Many moons ago, I was a young father going through the process of learning to raise children. I had made about all the parenting mistakes any child could possibly endure from such an inexperienced father. I had resorted to spanking, yelling and other punishments. These are tools we fathers resort to in moments of weakness—our weakness, not our children’s.
It was in such a moment that I had an idea that seemed enlightening at the time. It came from the concept of how a toddler might learn not to touch a hot stove by having the instant, predictable experience of touching one.
What if my children knew every single consequence of their decisions in advance? What if every consequence for every poor decision was something they would not want because it was so bad? And, what if the consequence came so quickly they could not finish an action before its consequence arrived? Would this not teach my children which choices were right and wrong? Shouldn’t that be the goal?
I thought this could be the New York Times best-selling book of a secret necessary to simplify parenting. Could I produce a plan of predictable, immediate consequences to cover every situation? It certainly seemed to me that such a plan would solve the problem of my kids making bad choices.
Looking back, I recognize my actions were not following Proverbs 22:6 which reads: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”
More often than not, I fathered based on what was easy for me, not on what was creating the best learning experiences for my kids. It took more life experience for me, and many more mistakes of my own, for me to see how my early plan would really have affected us. The plan we most need for ourselves and our kids is one that has a well-defined path back to our Father, but still gives us freedom to learn to use our agency and apply obedience. We need a plan that allows us to experience stepping off the path more than one with swift consequences that forces us onto any path. We need a divine plan that includes personal agency.
I am glad my Father in Heaven has this type of plan for each of us. His plan allows us to use our agency and lets us learn how our decisions play out in the long run. God’s parenting plan allows us, His children, to learn some of the results of choices, much like a toddler and a hot stove. But His plan also allows us to learn better self-control for longer-term benefits. I hope that each of us can follow His example and plan even if our best is imperfect. I hope we can lovingly train our children in the way they should go, and if they step off the path, give them time to learn and course correct in order to get back on the path to their Father.
Using our God-given agency as we learn and grow will certainly result in us making mistakes in our lives, but we will also gain greater control of our direction for the right reasons. Following God’s plan, we can learn obedience to his commandments in a way that we all will not depart from. Such an imperfect plan as I contemplated might provide consequences and a trained reaction to stepping off an imperfect path, but it would not teach anyone to understand the basic imperfection of the path of life itself.
With this in mind, I believe that in parenting we should strive to limit actions that have severe and lasting consequences for our youth and warn them as best we can. Yes, we should create instant, predictable and unwanted punishments for those potentially destructive bad choices they might make. But in many other instances, we should consider how we can teach our children lovingly, and without control, about the paths they choose; allow them to recognize our instruction concerning the imperfections of their current path; and allow them to gain greater knowledge of the pitfalls of the path itself that only comes with experience of the path. The goal is to allow them to love or discard the many paths of life based upon the result of choices which will bring a richness of knowledge and self-control.
Luckily, I learned that this is a better plan for me and my kids. Fortunately for my children, my moment of deciding to use “enlightened,” instant, and predictable consequences in my child rearing did not last long. I ultimately allowed them to use their agency on their own winding paths to becoming great kids and adults.
(And it certainly didn’t hurt that they have a great mother to make up for my mistakes!)