the joy of gospel service, no matter what else he may say about it.

It is what we are—including the attitudes and emotions which attend our actions—that our children see. Our behavior is either an expression of our moral commitments, or of our hypocrisy—behaving “properly” while withholding our hearts. If we are to be true examples of the moral principles we want our children to learn, we must do more than just behave properly. Our behavior must be supported with the heart, might, mind, and strength of moral commitment, for as we think in our hearts, so are we. (See Prov. 23:7.)

This does not mean we have to be perfect to invite our children to good works. But it does mean that we are striving to become perfect, that we repent of the times we do less than we know. I have often explained to my children why they should not draw pictures during the passing of the sacrament. One sacrament period a thought came to me which I could use in my Sunday School lesson. I grabbed my yellow pad to make the note. My first grader, with a twinkling smile, whispered, “You’re writing!” My repentance included putting everything down and folding my arms around her.

Just as a good heart and good works are fundamental to example, so is repentance. Our repentance reminds our children that we truly believe the principles we profess. Honest repentance keeps our example genuine and gives us the power to teach.

Teaching Obedience

When children are young, we teach them the gospel primarily by precept and example. As they get older, discussions of why gospel principles lead to happiness and how they bless our daily lives ought to become more frequent. Adam and Eve, after their expulsion from the garden, were obedient to the Lord’s commands, even though they sometimes didn’t know all the reasons for the commands. When Adam built an altar as he had been instructed, he did so without knowing why. Yet, after he obeyed, an angel taught him more of the meaning of his sacrifices. Adam’s obedience qualified him for further light and knowledge.

The same principle can be applied in our efforts to teach our children. Dan, an eleven-year-old soccer player, met a handicapped boy at school who was being taunted by Dan’s teammates. When he tried to stop the put-downs, the “team” turned on him, too. He became confused and angry and hesitated in his defense of the boy. The bell rang. Everyone drifted off to class, but for Dan, the relief was only temporary.

That night his father sensed Dan’s silent, troubled feelings. In response to inquiries, Dan asked, “What if you try to do what is right and people get mad at you for it?” When encouraged to give an example, Dan gave the example. The discussion about choosing the right was quiet, lengthy, and comforting. It touched on what it means to have courage when being persecuted, to love an enemy, to be accepting, to sacrifice, and to do unto others. They shared examples from Dad’s boyhood, from the Prophet Joseph Smith’s experiences, and from the Savior’s life. Dan learned that he was not alone in his feelings of wanting to help the boy; he was in good company.

The ideal time to teach children more about obedience to moral principles is when they are being obedient. These are times when there is no crisis, no urgency, no sin, no mistake, no rebellion, no discouragement, no resentment, no resistance. The discussion can be about a certain principle—justice, compassion, or honesty, for example. It can be a comment on events which have just taken place: “Diane, I appreciate how you comforted Sandy in her loss at the debate tournament.” Or it can link past events with present circumstances: “I can remember how good you felt last year when you gave your best in the track meet.”

Some parents might ask, “But what if my child is already so rebellious that he rarely obeys? I might have to wait an awfully long time for a teaching opportunity.”

There is still much you can do. First, your example can always invite a child to consider correct principles. A teen’s resistance to parental instruction is often a sign of resistance to principles the teenager senses are true. If you see that your formal teaching would be rejected, take a questioning approach. Asking a question of a teenager places responsibility on him for an answer. And even if he resists answering, you have placed an issue in his mind: “Darren, how would you do on tomorrow’s chemistry test if you had to take it right now?” (Instead of “Darren, you’d better study!”) “Cindy, if you were to act in your own best interests for the future, what choices would you consider?” (Asked while pondering any action which has moral implications.)

We need not always insist on verbal answers to such questions. Children can learn just from having been asked.

Another approach to use when a child is resisting is to acknowledge the tense atmosphere, affirm your interest in his welfare, and explain that you believe you have an idea he could examine for himself but you will discuss it at another time: “Look, Dan, I can see you think I’m ‘getting on your back’ about this, and I don’t want that. I believe I’ve got a great idea—but you would have to try it out on your own. I’d love to talk to you about it tonight.”

Our greatest tool in teaching the rebellious is convincing them that they can do nothing to lessen our love for them. When we desire above all our children’s moral welfare, our attitudes toward their belligerence include long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, and love unfeigned. (See D&C 121:41.) If we desire anything less, we remove ourselves as a source of influence and betray the principles we are trying to teach.

Rehearsing the Future/Examining Consequences

An excellent way to teach teenagers the power of moral commitment is to involve them in discussions in which they link various choices with future consequences.

We might ask something like the following: “What do you do about the ugly language you hear in the halls at school?” “Why do you think you have been counseled not to date until you are sixteen?” “What do you do when people make fun of you and your beliefs?” These “rehearsals” benefit teenagers in at least three ways. First, they are given a chance to explore the moral options. Second, they are able to see clearly how certain behaviors can contribute to a happy future and how others can’t. Third, they can examine the basic principles which apply to the situation.

By rehearsing our teenagers’ tomorrows, we can strengthen them in making correct choices today. Teenage drivers can imagine how it would be possible to lose control of a car on an icy canyon highway. Family members can find ways to be fair with each other. An Aaronic Priesthood holder, perhaps a priest, can be asked to identify the circumstances in which he would wish to bring a child into the world.

Sometimes other people’s experiences can be used to illustrate principles. The rule we had for a river run I participated in, for example, was “nobody in the water without a life jacket.” The rule seemed stupid to capable, athletic teenagers, but it was a rule we found to be vital.

On the trip, we had someone who unintentionally helped teach the importance of obeying that rule. Just before we were finished unloading our gear, we heard a cry from the river. There was the bus driver, trying to swim across. He had lost his strength right in the middle. He had no life jacket, of course, and with a strong current, he was on his way. Four hundred yards later (he had managed to put his feet downstream and propel himself away from rocks in the rapids) he dragged himself, exhausted, to the edge of the deep pool he had ended up in. He just gasped for several minutes.

He was not one of our group; he hadn’t received the lecture. But he gave us a demonstration of the rule none of us will soon forget.

On subsequent river trips, I have seen an occasional daring, foolish newcomer. But before he finds out for himself how foolish he is being, he is usually instructed by the “old-timers” who were along on that earlier trip. They have learned to teach by the experience of others.

Although consequences are an important feature of deciding what actions are moral, they are not the only consideration. Certain consequences do not always occur, and some teenagers may decide they are exceptions to the rule, that they can beat the odds and escape the consequences. Others have an attitude of “so what” or “why not?”

Even more important than considering consequences in making moral decisions is concentrating on eternal principles. If a certain percentage of young people escape being caught in immoral conduct, that does not change the moral meaning of breaking the law of chastity. Teenagers can be taught that, for wise purposes they do not yet fully know, the Lord has asked them to preserve their power to create life. They are to keep it sacred, for themselves and for the future generations they can bless. They can learn that to demand all the “whys” before being willing to abide a law usually disqualifies a person from fully understanding that law.

Personal testimony of eternal principles, expressed in love from a parent, can be more powerful than naming all the negative consequences of one act. The righteous make their decisions by the Spirit.

Why Not Teach Now?

Whatever your current family circumstances, you can begin now to lay a foundation upon which your children can build a moral life. You probably already do more good than you realize. Perhaps answering the following questions could help you prepare to be an even greater influence for good in the future.

1. To what extent is your relationship with your children one of compassion?

2. How willing are you to share the meaning of your rules, boundaries, decisions?

3. To what extent can your children explain to you why you believe what you believe?

4. Do your teenagers know how you gained a testimony?

5. When your children behave irresponsibly, how or what do you teach them?

6. When you or your children are confronted by situations which promote a philosophy of life you do not believe in, do you contrast such portrayals with your own principles? How do you teach them in such circumstances?

7. To what extent have you shared with your children your feelings about the power to create life?

8. To what extent do your children understand your moral commitment to the family?

9. In what ways have you taught your young children a reverence for life?

10. In what ways do you help rehearse the future with your children?

Illustrated by G. Allen Garns