“Giving Children Love, Limits, and Latitude,” Ensign, August 2020
In our family, my son is nine years younger than his siblings. When he was little, we often heard him say, “But why? They [his older sisters] don’t have to do that!” For example, as a preschooler, he was usually sent to bed long before his teenage sisters, and he never felt this was fair.
Many parents may find themselves wondering how to be fair, consistent, or equal in their parenting. But let me tell you something I’ve learned from years of studying parenting and raising children myself: it’s not as important to be perfectly equal in parenting practices as it is to be consistent in following sound principles of parenting. Children differ in age, gender, personality, needs, strengths, and weaknesses. So instead of trying to treat them exactly the same—which will keep us from really focusing on the needs of each one—we can focus on making sure our parenting is guided by the important principles of love, limits, and latitude.
Love is essential at every age, but it may take different forms as children grow up. Parents may show love to toddlers by reading them bedtime stories, cuddling them when they fall, and giving hugs and kisses. Love for older children may take the form of help with homework, rides to rehearsals, and appropriate physical affection. For teenagers, love might evolve to include staying up late to hear how a date went, allowing more verbal give-and-take, and patiently listening to concerns and problems. As children transition into young adulthood, parents might show love through supportive texts, giving advice when asked, or talking through big decisions.
Why is love so important? Think about the parable of the sower (see Matthew 13:3–8). The scattered seeds ended up in different environments. Some landed in stony or thorn-covered ground, and others landed in good ground. While all of the seeds had the potential to grow, only the ones in the good ground actually did. Similarly, parenting isn’t just about teaching good things. It’s also about creating a loving climate that prepares the hearts of our children to be like the good ground—where seeds of righteous teaching can take root and flourish. In other words, when we foster a loving climate in our home, relationships are strengthened, and when relationships are strong, children are more likely to receive our teachings.
It’s hard to think about limits without also thinking about latitude, because we often think that one restricts the other. But this isn’t the case. Both limits and latitude can work together in parenting. The tricky thing is making sure we understand them correctly.
For example, someone in Sunday School once asked, “Isn’t it okay to control our children as long as it is for their own good?” In the pre-earth life, Satan’s opposition to the Father’s plan probably sounded eerily similar. As President Russell M. Nelson taught: “To rule children by force is the technique of Satan, not of the Savior. No, we don’t own our children. Our parental privilege is to love them, to lead them, and to let them go.”1
Setting limits should not be confused with controlling our children. Instead, setting limits is about providing boundaries so children can safely practice making choices. And—as is true with love—what limits look like will change over the years. But within these limits, even young children need to have choices. For example, parents may have a rule that vegetables must be eaten at dinner. This is an example of a limit. Within that limit, parents may allow the child to choose which vegetable is served at dinner.
And that leads us to the idea of latitude, or giving children chances to express ideas, give input, and help make decisions. Allowing children to make choices now prepares them to make more significant choices as teenagers and emerging adults. And don’t worry—this doesn’t mean that teenagers get to do whatever they want! Their brains are still developing, and they are still learning about decisions. But as we shift to more latitude, we can include them in the process of setting limits. For example, parents and teenagers could talk about why a curfew might be appropriate (such as safety concerns and how we need enough rest to function the next day) and then decide together what the curfew should be.
This gradual shift from limits to latitude, done in the context of a loving relationship, allows our children to learn to make wise choices. As Elder Larry Y. Wilson, an emeritus member of the Seventy, said, “Wise parents prepare their children to get along without them.” He cautioned:
“If parents hold on to all decision-making power and see it as their ‘right,’ they severely limit the growth and development of their children.
“Our children are in our homes for a limited time. If we wait until they walk out the door to turn over to them the reins of their moral agency, we have waited too long. They will not suddenly develop the ability to make wise decisions if they have never been free to make any important decisions while in our homes.”2
So we see that limits aren’t about controlling our children, latitude isn’t about letting them do anything they want, and both are about providing safe boundaries for children to make choices. They will learn through trial and error as they exercise agency. “This means,” as Elder Wilson said, “children will sometimes make mistakes and learn from them.”3 Although learning from mistakes is part of God’s plan, it can be tough for parents. During trying times, parents might benefit from this comforting advice from Elder Robert D. Hales (1932–2017) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles:
“Act with faith; don’t react with fear. When our teenagers begin testing family values, parents need to go to the Lord for guidance on the specific needs of each family member. This is the time for added love and support and to reinforce your teachings on how to make choices. It is frightening to allow our children to learn from the mistakes they may make, but their willingness to choose the Lord’s way and family values is greater when the choice comes from within than when we attempt to force those values upon them. The Lord’s way of love and acceptance is better than Satan’s way of force and coercion, especially in rearing teenagers.”4
The scriptures say God’s work and glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). In other words, in His heavenly home, God is focused on His role as a parent. Indeed, out of all His divine titles, He asks us to refer to Him as our Father. We can follow His example and make it our primary focus to rear our children “in love and righteousness.”5 As we consider the needs of each child in our home and apply the principles of love, limits, and latitude, we can help each individual reach their full potential.