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What’s at the center of parenting children who make poor decisions?

Kristine Frederickson shares what is at the center of parenting difficult children.
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I’ve got a friend desperately trying to help her child through difficult and challenging circumstances. The child has made some poor decisions, yet, as so many mothers do (especially, it seems, Latter-day Saint moms who can be gold medalists in this field), she sometimes blames herself because her child has gone off the rails. Does any of this sound familiar?

I have more than my share of regrets — wish I’d done this and hadn’t done that. For years, I blamed myself when anything went wrong in my children’s lives, and praised my children for somehow surviving me when they became productive, God-fearing citizens.

But let’s be honest, sometimes there is a child who — surprise, surprise — makes bad decisions of their own volition.

Which leads me, in my dotage, to suggest there may be a more accurate reality than what we tend to subscribe to.

Consider parenting. In bookstores, why are there racks and racks of books — running the length of the entire store — on how to be a better parent? Criminy, that alone should freak out any aspiring parent = you will fail! However, try the glass half-full — maybe this suggests parenting is demanding and tricky and inevitably involves some trial and error.

Conversely, where, oh where, are those books on how to be a better teenager? I’m still hunting for those. Even if I found and bought one, I seriously doubt any kid would read it — because many are likely too busy laying guilt trips on their parents in order to get their way. (But that’s another story.)

What might we deduce from the above? Being a child or teenager is new terrain for children and teens. They go into teenager-ness relatively blind (so to speak). Yes, parents need to teach children gospel principles of right and wrong, and love and mentor their children, but once taught, the child walks out the door and ventures into new experiences. It’s a given they will make mistakes along the way.

As well, parents go into child-rearing relatively blind — because every child has a different personality and every parent changes over time. Therefore, raising each child is a new experience for each parent. Parents will make mistakes too.

Heavenly Father knew that. He wants us to succeed. He wants us to try to do our best, to learn and improve:

  • to pray like crazy and listen for guidance
  • to immerse ourselves in the scriptures and try to emulate the many marvelous, righteous examples therein
  • to worship regularly at church, and in the temple
  • to love and serve others, and become more Christlike individuals

Add into this mix theoretical learning and experiential learning. The first involves formulating abstract concepts and conclusions — “If I teach Johnny the importance of a clean heart and mind, he will remain chaste until marriage.” Theories often appear remarkably simple and plausible.

Experiential learning involves concrete, active doing. This is where the rubber hits the road and where life proves to be much more complicated and messy than we ever imagined — “I taught Johnny the importance of a clean heart and mind. He just told me his girlfriend is pregnant.” How could this happen? Where did I go wrong?

Which leads us to the critical mass in the parenting-child-ing equation = maybe you didn’t go wrong.

I wrote my friend after she spent a draining weekend talking, caring and walking her child back from the cliff, metaphorically speaking. My friend was exhausted, discouraged and blaming herself. I said something like this:

Did you ever consider that God sent you this child, knowing full well he (or she) would be troubled and struggle, would perhaps never stop engaging in self-destructive behavior, through no parenting fault of yours? That God gave this child to you because he knew you would love your, and his, child through thick and thin? He knew you would always be there for his troublesome son, that you would always care, pray for, never give up on him, regardless of the choices he makes in this life? God knew he could entrust his precious child to you because you would love him.

Yes, you made parenting mistakes along the way — duh, who doesn’t? That’s part of life. That’s why we have the Atonement of Jesus Christ. We goof up, we repent, we forsake our sins, and we move forward — sometimes two steps forward, one step back, but trying to improve and do better. And maybe, just maybe, you are a fabulous parent, given a tough job, because God needed the best of the best to raise this particularly challenging spirit, to love and never forsake him — so he chose you.

Kristine Frederickson writes on topics that affect members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide. She teaches part time at BYU. Her views are her own. Email: kfrederickson.desnews@gmail.com