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.

 

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.

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.