Lynn G. Robbins, a Mormon leader, gave a talk called, “What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?” The title comes from a question Jesus Christ asked and it is an important question for parents because it is their responsibility to raise children who are followers of Christ. The answer to the question, of course, is to be Christ-like. But how do we go about teaching our children to be Christ-like and to follow the Savior?
Elder Robbins suggest we focus less on “to-do” and more on “to-be.”
“Many of us create to-do lists to remind us of things we want to accomplish. But people rarely have to-be lists. Why? To-do’s are activities or events and can be checked off the list when done. To-be, however, is never done. You can’t earn check marks with to-be’s. I can take my wife out for a lovely evening this Friday, which is a to-do. But being a good husband is not an event, it needs to be part of my nature, my character or who I am.”
As parents, we need to help children identify what kind of people they want to be. From there, they can decide how they would live their lives if they were indeed that kind of person. When this is done, they can more effectively make their to-do lists.
We can help by giving children a personal identity to draw from. Our words will help children decide who they really are. Elder Robbins warned us not to cause a child to think that what he did is who he is. For instance, a child who didn’t clean his room is not necessarily messy. He just didn’t clean it. A child who talks back isn’t a brat—he just talked back. Elder Robbins says that disappointing behavior should be seen as an act, not an identity, a temporary situation, not a permanent one.
On the positive side, we can use this principle to help children see themselves as a certain type of person. Suppose your child is struggling with math. Instead of focusing on the fact that he doesn’t seem to be very good at math, focus on his efforts to overcome it, instead. “I really admire the way you keep working so hard at math, even though it isn’t always easy for you. You’re a very determined person and you’ll always be able to overcome challenges because of it.”
With this statement, your child internalizes that he is a hard worker and doesn’t give up. He won’t think of himself as someone who is bad at math, but rather as someone who works hard at it.
You can apply this to Christ-like behavior as well. “I love the way you’re reverent at church. You have so much respect for Jesus Christ and His home.” “You are so kind to Mrs. Porter, always taking out her trash or saying a kind word to her. You are the kind of person Jesus told us to be when he said we should take care of the poor and the needy.” If your child hears that often when he’s been helping Mrs. Porter, he will expand his service to even more people and in time, will have internalized a self-identity as a compassionate and helpful person. You will never have to remind or nag him to help others. He will see himself as that kind of person and so he will naturally go forth and do the things compassionate and helpful people do. In the long run, giving a child the identify you want him to have is far easier than simply working through a checklist of behaviors you want him to practice.
Elder Robbins also warned us against spending too much time asking children what career they want to have when they grow up. “Neither professions nor possessions should define identify or self-worth. The Savior was a humble carpenter, for example, but that hardly defined His life.” It can be far more fascinating and instructive to ask children what kind of person they want to be when they grow up. Help them focus not on wanting to be rich or famous, but on being Christ-like.
Of course, there are times when discipline will be necessary. However, our discipline must be Christ-like in nature. “Discipline comes from the same root word as disciple, and implies patience and teaching on our part. It should not be done in anger,” Choosing meaningful discipline done gently and for the purpose of teaching will help children become who we want them to become.
Elder Robbins reminds us the most important part of the process is to be an example. We cannot raise Christ-like children unless we ourselves are as Christ-like as possible. We need to lead by example. A child who sees us spending our own money to help someone else will be more likely to make the same choice for himself in the future. A child who helps us pick up trash in the park will be more careful not to throw his own trash on the ground.
Elder Robbins suggests the most important role model we should have for our parenting is that of God. God is our Father and we are His children. We can see through the scriptures and through the events of our own lives just how He parents us. He has rules we must follow and there are both rewards for following them and consequences for not following them. He is there to help, but also expects us to first try to solve our own problems, with guidance and assistance as necessary. He doesn’t just do everything for us without expecting us to do something for ourselves. What He does is what we can’t do for ourselves. He does everything in love and is willing to make extraordinary sacrifices for us.
“May your efforts to develop Christlike attributes be successful, so that His image may be engraven in your countenance and His attributes manifest in your behavior. Then, when your children, or others, feel of your love and see your behavior, it will remind them of the Savior and draw them to Him.”