Why We Should Be More Concerned With Winning Our Children’s Hearts Than Controlling Their Behavior

What is a “good kid?” I’ve observed that if our kids are well-behaved champion sleepers, we are seen as good parents and our children are seen as good kids. So should we focus on controlling our children’s behavior and making them do what we want them to do? Or is there more to the story?

I was a “good kid” growing up. I have the type of personality that is more naturally compliant. I want to please people and keep everyone happy. I don’t like contention or confrontation, and I really hate feeling like people are upset with me or that I’ve done something wrong. Because of my temperament and personality, fear and threats and control “worked” pretty well on me growing up (meaning that I was obedient). And sure, I have turned out pretty well — I try my very best to make good choices for the right reasons. But I have had a lot of healing that I’ve had to do to get to where I am, as well as learning to find my voice and stand for what I feel is right regardless of others’ opinions. Not everyone will take the initiative or know how to achieve that healing, which might mean that their ability to find their voice and feel good about themselves, and to form strong and healthy relationships, is affected perhaps for the rest of their lives. I have seen this first-hand in my own family.

What’s more, kids who are more strong-willed tend to push back pretty hard against force and control, and if these children feel forced or pushed into doing the right thing, they may choose not make the best choices once they’re out from under the control and threats of their parents (if the fear and control even “work” on them to begin with). I know several families, including mine, that had at least one very strict (authoritarian) parent, that have at least one child who has pushed back hard as a teenager or young adult, to the point of leaving the church and the gospel teachings they were raised with. Now, obviously, all sorts of parents have children who fall away from the church, not just the very strict ones who used force with their kids. And all types of people lose their way, not just the strong-willed ones. But my point is that fear and control always have negative results in relationships, whether it’s psychological damage or power struggles and push-back. Force and fear do not lead to strong and attached relationships, which are crucial if we want to have a healthy, positive influence in our children’s lives, to lead and guide them down correct paths.

Rather than just raising “good” kids who are well-behaved (well-behaved children do not equal good children — all children are inherently good), I want to raise people who make good choices because they want to — because the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ are rooted deep in their hearts. I don’t believe that force and fear will accomplish that.

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President Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “[God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts” (see his full talk here). That is what I want for my children too. How do we accomplish that?

Alma 31:5 reads, “And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God” (emphasis added). Teaching the truths of God is far more effective than fear or control.

But I think it goes a step further. For instance, teaching gospel truths with an attitude of self-righteousness or condescension will probably not have the right effect, even if the things we’re teaching are totally true. In Alma 17:29 we read that Ammon sought to win the hearts of the servants of King Lamoni, to earn their trust, that he might teach them and have them listen. So not only did he teach them the gospel, he understood the importance of gaining their trust and winning their hearts first. I believe there is a great lesson here for us.

Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids, said, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” He says that if our children don’t give their hearts to us, and so we use some other means of training them instead of guiding their hearts, we can usually get them to act mature and responsible, but that doesn’t mean they feel responsibility and maturity. And normally when someone acts as if they feel a certain way but doesn’t truly feel that way, we call them hypocrites. They don’t have integrity. Continuing on, Dr. Neufeld says that as a society we seem to be “more interested in behavioral outcomes than true growth.” True growth comes when our hearts are involved. Love and connection and attachment are vital. Watch the full presentation by Dr. Neufeld here.

It is eternally important for us to make good choices and keep the commandments. But President Uchtdorf has explained that the reason for our obedience to God’s commandments isn’t to earn our salvation, or to earn anything, but rather, “we obey the commandments of God–out of love for Him!” And why do we love Him? “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19) and we feel that love so strongly, so surely. So if we want our children to follow us and obey us, then they must feel our love as well.

“Show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well” (emphasis added). –President Thomas S. Monson

It is not enough just to love our children — if they don’t feel our love, if they don’t feel that they are important to us and cherished by us, then we won’t have the kind of influence with them that we need. But once they give us their hearts, we will be more readily able to lead them back to our Heavenly Father.

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So what can we do to win our children’s hearts? Well, what makes you feel cherished by someone? Is it when they really listen to you? When they’re affectionate toward you? When they smile at you with their eyes and hearts and not just their lips? When they laugh with you? When they give you their time and their full attention? Is it when they do something thoughtful for you? When they show you compassion and empathy through your struggles? When they speak to you calmly and kindly and respectfully, even when you know they’re frustrated? Or when they truly see you, truly know you — faults and all — and adore you anyway?

Whatever helps your child to feel that you cherish them, do more of that. Then do your best to be the kind of person you want them to be, and they will surely follow suit.

 

Alternatives to Punishment Part 2: How Does God Discipline His Children?

This is part 2 of this series. If you missed part 1, catch it here.

In part 1 of this series we established that God’s definition of punishment seems to be different from man’s definition. And then I asked, “so how does our Heavenly Father discipline us, His children, if He doesn’t punish us (i.e. intentionally cause us pain out of retribution)?” Before I answer that, it’s important to note that the word ‘discipline’ comes from a word that means ‘to teach.’ So how does He teach us?

He allows us to choose and then He allows the consequences of our actions (both positive and negative) to teach us. He does all in His power to connect with us and help us feel His love so that we will desire to follow Him. Through prophets and the scriptures and the Holy Ghost, He continually and patiently teaches us the truth and the way to be happy and return to His presence. He gives us guidance and teaches us through the Spirit, helping us find answers to our problems. He requires certain things of us, certainly. And He expects us to repent (turn to Him with a broken heart and a contrite spirit) when we sin, but He is unfailingly loving and patient with us when we do stumble. Repentance is not a punishment, like we might sometimes think it is, but rather, it is a tender mercy, a gift from a loving Father and His loving Son.

If we are to become like our Father in Heaven (as parents, and in general) and gain all that He has, then we must develop and cultivate a character like His. What is His character like?

We might sometimes think that God is harsh because He is bound by justice (and because the scriptures sometimes portray Him that way), and that only Christ is merciful and kind. But Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, in a talk titled The Grandeur of God, says that the Savior came to show us God’s character. (This is an incredible talk, and everyone should read it. I can’t recommend it highly enough!) Jesus only did that which He had seen the Father do (John 5:19). Why do we think God sent His Son in the first place? He desperately wants to show us mercy, to welcome us all back home, but He can’t if we don’t make use of His Son’s atonement and repent. Elder Holland says, “In word and in deed Jesus was trying to reveal and make personal to us the true nature of His Father, our Father in Heaven.”

1 John 4:8 says that “God is love.” Elder Bruce R. McConkie explains that “God is also faith, hope, charity, righteousness, truth, virtue, temperance, patience, humility, and so forth. That is, God is the embodiment and personification of every good grace and godly attribute—all of which dwell in his person in perfection and in fulness” (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3:398).

Elder Holland continues, “So feeding the hungry, healing the sick, rebuking hypocrisy, pleading for faith—this was Christ showing us the way of the Father, He who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, long-suffering and full of goodness” [from Joseph Smith’s Lectures on Faith]. In His life and especially in His death, Christ was declaring, “This is God’s compassion I am showing you, as well as that of my own.” In the perfect Son’s manifestation of the perfect Father’s care, in Their mutual suffering and shared sorrow for the sins and heartaches of the rest of us, we see ultimate meaning in the declaration: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved” (John 3:16-17).”

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Christ, who showed us who our Father is, never condoned sin, but He was full of mercy and compassion and tenderness. I love the story of the woman taken in adultery, wherein Jesus showed us a perfect example of setting firm limits with empathy and kindness. He understood how this woman must have felt to be publicly shamed for her sins, which would not actually prevent her from sinning further (because we can’t do better by feeling worse), and so He diffused the situation, connected with her in a merciful act of love, and then admonished her to “sin no more” (see John 8:3-11)

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Some might still argue that God does punish the wicked, that sometimes His actions can be considered as inflicting punishment. Even then, though, I don’t think He would ever act with the desire and intent to cause pain and suffering, but rather so that His work can move forward and so that He can save as many of His children as possible. I believe He desires to help and save all of His children, but He will not force us. So in this sense, His actions still would not be considered punishment as we know it – retribution, or getting back at us for wrongs done – but rather, simply, the effects of purging sin, the result of justice.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say God does use punishment, at least sometimes. If He does punish His children, I will leave that to Him. That’s His call, His judgment to make. If I can successfully lead and guide the hearts of my children like we have been taught and counseled to do, then why even consider harsh punishment or “tough love” – especially when we know it doesn’t actually teach or change people? God has the final say, the last judgment. His ways are always just and merciful – but of course His mercy extends only as far as we are willing to accept it by our repentance. “The Lord will forgive whom [He] will forgive, but of [us] it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:10). We have been commanded to show love and kindness to all mankind (and this certainly includes children). See James 1:19-20. God has shown us how (by and through His Son) we can be firm in our limits and boundaries and also kind and gentle and compassionate. Regardless of whether or not God is ever the one who actually inflicts punishment on His wicked children, I feel strongly that when disciplining our own children, He would have us be kind and gentle, and to discipline in His way, which is to “lovingly and patiently teach” them (see this wonderful talk by Elder Lynn G. Robbins).

When it came to little children, Christ only ever showed loving attention and adoration and gentleness to them. He commanded us to become like children if we want to inherit God’s kingdom (3 Nephi 11:38). He taught us that they are whole and innocent (Moroni 8:8). He loved the children so much that He wept when He blessed them (3 Nephi 17:21-22). Children are precious to Him. Regardless of whether or not He was always merciful and without anger toward grown men, as some will argue and try to use as justification for their harshness toward children, Jesus was always gentle and compassionate toward children. Being gentle and respectful and kind does not mean we allow children to run the show or that we don’t set limits and boundaries for them. It just means that we treat them how we would want to be treated as we do.

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Surely, in addition to natural consequences doing the teaching, we must also be proactive about teaching our children important lessons. It is imperative that we set and enforce rules and limits with our children. We have a solemn responsibility to teach them correct principles and behavior. So how do we enforce limits and teach lessons when they misbehave without using punishment or control? Stay tuned for Part 3 of this post, where I will go into detail about some alternatives to punishment.

The Difference Between Anxious Parenting and Responsive Parenting

There are two extremes I’ve noticed when it comes to they way parents respond to their children’s tears and emotions, and I’m sure all of us have been guilty of at least one extreme or the other, at one time or another. I know I have.

 These two extremes are anxious parenting and detached parenting.

 Anxious Parenting

 I try to parent in a way that I feel is very responsive and engaged, but many people might interpret this as anxious parenting. (If I’m being honest, I’m sure there have been plenty of times since I became a mother when anxiousness or fear have driven my reactions! Anxiety is no stranger to me, and although I’ve learned a lot about dealing with it, I’m certainly not perfect at it.) We probably all know someone who could be considered an anxious parent, or a “helicopter parent.” These parents might lean more toward permissive parenting, offering lots of support but not requiring much from their children. These parents love their children tremendously, and they do their very best, just like anyone else. But is it good for children when their parents consistently react with anxiety?

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I have learned that children take their cues from us, the trusted adults in their lives. So if we continually respond to things as if they’re an emergency, our children will be conditioned to react the same way, which can lead to anxiety in the child as well. We probably all react this way from time to time, and we don’t need to worry that this will ruin our children – it’s when we react this way on a consistent basis that this will become our children’s natural reaction as well. Children learn what they live.

 Additionally, when we fail to give our children opportunities to figure things out and solve problems, due to our own anxiety and need to be in control, we convey to them a lack of trust and confidence, and deprive them of growth and learning.

 Detached Parenting

 On the other end of the spectrum are the parents who appear more “laid back” about their children’s distress, those who have an easier time ignoring their babies’ cries. They might be less prone to showing empathy to their children, and might even think that showing emotion is a sign of weakness. They might expect a lot from their children (which conveys confidence in their children, and is a good thing), but with little to no support (which is not a good thing). High demand with low support is called authoritarian parenting. (See this article about finding the sweet spot between high expectations and support.) Not all are demanding though – some of these parents are more uninvolved than authoritarian. It’s the low support that suggests detachment.

Being laid back is actually a wonderful thing in the sense of not being fearful or worried or anxious. I think all of us have the ability to get to this point. But I have to wonder if these particular parents’ “laid back” attitude toward their children’s emotions is actually more a sign of emotional detachment or desensitization to instincts.

 What Causes Us to Respond With Either Anxiousness or Detachment?

 In addition to anxiousness in parents leading to anxiousness in children, there are of course environmental, genetic, and other factors that can cause anxiety. Research also indicates that anxious or detached parenting can be a result of not having a secure attachment with at least one parent – of having our own cries ignored, not receiving empathy ourselves, and not learning to process our own emotions. In other words, if our own parents were emotionally detached, we are more likely to be anxious or detached as parents as well.

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When people are brought up this way, with emotionally unavailable parents, usually one of two things happens. Some eventually learn to stuff their emotions and become detached emotionally (because this is less painful). They may use humor as a defense, and they usually have great difficulty forming deep, intimate, healthy relationships with others (see here). Others become more needy and insecure, so desperate for love and acceptance and affection that they, too, tend to attract the wrong kind of relationships. They also respond with anger to those more vulnerable emotions, as a defense against them (see here). Unfortunately, neither of these are healthy, and unless we do some healing, both can really hinder our ability to have a healthy sense of self-worth, as well as empathy and charity for others. But the good news is that there is always hope for those of us who grew up without secure attachments to at least one parent (see here).

I have seen a little bit of evidence of the latter example in myself (particularly before I met my husband, but even as a mom at times when feeling anger in response to my children’s strong emotions). But fortunately, it really is possible to heal from our past and to gain understanding and forgiveness. I understand that my parents and their parents and their parents (and so forth) all did their very best, and that many of them were wounded themselves. I also know that the Savior can heal all wounds. I am far from perfect, but I have hope in Him.

As parents we innately have instincts (given to us by God) to respond to our babies’ cries, but if we stuff our emotions (since we never learned how to process them in a healthy way) and ignore those instincts, we become less sensitive to them (see here). Again, if we respond this way occasionally, our children are probably not going to become emotionally detached or anxious. It’s the consistency of either extreme that can hinder them.

 It’s interesting to me that it’s not just anxious parenting that can create anxious children – rather, having their emotional needs ignored (in cases of detached parenting) can lead to anxiety (or depression, or other mental and emotional challenges) in children as well. So is everyone bound to create anxious children? Well, certainly not. What’s the answer then?

 Before I get to that, I want to point out that these responses (anxiousness and detachment) are the extremes, the two ends of a spectrum. Which means that most of us are probably somewhere in between these two extremes. So what’s the sweet spot between the two, the ideal middle ground?

It’s responsiveness.

 As I said, I’m sure some people (especially those who are closer to the ‘detached’ end of the spectrum) think I’m an anxious parent because I try to respond fairly quickly to my babies’ cries and empathize with my children’s feelings when they’re hurt or upset (rather than just telling them they’re fine). Am I making my children anxious by responding this way? Not if I’m truly being responsive instead of responding with anxiousness. What’s the difference?

 The Difference Between Anxiousness and Responsiveness

 The reactions of an anxious parent are more about the parent’s own discomfort than the child’s feelings and needs. They tend to overreact to their child’s struggles because they can’t handle their own discomfort surrounding them.

 A responsive parent, on the other hand, does their best to calm their own fears when there is no emergency (whether those fears are presenting as anger or anxiety), to communicate to their child through their demeanor and tone of voice that there is no emergency, and to respond with empathy (how is my child feeling? What does she need? How would I want someone to treat me if I were in her shoes?). Responsive parents have trust in their child’s abilities and potential, and they offer encouragement and support. High expectation and high support.

Mother Comforting Son

 Empathy and responsiveness are important for a child’s development because they build trust and secure attachments with us, and teach the child to process and manage their emotions (which helps with their behavior and the way they treat others) (see here).

 Determine the Source of Your Reaction

 I think a key in responding to our children appropriately is to assess our own emotional reactions and determine where those emotions are coming from. Are we listening to our intuition? To the Spirit, which encourages love and empathy? Or is our reaction coming from fear? One good way to judge if our emotions are coming from the Spirit or from fear is found in Moroni chapter 7. Verse 16 says, “. . . I show unto you the way to judge; for every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.” Another is found in 2 Timothy 1:7. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Is our reaction something that persuades us to think of and believe in Christ? Does it lead us to do good to others, to treat them the way the Savior would? Do we have a sound (calm, clear) mind? When we can answer these questions for ourselves, we will be better able to choose how we will respond.

 Following our instincts (or the Spirit) might still look like anxiousness to someone else. But if we feel peace and love, if we feel compelled to act in a Christlike manner, then it’s not anxiousness. I’m sure each of us knows what it feels like to experience a “gut feeling,” what it feels like to just know something is wrong (maybe with a child’s health, or like my example of leaving my babies alone to cry) or conversely, when something just feels right (such as holding and comforting my crying child, or even nursing or rocking them to sleep). And whether or not anyone else understands our reasons, I think most of us recognize the importance of trusting our gut feelings, our instincts or intuition. But if we want to be in tune with our intuition, we have to practice acknowledging and processing our emotions, and trusting our instincts. Also – and this is important – even when we instinctively know that something is wrong, we don’t have to feel or convey fear – faith and love can cast out that fear. See this post and this fantastic talk by Dieter F. Uchtdorf.

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 What if it’s not our gut telling us something is wrong, but rather our sympathetic nervous system? If our immediate reaction to something is “emergency!” (aka a fight or flight response) but then we soon realize that no one is in immediate danger of harm or death, we can choose to calm our minds and bodies, and respond with empathy instead of anxiety.

 What if you have an actual anxiety disorder? Some people need extra help learning to calm their minds when they’re anxious, and that’s okay. I hesitated posting this because I didn’t want to give parents with anxiety disorders more to worry about – the fear and worry of “screwing up your child” (making them anxious) will only make things worse. So what can you do?

 First, take a deep breath and give yourself a huge helping of compassion. You are more than enough, and everything will be okay. Second, pray. The Lord knows what you need and He can, and wants to, help. Third, one other excellent tool I have found is meditation. By definition, anxiety makes clearing your mind and focusing your thoughts more difficult. But starting small, with even three minutes of meditation every day, can make a difference. You might find guided meditation most effective, or perhaps mindfulness meditation. Find what works best for you. Meditation is valuable for everyone, and can make a big difference in parenting, so even if you don’t struggle with anxiety, give meditation a try! Fourth, counseling can be extremely helpful for many individuals and families. And lastly, regardless of any tools or resources you may or may not use, any and all healing comes through our Savior, Jesus Christ. Turn to Him. Learn of Him and listen to His words. Seek Him. Trust in Him.

 We don’t ever have to allow fear or anxiety to determine our decisions or the way we respond to things or people. (Easier said than done? For some of us, absolutely. But “with God, nothing shall be impossible” [Luke 1:37].) We can all learn to listen to our feelings, process them, and then choose the best response we can – and help our children learn to do the same.

Alternatives to Punishment Part 3: Positive Discipline

This is Part 3 of this series. If you missed Parts 1 and 2, catch them here and here.

In Part 2 of this series, I posed the question, “How do we get our children to behave, and enforce limits and teach lessons when they do misbehave, without using force or punishment?” Here’s the answer.

  • We continually and patiently teach what is right, lovingly reminding our child over and over, just as our Father does with us, until the lesson takes root in the heart (doesn’t it seem that we hear the same messages over and over during General Conference or in our lessons at church?).
  • With lots of empathy and connection, we set necessary limits (to ensure safety and to protect people’s rights and property), and we remain firm on the things that matter (rather than giving in and changing our mind when our kids don’t like the limits we set. They are free to feel however they feel about the limits, but if it’s a limit worth setting, it’s important to remain firm. Allow and empathize with feelings; limit behavior).
  • We offer choices, each of which are acceptable to us, and allow our child to choose.
  • We enlist our child as a partner in problem solving, finding win-win solutions when our priorities and agendas don’t align.
  • We help our child repair and make amends when necessary. See this post to find out how.
  • We use our greatest parenting tool (our “magic wand,” as Dr. Markham calls it) – connection – to influence our child for good. (I love the saying, “connect before you correct.”) When our children feel connected to us they are more likely to comply with our requests.
  • And perhaps most importantly, we model correct behavior for our children, even (or rather, especially) in the way we discipline them. If we don’t want our child to yell or hit to solve problems, then neither can we. If we want them to listen to us, we must listen to them. If we want them to treat others how they would want to be treated, then we must empathize with them and treat them how we would want to be treated.

Some of these things are things that need to be done on a consistent basis to prevent misbehavior as much as possible, and some of these things are things we can do in the moment when our children do misbehave. It can be really helpful to have a specific go-to plan in the heat of the moment when our children misbehave so that we don’t simply resort to punishment. So let’s look at a few of these guidance and teaching tools in a little more detail.

Setting and Enforcing Limits with Empathy (AKA Kind and Firm)

After the limit has already been set once: “The rule at the park is that the sand stays in the pit. It’s not for throwing. Throwing sand hurts people. Right now it seems it’s too hard for you to leave the sand in the pit, so we’ll have to try again another time. It’s time to go home now… I know this is hard, Sweetie. You wish you could keep playing. We’ll come back and try again another time. Now, would you rather race me to the car or jump on my back for a piggy-back ride?”

Isn’t this just a consequence? In a way, yes! The consequence of leaving the sand in the pit is that everyone is safe and able to enjoy playing. The consequence of throwing sand is that it gets in people’s eyes and hurts them, which means that the parent (whose job it is to ensure safety) must step in and enforce the limit (that sand stays in the pit and is not for throwing) so that everyone stays safe. Enforcing the limit means that the parent doesn’t allow the child to continue a behavior if it is dangerous or destructive or harmful. If the child is able to stop the negative behavior with just a reminder of the rule, or limit, then that’s enough. If not, as in this example, then enforcing the limit might mean removing the child from the situation. Removing the child is not a punishment because it’s not being done out of retribution or to cause pain or suffering, but rather to keep everyone safe when the child is unable to maintain safety himself. This is enforcing a limit with empathy. (Don’t forget the empathy! In fact, this may be most effective if the parent were to begin by joining with the child and seeing the situation from his perspective, such as, “Wow! That sand came down like rain! And Sweetie, I can’t let you throw sand because…” (Note the “and”… I’ve heard it said that when we use “but” rather than “and,” everything before the “but” sounds like a lie or like it’s really not important to you. “And” is much more effective when setting limits with empathy).

Won’t this just encourage more sand throwing? Not if we calmly and kindly set clear and firm limits and give reasons why the behavior has to stop. And if possible, it’s very effective and always a wonderful idea to offer an acceptable alternative – we can’t throw sand, but we can throw the dead leaves up and watch them rain down).

I think it’s important and only fair that we communicate to our children what the rules are, as well as the reasons for the rules and the attached consequences that follow if they break the rules (e.g. “We will only be able to stay and play at the park as long as everyone follows the safety rules.” and then explain the rules). This will help them to know what is expected and to use that knowledge when they choose their actions. This obviously doesn’t mean that they will always choose wisely – they are humans, and immature ones at that. Their impulse control is very underdeveloped. But clear communication is important in peaceful parenting, because it’s the respectful thing to do – rather than simply, “because I said so.”

When Adam and Eve, our first parents, were in the Garden of Eden, God told them explicitly that they may eat freely of the fruit of any tree in the Garden except one. He also told them that if they did eat of the fruit of that tree, then they “should surely die” (see Moses 3:17). We know how the story goes. They did choose to eat the fruit (for which I’m eternally grateful! Elder Dallin H. Oaks said, “It was Eve who first transgressed the limits of Eden in order to initiate the conditions of mortality. Her act, whatever its nature, was formally a transgression but eternally a glorious necessity to open the doorway toward eternal life. Adam showed his wisdom by doing the same. And thus Eve and “Adam fell that men might be” (2 Ne. 2:25).” Read his full talk here. Also check out this great talk).

And with their choice came consequences.

The consequences were death – both physical (eventually) and spiritual – as well as the ability to have children, and the obligation to work to provide for their needs. These things could not take place in the Garden, for their transgression meant that they were consigned to a fallen state. The Lord enforced His limit (that they may only live forever in the Garden if they would refrain from eating the forbidden fruit) by sending them out into the world, where they would be subject to pain and sickness and death. This might sound harsh, but I believe it was done with love and tenderness, with the promise of divine help.

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(This example is a little different from most in that, although Adam and Eve did transgress the limit God had set, it was not a sin, but rather the choice they made in an impossible situation. No matter what they had done they would have broken a commandment (either partake of the forbidden fruit or never multiply and replenish the earth), and so they sacrificed their security and chose to keep the more important commandment. Heavenly Father understood this and knew what needed to happen, but He still had to follow through with the limit and allow the consequences, in order for the plan to unfold.)

So Heavenly Father set the limit (eat all the fruit you want except for this fruit, or else you will die), He allowed the natural consequences, both good and bad (hard work and pain and death, posterity and the continuation the plan, etc.), and He enforced the limit with love (requiring their departure from the Garden and their subsequent separation from Him, with the promise of a Savior and the opportunity to repent and return to Him (see Moses 5:9)).

It’s also important to note that when setting the limit He allowed them their choice – which is our next tool.

Offering Choices

“You didn’t mean to spill your drink, I know. Accidents happen. And the rule is we always clean up our messes. We’ll do it together. Would you like the blue rag or the gray one?”

Humans are autonomous beings. As we grow out of infancy we innately feel the drive and the need to do things for ourselves and to make our own choices. We also naturally push back against force and control. Maybe we remember on some level how important the gift of agency is.

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But of course we know that we can’t let our young children make all of their own choices, because that wouldn’t be safe or responsible. We can, however, give them as many choices as possible. We can relinquish control over the things that don’t really matter (which cup they use, whether their outfit matches perfectly, etc.). And even with the things that do matter it is often possible to find a way to offer choices and give our kids some say (“We need to go home so I can start making dinner. Should we leave now, or in three minutes? Three minutes? Okay, when the timer goes off I’ll race you to the car.”). This is especially important and helpful when parenting strong-willed childrenThe key is to only offer options that work for you, so that everyone will be happy no matter what the child chooses. Then, when you need make a decision and you need your child’s cooperation, you will able to say, “I let you make lots of choices, don’t I? Now its my turn to choose. Thank you for understanding, Sweetie.”

Problem Solving

“I see that we have a problem here: I hear you arguing because Kayla wants to play with dolls but Addie wants to build with blocks. I wonder how you could solve this problem so that Kayla is happy and Addie is happy… What ideas do you both have? …Building a house out of blocks for the dolls is a great idea! What else?”

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Teaching children the skill of problem solving and finding win-win solutions is something that will serve them well their whole lives. (Check out this article for more ways to prevent fighting between siblings.) Problem solving works well in the parent-child relationship too — just because we’re bigger and older and it’s our job to teach our kids, doesn’t mean that we need to order them around or leave them out of finding solutions.

For example, “You want to get back to playing right now, and that doesn’t work for me because I need you to clear your dishes from the table right now so that I can do the dishes. I wonder how we can solve this so that I can get to the dishes and you can get back to playing right away? What can we do so that you’re happy and I’m happy?”

These tools work – if we are calm and kind when we use them. Calming ourselves when our children are uncooperative or misbehaving is always the first step. Pick one of these tools and try it! (For more alternatives to punishment, see this article. There are several different ways to guide and teach, because different tools work best at different times for different people, and it can change with age or circumstance. So don’t feel like you have to use all of them, all the time. Just find what works best for you and your child, and try different tools as necessity arises.) This certainly requires more thinking on our part, but I can assure you that the more we practice (including the essential step of calming ourselves), the easier it gets, and with enough practice it becomes second nature.

Alternatives to Punishment Part 1: Punishment vs. Consequences

Through my research and learning about peaceful parenting I have learned that force, threats, and punishment (defined as intentional “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution”) are not the most effective forms of discipline if our goal is to produce children who do the right thing because they want to do the right thing (rather than doing the right thing for fear of being punished). Punishment would include spanking, timeout/isolation, withdrawal of love or affection, removal of something desirable, demanding that the child does something undesirable that makes them feel shamed, etc. Punishment always makes children feel worse – and you can’t truly do or become better by feeling worse (see this post). Punishment is psychologically damaging. Punishment always pits us against our child and erodes at our relationship with them, harming the one thing that gives us real, positive influence with them – our loving connection. Punishment sends children into fight or flight, where it is impossible to reason and learn. See this article about what’s wrong with strict (authoritarian) parenting, and this one about why punishment doesn’t teach accountability.

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Natural consequences, on the other hand, can be excellent teachers. But when a lot of parents talk about “consequences” what they’re really referring to is punishment (e.g. “If I hear any more fighting, there will be consequences!”). A consequence is defined as “a result or effect of an action or condition.” It happens naturally, on its own. When we feel like we have to fabricate arbitrary consequences in order for our children to learn a lesson (even if they seem logical), those “consequences” are never as effective as natural consequences because, if we are the one causing the painful outcome, our children are more likely to view it the same way they view punishment, which sends them into fight or flight and causes them to view us as the enemy. When we allow natural consequences to happen, while offering empathy, our children have a greater chance of learning desirable lessons from them, while also building their trust and connection with us, which increases the likelihood that they’ll follow us in the future.

For example, the consequence of my child messing around at bedtime instead of getting ready for bed is that we run out of time for bedtime stories. We could push bedtime back and still read stories, saving her from the consequence of her actions, but there is a valuable lesson to be learned in the natural consequence that follows when we don’t do what we need to do, when we need to do it. So instead we set firm limits with empathy (the empathy is important here!). On the other hand, we could treat this as a punishment by saying, “That’s it! No bedtime stories! That’s what you get for messing around instead of brushing your teeth!” But then our child is less likely to cooperate or to follow us in the future than she would be if we say (in a sincere tone), “Oh sweetie, I know how much you want to read bedtime stories. That’s your favorite part of the bedtime routine, huh? But sweetheart, we’re out of time. I’m sorry this is hard. Maybe tomorrow night if you hurry fast enough we might have time for an extra story!” Empathizing through the natural consequence (while staying firm) is more effective and more loving than punishment.

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But wait – God is the perfect parent, and He punishes His children when they’re wicked, right? Knowing what I know about discipline and feeling its truth so strongly,  I was really confused by the fact that the scriptures talk over and over about God’s wrath and about Him punishing the wicked. I had a hard time reconciling that in my mind with the idea of a gentle, merciful, loving God – especially when I consider how the Savior handled situations with sinners (see below). Surely our Heavenly Father knows how His children learn best, and what will change their hearts (and thus, their behavior). So what was I missing? Why would He use punishment?

Before I go on, let me be clear that God’s ways are higher than our ways, and that we more than likely will not understand all of His ways in this life. Whatever the Lord does, or whatever He requires, is right – even if we don’t understand His reasons – of that I have no doubt. If He chooses to use punishment, then that is right. But for the sake of understanding what His will is in my parenting, I have sought to understand this issue better. Is punishment (intentionally causing pain) His way?

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We know that “there is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated” (D&C 130:20-21). Likewise, if we break those laws then the blessings attached to them do not come to us.

We know that the natural consequences of sin are always negative, and the Lord doesn’t intervene to protect us from the effects of our sins unless we fully and sincerely repent (see 2 Nephi 2:7 and D&C 19:16). These natural consequences are often very effective. But what about punishment? Does God, in His wrath, actually inflict punishment on the wicked? Or is their ‘punishment’ simply a natural result of breaking eternal laws?

In the Book of Mormon there is a story about a Nephite army and a Lamanite army. The formerly-righteous Nephites had become hardened and vengeful and blood-thirsty and filled with a desire to destroy their enemies, the Lamanites. Mormon, the Nephites’ righteous commander, refused to continue leading them from that point forward because of their wickedness, but they went to battle anyway. Mormon 4:4-5 reads, “And it was because the armies of the Nephites went up unto the Lamanites that they began to be smitten; for were it not for that, the Lamanites could have had no power over them. But, behold, the judgments of God will overtake the wicked; and it is by the wicked that the wicked are punished; for it is the wicked that stir up the hearts of the children of men unto bloodshed” (emphasis added). God didn’t force the Lamanites to destroy the Nephites because of their wickedness. I don’t believe that force and destruction are part of His nature. But He did allow it to happen, because the Nephites refused to repent and thus were beyond the reach of His mercy (see Mosiah 2:38-39).

I wonder if sometimes when men in the scriptures talk about punishment, they’re really referring to natural (negative) consequences of sin that God allows to happen because the sinners refuse to repent. Perhaps it’s an issue of semantics and defining punishment and rewards/blessings: Following eternal laws results in positive natural consequences called blessings (which are attached to the specific laws, and which the Lord delights in bestowing); and perhaps breaking eternal laws – sinning – without repenting results in negative natural consequences called punishments, which are attached to those crimes (see 2 Nephi 2:10). I don’t think God comes up with arbitrary consequences for our actions; rather, our consequences are already affixed. Living a life full of love and service naturally leads to positive relationships and connections with others, as well as the ability to be influenced by the Spirit. Living a life of murder and bloodshed naturally leads to enemies who seek to destroy you, as well as other negative consequences of sin.

We might better understand this as the law of justice. LDS.org says, “In scriptural terms, justice is the unchanging law that brings consequences for actions. Because of the law of justice, we receive blessings when we obey God’s commandments. The law of justice also demands that a penalty be paid for every sin we commit. When the Savior carried out the Atonement, He took our sins upon Himself. He was able to “answer the ends of the law” (2 Nephi 2:7) because He subjected Himself to the penalty that the law required for our sins. In doing so, He “satisfied the demands of justice” and extended mercy to everyone who repents and follows Him (see Mosiah 15:9; Alma 34:14-16). Because He has paid the price for our sins, we will not have to suffer that punishment if we repent (see D&C 19:15-20).” So mercy does not negate the need for that penalty, or “punishment,” to be paid, but rather, it allows for Someone else to pay that price on our behalf if we will receive Him and repent. When we refuse to repent, that penalty must still be paid — just as “what goes up must come down,” all sin must be paid for. So that punishment when we refuse to repent is not our Heavenly Father’s way of getting back at us or trying to hurt us, it is simply the law of justice being upheld. The Lord’s definition of punishment does not appear to be the same as man’s.

How about the definition of wrath? I really liked this perspective on the wrath of God: “The works of God are works of love and restoration. They always have been, and always will be. . . . Those who are opposed to God’s love and restoration in the world will experience an aspect of God’s love that feels like wrath, because the forces that oppose love will one day be either transformed or eliminated from creation. . . . God’s story . . . [is] a story of purging all that is not loving, until everything is restored and only love remains. . . . Love purges war, famine, disease, oppression, hatred, violence, and everything else that fights against love. It’s what love does. . . .  Those who refuse to partner with love, and insist on continuing to fight in opposition to all that love does, will experience a side of love that does not feel like love. To them, it might even feel like wrath. Thus, when we affirm the “wrath of God” it’s not so much an affirmation of wrath at all—but an affirmation of love.” In other words, I believe that God’s wrath is not anger or hatred toward His children, but toward sin and evil, which He naturally purges because “God is love” (1 John 4:8). And those on the other side, who refuse to join with Him, will naturally be purged as well. From the New Testament student manual: “The “wrath” of God is not hostility toward mankind; rather, it is rejection of sin.” So perhaps “punishment” is a result of His wrath — toward sin and all that attach themselves to sin and refuse to let go.

So then how does God discipline His children? (And remember that ‘discipline’ means ‘to teach.’) Check out part 2 where we’ll look at God’s character and the way He disciplines us.

The Role Emotions Play in Behavior and Correction

Note: My brother, Josh (one of the Mormon guys at twomormonguys.com {the other is my cousin, Dallan}), helped me with this post. He and I have had many conversations on this subject, and I’m so grateful for his participation on this!

My husband and I were watching a sitcom the other day, and in this episode the female character was feeling like her husband wasn’t trying in their marriage anymore and like he was taking their relationship for granted. Instead of talking to him about it she let her feelings become bottled up inside until finally she snapped, accusing him of being lazy and not caring, and causing a big fight. It was clear to me, since I was just an observer, that she could have said something like, “Remember when you used to surprise me with flowers randomly? I loved that, and I miss it. It would really mean a lot to me if you still did things like that.” and the outcome likely would have been much different.

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By yelling at him, she was hoping to be heard and to set her husband straight. But when humans are attacked, our natural reaction is to either fight back (jump on the defensive), run from the fight (avoid the problem and stuff our feelings), or simply freeze and shut down. In moments like these, the reasoning part of our brain is not “on” and so the lesson we’re supposed to be learning isn’t getting through. When we’re being attacked, yelled at or criticized, our autonomic nervous system thinks we are in danger and triggers the fight or fight response. This happens automatically and completely out of our conscious control. We feel worse than we did before, and we can’t do better by feeling worse. You see, we do the things we do because of what we think and feel in that moment, particularly about ourselves. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. When we feel better, we do better.

Think about how emotionally generous you are when you feel great! When we’re full of love and the Spirit, kindness and patience and generosity just flow from us naturally.

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Children are no different. When they feel badly, they’re more likely to behave badly. And when they feel wonderful, they act wonderful. But we often hold them to a higher standard than we do ourselves in this regard. It’s easy to justify our actions when we’re frustrated or upset (maybe we don’t let the “jerk” driver over when we tries to change lanes in front of us, because he was rude first so “he deserves it.”), but we tend to expect our kids to always be on their best behavior.

We tend to think that our children have to earn our affection and attention, that they must act a certain way first in order to get the attention they so desperately need. But if they could act appropriately without our help, then they wouldn’t be crying out for our attention in undesirable ways to begin with. Children need connection with us to keep their “love tanks” full and to keep themselves regulated. They need help processing the yucky emotions that are driving the bad behavior. They’re much more likely to act the way we want them to when they feel connected to us and when they’re in a positive emotional state.

We also tend to think, “but I’m the adult and they’re the child and it’s my job to discipline and teach them a lesson when they misbehave.” This is true! But the thing about teaching and learning is that it can only happen when everyone is calm and in a positive emotional state. As I said before, the rational part (the learning center) of our brain shuts down when we’re in a state of fight or flight. Yelling, criticizing, belittling, shaming, spanking, isolation/withdrawal (time out), etc. all put children in a state of fight or flight and turn off their reasoning centers, making it literally impossible for them to even understand what we are saying. All of these strategies make children feel worse, and again, they can’t do better by feeling worse. They can’t reason or learn while in “fight or flight,” but nor will they even be motivated to do good when they feel shamed. All shame does is make us feel defeated and worthless and hopeless. It is essential that we improve the emotional state first before we can truly improve behavior.

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Now, recognizing that we only act badly when we feel badly does not in any way excuse bad behavior. We are each responsible for our actions regardless of how we feel. This is why we allow all feelings but limit behavior. This is also why we use empathy and emotion coaching. Everyone is swamped by big emotions at times, so it’s crucial to learn how to shift from “fight or flight” back to a state of rest where we can reason, without repressing emotions, so that we don’t continually make bad choices in the heat of the moment that we will later regret. The more we help our children make that shift, the better able they will be to make it on their own eventually. It is only after making that shift that effective teaching, learning, and communicating can take place. Change the emotional state, change the behavior. How do we help our children change their emotional state? Find a way to touch their heart. If they are yelling, respond with a whisper (see Proverbs 15:1). Truly listen to them. Empathize. Show affection. Play with them. Do something that makes them feel connected to you and engaged with. Tell stories. Use the Word of God, or music. Invite the spirit. (See this post for effective Spirit-led discipline.)

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This doesn’t mean that we are enabling bad behavior at all, or being permissive parents. We can recognize sin, and teach children to behave righteously, without doing things that make the child feel devalued, discouraged, or disabled. True discipline (which means ‘to teach’) will always involve calm and clear minds, positive emotional states, and the Spirit, who helps us to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

Why did the word of God have such a powerful effect on the Nephites? Because preaching the word allowed the Spirit to touch their hearts, which changed their emotional state to one of love and a desire to do the Lord’s will.

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I firmly believe that children naturally want to please us and do the right thing. Their hearts are pure. Mosiah 3:19 says that we must “[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit…” This is children’s nature. But because young children are immature beings and their brains aren’t fully developed, they get easily overwhelmed by big emotions, and when they feel badly they tend to act inappropriately. Helping them with their feelings (and their behavior), connecting with them, and making sure they feel significant and worthwhile and wanted, helps restore them to their natural state–which is a state of goodness. I feel strongly that our society’s view of children needs to change. We must believe that children are good. Labeling them as naughty when they misbehave is not helpful. When our children behave badly, they are not bad–they are hurting. Or maybe they’re simply exploring cause and effect and testing boundaries and limits, because that’s how they learn. Either way, bad behavior does not mean they are bad. Their worth has not changed. They don’t need to redeem themselves in order to deserve our love and kindness and attention. Our Savior has already redeemed every living soul from sin. Our Savior has shown us how to hate the sin but love the sinner unconditionally.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3-11). Jesus would have been justified by the law to have this woman stoned to death for her crime. But not only did He spare her life, He transformed the entire situation and probably left this daughter of God feeling humbled and hopeful and worthy of forgiveness. I imagine she was overcome with love and gratitude. The perfect love she must have felt from the Savior would certainly have been a much greater motivator to “go and sin no more” than was the shame and scorn of the scribes and Pharisees. The Savior surely understood the worth of each person, as well as the significance of us knowing our worth. He understood the importance of changing hearts, not just behavior.

This approach to behavior modification (touching and shaping hearts) works beautifully, but it isn’t easy. Honestly, the hardest part about parenting this way isn’t our children’s emotions, or even their behavior–it’s taking control of our own emotions (and subsequently, our behavior). We must practice shifting our own emotional state before we will be able to help our children shift theirs. This also requires time and dedicated effort. It might be faster and easier to use fear-based tactics or to just send our kids to timeout, but if we truly want our children to learn how to control their behavior and choose to do the right thing of their own volition, it will require effort on our part. And what more important work could we be doing?

Love vs. Fear

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices I make. I’ve heard it said that every choice we make either comes from a place of love or from a place of fear. I believe this is true. In any given moment, what we choose to think, say, or do is either driven by love (or some other “fruit” of the Spirit), or it is driven by fear (or another of Satan’s tools). We know that faith and fear can not exist in the same mind at the same time. And we know that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). We also know that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Feeling fear (or any other “negative” emotion) is not bad, and it does not in any way make us bad. But clearly, the choices we make out of fear are not inspired by the Lord, and thus, will not bless our lives.

What do I mean by “choices we make out of fear?”

Fight or Flight

For one, any time we act while we’re angry, or overcome by “fight or flight” hormones, that choice or action is driven by fear. You might think, “I’m not afraid, I’m angry!” But anger is a masking emotion that covers up more vulnerable emotions, like fear.

An example of this might be when my child is acting up and is not listening to me when I tell her to stop. My mind jumps to conclusions and I get triggered by some ridiculous (and not totally conscious) thought, like “oh no, I’m a horrible mother because I can’t make my child do what I want!” That lack of control causes a fear response. I shift into fight or flight. My brain tells my body that there is an emergency and I must act immediately (fight or flee). If I act in the moment, I might do something like yell at my child or physically handle her roughly, which I will regret afterward. But if I can access my rational brain I will realize that there really isn’t an emergency, and then I can slow down, re-frame my thoughts (e.g. remind myself that we can’t solve anything until everyone is calm, that she can’t do better by feeling worse, and that the answer always starts with connection), and make a choice out of love instead – such as getting down on my child’s level, making eye contact, connecting physically with a gentle hand on her arm, and calmly making my request (or setting my limit) again. I think we all know which choice is more loving and Christlike. But how do we shift out of fight or flight in moments like this?

Try taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes. Count to ten. Tell yourself “It’s not an emergency,” or “I have all the time in the world.” Turn or walk away if necessary. These are the things that work the most effectively for me. There are a myriad of ways to calm oneself, so find what works best for you and practice it. I have even put up sticky notes around my house to help remind me in the moment.

One important note: I have found that it’s so, so much easier to calm down if I choose to calm myself right away – before I get too upset. If I choose to act on my anger, even a little bit, it is 10 X harder to then choose to calm down. Acting on our anger, or even talking about how angry we are, makes us more angry. We are then more likely to feel justified in our angry actions (until later when we’re calm and the guilt comes crashing down on us). Opening the door to our anger even slightly can sabotage our ability to make a choice out of love. So instead, notice the anger and breathe through it. Use your calming strategies. And then choose love.

Is this easy? Nope! Will we sometimes still act on our anger (or fear), even if we practice this a lot? Of course. Because we’re human. But the more often we can calm ourselves instead of acting on our anger, the more our brains will create and reinforce new neural pathways that will help us to calm ourselves more easily in the future. (We can actually create a calmer brain!) And when we do mess up, all is not lost. In any given moment, we can choose love – even if we failed to do so in the previous moment. Additionally, messing up gives us the opportunity to model for our children how to repair relationships. We can apologize for our behavior (which does not excuse our children’s behavior, but rather, models how to take responsibility for our actions). We can try a do-over. And we can move forward.

“What if…”

I have noticed that I am also more prone to make fear-based choices when I start asking, “What if…?” rather than trusting God and the natural processes of things (I’m referring to the type of “what if…” questions that cause us to doubt). This way of thinking can lead us to ignore our God-given instincts and intuition and to make decisions that are based on the wisdom of men. For example, “What if all the experts are right and my baby never learns to sleep on her own? I’d better leave her to cry it out. She might not learn any other way.” (see this post for my experience with sleep training.) Instead, we can trust that God created us with instincts that drive us to respond to and comfort crying babies, and even to hold, rock, and nurse them to sleep. If we trust that this is His design (a design that has worked beautifully for thousands of years throughout the history of the world, I might add) then we don’t need to worry about creating “bad habits.” We can trust that He created each one of His children to learn and develop at just the right pace for each of them, and that even the babies who are not forced to do things before they’re ready all eventually learn to do those things on their own. Along with being developmentally ready, their trust, security, and attachment to the adults in their lives is what enables their independence. We can trust the process.

Side note: some might argue that their decision to sleep train was not made out of fear at all, but rather it was a logical, thought-out decision they made to achieve a desired result – an easier baby who sleeps through the night independently, and better-rested parents. That might sound pretty nice, but it goes against nature and God’s design (and in my experience, when I work with nature instead of fighting against it, things work better). Babies were meant to be near their mothers, even during sleep, as is so clearly evident by the physiological phenomena that occur when babies are in close contact with their mothers (synchronized sleep patterns, regulated breathing, body temperature, heart rate, etc.) (Source), as well as what occurs when they are separated (elevated stress hormones, weakened immune system, sleep disturbances, etc.) (Source). Additionally, it might surprise you to learn that moms who breastfeed and co-sleep get more sleep and report feeling better rested than moms who breastfeed but don’t co-sleep or moms who bottle feed (Source). This has definitely been true for me. Co-sleeping may not be the right answer for all families, but it is a huge blessing for many families – even many families who didn’t think it would work for them. If you’re worried about safety, check this out. And for those who need a third option (other than cry-it-out or co-sleeping) there are more gradual and gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in older babies and young children (also see here).

Now back to doubt and fear. On the other end of the spectrum, asking “What if…?”can also lead to anxiety that we might damage our children if we are less than perfect. “What if I am permanently damaging my children because I can’t seem to stop yelling at them?” “What if my child is struggling with _____ because of a choice I made?” “What if I fail to teach my children all of the most important things?” None of us want to screw up our kids! But fear doesn’t help. It is not productive. It won’t serve to make us or our lives or our children better. Faith, trust, hope, love – these divine attributes do help. Because of the atonement no one is ever damaged beyond repair. The Lord loves us unconditionally, and He trusts us enough to raise His children, even though we are not perfect. We must focus on the good that we do, for “[we] are doing better than [we] think [we] are” (Jeffery R. Holland). When thoughts of doubt creep in, we always have the opportunity to re-frame our thoughts, to re-write our story, to forgive ourselves and others, and to move forward in faith and love – love for ourselves as well as others. Which brings me to:

Self-Destructive Thoughts

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Self-destructive thoughts certainly don’t come from a place of love, but rather from fear. Brigham Young said, “If you have a bad thought about yourself, tell it to go to hell, because that is exactly where it came from.”

Self-destructive thoughts are never helpful or productive, because we can’t do better by feeling worse. We need encouragement from ourselves, not criticism.

We must choose love, not only for others, but for ourselves. We must take compassionate care of ourselves before we will be able to take compassionate care of our children and others.

Using Either Fear or Love to Influence Others

In addition to us being influenced by either fear or love, we use either fear or love to influence our children. After all, unless we are able to physically move them and force them to do what we want for the rest of their lives, influence is all we really have. (And even if we are able to force their actions, we will never have control over their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings – we only have influence.) As hard as this might sometimes be for us to accept, this is how it was meant to be. This is the way we chose for it to be when we chose to follow our Savior in the pre-existence.

D&C 121:41-42 says, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, 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—”

It is popular to use fear (yelling, threats, withdrawal, manipulation, punishment, control, etc.) in parenting to coerce children into obedience, but it seems that the Lord would have us influence them a different way. Punishment, by definition, is not gentle or kind. We might think, “well I’m punishing my child because I love him.” But it is not enough just to love our children – they must feel our love in order for it to really be effective. When we use punishment, our love is lost on our children. But when we set limits with empathy (acknowledge their feelings and perspective), our children feel that we understand them and are in their corner – even if they’re not happy about the limits we set.

One of my favorite quotes is by Gordon Neufeld. He says, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” Our connection with our children (or their attachment to us) is absolutely vital in teaching and guiding them. So how do we win our children’s hearts?

That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, try this experiment: every time you make a choice, ask yourself if it was love or fear that drove you. Then look at the fruits of that choice. And whenever possible, choose love.

“I Will Not Leave You Comfortless”

My babies have never been exceptionally good sleepers. I have never been able to lay them down and have them go to sleep on their own (not consistently, anyway). It takes them a long time (compared to other babies) to sleep long stretches or through the night. They have never been “marathon nappers.” But honestly, I am okay with all of this now that I know what normal infant sleep is.

Still, I have had several people wonder why I don’t just let my babies “cry it out” so that they’ll sleep better. Here’s my experience.

When my oldest was a baby (probably 8-10 months), I was desperate for her to sleep through the night. After all, her cousin who’s the same age had been sleeping through the night for months. I thought something was wrong with my baby, or that I was doing something wrong. I was exhausted and worried and stressed. Almost everyone I talked to, and almost everything I looked at online, suggested leaving her to cry it out. I didn’t like the idea, but I finally decided to give it a try. I thought it was my only option.

So one night after our bedtime routine my husband and I put our daughter down in her crib awake, kissed her goodnight, and walked out. Now, at this point, some babies will fuss for a couple minutes and then go to sleep. Seems like a great solution! But that is not what our daughter did. She was extremely upset (which really is understandable). But we left anyway, and we watched the clock until it was “time” to go back in. I went back in and tried to comfort her (which didn’t work because I didn’t pick her up) and then left again. She screamed bloody murder. I went back to the living room to diligently wait with my husband. But I felt sick inside. Every instinct inside me was screaming at me to go pick up my baby, to hold her and comfort her. But I was supposed to be “strong.” After all, if I didn’t do this, she would never learn to sleep on her own. It was for her own good. Right? I wasn’t so sure. I desperately wanted to throw this whole idea out the window, but I felt like I needed permission.

Finally I said something to my husband. Something like, “Honey, I don’t want to do this.” And then he said, “So let’s not do it. Go get her.” That was all I needed.

I went in to my baby girl and picked her up. I sat with her in the rocking chair and held her tight while she tried to calm down. I cried with her. And then, as we sat there in the stillness that followed, I had some thoughts enter my mind. I wondered what the Savior would do in this situation.

“Then the Holy Spirit enters into my thoughts, saying:

‘Love one another as Jesus loves you.
Try to show kindness in all that you do.
Be gentle and loving in deed and in thought,
For these are the things Jesus taught.'”
(I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus, Children’s Songbook, pg 78)
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Credit: Jean Keaton

I pictured my Savior with my little girl. I couldn’t imagine Him leaving her to cry by herself. In fact, He promised His disciples, and has in effect promised all of us:

 “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you.”
(John 14:18)

I felt peace in my decision to do the same for my daughter that night.

I have heard some argue that the Lord does require us to do hard things on our own, but I disagree. He does ask us to do hard things, but we never have to do them alone.

 

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 Since that time I have educated myself about infant and toddler sleep and what is normal, and have learned that we as parents do not need to (and shouldn’t) fight our God-given instincts and intuition. Even if we do nothing to encourage it, children naturally learn to sleep on their own eventually. (And for those who just can not wait for that to happen in their child’s own time – and I get it – there are gradual, gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in an older baby or toddler.) God created us the way He did on purpose – He knew what He was doing. So our parental instincts to hold and comfort our child will not create “bad habits” that can’t be broken, and our child is not doomed to a life without sleep unless we traumatize her. We need not fear. “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).

I feel it’s important to note that I do not judge other parents for making a different choice. Truly. Especially when mental health challenges are involved. I do believe that God can heal all things and that we can all eventually be just like Jesus and do as He would do. But I also know that it’s not always so black and white. Each of us are doing the best we can with the knowledge and experience and abilities we have. We all need support and kindness and love through this journey called parenthood. I hope and pray that this post will offer encouragement and help and hope to those who need it.

And for those who feel, as I did, like you need permission not to sleep train, here it is. Go to your baby. Hold her, cuddle her, love on her. Sleep with her if you wish to. This stage will not last forever. Trust your God-given instincts, your intuition. Choose love. Parent with faith and not with fear. It will all be okay.

Why I Don’t Make My Children “Pay the Price” For Their Misbehavior (And What I’ve Found That Works Better)

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I was reading one day about disciplining children and, more specifically, about giving consequences. The author spoke of the importance of responding to negative behavior right away, as well as making sure the consequence is age-appropriate and relevant to the situation (that it “fits the crime”). The author then stressed that it’s necessary that the child “pays the price” (i.e. suffers) for the thing they have done wrong. Something about this felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate why at the time. As I’ve thought about it in the weeks and months since, I have had two main thoughts form in my mind.

First, if our focus is on making our child pay for what they have done, then this is not really a consequence (i.e. the result of a choice), but rather a punishment (i.e. “to subject to pain, loss, confinement, death, etc., as a penalty for some offense,  transgression, or fault”–according to the dictionary). The word discipline means ‘to teach,’ which I think most of us would agree is our goal. We want our children to learn to do what’s right. Consequences that occur naturally can be excellent teachers. But what about punishment? When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person), they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “reptilian brain” (fight or flight). The learning centers of their brain shut down. They literally can’t learn the lesson we want them to learn while they’re in fight or flight. Additionally, punishment hurts our connection with our child (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally inflicted pain on us), and thus, their likelihood of cooperating with us in the future. Punishment simply is not the most effective or healthy form of discipline.

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Second, and more importantly, Someone else has already paid the price for every sin, mistake, and wrong decision that each of us has or will ever make. He suffered, bled from every pore, and gave His very life to pay that price. We learn from modern scripture that “God [has] suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). For this reason, rather than teaching my children that they must pay a price for their misbehavior, I want to teach them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed. I want to teach them to recognize and right their wrongs, with His grace. I want to teach them early about repentance and how to use this precious gift, so that by the time they reach the age of accountability (see D&C 29:46-47), they are familiar with the application of repentance.

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How do I plan to teach my children about repentance from the time they’re very young?

In her book and in her course, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Laura Markham teaches parents how to empower their children to make amends, using what she calls The Three Rs: Reflect, Repair, and Responsibility (see below). Reading and listening to her description of this tool brought to my mind the repentance “steps.” Then a couple months ago I was visiting with my sister-in-law and a friend (we’ll call this friend Sara), and we were talking about discipline. Sara shared with us a new approach to disciplining her kids that she had begun using, which was bearing awesome results. She came up with this new approach (I believe with the guidance of the Spirit). It really resonated with me and I felt that this was a link I had been missing.

Sara invites the Spirit when correcting or disciplining her children by singing a hymn or primary song, telling a story or parable that teaches a principle that relates to the child’s infraction, and praying with her child(ren). The details of how this scenario looks for her family differ from the way I have adapted it for my own family, but the principle is the same. Likewise, you may adapt it to better work for your own family. I have only used this approach a few times so far, but it made a remarkable difference each time.

These are the steps I have used:

  1. Calm myself. This approach to discipline is not effective when I’m angry! The Spirit must be part of this process. I tell myself “it’s not an emergency.” I shake out my hands and breathe deeply. I remind myself that my child is acting this way because she’s struggling and needs my help to handle the situation appropriately so that she doesn’t do something she’ll really regret.
  2. Empathize and set (or enforce) a limit. This must be done with empathy, kindness and love, as well as clarity and firmness. “You were upset when he took your blankie because that’s your special blankie, right?…You were so mad, but sweetie, I won’t let you hit your brother. Hitting hurts.”
  3. The Three R’s (*adapted from Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids)
    1. Reflect – In a non-attacking tone, ask the child to tell me what happened, and really listen to her side. Without blame or shame, help her recognize that her actions hurt someone. Identify the what, why, and whether that action was safe/appropriate. Dr Markham says, “When you ask open-ended questions and help your child “narrate” what happened, her rational brain gains understanding. This gives her more control over her emotions and behavior in the future.” “How did you feel when brother took your blankie? And then what happened? How did that make your brother feel?”
    2. Repair – Ask the child what she can do to fix things with the person she hurt. Offer ideas if necessary. If the child isn’t ready to repair, I don’t force it. This means that she is still feeling too angry or threatened, so I may go back a few steps if necessary. Forcing an apology won’t actually help her learn to feel remorse or make amends on her own in the future. “I know you love your brother and you don’t really want to hurt him, but when you hit him that did hurt him. So how can you fix your relationship with him? What would you like to do to help him feel better?” 
    3. Responsibility – Part of helping a child learn to take responsibility is helping them be able to respond differently in the future. Help her recognize that she always has a choice to make and that that choice will impact those around her. Help her be “response-able” (able to respond appropriately). Equip her with appropriate alternative responses for future similar situations. If appropriate, have her role-play. This helps her know how to make necessary changes moving forward. “What could you do next time something like this happens, instead of hitting?” Discuss strategies for calming down, and then offer suggestions for alternative actions, if necessary, such as finding brother’s blankie and trading him. Practice right then if appropriate.  (*Note: I don’t expect my kids to actually remember to do this the very next time. It usually takes being taught correct behavior over and over again before it sticks. Just look at us with our “favorite sins,” or with the counsel we constantly hear from the Lord. He has to repeat Himself a lot too.)
  4. Once the child is calm (remember they can’t learn or reason while in fight or flight), use a parable/story or song to teach the correct behavior. Jesus often taught in parables. I think this is a very effective teaching tool when teaching anyone, but especially children. This also helps invite the Spirit. The story can be gospel-based, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. “Let me tell you a little story about Jesus. Do you know what Jesus did when people treated Him badly? He was kind to them and He helped them, even when they were mean. In fact, right before He died, He prayed and asked Heavenly Father to forgive the people who were trying to kill Him.” Sing  I’m Trying to Be Like Jesus.
  5. End with prayer. Ask forgiveness, for help to do better next time, and for an increased measure of love in our home. Thank Heavenly Father for sending His Son to make it possible for us to repent. Either parent or child can offer the prayer.

This might seem like a lot, but it doesn’t have to take long. The whole encounter may only take a few minutes, but even if it takes longer, when it’s over we are left feeling love and encouragement and harmony rather than frustration and disconnection. And I feel confident that, with the help of the Spirit, I am helping my children truly learn the desired lessons that will lead to emotional intelligence, positive behavior, and the ability repent when they stumble.

Obviously some encounters are going to take longer or be more involved. Sometimes it might be necessary to remove the child from the situation, or to physically stop them from doing something. Other times it might be necessary to save the teaching for a later time if everyone is too upset in the moment. And obviously the age, temperament, etc. of the child are going to impact what takes place and how.

I don’t necessarily follow every single step listed above every time my child misbehaves, nor do I necessarily follow the steps in this exact order every time – this is just a guideline. Cater this to your child’s individual needs and follow the Spirit. One thing that has been helpful for me is to make a list in advance of stories or songs I might use for scenarios that tend to pop up often. In the heat of the moment it can be hard to think on my feet.

The most important thing here for me is inviting and involving the Spirit in disciplining my children. My goal is to teach them in a way they can really learn, and to instill in them a desire to do what’s right, for the sake of doing what’s right. I believe that can really only be accomplished with the help of the Spirit.

Jesus Wept

jesus-mary-martha-1617344-wallpaperRecently I was venting to my mom on the phone. I was feeling overwhelmed. Frustrated. Alone. I realized that she couldn’t fix my problem, but I just needed to vent.

My mom must have been feeling frustrated or tired or irritated as well, because after a moment of my ranting she said, “Well you know what? That’s life!”

She wasn’t wrong, of course. But that didn’t mean I felt inclined to thank her for the dose of reality—for essentially telling me to just deal with it. Instead my natural reaction was to move into fight or flight, and I nearly hung up on her. What I really needed at that moment was not a life lesson; what I needed was to feel heard and validated and understood. What I needed was empathy.

Now, I’m not writing this to incriminate my mom in any way (she’s actually usually really great at empathizing). Rather, this experience got me thinking about how often we do this to the children in our lives, and how they must feel when we do. For most of us, empathy is not our automatic response.

For example, not long ago my three-year-old dropped her plate of food and it spilled all over the floor. She lost it. She was so upset. My husband and I automatically began an attempt to console her, saying things like, “Calm down—it’s okay!”, “We can get you more food!” and “You’re fine.”

That phrase—“You’re fine.” We say it all the time. Why do we say it, when they clearly are not “fine” inside?

I think, for most of us, it’s because our child’s big emotions make us uncomfortable and we feel an urgent need to stop the upset. This is partly a hard-wired response that ensures we will meet our children’s needs. But I believe it is also the result of being taught our whole lives that big, negative emotions are unacceptable. Our parents worried, and now we worry, that if we indulge children’s sadness and tears then they will become whiney and emotionally fragile. We feel the need to “toughen them up.” Because this is how we were raised, most of us never learned how to process negative emotions appropriately, and instead try to repress them. Unfortunately, repressed emotions don’t just go away—rather they pop up uncontrolled at times (such as when our child has a meltdown) and threaten again to overwhelm us (which we still find uncomfortable). And so what do we do? We get triggered (we move into fight or flight) and we try again to stuff these emotions. We do whatever we can to get our child to calm down and be “good” (i.e. happy and cooperative). Sometimes we even get so triggered in these moments that we yell at our child (anger is a defense against more vulnerable emotions).

The interesting thing about all this? If we, as human beings, are encouraged and allowed to notice and feel our negative emotions, without acting on them in the moment, they evaporate. This happens because our emotions are trying to send us a message, and when we acknowledge the emotions, they can then stop alerting us because the message has been received. What’s more, if someone we love and trust witnesses us feeling our emotions and “holds space” for us, our connection with them deepens. We are then much more likely to accept any guidance they may give us. (Source)

I remembered all of this mid-sentence while consoling my daughter. So I stopped. I got down and hugged her and said, “You are so upset that your food fell on the floor. That was yours and you wanted to eat it, didn’t you?” Through her tears she said, “Yeah.” A few minutes later she was calm and had a new plate of food and all was well. Not only was she given an opportunity to feel the emotions that were swamping her so that they could dissipate and she could move on, but she also felt my understanding and knew that I was on her team.

Consider the Biblical account of Lazarus’ death in the book of John. Jesus was away when his friend died. Upon returning to Bethany, Jesus found that Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha, were understandably grief-stricken with the loss of their brother. They had great faith that, had Christ been there, their brother would not have died. Imagine the overwhelming disappointment and sadness they must have felt knowing what could have been, but tragically was not, their reality. Jesus, however, knew that Lazarus would momentarily live again. How easy would it have been for him to downplay the loss Mary and Martha had experienced, knowing the joy that soon would follow. He testified to Martha of resurrection, but he never made light of what these sisters were going through. Instead, he not only allowed them their grief, but because of the love he had for his friends, “Jesus wept” with them (see John 11:35). He felt their pain, their grief, their loss. He validated their feelings and honored their experience. Then, and only then, he raised their beloved brother from the dead.

Similarly, our view is often broader than that of our children. Something that seems so inconsequential to us feels to them like their world is ending. We can tell them they’re fine, or to deal with it because “that’s life.” We can even try to convince them to see the bigger picture and to cheer them up prematurely. But if we do, what might we—or they—lose in the process?

Want more help with Emotion Coaching? Check out this article. I also love this mama’s experience.