It is every parent’s dream to have a child that self-governs – one who makes good and Is it just a dream or can it become a reality? Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (known as the Mormons) believe it can.

Joseph Smith MormonParents in the Church are counseled to teach their children “correct principles and let them govern themselves.” (Joseph Smith, as quoted by John Taylor in Millennial Star, 13:339.)

Self-governance? This free-sounding approach may give some parents a panic attack. (What? I just watched my child walk into the middle of the street. Yesterday he refused to eat his vegetables. Tomorrow I know he will hit his brother when I am not around. My child hardly appears ready to self-govern!)

But gospel principles are not about the child making just any choice, they are about a child learning how to develop the skills and the conscience to make wise and good choices.

Our son had half-heartedly agreed to help another Boy Scout with his Eagle Project. He mentioned the project to my husband and me, but noted that none of the other boys were going to help and that he didn’t want to go. The project involved getting up at 7:30 on a Saturday morning and digging trails for 4 hours on a hot summer day. For the boy to finish the Eagle project, he had to have a team of people helping.

Saturday morning came, although we had forgotten about the event. His Scout leader called at 7:25 a.m. to say he was on his way over. My husband went to wake our son (who is not a morning person). He let our son know that the scoutmaster was on his way. Our son promptly pulled the covers over his head and announced there was no way he was going. The Scout law popped into my husband’s mind and he kindly recited, “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.” He left the room, went upstairs, prepared a bowl of cereal and a bottle of ice water for our son. Five minutes later, our son came upstairs, dressed and ready to go.

This hallelujah parenting moment was a stand-out experience for us. It was one of those times that confirmed that the hard work we were doing was working, even just a bit. (I have to confess I’m glad I was not the one answering the phone that morning!)

Church apostle Boyd K. Packer explains: “When one understands the gospel, it becomes very clear that the best control is self-control.” (Boyd K. Packer, “Agency and Control,” Ensign, May 1983, 66)

But how can parents help their child make the transition over time to become self-governing? We can’t control them. We can’t be with our children always as they go to school, play with friends and eventually move out to begin their own adult lives. It won’t happen in a day, but if there are three principles at work, a child can learn to govern themselves.

We Can Teach Truth

“Children do not learn by themselves how to distinguish right from wrong. Parents have to determine the child’s readiness to assume responsibility. … While we are teaching them, we have the responsibility to discipline them and to see that they do what is right. If a child is besmudged with dirt, we do not let him wait until he grows up to decide whether or not he will bathe. We do not let him wait to decide whether or not he will take his medicine when sick, or go to school or to church. …

“Parents also should teach their children early in life the glorious concept and fact that they are spirit children of God, and choosing to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ is the only way to enjoy success and happiness here and eternal life hereafter. They must be taught that Satan is real and that he will use all agencies at his disposal to tempt them to do wrong, to lead them astray, make them his captives, and keep them from the supreme happiness and exaltation they could otherwise enjoy” (Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God, Deseret Book, N. Eldon Tanner [1973], 87).

We must teach truth. The scriptures tell us we are responsible for teaching and correcting our children and will be accountable for doing or not doing it.

For I have told him that I will judge his house for ever for the iniquity which he knoweth; because his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not. (1 Samuel 3:13)

We teach through lessons and we teach as opportunities present themselves. Mostly, we teach by example.

We Can Give Opportunities to Choose

Even for the youngest of children, we can allow choices that are age-appropriate. When we give choice, we may need to hold our breath and step back to give the child a chance to see how the choice played out without prematurely stepping in to evaluate, correct, or pronounce a consequence.

“For the first part of childhood, the most important task for children is obedience, learning to follow parental advice very strictly. However, as children grow older, they gradually must pay more attention to the task of learning to act independently. In the beginning, parents personally show three-year-old children exactly when and where to cross the street. Such guidance at age fourteen is seldom appropriate. In fact, if adolescents do not eventually pay more attention to this second task, they become in a real sense crippled, continually dependent on parents to make their decisions.” Donald K. Jarvis, “Leaving Eden: A Lesson for Parents,” Ensign, Feb 1991, 39

I believe in accountability and consequences, but I have noticed that if I give swift rewards or punishments after my children make a choice, I have not really given them the opportunity to choose. I have short-circuited the choice process by not allowing time for the child to evaluate the outcome for themselves. An immediate treat or time out conditions their behavior but encourages me-centered thinking. They are not concerned with doing the “right thing”. They are thinking about how the reward or punishment affects them (good or bad for me?). I may be conditioning behavior, but I am not helping them develop their conscience.

We Can Hold Children Accountable

“We try to guide our children toward self-respect … and mostly leave it up to them to judge themselves. We have experienced the fact that one is not as good a teacher when one discovers and points out mistakes … as when one helps a child to discover for himself that he is doing wrong. When a child can comprehend his mistakes himself, the first step to change has already been taken.

“I remember once how we asked our son, after a transgression, to set his own punishment. He decided that he should not be allowed to watch television for one month. That seemed to us to be considerably too severe, but how happy we were to hear from his grandmother that while visiting her he had insisted she was wrong to encourage him to watch a certain television program, even though his parents would never know. I don’t think there can be a greater joy for parents than to see a child handle himself well in a difficult situation” F. Enzio Busche, “‘Provoke Not Your Children’,” Ensign, Mar 1976, 41)

At times, our children may need direct or pointed correction. The scriptures help us to see it can be done in a positive way:

“Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy; That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death. (D&C 124:43-44 )

We can follow it up with love and encouragement for their progress, so the correction doesn’t become mere criticism. Our children can know we have their best interests in mind. They can know we love them and want them to succeed.

Self-control is tough to achieve and may take years to develop. Since I am still working on this goal, I can have patience with my own children who are 30 years or so behind me. Hopefully, my children can get there with parents who teach truth, follow-through and love unconditionally.

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