Apr 12, 2008

Parenting A Testimony

By Christine Thackeray

(Sorry this is so long but I had to prepare a talk for Stake Conference and decided to share it.)

As I was reviewing Sister Lant and Elder Ballard's talks, an idea hit me that I hadn't thought about in twenty years. In college I remembered my professor teaching us about Erik Erikson. He was an early psychologist who studied Sigmund Freud and noticed a flaw in his theories. Freud based his hypotheses on people that were emotionally damaged. Erikson figured that the best way to be able to understand healthy human development was to study healthy people so he left the laboratory and went home to study his wife and own children. Then he researched other cultures and came up with eight stages of emotional development, which have become an accepted standard.

These eight stages map the healthy emotional and social progression of life. Each stage builds on the next and as people progress through each stage they become more emotionally stable. If they seriously lack a step, a person may become fixated at that level, unable to progress to the next. These stages include:

Trust vs. Mistrust- An infant is totally reliant on his parents and soon learns that they will fill his needs and love him unconditionally. For children not given this center, they will struggle with every area of further development until they have it basic need.

Autonomy vs. Shame- A toddler begins to experience freedom from his parents as he begins to crawl, then walk. He also learns to eat independently and be potty training. When a child has difficulty with these skills, they can feel shame and back away rather than progress.

Initiative vs. Guilt- After a child learns to walk, he then starts to run, skip, jump and even dance. Confident children will take those basic skills and make them their own, enjoying their experimentation and progression.

Productivity vs. Inferiority- As a child enters school, they begin to learn about the world around them. They start to discover science, grammar and higher math concepts which expand their horizons. They either become more involved with the world or pull back into a feeling of inferiority.

Individuality vs. Role Confusion- With their expanding understanding of the world, a child will then look into themselves and ask "Who Am I?" They begin to plan for their future and map goals rather than simply relying on peer pressure. This usually happens in their late teens.

Intimacy vs. Isolation- If a person understands who they are, they will have the character necessary to build lasting committed relationships. This may be one of the causes for the high divorce rate we see around us, that many individuals do not have the social and emotional strength to create an intimate relationship.

Generativity vs. Stagnation- The next step is to start "giving back". The concept of "what is in it for me" becomes less important and our thoughts focus on assisting those around us and giving to the next generation.

Integrity vs. Despair- Finally, a person looks at his life and feels that he may not have everything but he has the best things. Feeling satisfaction and joy in a life well lived is a virtue that needs to be developed just as the other stages must be worked on.
Those are the stages of emotional growth. But what really hit me as I thought about it was how well those stages apply to spiritual growth as well. As parents it is our responsibility to “train up our children in the way they must go.” (Prov 22:6) We are also told that if we fail in certain duties, “the sin will be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25) Of course even the best parents have children who may choose not to progress (look at Father Abraham, Lehi and our Heavenly Father) but by looking at their spiritual growth in stages it may help us as parents to understand more clearly how we can help our children in creating their personal relationship with Christ. For that is our goal.

When Alma the Younger talked to his son Corianton who left his mission to follow a prostitute, he did not lecture him about chastity. Corianton’s struggle was with theology (Alma 39 and 40.) Alma understood the root of his son’s issues were much deeper than his actual behavior. By increasing our understanding of spiritual progression, we may be able to see what our children are truly lacking and need help with.
Using Erikson’s stages and terminology, these would be equivalent stages of Spiritual Growth:
Trust in God vs. Mistrust- Just as the first stage of emotional development is that feeling unconditional love, the same is true of our spiritual lives. Although we tell our children of their loving Father in Heaven, the first step for them is when they feel it themselves. It may be when they are singing “I Am a Child of God” in Primary or “I Feel My Savior’s Love.” One of my children said the first time they really knew Heavenly Father was there was when he bore his testimony for the first time. He said he could feel Heavenly Father smiling at him.
I think it isn’t only important for a child to have those first experiences but to be reminded of them. When Oliver Cowdery was asking for a greater witness of Joseph Smith, his reply was:
“Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might aknow concerning the truth of these things.
Did I not speak apeace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater bwitness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22)

As parents we can ask our children about their first experience where they have felt that Heavenly Father was really there. I was surprised. For my one daughter, it was at her baptism. She just felt really happy. Another son remembered in kindergarten that he forgot his book and was going to get in trouble, he prayed and the teacher never asked if he had it. He was sure it was Heavenly Father who helped him. By helping our children “cast their minds” upon their first spiritual experience and others, it will help them remember how much their Savior loves them.

Autonomy vs. Shame- The next emotional stage is physically learning how to become an independent person. This step in our spiritual life is learning to how to physically become a saint. This is, in essence, the letter of the law, the things we learn in Primary and include:
· attending church meetings,
· paying tithing,
· participating in scouts, young women’s, achievement days,
· praying before meals,
· praying before going to bed,
· family scripture reading,
· and family home evening.
Now just as children from the most emotionally stable homes may have problems with learning to walk or may lisp into their school year but are still able to progress normally through the other stages. It is important to realize that we may not be perfect in every area but our children do need to have most of these basics down. I have seen so many new converts that feel their Savior’s love, they have felt that first spark of the Spirit, but never learn this second step. They have a hard time coming to church consistently, don’t continue to pray and read their scriptures and soon the spark dies away.
On the other hand, when going to church or doing FHE is forced, it can soon become a negative event. When I was a young mother, I had a friend who swore that she could potty train any child by the time they were 12 months all from the advice of a book. She gave me the book and I went to work on 14 month old Marcus. After many tears from both of us, I threw the book away. Marcus on the other hand began hiding the potty chair. I would find it under his bed or in a closet. For him it had become associated with bad memories and it took him much longer to master that skill than it probably otherwise would have. Don’t let church become your child’s potty chair. We need to encourage them to participate but make it a positive experience, filled with praise, so they can make it to the next step.
Initiative vs. Guilt- How many members of the church struggle with guilt issues? If a congregation was asked to raise their hands in response to this question, I’m sure a majority would admit it is an issue for them. Guilt’s only purpose is to encourage us to repent. Paul explained this to the Corinthians when he said,
“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made asorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.
For agodly bsorrow worketh crepentance to dsalvation not to be repented of: but the esorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Corinthians 7: 9, 10)
It is interesting that according to Erikson the opposite of guilt is initiative. It is when you begin to make the gospel your own- when you start looking for your own answers, when you listen to a lesson and suddenly realize what an awesome idea that was and go home and study it some more, when you begin to look forward to going to scouts, or activity days or even enrichment.
We can encourage this in our children by asking them about their lessons and discussing them at home, by having them plan the family home evening lesson on whatever they want, and by sharing our own insights and spiritual experiences. In our home we often go around the table on Sunday and talk about our lessons. Rarely do we make it all the way around before we are discussing some interesting tangent about the gospel. Some of my best memories revolve around those sometimes heated conversations.
In our ward we are blessed with incredible Achievement Day Leaders. They are always doing something fun and my daughter is having such a great time she decided to invite her friend. The two of them have done so many wonderful things that they brought another friend last Sunday to church. Sarah is ten but she is now exploring this stage of enjoying the gospel and making it her own.
Industry vs. Inferiority- In Erikson’s emotional stages this is where the child learns grammar, history, science and higher math. He believed that without an education our ability to progress was hampered. The same is true for our spiritual life. We can only progress so far on “borrowed light.” Thank goodness for early morning seminary!!!! Inspired prophets of this dispensation have given our children a gift to learn all the scriptures and church history at an intense level and have made it available to every member.
But unlike the parent who is afraid to help their child with algebra because they have no idea what a variable is, we, as parents, cannot be clueless about the scriptures. There comes a time where we need to learn and understand the scriptures. They are a lifelong study. Elder Maxwell said that “God is a God of Economy” he will not send a tornado if a gentle breeze will do. I believe if he has already given us an answer in the scriptures that he will often try to guide us there but if we never open them, the answer waits, unread. We need to become fluent in the scriptures through constant personal study. That is part of righteous parenthood.
This higher study is a difficult stage to encourage. One summer years ago my husband Greg taped a one hundred dollar bill to the wall and told my children that the first one to finish the Book of Mormon could have it. By the end of the summer the money was still there. But if we keep gently encouraging and strengthening the stages before it, that day may come. Lately, it has been wonderful to watch my son Marcus start to read Jesus the Christ and the Book of Mormon at a deeper level in preparation for his mission.
Identity vs. Role Confusion- As children begin to truly grasp the big picture of what the gospel means, they suddenly will sit back and wonder what part they will play in it. They will ask themselves “Who am I?” and realize that they get to choose the answer for themselves. With that understanding, they will set goals for their future. They will want to be an eagle scout or get their young woman’s medallion. They will want to go on a mission, and to be married in the temple. When I taught seminary there was a boy who sat at the back of the room, hating every minute of it. One day I was driving him home and I asked what I could do to make his mornings more enjoyable. He told me there was nothing I could do because it “just wasn’t him.” I asked him “so who are you?” He shrugged and said “he was the stuff he liked” and I shook my head. If children never realize that they are what they choose, then they are trapped by their natures and appetites and will never be more. It is the sad state of the natural man.
I love that it is right at this time of choosing that children are given their patriarchal blessings to lift them and give them a vision of who they can become. The gospel is awesome and I know this may sound silly but do you ever shake your head and smile, realizing how smart Heavenly Father really is? One of the greatest gifts of my life has been sitting in the room during my children’s patriarchal blessings. When our children finally choose who they are and truly commit to being part of God’s Kingdom on the earth, it changes them. I believe that is what is meant by “being born again” (John 3:5; Alma 7:14) or “becoming a son or daughter of Christ.” (Mosiah 5:7; Ether 3: 14)
Intimacy vs. Isolation- With this new found commitment they will have an “increased portion of the Spirit.” (See 2 Kings 2:9; Alma 17:9; and D&C 71:1) They will be able to have a relationship with the Lord that they have never had before because not only will they trust in God, but He will trust in them. It has always interested me that it wasn’t until the 84th section of the D&C that the Savior called the new saints “my friends” (D&C 84:63) and even then he only used that term for the twelve apostles. I know we can all have that gift but it is something we earn through worthiness, faith, love and commitment.
Generativity vs. Stagnation- This is the point where your children start to go to activities with the attitude of how can they make it better rather than if it isn’t fun they won’t go. They begin to understand that each church event is the way that God’s Kingdom is built on the earth and they want to be a part of it. They realize the gospel holds answers and they start to openly share those answers with the people around them. They look for the people who need love or help and reach out to them. And with each experience, you watch them learn and grow and progress. This is where service turns to charity.
It interesting that Erikson’s termed opposite to this progression is Stagnation. As a child, my brother and I used to like to run up the down escalator. If you ran normally, you stayed in the same place, but if you ran really, really hard, you could make it to the top. I remember when I was about ten that I suddenly realized that was what life was about. If I just stayed where I was and did nothing, I would lose opportunities and abilities. There is no standing still in this life- we are either going forward or backwards. Stagnation is such an incredible example of this. If water isn’t moving, it doesn’t just sit there pure and clear. It begins to grow algae, stink and poison instead of give life.
Intergrity vs. Despair- Finally, when our children have progressed through these stages, we need to encourage them to feel good about what they have done. They need to find joy in looking at their lives and realize that although they don’t have everything, they have the best things. It is also important that if a child or ourselves reach this stage and find themselves in despair that they use those negative feelings for “godly sorrow” and begin at the beginning to refresh your spiritual strength and fill in gaps.

I know my greatest privilege is being entrusted with raising these precious spirits of our Heaven Father and worry that many of us don’t really realize the importance of what we are doing. When my oldest sons started high school I joined a volunteer organization whose goal was to increase the safety and strength of our community by putting on events for teenagers so they wouldn’t drink or do drugs on the weekends. What I soon realized was that I didn’t really want my kids attending the parties after all. The adults planning these events were doing so with genuine concern and lofty ideals, but without a family context to set limits and increase respect, they were feeding the inappropriate behaviors they were trying to stop. They would have done more good if they had each invited a group of children to their own homes and let them have fun in the context of a strong family environment. I learned then that our homes have far more power to save society than any other institution. Perhaps that is another meaning of the scripture that the hearts of the children must turn to their fathers or the earth will be covered with a curse. (See Malachi 4:6; 3 Nephi 25:6 and D&C 110:15.)
We are seeing the curse of broken homes all around us but as we each strive to create homes of righteousness, as we build faith and testimony in our children, they will be able to do great things. Our children are truly a chosen generation who have been held in reserve for this time and are equal to the task. We as parents have also been given the necessary tools to be equal to the task and I pray that we live up to our privileges.


  1. Christine, I loved this. It's full of information I have only suspected, and I hope to re-read it many times until it becomes my knowledge. I think this will help me understand where othes are coming from, and make it easier for me to love unconditionally. The only thing that changes may be me but, hey, in my own humble opinion, that's important.

  2. Wow, Christine! Your Stake experienced a wonderful treat hearing you give this talk! I would have loved to have been there.

    I really appreciated your statement: "But unlike the parent who is afraid to help their child with algebra because they have no idea what a variable is, we, as parents, cannot be clueless about the scriptures." It is to the point and as easy analogy to understand. We have no excuse for not being familiar with the scriptures.

    Thanks for the great ideas and reminders of our responsibilities and privileges as parents of these amazing children.


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