Planting Promises in the Hearts of the Children
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“Planting Promises in the Hearts of the Children,” Liahona, June 1998, 16

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.

A few years ago our teenage son 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 words to Joseph Smith, promising that prior to the Lord’s coming, the priesthood will be revealed by the hand of Elijah, who “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).

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—the priesthood power that seals families 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 the 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.”

A Miraculous Turning of Hearts

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 hunger will be planted in the hearts of their children.

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 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 son an entry describing his grandfather’s big debate. I left that journal with him, hoping he would read it.

He was a good boy, but he wasn’t easy to rear. We prayed for patience. We prayed that the seeds of faith would take root in his heart, but we knew we couldn’t force that process. I thought during those days about my own older brother, who died in 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 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. One 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 in sorting 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 joy 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 ties 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 promises that our “days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with [us], in the land which the Lord [our] God giveth” us (Deut. 5:16). How is this promise to be fulfilled? We may hope not only that our “days may be prolonged,” but also that our days and lives may be blessed with personal security, happiness, and meaning. We can expect not only that “it may go well” with us individually, but also that our society will enjoy peace and liberty. The key to social as well as individual survival depends on children turning their hearts to their fathers and learning from the wisdom they have accumulated.

The Loss of Family Bonds

Today, those basic human relationships we call kinship and marriage are disintegrating. 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).

Perhaps we are witnessing the negative aspects 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 prophecy. Other prophecies also foretold the curse of an earth wasted by the loss of family 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 anonymous writer said, 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.” This disintegration has 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.”1

In addition to individual isolation, this trend leads us to forget our “group memory”—the essential knowledge each succeeding generation must possess to ensure social continuity, even survival of the culture. The loss of human connections is keeping knowledge and understanding from being passed 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 In this sense, the connection between honoring parents and living long in the land seems especially strong.

A Sense of Real Belonging

The fifth commandment’s focus on child-parent relations calls attention to a modern trend—a “children’s rights” movement. In some ways, this movement has helped raise society’s awareness about the seriousness of child abuse, and it has made government agencies 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 release children from any sense of dependence upon, or even connection to, parents and other adults.

This movement to give children their “rights” can actually leave them feeling abandoned. In fact, children’s highest “right” is to be loved, taught, and nurtured by parents and communities who honor and protect them. Only in this way do we teach them to honor their parents and to honor the interests of their communities. Only this reciprocal honoring—and belonging—will deliver the promise of the fifth commandment.

Ironically, adults face some confusing conflicts of interest when thinking about the “rights” of children. Child rearing makes great demands on the time, energy, and financial resources of parents and communities. Giving “rights” to our children is a beguiling invitation, for it offers an escape from those demands—a liberation from the responsibility of long-term nurturing. 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. Such parents might decide it is not worth the patience and frustration required to provide children with meaningful discipline.

Those who give in to that temptation miss a wonderful opportunity for personal growth. Unqualified commitments to our children, spouses, parents, and brothers and sisters allow us to learn and grow in ways not possible in less-demanding relationships.

I once saw how this kind of learning can take place. One of our children was in great difficulty in his fourth-grade class. He needed to complete a certain project by the next day, or he would face disaster. After dinner, my wife, Marie, told me that she had thought of a way she could help him. I ushered our other children out of the kitchen, and the handicraft project began.

I periodically heard outbursts from our fourth-grader, who kept insisting that he wouldn’t do another thing on the project. At one point, I offered to send him to his room and tell him to forget it, but Marie calmly urged me to let her proceed with the plan.

After about three hours, as I was tucking the other children into bed, our son and his mother entered the bedroom. Carrying his project as proudly as if it were a birthday cake, he invited the other children to see it.

He had made every part of it himself. He placed it on a counter and started for his bed. Then he looked back at his mother with a broad, boyish grin. He ran across the room, threw his arms around her waist, and hugged her close. The two of them exchanged glances that carried great meaning. He went to bed, and we left the room.

“What happened?” I asked my wife. “How did you do it?”

Marie replied that she had made up her mind that no matter what he said or did, she wouldn’t raise her voice or lose her patience. She had also decided that leaving him was not an alternative, even if the project took all night. Then she made this significant observation: “I didn’t know I had it in me to do it.”

She had discovered within herself a reservoir of patience and endurance she never would have found without the deep commitment that grew from a sense of real belonging. Belonging is for thick and thin, and this was one of the thin times! Exerting such immovable loyalty to another person teaches us how to love—indeed, how to be more like the Savior.

Society and the Family

Society seems confused about what parents and children actually owe each other. Some people 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.

As such questions increase, 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 the traditional family structure. This social interest, reflected in the spirit of the fifth commandment, must not be overruled by the individual interest that is commonly asserted these days. In the long run, preserving family stability is the best way to ensure meaningful individual liberty.

The first element is simply the needs of children. Studies have established beyond question that stable environments and stable relationships with adults are crucial for a child’s normal psychological development. This fact alone may justify the legal preferences traditionally given the traditional family.

Second, family life is the source of public virtue. Family life requires what may seem to be the opposite of personal liberty: submission to authority, acceptance of responsibility, and the discharge of duty. Yet personal freedom depends for its existence on the presence of those very principles. Without those safeguards, families and communities deteriorate and personal freedoms are soon lost. When families make a mutual commitment to keep the fifth commandment, both children and parents experience firsthand the need for 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 works through this essential experience learns to honor father and mother in ways that allow the child to deal productively with other kinds of authority. The end result is that the child is able to “internalize moral standards in the form of a conscience.”3

Third, the formal, legally recognized family is essential to transmit values to children. A system of family units rather than isolated individuals helps to prevent governments from asserting too much control over what values are taught to children. Marriage itself protects the family and its members from undue outside interference.

Fourth, marriage preserves 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 time and energy in them with a reasonable belief that the promise of future benefits and blessings justifies the sacrifices they make as individuals. Those whose relationships do not involve marital commitments will not make these investments; hence, they will never discover the long-term satisfactions that flow only from sacrificing personal wants in order to secure the needs of the group.

Our sense of belonging to one another—best represented by the bonds of kinship—foreshadows our belonging in the eternal family of God. Our willingness to discipline our individual desires enough to honor commitments to loved ones prepares us to belong to him who is our Father.

Proclaiming Peace

In Doctrine and Covenants 98:16 [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 in the context of 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 love across generations and even across the veil of death. The result was a young man’s clearer realization of who he is 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, was 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 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” (D&C 98:16). 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 August 1976, 21–22.

  2. Alston Chase, Group Memory: A Guide to College and Student Survival in the 1980s (1980), 284.

  3. Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged (1979), 123

Moses the Lawgiver, by Ted Henninger

Photographs by Steve Bunderson

Detail from Old Testament Prophet, by Judith Mehr

Illustrated by Mitchell Heinze