Love, Discipline, and Tender Hearts
September 1989

“Love, Discipline, and Tender Hearts,” Ensign, Sept. 1989, 28

Love, Discipline, and Tender Hearts

How I learned to give loving correction.

As I passed Mary’s room, I saw her stuffing her soiled pajama bottoms into her drawer. “When will she ever learn?” I groaned to myself in anger and frustration, “She is already two-and-a-half!”

I stomped into her room and demanded, “Haven’t I told you over and over not to put your wet clothes into the drawer with the clean clothes? Oh, Mary, when will you learn?”

I snatched her wet clothes from the drawer and took them to the sink to rinse them. When I returned, Mary was crouched in the corner of the closet, sobbing. Her tiny chest heaved and sank in anguish. I picked her up, covered her bare legs with a blanket, and whispered into her ear, “Oh, Mary, Mommy loves you, but I don’t want you to put your wet clothes in with the clean ones. Do you understand?”

Her body was tight and rigid. She covered her face with her arms and grunted, as if to say, “You hurt me, Mommy. I don’t want to listen to you; I don’t even want to look at you.”

I knew I had crossed that sensitive line between giving loving direction and giving harsh, insensitive discipline. I realized, too, that it was not merely what I had said that caused her to break, but what was unsaid—my accusing feelings, the anger, the lack of faith, the rancor, and the condemnation.

“When will I ever learn?” I thought to myself as I cuddled her in the rocking chair and looked out at the misty, cold January morning. Shadows from the past flooded my memory, and I saw the mother that I had been with my firstborn. I could see my little blond boy looking up at me with confusion in his eyes—a reflection of my own emotions. I was young and unaware of the principles and skills of mothering.

It was not easy to look back. There were days I would like to forget—days filled with anger, discouragement, and, at times, even rage as I fought to control that strong-willed boy. The starkness of the winter day, the chill, and the gray sky combined to resemble the monochromatic mother I had once been—determined that there was one way: mine. In my determination to break his will, I finally broke my own. We clashed; we argued; we cried. We ended in a stalemate, but, really, we both lost. The power struggle between us went on for years and reached its apex during his teen years.

Mary, tender, fragile Mary, now calm in my arms, looked up at me and smiled as I began to sing, “I love my Mary; yes, I do. I love my Mary; indeed, I do.”

“Oh, Mary, my sweet Mary,” I found myself saying, to myself rather than to her, “if only my firstborn’s mother had had the experience yours has, we could have been saved from many unhappy moments!”

Then I realized that one day Mary would be the mother of a firstborn. So would all my children. It was then that I decided to write down what a mother ought to share with her children, so that they might avoid at least a few of those dreary and bleak parent-child days when all seems lost.

1. Never underestimate the power of love.

Children come into the world richly endowed with love, empathy, sensitivity, compassion, and understanding. While they are tiny, all this love is focused on their parents and brothers and sisters—those close to them. Truly, their parents are the center of their world, their love, and their security. Consequently, the power and influence that parents have over their children is awesome.

A friend told me of an experience she had once traveling down the freeway, when her two-year-old deaf son began screaming and thrashing about. She signaled to him over and over again to quiet down. Finally, she pulled to the side of the road with the intention of giving him a vigorous spanking when she felt the impression: “He needs love; hold him.”

After stopping the car, she reached to the back seat, drew him to her, and cuddled him in her arms. Her spirit of love enveloped him and calmed his frantic heart. Within a few minutes he was happy and smiling again; she continued her drive, grateful for discernment beyond her mortal impulse.

After twenty years of improving my perspective and clarifying my sense of the essential place love has in discipline, I can now see how I fell over and over into the trap of mortal impulse. Somewhere, I am sure, under all the displays of temper and frustration, were the good intentions of a bewildered parent. But I am quite certain that any order and discipline I obtained were in spite of these displays rather than because of them. There was a time when I believed that children obey because of the power generated by a parent, particularly fear of punishment. Then I read a statement by President David O. McKay and realized that I was using the wrong tool in attempting to maintain control over my children. President McKay said that in our relationships with others, love should be “the ruling principle and the motive force.” (Messages for Exaltation, Salt Lake City: Deseret Sunday School Union, 1967, p. 228.)

I knew immediately that these words were true and that they required a total change in my perspective. It was not easy. Now, after two decades of applying this insight, I can see the difference clearly and know when I am on target—and when I err.

When I discipline my children with love, I may still become emotionally upset. I may even raise my voice. But the objective is never to tear down. My single desire is to build up, to edify. When I discipline with love, I recognize the difference between the problem and the son or the daughter. Instead of accusations, lectures, or destructive put-downs, my comments are direct and to the point.

Though it may sound idealistic, such moments are the result of positive discipline from the heart. They conclude on an “up note”—with comments like “I know that you want to do the right thing,” “I feel confident that in the future you’ll be more sensitive,” “I love you very much,” “I can understand how you might feel; I’ve made similar mistakes in my life.” The discussion usually ends with an expression of love—a sincere touch, a squeeze of the hand, or a hug.

Unfortunately, calling love the “ruling principle” in parent-and-child relationships can be very discouraging to a parent who has a short supply of love. It can lead to even greater frustration and anger. Whenever we feel a lack of love for our children, we would do well to remember that love is one of the fruits of the Spirit. (See Gal. 5:22.) Our Father in Heaven will endow us with an abundance of love if we pray for it and diligently keep the commandments.

On one occasion, my teenage son and I fueled a simple disagreement into quite an argument. At the peak of bewilderment, I resorted to negative, destructive comments intended to straighten him out. Suddenly realizing what I was doing and feeling tight with the emotional turmoil, I left the house. I resorted to a nearby mountain peak and poured out my heart to my Father in Heaven.

Exasperated and discouraged at my childish actions, I pleaded for help to control my temper. “I know that my behavior was destructive to my relationship with this son,” I confessed fervently to Heavenly Father. Then I added, “I want to determine here and now that it will never happen again.”

And yet, I was painfully aware that under the pressure of the moment, I would probably lose control again. Change seemed hopeless. I could see no answer. Still, I continued to pray for several hours.

As I prayed and meditated, an answer came into my mind. I finally understood that if I were to strive to have a greater endowment of spiritual power in my life, on a day-to-day basis, the inclination to hurt would leave. I recalled the incident in the Book of Mormon after King Benjamin’s address when the people were filled with the Spirit of the Lord and shouted, “because of the Spirit of the Lord Omnipotent, which has wrought a mighty change in us, or in our hearts, … we have no more disposition to do evil, but to do good continually.” (Mosiah 5:2.)

That was the very disposition I was seeking. I realized that I had received a conditional promise from my Father in Heaven—that if I would seek for His Spirit to be with me on a daily basis, I would lose the inclination to hurt, even in moments of stress.

This promise has been fulfilled in my life. As long as I maintain a program of spiritual enrichment, I rarely suffer from the mortal impulse to be foul-natured and even destructive. Instead, I have enjoyed the wonderful fruits that come from the Spirit—edifying love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith. (See Gal. 5:22.)

2. Sensitive discipline promotes responsive obedience.

Since children are so dependent upon parents for love and security, they are extremely sensitive to parental disapproval. It is therefore unwise and unnecessary to use harsh forms of discipline when a simple expression of displeasure is needed. In fact, I have found that when I overuse my power as a parent, I invite the child to erect a wall of protectiveness and insensitivity to my wishes. Consequently, I find more discreet forms of discipline more appropriate. For instance, I try never to spank when a simple look of disfavor will do; and I try never to speak sharply when a calm voice is all that is required.

3. Have regard for the free will of the child.

One woman said, “Oh, I love babies; but when they get to be about two years old, they get a mind of their own, and that’s when they drive me crazy.”

Certainly, a child’s expression of free will presents some grueling challenges for the parent. And there are times when in the best interest of all, the will of the child must be suppressed by the divine right of parents to rule in their home. But the free will of the child is not to be taken lightly or ignored. To pretend that it does not exist or to wish that it would go away is not only foolish and unrealistic, but also destructive to relationships and budding personalities.

Just as it is wrong to surrender one’s identity to another, so is it wrong to force another to surrender his or her identity to your own. As children of God, we must respect the agency of our children and at the same time teach them the proper use of that agency. While physical growth automatically progresses, spiritual advancement takes place through the agency of choice. Without this agency, there is no advancement. Eventually, the child chooses for himself. A wise parent nourishes the ability to make correct decisions.

Our little Mary expresses her free will and opposition every time her hair is washed. There was a time when I would have reacted to her tantrum by having one of my own. But I learned to say to myself—sometimes repeatedly—as the suds, water, and cries burst forth from the bathtub, “It is my responsibility to keep her hair clean, but it is her choice to oppose if she wishes.”

Mary is now three and wishes to put her hair under the running water all by herself for the rinse. It is not easy to go along with this. She usually misses and succeeds only in dunking her long blonde hair back into the soapy water. But she rises with a squeal of triumph and mounds of suds surrounding her baby face. I wait it out, knowing that there is something more important than cleanliness—the expression of free will and independence. And after I praise her efforts, I persuade her to go for one more rinse with Mommy’s help.

It is important to realize that, while the free will of the child presents grueling challenges for the parent, it is this determined will that has produced the world’s greatest leaders. Abraham left home and family to begin a new life in a new land because he opposed error and loved truth. Deborah’s unwavering strength inspired the Israelite soldiers to victory. Captain Moroni’s supreme resolve to fight for liberty at all costs earned this comment: “If all men had been, and were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever.” (Alma 48:17.)

One of the greatest challenges in parenting is to maintain order and control while at the same time respecting and nourishing the emergence of the child’s own will. The real challenge is to avoid clashes, power struggles, and futile domination. It is to work with the will rather than against it, to enhance it rather than suppress it.

4. Create a family with vision.

My husband and I have discovered that establishing a common purpose for our family lifts and enlivens the family spirit. Children who are about the business of moving a good cause forward are less prone to fall into those family tar pits of boredom, bickering, idleness, and jealousy. Sharing a common vision creates unity in the family and enthusiasm for life.

Consequently, we have found that our greatest moments of family triumph have come when we are all engaged in a project—political campaigns (even little ones can hand out literature), family reunions, road shows, neighborhood parties. Recently, we decided to tear down an old three-story wellhouse on our property. The task seemed monumental, so we began early one Saturday morning. My husband and the teenage sons dismantled the structure; the younger children and I loaded the dump truck and collected the roofing in a wheelbarrow. When lunchtime came, we expected to hear the usual pleas to be excused. Instead, everyone seemed to have caught the spirit of teamwork and was enthusiastic about finishing the job. One son, who usually likes to work sparingly, said, “You know, Mom, when we work together like this, it becomes play instead of work.”

As dusk fell, we gathered in a huddle to view the miracle: the wellhouse was gone. There was nothing but foundation left. “I think that’s amazing,” our fourteen-year-old said; “it’s awesome what this family can do when they work together!”

These are but a few of the ideas I’ve learned as a mother. But I know that in another twenty years I will again look back and say, “If I had only known then …”

The scrambling for insight and understanding goes on, but the love remains, growing deeper and stronger.

  • Mollie H. Sorensen, a mother of eleven, serves as Gospel Essentials teacher in the Napa First Ward, Napa California Stake.

Illustrated by Scott Snow