I Have a Question
March 1996

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Mar. 1996, 72–73

What do the scriptures and latter-day prophets teach about disciplining our children?

Terry Warner, philosophy professor at Brigham Young University and bishop of the Oak Hills First Ward, Provo Utah Oak Hills Stake.

To discipline our children in accordance with gospel guidelines, the prophets and scriptures counsel us that we need to be both loving toward our children and firm in our expectations of them. Children develop discipline if their parents rear them with both love and firmness.

Is it really possible to be firm without being harsh, or to be loving without being lenient? To some parents, this counsel may seem hard to follow, but the prophets and scriptures tell us that love and firmness should always go together.

President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “Jesus lived and taught the virtues of love and kindness and patience. He also taught the virtues of firmness and resolution and persistence and courageous indignation. These two sets of virtues seem to clash with each other … , yet both are necessary. If there were but one, love without discipline, love without deep conviction of right and wrong, without courage to fight the wrong, such love becomes sentimentalism. Conversely, the virtues of righteous indignation without love can be harsh and cruel” (The Teachings of Spencer W. Kimball, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1982, p. 245).

If our hearts are not right toward our children, we may find ourselves exercising firmness without love or trying to be loving without being firm. For example, our “loving” firmness may become punitive and cruel rather than helpful. As a result, we may convey to our children a message of low expectations: “You won’t do the right thing unless I get after you all the time.” In this case we are giving our children harshness, not firmness.

Similarly, if we are overly permissive, our “loving” indulgence may also convey an unloving message: “If I don’t pamper you, you won’t do what’s right on your own.” What we end up giving our children in this case is indulgence, not love.

“Setting limits to what a child can do means to that child that you love and respect him,” President Kimball said. “If you permit the child to do all the things he would like to do without any limits, that means to him that you do not care much about him” (ibid., p. 341).

In 1970 Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles counseled parents of wayward children to “leave off trying to alter your child just for a little while and concentrate on yourself. The changes must begin with you, not with your children.

“You can’t continue to do what you have been doing (even though you thought it was right) and expect to unproduce some behavior in your child, when your conduct was one of the things that produced it” (“Families and Fences,” Improvement Era, Dec. 1970, p. 106).

Teaching discipline to children, then, requires that parents discipline themselves. This means becoming Christlike. As President David O. McKay said, “Children are more influenced by sermons you act than by sermons you preach” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1955, p. 26).

Parents who love their children want them to learn to use their agency responsibly. Children who are forced to comply do so with resistance and resentment, often biding their time until they can demonstrate their independence rebelliously. But children who feel loved reciprocate love, and instead of resisting their parents’ firmness, they appreciate and honor it. Love makes such a dramatic difference in discipline that we should never think that we can have a lasting influence for good on our children without it.

“Above all else, children need to know and feel they are loved, wanted, and appreciated,” President Ezra Taft Benson said. “They need to be assured of that often” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 60).

I have encountered many parents who have learned this truth. One mother, who had a three-year-old son who would not listen or cooperate, reported, “I didn’t give him much focused attention except when I’d get angry. He’d call me a mean mommy, and I’d call him things that I regret.

“But one day an insight hit me like a ton of bricks. I began seeing him as the Savior saw him—not as a troublemaker or a willfully disobedient child, but as a child of God with his own needs and feelings. I realized that he had not been trying to make me miserable. Instead, he had been reacting to my impatience! The next day my husband and I talked it over. We told him that we would learn to be better, and I started playing with him and listening to him.”

Her son’s behavior changed dramatically in fewer than five days. As a result of his parents’ patience and love, he became much more cooperative. “The thing that was missing was love,” the mother says. “We were more concerned about ourselves than him. But we discovered that loving and listening to him changes the whole atmosphere of our home.”

President Joseph F. Smith told fathers they should love their children if they want them to be obedient: “Prove to them that you do love them by your every word or act to them. … When you speak or talk to them, do it not in anger, do it not harshly, in a condemning spirit. Speak to them kindly; get them down and weep with them if necessary and get them to shed tears with you if possible. Soften their hearts; get them to feel tenderly toward you. Use no lash and no violence, but … approach them with reason, with persuasion and love unfeigned. … You can’t do it any other way. You can’t do it by unkindness; you cannot do it by driving. …

“You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. You may force them to hell, by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be. The man that will be angry at his boy, and try to correct him while he is in anger, is in the greatest fault. … You can only correct your children by love, in kindness, by love unfeigned, by persuasion, and reason” (Gospel Doctrine, fifth ed., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1939, pp. 316–17).

Latter-day Saint parents have been instructed to “bring up [their] children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40; see also D&C 68:25). Family home evening, parent-child interviews, daily devotionals, church attendance, and other family activities create teaching and correcting moments that provide children with light and truth much more effectively than angry outbursts immediately following misbehavior.

In discussing the importance of love in the governance of our homes, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, cited the principles found in Doctrine and Covenants, section 121:

“‘No power or influence can or ought to be maintained … , only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;

“‘By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy and without guile—’

“I believe those marvelous and simple words set forth the spirit in which we should stand as fathers. Do they mean that we should not exercise discipline, that we should not reprove? Listen to these further words:

“‘Reproving betimes with sharpness [When? While angry or in a fit of temper? No—] when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;

“‘That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.’ (41–44.)

“… I commend those words to every man within the sound of my voice and do not hesitate to promise that if you will govern your families in the spirit of those words, which have come from the Lord, you will have cause to rejoice, as will those for whom you are responsible” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1967, pp. 91–92).

More recently, President Hinckley has said, “I have tremendous respect for fathers and mothers who are nurturing their children in light and truth, who spare the rod and govern with love, who look upon their little ones as their most valued assets to be protected, trained, and blessed” (Ensign, May 1995, p. 70).

Because of its emphasis on love, the gospel of Jesus Christ provides the best course available on child discipline. Parents who strive to become Christlike, who have hearts that are right toward their children, and who couch their discipline in firmness born of genuine love will, as President Hinckley has said, “have cause to rejoice.”

Photo by Steve Bunderson