Children need to learn to make their own decisions. Elder Larry Y. Wilson of the Seventy has reminded us that, “Our children are in our homes for a limited time. If we wait until they walk out the door to turn over to them the reins of their moral agency, we have waited too long. They will not suddenly develop the ability to make wise decisions if they have never been free to make any important decisions while in our homes. Such children often either rebel against this compulsion or are crippled by an inability to make any decisions on their own.”2 Like Elder Wilson, my husband and I know that ultimately our son will need to depend more on the Lord than on us. Here are three principles you can use to help your children establish their own connection to heaven.
1. Connection à Trust à Obedience
Understand that connection yields trust, which yields obedience. I have noticed a pattern with my son--when we are connected, his behavior is better. When we are connected, my son has greater trust in me and therefore is naturally obedient. The reverse is also true. When there is a strain in our relationship, there is a significant increase in his challenging behaviors. Similarly, I have noticed that when my connection with the Lord is strong, my trust in Him increases, and it is easy for me to be obedient to the commandments.
The connection between the Lord and an individual is dependent upon the individual. The ball is in our court so to speak and the Lord is waiting for us. The connection between a parent and child is dependent upon the parent, but it provides a framework for a child to grow and understand that relationship dynamic. A child who is able to trust his parents will have an easier time learning how to trust the Lord.
What can parents do? Parents should be aware and actively pursuing the maintenance and repair of the relationships with their children, no matter their age. There will be opportunities every day to connect physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Parents can also develop the habit of having gospel conversations in the home, look for natural opportunities to share testimony, and lead by example.
2. Tune IN not OUT
Teach your children to tune in, not tune out. Be aware of how we inadvertently teach them to tune out. I have noticed well intentioned parents or adults overusing distraction, perhaps as a technique to achieve compliance, as a way to keep their kids quiet, or because it’s easier in the moment. It’s unfortunate because children, even infants, are very aware and can feel the Spirit. When my husband taught high school, he noticed it was very difficult for the majority of his students to be in the moment, stay focused and present, and to be okay with quietness. Distraction leads to disconnection.
Starting from infancy, talk to your children and involve them in their care. Be mindful and sensitive to the feelings of your children. It is common practice to distract or minimize the feelings of young children or even teenagers who we feel are “just being dramatic.” Common phrases such as, “You’re okay. You’re fine. You’re not really hungry…sad…scared, hurt, etc.,” not only teach children to second guess their feelings, but can leave disconnection between child and parent. If this occurs once or twice, it might not lead to a problem; but when children receive the message every day that their feelings don’t matter, it becomes harmful.
Instead, validate their feelings. Help them understand what they are feeling, whether it be physical or emotional. When you teach them to tune in and listen to their bodies, you are setting up a foundation for them to be prepared to listen to the Spirit. Elder ElRay L. Christiansen, a former apostle, said this well, “The minds of children are like the sensitive plates of a photographer; they record every incident, good and bad. Our children may forget what is said, but they never forget that which they are made to feel.”3
3. Teach How to Pray and Receive Answers
Teach your children how to pray and how to receive answers. Prayer links connection, trust, obedience, and awareness. Young children can be taught how to pray, why to pray, and when to pray. However, something that is often overlooked is the way we receive answers to our prayers. I can share story after story with my son about how I got an answer to my prayer, but it will ring true with him if he can experience this for himself.
When our son was an infant, we began the tradition of family prayer with him, As he moved into toddlerhood, we taught him how to pray on his own. For some reason, we often lose things in our family. One day my son lost a toy and I had the idea to teach him how to pray to ask Heavenly Father to help him find it. We said a prayer and then we went to work looking for it. Sure enough, we found it! Now the important thing about really learning a gospel principle is learning by repetition. We have had countless opportunities of losing a toy, praying for help to find it, and then being guided to find it. One favorite story is when I lost one of each of my son’s only two pairs of shoes while visiting New York City. I prayed to find just one of the matches, even though I knew the odds would be the same as finding a needle in a haystack. The faith of a child is strong, and we ended up finding that needle! The real payoff is to see my son’s first instinct is to pray when he loses something. We have faith that this will carry over into other aspects of his life, especially as his trials grow and become more challenging.
1. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (1997), 44.
2. Only Upon the Principles of Righteousness, Elder Larry Y. Wilson
3. Be Slow to Anger, Elder ElRay L. Christiansen
Jefra Rees is the wife of a loving husband and the mother of a young son with Sensory Processing Disorder. She holds a Bachelor's Degree in Child Development and also has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Special Education. She has worked with children and families in a variety of settings, but her greatest work is that which is done in her own home.