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.

 

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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.