Planting Promises in the Hearts of the Children
June 1994

“Planting Promises in the Hearts of the Children,” Ensign, June 1994, 46

Ten Commandments Series

Planting Promises in the Hearts of the Children

Honoring father and mother in the fullest sense of the fifth commandment not only brings eternal blessings to families but also builds enduring societies.

Our teenage son recently traveled a long way from home. Distance made communication so difficult that we could send him only a brief written message with this postscript: “Read Alma 37:35–37.” Here Alma says, “O, remember, my son, and learn wisdom in thy youth … cry unto God for all thy support; yea, … let the affections of thy heart be placed upon the Lord forever. … and he will direct thee for good.”

In his equally brief reply, our boy concluded: “Read D&C 2.” There we found Moroni’s early words to Joseph Smith, promising that prior to the Lord’s coming, the priesthood will be revealed by the hand of Elijah, and “he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.

“If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming” (D&C 2:2–3).

I was moved by his response. I wondered if he realized what deep nerves of meaning he was touching. He reflected his acceptance of the fifth commandment, to “honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee” (Ex. 20:12). Moreover, Moroni’s adaptation of Malachi’s prophecy (see Mal. 4:5–6) extends the spirit and promise of the fifth commandment far beyond simply showing respect for parents, as important as that is. Moroni promised that the spirit of Elijah—which is the priesthood power by which families may be sealed together—would plant in the hearts of the children a desire to realize the same promises the Lord gave to Abraham. For many Latter-day Saint children, those are also the same promises made to their own earthly parents in the temple. And the realization of these promised blessings will save not only them but the “whole earth” from being “wasted.”

How miraculous, literally, that a thirst, even a yearning, for these marvelous blessings can take root in the hearts of our children. I suspect that many parents in the Church pray every night, as we do, that this inborn hunger will be planted in the hearts of their children, supplementing all we can do to help them be receptive to it.

To explain why I was so stirred by our son’s response, I must share a story about his older brother, born shortly after my father’s death. We gave this older son his grandfather’s name as a middle name. He felt awkward about that old-fashioned name in his early years and didn’t use it. But when he took up debate in high school and learned that his grandfather had been a champion debater for BYU in the 1920s, he began feeling a tie to his namesake. My father had kept a personal journal during much of his adult life, and one day I showed my boy an entry describing his grandfather’s big debate for BYU against Princeton. I left that journal volume with him, hoping he would want to read it.

He was a good boy, but he wasn’t easy to raise. We prayed for patience. We prayed that the seeds of faith would take root in his heart, but knew we couldn’t force that process. (I thought during those days about my own older brother, who had died from an accident during his turbulent adolescence. How my parents had prayed and grieved for him!) Then one night my son left me a simple note: “I never want to do anything that would hurt you and mom the way your brother’s problems hurt your parents.” I wondered how he could have known of something so personal from a generation ago. Then I remembered the journal, but I chose not to ask him any more.

A few weeks later, our son worked his way through a particularly trying experience and came to us late at night to tell us what had happened. “Dad, I never knew Grandpa Hafen, but I felt he was there, helping me.” I held him close that night, and I told him more about his grandfather.

Not long afterward, he was deciding how he should respond to a mission call. We were in southern Utah for a family reunion. On Sunday afternoon, with no explanation, he drove alone to the isolated little canyon where his grandfather had loved to ride his horse—the place, in fact, where he had passed away. Our son had read of this canyon in the journal and had seen it from a distance, but had never been in it. In a secluded spot there, he knelt and asked the Lord’s help to sort through his questions about his faith, his mission, and his life. At his missionary farewell, he alluded to the sacredness of that day and described the deep assurance and sense of direction he had carried from his grandfather’s canyon. Now, some years later, with children of his own, he reflects in his life that same assurance and direction, and I know the satisfaction my father must feel.

I have no doubt that God’s promises to my father were planted in the heart of our child, just as they were in my own heart. There really can be a bond and a sense of belonging that tie together generations on both sides of the veil. This bond gives us a sense of identity and purpose. Our ties with the eternal world suddenly become very real, sharpening our life’s focus and lifting our expectations.

As we honor father and mother by turning our hearts to them, the Lord turns both their promises and their hearts to us. We are promised that when this happens, our “days may be prolonged,” that “it may go well with [us], in the land which the Lord [our] God giveth” us (Deut. 5:16). And how is this promise to be fulfilled? Not only may we hope that our “days may be long” (Ex. 20:12) but that our days and lives may be blessed with personal security, happiness, and meaning. Not only can we expect that “it may go well” with us individually but that our entire culture will sustain itself with the blessings of peace and liberty. Somehow, our children’s learning and accepting the accumulated wisdom of our fathers is the key to social as well as individual survival.

Yet today, to an unprecedented degree, the fabric of society is literally coming apart at the seams—those permanent seams of human interconnectedness we call kinship and marriage. In a society that seems ever more angry and unhappy, many children, parents, and spouses are turning their hearts not toward one another but toward their own self-focused needs. “They seek not the Lord … , but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world” (D&C 1:16). Ours is the age of the waning of belonging.

Perhaps we are witnessing the flip side of the promise associated with the fifth commandment—namely, that the earth could be “utterly wasted” at the Lord’s coming. For “the earth will be smitten with a curse unless there is a welding link … between the fathers and the children” (D&C 128:18). The curse, like the blessing, was part of Malachi’s conditional prophecy. Other prophecies also foresaw the curse of an earth wasted by the loss of familial bonds: “In the last days … men shall be lovers of their own selves, … disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection” (2 Tim. 3:1–3). “And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold” (Matt. 24:12).

Statistics reflect some results of this problem—rising rates of adolescent crime, births to unwed parents, divorce, and family violence. But the attitudes that produce these statistics are in some ways more revealing than the statistics themselves. As one contemporary but anonymous writer put it, we are seeing today a “general … transformation of our society from one that strengthens the bonds between people to one that is, at best, indifferent to them; a sense of an inevitable fraying of the net of connections between people at many critical intersections, of which the marital knot is only one.” These “points of disintegration” have at least one common cause: “The overriding value placed on the idea of individual emancipation and fulfillment, in the light of which, more and more, the old bonds are seen not as enriching but as confining. We are coming to look upon life as a lone adventure,” but it is becoming “a journey that has been rendered pointless by becoming limitless.”1

In addition to individual aimlessness, this trend gives us amnesia in our “group memory,” the essential knowledge each succeeding generation must possess to ensure social continuity, even survival of the culture. The fraying of human connections is choking off the transmission of this knowledge and understanding from one generation to the next. “Our society requires, as a minimum for its survival, that its members share a common set of beliefs, abide by a common set of rules, and … recognize their mutual dependence.”2 The connection drawn by the Lord between honoring parents and living long in the land seems especially strong in this sense.

The fifth commandment’s focus on child-parent relations calls attention to a disturbing modern attitude—a new kind of adult disinterest and neglect toward children. For instance, Marie Winn’s book, Children Without Childhood, describes “a profound alteration in society’s attitude toward children,” tracing the connections among a general erosion of institutional authority, a new sense of instability in marriage, the sexual revolution, and the emerging but unjustified tendency to treat children as if they have the capacity for unrestricted adult experience.3

Another researcher found that modern television’s appeal to mass audiences erases the traditional dividing line between adults and children. The commercials make us all think we should wear the same kinds of shoes and clothing styles—at age eight or eighty, they suggest, people should want to look like Barbie and Ken. This emphasis on sameness despite age differences undermines children’s normal maturation process. If their parents and grandparents look just like they do and talk just like they do, how will children see that they are supposed to grow into something different as they mature?

Some scholars in public education now say they view attempts by teachers to define “morality” as “a form of indoctrination.” Some of these people “declare—even insist—that children are adults capable of choosing their own morality as long as they do not commit crimes.” Ironically, however, recent research shows that criminal behavior results primarily from a lack of self-control and an inability to delay gratification so as to pursue long-term goals. And “the ability and willingness to delay immediate gratification for some larger purpose” is “a consequence of training.”4 Thus, children left to themselves simply will not develop self-control.

These attitudes have also produced a “children’s rights” movement that compares children to oppressed minority groups who should be liberated from domination. In some ways, this trend has helped raise society’s awareness about the seriousness of child abuse, and it has made such agencies as juvenile courts and schools feel more accountable for what they do. But rather than planting the promises made to the fathers in the hearts of the children, this movement has too often sought to liberate children from any sense of dependence upon, or even connection to, parents and other adults. For instance, one parent recently announced that she was giving her child his own first name—and his own surname—in order to set the child completely “free” to be his own person. This actually abandons children to their “rights.” In fact, children’s highest “right” is to be loved and nurtured by—to belong to—parents and communities who honor them. Only in this way do we teach them to honor their parents, and to honor the interests of the community at large. Only this reciprocal honoring will deliver the promise of the fifth commandment.

The movement to liberate children also affects grandparents. One pair of researchers documented the fact that “the bond between grandparents and grandchildren is second in emotional power and influence only to the relationship between children and parents.”5 Yet this cross-generational tie of true kinship is seldom discussed in studies on family life, children, or the needs of the elderly. Instead, “the isolation of grandparents from grandchildren … devalues the emotional needs and attachments of children in the name of ‘individual autonomy’ … designed by and for a society of ‘adults only.’”6 Fathers and mothers who neglect the development of associations between children and their grandparents violate the fifth commandment twice—both up and down the generational ladder.

Ironically, adults face moral conflicts of interest in thinking about the “rights” of children. Child rearing can make excruciating demands on the time, energy, and financial resources of parents and communities. To escape those demands—to liberate ourselves from the responsibility of long-term nurturing—by giving “rights” to our children is a beguiling invitation. The notion that we should “respect our children’s freedom” enough to “leave them alone” can too easily justify the attitudes of adults whose personal convenience is also best served by leaving their children alone.

By giving priority to this same personal convenience, schoolteachers and leaders might decide that it is not worth the patience and frustration required to provide children with meaningful discipline. Marriage partners might think it unimportant to cooperate with each other, even when that may be crucial for their children. Fathers with child-support obligations, as well as parents with heavy job demands or intense leisure time commitments, might be delighted to “set their children free.”

Another conflict between adult interests and children’s needs is that the preference many adults now show for a casual sexual environment promotes and legitimizes adolescent sex. Some of these adults believe that widespread immorality among teenagers is just a price we ought to pay in order to achieve a fully liberated society. Unfortunately, while that liberation may let a few adults feel they are set free for the moment, it is already damaging today’s children so seriously that it threatens to “utterly waste” our culture and its future.

Society seems confused about what parents and children actually owe each other. Does kinship denote a relationship of a different order from any other, or is kinship of lesser significance because we typically do not choose even our close relatives? Is the “nonbinding commitment” (notice the impossible contradiction in those two terms) of cohabitation really that different from marriage when there is so much divorce? As a result of such questions, many are uncertain now about what a family really is. Some people seriously doubt whether our centuries-old system of kinship and marriage—reflected in the fifth commandment—still exists. Some argue that a legal “family” should be any two or more persons who share resources and commitments. One legal scholar asserts that any “intimate association” should enjoy the same preferred position that laws commonly give to marriage and kinship.

Legal systems generally recognize the extraordinary commitments involved in family relationships. In the United States, for example, laws dealing with income tax, evidence, inheritance, and personal injury give distinct protection to relationships based on kinship, heterosexual marriage, and adoption. A few courts have nonetheless recognized contractual claims and unemployment benefits for unmarried partners, and some state agencies have become reluctant to enforce laws regarding sex outside of marriage. But generally, the U.S. legal system remains fairly certain about what a family is for the most fundamental legal purposes.

Some critics would alter this general stance because of the preferred status the law gives to families. In our day of passionate claims to individual rights, the existence of a legal preference makes everyone want to qualify for it, even though defining a preferred category to include virtually everything renders meaningless the much-prized category itself. For example, the Hawaii Supreme Court recently became the first appellate court in the United States to recognize that homosexual couples may have a legal right to marry. As such pressures build, we will hear growing criticism of the traditional idea that a system based on permanent relationships of kinship and heterosexual marriage is crucial to society’s best interests. Somehow we must remember that a society that tolerates anything will ultimately lose everything.

I wish to suggest four elements that reflect society’s interest in preserving family structures based on traditional ideas about kinship, marriage, and the minority status of children. This social interest, reflected in the spirit of the fifth commandment, must not be overruled by the individual interest that is breathlessly asserted these days—because preserving family stability is the best way to ensure meaningful individual liberty in the long run.

The first element is simply the needs of children. Empirical studies establish beyond question that stable environments and stable relationships with adults are crucial for a child’s normal psychological development. This need is so great that disruptions of child-parent relationships by the state, even to deal with inadequate parental care, frequently do more harm than good. This factor alone may justify the legal incentives and preferences traditionally given to permanent kinship units based on marriage.

Second, family life is the source of public virtue—what I have heard Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Quorum of the Twelve call a willingness to obey the unenforceable. The tradition of individual liberty is at the heart of our culture. Yet the fulfillment of individualism’s promise depends upon the maintenance of a familial way of life that requires what may seem to be the opposite of personal liberty: submission to authority, acceptance of responsibility, and the discharge of duty. When families make and keep the mutual commitments of the fifth commandment, both children and parents experience the need for and the value of authority, responsibility, and duty.

In the words of historian Christopher Lasch: “The best argument for the indispensability of the family is that children grow up best under conditions of intense emotional involvement [with their parents]. … Without struggling with the ambivalent emotions aroused by the union of love and discipline in his parents, the child never masters his rage or his fear of authority. It is for this reason that children need parents, not professional nurses or counselors.” A child who moves through this essential experience of personal development learns to “honor thy father and thy mother” in ways that allow the child to deal productively with the entire concept of authority. The end result is that the child is able to “internalize moral standards in the form of a conscience.”7

Our culture has an enormous stake in this process of moral learning, because we simply can’t force people to live the rules of a free society. Without an inward moral light in each person, our ability to live together is doomed. And the cultivation of that light is a learned behavior. A sense of family duty is therefore essential to moderate democracy’s tendency toward self-centeredness. Unless this tendency is checked, individualistic democracy causes people to believe that they “stand alone,” that “their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus, not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”8

Third, the formal, legally recognized family is essential to ensure private control over the process of value transmission to children. In areas where democracy prevails, a system of family units rather than isolated individuals helps to prevent the government from asserting too much control over what values are taught to children. Indeed, the state nursery is one of the typical hallmarks of totalitarian societies. In democratic societies, marriage itself creates an independent “family entity” that protects the autonomy of a family and its members from outside interference.

Fourth, marriage and the age-based rules that control legal rights for children preserve social stability. Marriage and kinship involve commitments of permanence that place them in a different category from all other human relationships. People who believe these relationships will continue indefinitely will invest in them with a reasonable belief that the promise of future benefits and blessings justifies the sacrifices they make as individuals. Those who enter “nonbinding commitments” will not make such investments; hence, they will never discover the long term satisfactions that flow only from sacrifice.

In D&C 98:16, the Lord instructed his Saints to “renounce war and proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children.” As we come to understand the fifth commandment and the spirit of the work of Elijah, we will see the connections between peace and the turning of parents’ and children’s hearts toward one another. The peace we proclaim and find in this way will bless and strengthen our minds, our homes, and our society.

I began with a family story illustrating how the promises made to the fathers are planted in the hearts of the children, bringing children and their forebears together in the mutual magnetism of love across generations and even across the veil of death. The result was a young man’s clearer realization of who he was and how he should live. This discovery blessed him, and it blessed his relationship with the larger society.

I close with another story, illustrating how the spirit of the work of Elijah crosses the boundaries of blood ties in fostering honor between parents and children. I recently conversed with a woman who, as a baby, had been adopted into a Latter-day Saint home. When I asked how long she had known she was an adopted child, she told me that when she was four, her father had presented a family home evening lesson on the plan of salvation. In the course of that discussion, he explained that sometimes parents who desperately desire children are unable physically to bring them into this life. In such cases, he said, the parents may fast and plead with the Lord to help them find a special child whose biological parents are unable to care for their child. Her father took her in his arms and explained that that was how Heavenly Father had sent her to them. Hearing this tender story, I felt certain that the promises the Lord made to this woman’s adoptive parents were planted in her heart, and the result was her lifelong peace of mind and sense of belonging.

In a world in which too many parents and children are drifting apart from each other, may we “proclaim peace, and seek diligently to turn the hearts of the children to their fathers, and the hearts of the fathers to the children.” As we do so, we will see fulfilled the Lord’s promise that “nothing, save it shall be iniquity among them, shall harm or disturb their prosperity upon the face of this land forever” (2 Ne. 1:31).


  1. Anonymous letter, as quoted in “Talk of the Town,” New Yorker, 30 Aug. 1976, pp. 21–22.

  2. Alston Chase, Group Memory: A Guide to College and Student Survival in the 1980s (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1980), p. 284.

  3. Marie Winn, Children without Childhood (New York: Penguin, 1983), p. 5.

  4. Michael R. Gottfredson and Travis Hirschi, A General Theory of Crime (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990), p. 96; emphasis added.

  5. Arthur Kornhaber and Kenneth L. Woodward, Grandparents, Grandchildren: The Vital Connection (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981), p. xii.

  6. Ibid., p. xx.

  7. Christopher Lasch, Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (New York: Basic Books, 1979), p. 123.

  8. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Richard D. Heffner (New York: Mentor Books, 1961), p. 194.

  • Bruce C. Hafen is provost at Brigham Young University.

Moses and the Ten Commandments, by Ted Henninger

Photo by Steve Bunderson

Old Testament Prophet, by Judith Mehr

Inset photo by Steve Bunderson

Photo by Steve Bunderson

Illustration by Mitchell Heinze