The Great Need For Empathy

“And the Lord called his people Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18).

I have been feeling so much lately an urgency for us to prepare the way for our Savior’s return. Obviously that means a hastening of His work — spreading the gospel, redeeming the dead, strengthening the saints. But there’s another aspect that I can’t get out of my head. I feel it is of vital importance. We must heal and prepare our hearts. (Or rather, allow the Savior to do that for us.) We must experience a shift in our thinking and feeling about ourselves and all those around us. We must begin to become a Zion society.

A Zion society lives by attributes such as purity, service, consecration, charity, and unity. Everyone freely gives of their means and time to bless and help each other. Everyone understands one another and all are unified in truth and righteousness. And most significantly, everyone in a Zion society chooses to live this way, rather than being coerced by men and governments to do so. This kind of sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? We know that we must become a Zion people before we will be able to dwell in the Celestial kingdom, but I used to think that this would just kind of happen. I now understand that, while we will perfect this way of living and becoming during the millennium, this is something we must be consciously working toward now. During the millennium, “because of the righteousness of [God’s] people, Satan has no power…over the hearts of the people” (see 1 Nephi 22:26). But we won’t just automatically be that righteous. We must become the type of people that Satan has no power over.

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It can be kind of discouraging to look around and see how far the world is from the principles of a Zion society, even among some members of the church. If you need proof, just bring up politics in a social setting, or spend a while on Facebook or other internet forums, or take a drive during rush hour traffic. It’s rare to see diplomacy, respect for differing beliefs, consideration, unity, or charity. It’s not surprising that the majority of the world rejects the principles of Zion — Babylon (the world) has always existed in opposition to Zion. But it’s all too easy for us as members of the Lord’s church to get caught up in the ways of Babylon as well.

I think we all know that we need to avoid being of the world, and I think we all understand why worldliness is not God’s way. So I’m not going to try to convince anyone of these things. I don’t think that’s as helpful as offering possible solutions to combat the selfishness and pride that prevails around (and perhaps in) us. I prefer to focus on what we can do to become a Zion society. There are several wonderful talks and articles on lds.org that offer specific counsel in this regard. I am going to offer just one principle that we can focus on: empathy.

Empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective — putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling with them.

Why is empathy a key to establishing a Zion society? If we have empathy, we notice others’ feelings and needs, and we care enough to help them. We will be less self-absorbed and more willing to give of our time and means, so that there are no poor among us. If we have empathy, we acknowledge others’ experiences, paradigms, and opinions, and we respectfully find common ground. There will be less criticism, gossip, offense, and enmity, and more understanding and unity. I read a great article on Psychology Today’s website entitled Are You Suffering From Empathy Deficit Disorder? It talks about this very issue, particularly about a lack of empathy for those who think and believe differently from us. It also goes into brain science a bit and how our brains are hard-wired for empathy and can be re-trained to respond with empathy. Definitely check it out.

Why are we (as a society) lacking in empathy? The article above suggests that it’s a preoccupation with things — money, possessions, status. I certainly think this is a problem, but I think that lack of empathy begins much earlier in life.

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The foundation for empathy development begins in infancy as parents respond appropriately, quickly and lovingly to their babies’ cries and their needs (fyi, parents consistently soothing their babies is what actually leads to those children’s eventual self-soothing, and also models the way to selflessly respond to other’s needs). For the last few generations there has been more and more advice leading parents to ignore their innate instincts and their babies’ cues, to the point that this is now the cultural norm in most developed areas of the world. “Don’t hold your baby too much or you’ll spoil him.” “Let her cry — she has to learn.” “Don’t ever rock or nurse your baby to sleep unless you want to create bad habits that you’ll never be able to break.” All of this advice is conflicting for many parents and causes unnecessary stress. But fear leads most parents to continue the trend of listening to the world’s advice rather than trusting their God-given instincts and listening to their babies. Because of this trend, many of us may not have had totally secure attachments with our own parents, which has lasting effects — not only for us, but for future generations, because, unless we intentionally reflect on our own childhoods and choose to heal unhealthy patterns, we are likely to repeat them.

Moving past infancy we are met with big, strong emotions in toddlerhood. We are conditioned to believe that tantrums and meltdowns are bad behavior or our child’s way of manipulating us, when in reality they are nature’s built-in release valve for all of those big and overwhelming feelings. Toddlers’ brains are still quite under-developed and they are incapable of reasoning through their upsets on their own the way adults are (and even though we are more capable, how often do we react inappropriately when we’re upset??). Adults are their babies’ and toddlers’ emotional regulators until they are capable of that job on their own. Due to this misguided belief about big feelings, most of us probably were not encouraged as children to feel however we felt, and to process those emotions in a healthy way. (I’ve become hyper-aware of the countless times I hear adults telling children to stop crying.) Most of us probably grew up repressing our big emotions, and still do so today, until they manifest in other (uncontrolled and unhealthy) ways when we’re triggered, and we say and do things we wouldn’t otherwise (or perhaps we just shut down emotionally, which harms our relationships). Maybe some of us have a chip on our shoulder because we were never understood, and so we feel like hurting other people back.

And so it continues through childhood and adolescence — society tells us that it is a parent’s job to control their children, and if they don’t, those kids will be unruly and out of control and selfish and entitled. So rather than learning cooperation and problem-solving skills and mutual respect and empathy, kids learn to do the right things for the wrong reasons (fear of being punished or to gain some external reward), at least when there’s a chance they might get caught. Being raised with fear, threats, control and punishment results in disconnection and external motivation. In other words, many people never really develop much of a conscience, self-discipline, concern for others, or a sincere desire to do good for the sake of doing good. See this post for more effective discipline.

“Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem solvers, focus on solutions not retribution.” -L.R. Knost

Going back to our society’s obsession with material things, I have to wonder how much of that is a misguided attempt to fill some deep unmet emotional needs?

So then, how do we increase empathy in the world, and in so doing, establish Zion?

Very first, I believe we need to overwhelm our own hearts and souls with self-love, acceptance and compassion. We need to embrace every part of ourselves — even the not-so-great parts — and show ourselves gentleness and compassion. Accept every emotion by simply allowing it to be there without judgment and without using it to hurt anyone. The emotion itself is just a message. Let it be heard and felt. We can reflect on our own childhoods and lives and determine where our beliefs have come from and whether they are true and serving us well or not. We can change our understanding and perspective if we need to. And we can always turn to the Savior to heal us.

From there I believe that Zion begins in our individual homes, with the way we treat one another, and how we teach our children to treat one another. Modeling empathy for our children, particularly by empathizing with them, but also in our interactions with others, teaches them how to empathize with others as well. The home is the perfect training ground to develop character and Christlike attributes. The more parents teach their children empathy, the better off the whole world will be.

We can start by listening to our instincts and intuition that tell us to hold our babies and respond lovingly to their emotional needs (which are deeply real needs).

We can start by accepting all of our child’s emotions, and empathizing with them (even when we need to set limits on their behavior). Resist the urge to stop the crying or to jump to teaching any lessons. You don’t have to fix anything. Just acknowledge their point of view and empathize: “You really wish you could keep playing and you’re disappointed that we have to go home now.” (Then once everyone is calm, you can do your teaching if you need to. Your child will be more open to your teaching once they’ve been heard and understood anyway.) Resisting the urge to stop the crying or fix the problem also builds resilience and shows children that they are capable of handling uncomfortable emotions.

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We can become more present in our lives and focus on people rather than things. People always remember how we made them feel, and children in particular are influenced and shaped by this.

“What is most important almost always involves the people around us.” -Thomas S. Monson

“To you who are parents, I say, show love to your children. You know you love them, but make certain they know it as well. They are so precious. Let them know.” -Thomas S. Monson

While empathy in and of itself is vitally important, I also believe that it is preparatory to a higher law — that of charity. If empathy can be defined as seeing and feeling from another’s perspective, then charity can be defined as seeing and feeling for someone from the Lord’s perspective. I believe that the more we practice empathy (stepping out of our own shoes and problems or whatever we’re preoccupied with at the moment, and really seeing and feeling about a situation the way the other person does), the easier it will be for us to see others as the Lord sees them, and to feel about them accordingly. Charity is a gift from God, but we can prepare ourselves to receive that gift by practicing empathy and by living the gospel the best we can. Then once we are each filled with the pure love of Christ, creating Zion will be second nature to us. The two great commandments, loving God first and our neighbor second, takes care of all the other commandments. Let us put God first, practice empathy, and pray for charity.

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.

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.” And it’s true, we do have a responsibility to teach! 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 true 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 don’t always act appropriately. Not only this, but when we use control and fear to manipulate them, they then feel the need to fight for their rights and their needs to be met. When we view them as bad (or difficult or selfish or untrustworthy, etc.) we usually see a self-fulfilling prophecy. 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 have divine nature and they want to be 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 way of parenting (touching and guiding 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 to control ourselves and trust the process. And what more important work could we be doing?

Why I Don’t Make My Children Suffer For Their Misbehavior (Repentance-Based Discipline)

As a mother and parent educator, I spend a good amount of time reading and learning about parenting. 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 (especially the last part) felt wrong to me, but I couldn’t articulate exactly why at the time. As I’ve prayerfully studied and pondered in the weeks and months since, I have had a few concrete thoughts form in my mind concerning this idea of paying a price.

Defining Consequences and Discipline

First, if our focus is on coming up with a way to make our child pay (suffer) for what they have done, then this is not really a consequence (i.e. the result of an action), but rather a punishment (i.e. pain — physical or emotional — caused intentionally by another person for retribution or to “teach a lesson”). Consequences happen naturally, whether we want them to or not, because of the eternal law of Justice. Some people feel that punishment is too harsh and opt for using what they call “consequences” instead, when in reality they are the same thing if we are the ones determining what those “consequences” are. As we’ll see, punishment — even when it’s called “consequences” — may not actually lead to the outcomes we desire in the long run.
Now, I am certainly not suggesting that true natural consequences aren’t important or that we shouldn’t discipline our kids, but it’s important to understand what true consequences and discipline are. We’ve established that “consequence” means “the result of (not one’s chosen response to) an action.” The word “discipline” originates from the Latin word disciplina, which means “instruction,” and is derived from the root word discere, which means “to learn.” I think most of us would agree that this is our goal — we want our children to learn to do what’s right.
“To discipline in the Lord’s way is to lovingly and patiently teach.” (Elder Lynn G. Robbins)
Consequences (which occur naturally, without our help) can be effective teachers when we offer only empathy and support as our kids face those consequences (no unhelpful “I told you so” or “That’s what you get” comments).
(An exception: not doing what we can to prevent a harmful natural consequence, when we are able to do so, is not helpful or kind. If we foresee harm and we can prevent it, we should. If help is needed and we are able to help, we should. Not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because close calls — “your toy was left behind the car and almost got run over! Thank goodness I happened to see it! We may not be so lucky next time.” — still tend to get one’s attention and open them up for learning, without the risk of harm or damaging trust. Deliberate inaction (choosing not to help) when we are able to help isn’t much different than punishment, and will lead our kids to believe we don’t have their backs. If the problem is continual, problem-solving together may be helpful.)
Guidance also effectively leads to learning and is what I believe true discipline is. Guidance is always helpful to our children in their learning process.
From an outside perspective, some guidance might look like what is often called “logical consequences” (such as holding boundaries, inviting and guiding our children to repair wrongs, and choosing not to put a child in a situation that requires a certain level of responsibility when we can see that they need more time, help or preparation before they’re ready and able to handle it, so as to not set them up for failure). But what it is is our response to behavior — and we always get to decide if our response is helpful (loving guidance) or adversarial (punishment, anger, force, etc). Guidance, which sometimes involves correction and setting appropriate boundaries, is absolutely necessary to help our kids learn and to keep them and others safe. But what about punishment?
When a child (or anyone) is subject to punishment (pain caused intentionally by another person), their defenses shoot up and they shift out of their “reasoning brain” into their “survival brain” (fight, flight or freeze). The learning functions of their brain shut down. Punishment tends to create resistance and shame, which is not a good place to start if our goal is true learning. Learning requires a state of safety and calm alertness (even when one has done something wrong and feelings of sobriety and remorse are involved. Feelings of shame or resistance caused by punishment actually tend to overshadow feelings of remorse, because it keeps the child’s focus on themselves and what’s being done to them, rather than on how their actions affected someone else). Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, punishment tends to hurt our connection with our child at a time when they need us the most (just as it would strain our connection and relationship with our spouse if they intentionally caused us pain or discomfort), and thus, their likelihood of trusting and cooperating with us in the future. Our connection with our kids is critical if we want to influence them for good and have them follow our guidance (in fact, when our guidance doesn’t seem to be getting through to them, working on connection is usually the first priority). Punishment teaches instead that it’s okay to use power over others — even people we love — when they don’t do what we want. Furthermore, punishment addresses only outward behavior and fails to address underlying causes or teach skills for doing better. What punishment does tend to do is lead to either sneakiness and dishonesty, outright rebellion, or good outward behavior without internalizing its value or truly desiring goodness.
But don’t we need to make sure kids learn that something bad will happen to them when they make bad choices so that they won’t make bad choices in the future (especially ones that could have really huge consequences beyond our control)? Only if we want them to avoid making bad choices strictly out of fear of what will happen to them if they do, rather than doing the right things because they want to be the kind of person who does the right things. Fear of punishment does not lead to benevolence; there are better motivators than fear. (See Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf’s talk from April 2017 General Conference, entitled Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear.) I am more interested in how I can help my kids see themselves as good people who do the right things, and in giving them tools to help them do the right things.
Kids, like all of us, do need to learn that every choice has a consequence attached to it (see D&C 130:20-21) — some good and some bad, some that are obvious and some that we may need help recognizing, some that we see right away and some that we don’t see till later — but is creating artificial consequences the best way for them to learn that? Or might observation, reflection, conversation, and inspiration (from scriptures and stories of other people) accomplish this in a more effective way? Life provides plenty of consequences for us to learn from, without us having to manufacture more.
I was thinking about punishment from the perspective of the punished and realized that just as I don’t need my husband to confiscate my personal belongings or make me do extra housework when I make a mistake in order to understand that stealing and murder can result in prison time or worse, or that driving drunk can kill someone (nor did I come to this understanding by being punished as a child), punishing children probably does not lead them to this forethought and understanding, either. (Punishment from my husband probably would lead me to avoid him when I make mistakes, though, and I can understand why kids do the same. I feel strongly that we need to communicate to our children, both implicitly and explicitly, that they can always come to us when they’ve messed up and that we will lovingly help them get back on track.) Even if punishment did result in that understanding, the fact that I wouldn’t want to steal, kill, or drink and drive (because I don’t feel that those things are moral or good) is more significant. My desire and love for goodness and righteousness is more important and that desire comes through love and inspiration, not fear or pain that someone inflicts on me.
“[God] wants to change more than just our behaviors. He wants to change our very natures. He wants to change our hearts.” (Dieter F. Uchtdorf)
I feel strongly that what our children need us to be for them is not so much an enforcer or a guard, but rather a partner, a mentor, a helper, a guide, and an inspiration.
For all of these reasons, punishment (or demanding that our kids “pay a price”) may not be the best form of discipline. (If you’re thinking, “But God punishes His children,” the way I understand punishment in the scriptures is simply the Law of Justice, which is addressed in thought number two.)
“Be your child’s partner, not their adversary.” (Unknown)

The One Who Paid The Price

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, emphasis added). If we refuse to repent (turn to God) then we must eventually suffer as the Savior did — not because suffering is necessary for each of us to experience when we make mistakes, in order to learn from them, but because the penalty must be paid (justice) and we’re refusing the conditions of the Savior’s payment on our behalf (mercy). For this reason, rather than focusing on teaching my children that they must always pay an externally-imposed price (or suffer) for their misbehavior, I want to focus on teaching them about the One who has already paid the price for every misdeed, and how to turn to Him when they stumble. I want them to learn to recognize and right their wrongs with His grace and because they want to. I want to help them feel His love and be inspired in their hearts to follow Him. Boundaries are crucial, but more than just understanding this, our kids need to know how to make things right when they do cross the line, and have a desire to do so.
What’s more, young children (under age 8) are not even accountable for their mistakes, yet so often we treat them like they are by demanding that they pay a price that has already been freely paid for them. Instead, we can teach and influence and prepare them for when they are of the age of accountability and repentance is necessary for them (see D&C 29:46-47 and D&C 68:25-27). (And when they reach that point, we can, of course, continue to guide and inspire rather than demand or force.) In fact, we have been commanded to repent and become like little children ourselves, “for of such is the kingdom of God” (3 Nephi 9:22; 3 Nephi 11:38).
It is my Savior’s example that I try my best to follow in all that I do. He never condoned sin in the least, but He didn’t punish or coerce, either. Instead, He lovingly guided, inspired, and invited to do better, forgiving sinners and allowing for repentance. The only ‘price’ He asked was that of a broken heart and a contrite spirit (3 Nephi 9:20), which brings us to my third thought.
“And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” (John 8:11)

Sacrifice

Lastly, every time we do repent, we give up something we want (a sin) for something we want more (to follow the Savior and do what’s right). That is paying a price, but it’s not an arbitrary price that someone else imposed on us. Rather, it is a sincere and willful sacrifice. Choosing to repent also does not have to involve suffering, but instead offers great peace and joy.

An Action Plan

So how can we effectively discipline (teach) our children and inspire them to follow Jesus?
First and most importantly, by consistently helping them become familiar with the Savior and feel His love (through stories, songs, pictures, discussions, and testimonies). Just last night my daughter and I were having a discussion about how “no unclean thing can enter into [the kingdom of God]” (see 3 Nephi 27:19-20) and that sins and mistakes make us unclean once we are of the age of accountability, but that because of the atonement of our Savior we can become clean again through repentance, baptism, and renewing our baptismal covenants through the sacrament. Our children’s understanding of these truths is critical.
“And we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” (2 Nephi 25:26)
The way I have taught this simply to my younger children is by saying that Jesus loves us so much and wants us to be happy, so He wants us to follow Him by doing what He would do. Sometimes we make choices that Jesus would not make (or want us to make) that get us off the path that leads to Him, but we can choose in any moment (even the very next moment) to begin following Him again and do what He might do (whether it’s finding a win-win solution, apologizing, doing something nice for someone, returning or replacing an item, etc.). Every time we choose to follow Him, we are happy, and so is He. The primary song “I’m Trying To Be Like Jesus” is a great way to plant and nurture this doctrine in their hearts.
Children usually learn more by what we do and who we are than by what we say, so modeling Christlike behavior and repentance is very important. Any time we lose it and yell at them, or forget our end of a deal or a promise we made, or model inappropriate behavior in our dealings with someone else, we can take the opportunity to model reconciliation and repentance (because it’s the right thing to do and that’s who we want to be, not because we’re trying to teach a lesson). We can apologize, and make further restitution if applicable. We can even ask our child if we can pray with them when we have hurt them or let them down. We can confess our wrongdoings to the Lord and ask His forgiveness. We can pray for help to do better and for greater love in our relationships. Praying together in this way can be very healing. We can remember that mistakes (which we all make) can be wonderful opportunities to learn and grow and connect more deeply with others, and treat them as such.
What about in the heat of the moment when our kids make mistakes or poor choices? How can we respond if we don’t dole out “consequences” or punishment?
  1. We can first get control of the situation (kindly but firmly stop harmful behavior if it is still happening) and ourselves (self-regulate, which includes getting the Spirit with us). We can take deep breaths, shake out our hands, acknowledge and label our emotions, tell ourselves it’s not an emergency (which it feels like it is when we are in ‘fight or flight’ mode), say a quick silent prayer, etc.
  2. Then we can fix our attention on meeting the underlying needs driving the behavior, and helping our kids process their emotions (i.e. helping themlearn to self-regulate, which is the first step to self-discipline), while reinforcing boundaries and expectations — all emotions are acceptable but all actions are not. We do this by listening to their perspective (truly listening with the goal of understanding) and helping them label their emotions. We can then help them get their needs met or express their feelings in a more acceptable way (through words and/or tears — yes, crying is an acceptable way), while reinforcing the behavioral standard.
  3. Once everyone is feeling heard and calm, we can focus next on collaborative problem-solving (finding solutions that work for everyone involved, even if that’s just our child and us). Part of this is practicing seeing things from each other’s perspective. It’s best not to go into a problem-solving session having already decided what the solution is going to be (even if we know it must include not hurting people or things). It truly should be a solution that addresses each person’s needs and concerns as well as possible.
  4. And finally, we can invite and empower them to repair damage that may have been done, in whichever way they choose, when they feel ready. We can pray with them if they want to, and we can offer ideas if they ask. If they are not feeling generous enough to repair right away, don’t force it. Instead, express confidence that they will come up with just the right way to fix things when they’re ready, and then follow-up with them later.

Note: For very young children (toddler and even preschool age) we can usually just redirect their actions to something that will meet their needs and goals in a more acceptable way (e.g. “no throwing balls in the living room — let’s take this outside”), and then, if applicable, we can model restitution and involve them in it (e.g. “let’s see if Sissy needs a hug” or “let’s get this cleaned up,” as we grab a rag for each of us and start cleaning).

Yesterday my kids got into an altercation when my daughter accidentally knocked my son down. He was angry, and hurt her back. I intervened as a mediator (rather than a judge) and made sure they were physically separated enough to prevent further harm. I told them I needed a moment to calm down, and took some deep breaths while repeating my mantra (“it’s not an emergency”). Then I listened to each of them, one at a time, tell their side of the story. I acknowledged their feelings and experiences, and reinforced that we can’t hurt people, even when we’re mad. We discussed briefly what we can do instead (e.g. use words to express anger, come find Mom, etc.). And then they decided what they wanted to do to repair their relationship, and we moved on.
One of my favorite quotes says, “Discipline is helping a child solve a problem. Punishment is making a child suffer for having a problem. To raise problem-solvers, focus on solutions, not retribution.” (L.R. Knost)
This approach helps kids see beyond themselves, teaches accountability to others, gives them tools and skills (like empathy and collaborative problem-solving) to use throughout their lives, maintains parent-child connections, and offers hope and empowerment to be able to have a positive impact on the world and to follow Jesus, even when they mess up.
This approach also applies to all types of problems and misbehavior, not just interpersonal conflict. We don’t necessarily need to do this whole process for every little issue, and I am certainly not perfect at remembering to take this approach every time, but if we can keep our focus on helping and guiding with love and connection, the Spirit will inspire, guide and help us to truly inspire, guide and help them to learn.
“Those who are filled with the pure love of Christ do not seek to force others to do better; they inspire others to do better, indeed inspire them to the pursuit of God.” (Howard W. Hunter)
Letting go of punishment and control is very scary for most parents. We feel that it’s our job to make our children behave and obey and learn (not to mention that it often feels easier, at least when they’re young). But really our job is to guide, teach and inspire our children, which requires connection and trust and open hearts. Punishment and control do the opposite of that. Let us inspire hearts instead

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.