RTW: Training Children to Do Good: Part 1

I put something on to wear the other day and asked my teenage son, “Does this outfit look O.K.?” His answer? “Uh, I wouldn’t wear it.!”

Cheeky boy. 🙂

God tells us we are supposed to “train up [our children] in the way [they] should go.” Which way should they go? They need to go in whichever direction allows them to be like Christ, who is “the way” (John 14:6) and in whichever direction allows them to fulfill their unique purpose and mission on earth.

There are two powerful principles for teaching our children: example and service (which, when done as a parent alongside the child includes precept, or explaining how, what, and why). These are, in my mind, the two keys we can turn to successfully train children to do good.

Let me just say that I’m not an expert on how to train children to do good. I have had a little experience in it, and I lots of room for improvement. Still, there are some things I have learned as I have tried. These are the thoughts I’d like to share.

Let’s talk about training a child in the area of personal hygiene and appearance (“personal cleanliness”).

If I were to start all over again, I would have focused on teaching my children the guiding principle, “I must clean up before moving on.” (I’m teaching it now.) This is just another way of phrasing the two great commandments, “Love God” and “Love thy neighbor as theyself” (Luke 10:27). That is the correct principle that gives our children a feeling for the importance of their agency, personal power, and accountability in life. That would be something I would repeat throughout their stay in the nest, over and over in a myriad of ways.

From that initial principle we begin teaching application at each age, stage, and success* area: Personal Cleanliness.

(Wouldn’t it be nice if “PC” indicated “personal cleanliness,” inside and out, instead of political correctness?!)

How do we teach it? First, we model it ourselves. We do our best to be clean, neat, and presentable. We get up and exercise and get ourselves ready for the day. (I’m still working on the showering early part. My current goal is before the children are home or leaving to volunteer, etc.) We look the best we can without spending too much time or money on the process or directing undue attention to our physical appearance. We don’t belittle ourselves because we don’t look like the cover of a magazine. We know that by doing this, we’ll save ourselves and our children ample grief. We don’t expect perfection from ourselves but we try to make a little improvement progressively so that over time, we can accomplish what we are hoping our children to do. We start with ourselves because example is always our most powerful teacher.

Next, we serve. We clean them, involving them and teaching them how to do it for themselves as much as they can at each stage. We do it for them as long as they cannot do it for themselves. We never do for a child what they can do for themselves unless we have an inspired reason.** I admire a woman who has cared for her physically disabled child for 40 years who has the physical capacities of an newborn. Can you imagine? One of her beautiful daughters is my oldest daughter’s friend, and I love the way their whole family has learned to take turns helping and nurturing their daughter and sister. She told me about staying home from her family vacation to take care of her sister so her mother and father could both go. Talk about Christlike love!

What do we teach? Hand-washing (fingernails trimmed as needed)***, teeth-brushing, hair-brushing, toileting skills, clean underwear, clean, tidy clothes (pressed if needed, especially for sacred destinations, such as church), shoes on before leaving home. I figure the rest is personal preference. Some moms are incredible the way their children leave home with every hair in place, matching ribbons, etc. You know that the child did not do that herself. But children learn as they see how their mother picks out the clothing or arranges their hair. That’s great! I’m not so great at that, much to one of my daughter’s chagrin. My girls gave me so much grief in doing their hair that I was just happy to have them let me brush it! I love my sister’s example of allowing her children to pick out their clothes, knowing that what they select is an expression of their personality. I also love allowing for personal expression while guiding them away from something that just really “doesn’t work,” is immodest, or in underdressed for an occasion. Children DO need guidance. Pippi Longstocking, while such a delightful piece of fiction, reminds us of Proverbs 29:15: that children left to themselves bring their mothers to shame, certainly not because it was the child’s fault, but because the child didn’t receive the instruction, love, and support they needed to know how to choose wisely! That’s the key to the first part of Prov.29:15: “The rod [the word of God] and reproof [gentle, specific correction] give wisdom.” We’re not talking about beating a child here! That’s not the Lord’s way! We’re talking about teaching by example and service, with needed loving re-direction along the way.

More about this another day!

Happy Example-Setting and Serving,

Liz 🙂

P.S. Do you have a photo you’d like to share of your child in an outfit they picked out that you appreciated? I love this photo of my daughter who absolutely loves colors and patterns and combining them together. I loved sending her to school with all her personality showing!


* When I talk about success, I’m talking about the living “after the manner of happiness” that Nephi (2 Nephi 5:27) tells us about: being loving, obedient to God’s laws, hardworking, service-oriented, humble, well-educated, physically active, having fun, creative, artistic, etc.

**An inspired reason, in my mind, could be feeling that the child is in someway temporarily incapacitated physically, spiritually, or emotionally. My friend down the street taught me this principle years ago: that spoiling a child means doing for them what they can and should be doing for themselves. God gives his children difficult tasks to accomplish but none that He doesn’t provide all the support and help they need (grace) to cover their lack. That’s why Nephi could do what He did: because he knew God would never ask him to do something that was beyond his current capacity to do (1 Nephi 3:7). Making children do what is too much for them to bear is absolutely wrong. A prayerful, loving mother can sense the bearing capacity of a child just like a loving spouse knows the “Plimsoll marks” of his or her spouse. I love this principle I learned from Jeffrey R. Holland:

“As a youth in England, Samuel Plimsoll was fascinated with watching ships load and unload their cargoes. He soon observed that, regardless of the cargo space available, each ship had its maximum capacity. If a ship exceeded its limit, it would likely sink at sea. In 1868 Plimsoll entered Parliament and passed a merchant shipping act that, among other things, called for making calculations of how much a ship could carry. As a result, lines were drawn on the hull of each ship in England. As the cargo was loaded, the freighter would sink lower and lower into the water. When the water level on the side of the ship reached the Plimsoll mark, the ship was considered loaded to capacity, regardless of how much space remained. As a result, British deaths at sea were greatly reduced.

“Like ships, people have differing capacities at different times and even different days in their lives. In our relationships we need to establish our own Plimsoll marks and help identify them in the lives of those we love. Together we need to monitor the load levels and be helpful in shedding or at least readjusting some cargo if we see our sweetheart is sinking. Then, when the ship of love is stabilized, we can evaluate long-term what has to continue, what can be put off until another time, and what can be put off permanently. Friends, sweethearts, and spouses need to be able to monitor each other’s stress and recognize the different tides and seasons of life. We owe it to each other to declare some limits and then help jettison some things if emotional health and the strength of loving relationships are at risk. Remember, pure love “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things,” and helps loved ones do the same.” (“How Do I Love Thee?” Feb.15, 2000)

***I was trimming my youngest daughter’s fingernails as we sat down to do piano practicing this week. Her comment: “My WORST nightmare!” She is such a crack-up. It’s amazing (but not surprising) how 7-year olds can sound like teenagers when they grow up with them!

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