Thoughts on Parenthood and the Greatest Commandment

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Have you had that moment when you read something, and the sudden force of its full meaning hits you like a slap to the face? A Conference talk did that to me the other day. I’ve heard the scripture stories, I’ve read the verses several times, but it’s never quite connected in this way before. I was reading about when Jesus commanded us to “become as little children” (Matthew 18:2-3). Doesn’t that strike you as a bit strange?

Don’t get me wrong. Children are adorable, mine especially. (I’m sure yours are cute too.) But why become like them? My kids sometimes argue, steal, yell, and talk back. They don’t enjoy sharing. If we should become like children, does that mean I can start throwing my food on the floor when I’m done? That I can leave my messes for others to clean up? This doesn’t sound too bad, actually.

The interesting thing is that we are commanded to become like little children several times across the scriptures. Isaiah prophesied that “A little child shall lead [us] (Isaiah 11:6).” We hear it again in Mosiah 3:19: “For the natural man is an enemy to God…and will be, forever and ever, unless he…becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father.” And my favorite chapter of the entire Book of Mormon, 3 Nephi 17, says that Jesus Christ came to the ancient Americas after His death. He had very limited time there. What did He do? He blessed the children who were present one by one and prayed to the Father for them. There is something important going on here. What is the connection between a child and God that is so profound?

It was while cross-referencing a recent General Conference talk with those scriptures that it finally hit me. Here are my conclusions, and remember that these are nothing more than that–personal conclusions.

Connection #1:  Purity

Little children are completely pure. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t mischievious, necessarily. Each comes with a personality and sense of wonder and adventure about the world. I don’t know of anything sweeter than my toddler’s wet kisses and regurgitated “gifts.” My daughter can be contrary, even sassy at times, but her uninhibited joy when she makes a goal at a soccer game and brings me bouquets of dandelions is priceless. There is something so carefree about childhood. There certainly is something to be said for childlike innocence.

It feels as if I’m breaking the news of Santa Claus when I talk to my children about stranger danger. I watch their little countenances grow concerned and see their innocence slip away thread by thread. It is the scary darkness of the world around us that tears it away from them. I see the process with each passing month as they go to school, dance class, karate, and play with friends: a word here, a story there. The bubble of protection is slowly being eroded away.

This is a natural process. Somehow I don’t think that the scriptures are asking us to stay innocent. In fact, that is contrary to God’s plan, isn’t it? We came here to learn as much as possible about life and the people around us. Perhaps the key is that, once we “grow up,” we need to find our way back to that childlike faith in the world.

Some people just have it figured out. President Gordon B. Hinckley was one of those people. He likely knew more about the evils and dark corners of the world than almost anyone living, yet he was one of the most annoyingly positive and optimistic people I have ever seen. My mother-in-law is another one of those people. After listening to me grumble about a brother-in-law-to-be that none of us liked (who eventually broke off the wedding and married someone else, thankfully), this amazing woman told me, “Just remember, don’t treat people the way they are today. Treat them the way they can eventually be.” This from a mother of seven children, a couple of which have left the church. That attitude of ultimate trust in the human soul is something to be admired. Are these people naive? I don’t think so. In fact, both examples have had such painful experiences in the past that they could have easily given up. I think they just choose to hope despite the odds. They have powerful faith in God. It reminds me of Mosiah’s words again: “willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon [them], even as a child doth submit to his father.”

Connection #2: Focus

“A child’s work is his play.” That was a common phrase in my major of Child Development. Playing is something that kids are really good at, isn’t it? I wonder at what point we grow out of that, too. I think that mothers grow out of that phase all too early. We become serious and responsible just before our kids want us to play with them. I think that play is something we have to re-learn as well.

Last week I visited a dear friend in California. As she busied herself in the kitchen, her seven year-old son came in and looked around for someone to play with. Since I was the only one available, he stood squarely in front of me, held up his stick-and-twine bow and arrow, and formally announced, “I would like to have a shooting contest. Whoever shoots their arrow the furthest wins. Do you accept the challenge?”

Well, who can say no to that? (The funny thing is, I think he even beat me. I need to practice my archery skills).

I love the stories about Joseph Smith, a Latter-day Prophet who was often seen playing games with the children outside. Some people thought it was improper for a prophet to be doing such things. Maybe he just understood something we don’t.

Why is it so hard for moms to let loose and play? We stuff our heads so full of checklists and priority-setting that we shove away thoughts of non-accomplishment. It takes raising kids to realize that we have to find a balance between the two. While we teach our children to integrate work into their play, they teach us to integrate play into our work. And sometimes the line between the two can become pretty fuzzy. Those are the best moments, aren’t they? Children and parents working and playing together, building a foundation that will last their entire lives.

It’s not about the little things we have to do or want to do as we raise our children, but rather why we are doing them. The purpose of all we do every day is for our children in the long run, isn’t it? So why not drop the broom and have a tickle fight for a few minutes? I think a child feels more loved when their parents are silly than when they have a clean house. Good thing, because mine is nothing like a clean house.

Connection #3: Charity

Do you ever feel overwhelmed with the utter responsibility of parenthood? After all, we are just fumbling through life here, and the Lord gives us some of His precious souls to raise and be responsible for over the span of eternity. No pressure there. I’ve often wondered why He didn’t wait for me to prove myself a little more, to mature and learn to love others a little better, before He entrusted me with three children. Motherhood changes every aspect of our lives, suddenly and definitively. Hungry? Sorry, so is the baby. Need to sleep? Sorry, the baby’s awake again. Feeling stressed and need a break? Well, you have six hours left until bedtime, so suck it up. Motherhood is the ultimate kick-you-in-the-rear kind of “forget yourself” experience. But the result is so deliciously priceless.

I read somewhere that the definition of love is putting the welfare and desires of another ahead of our own. Parents are the epitome of that definition.

While working in an orphanage in Romania, I met an eleven year-old girl named Maria. She had been a normal child, active and loud, excited to be alive. But she was an orphan, and she had symptoms of hydrocephalus. When I met her she had only one word left in her vocabulary: “Pa” (Bye).  She was bedridden and completely dependent on the orphanage staff. But you’d never know it. Each time I walked into her room, her eyes lit up like I was the Easter Bunny. I usually brought her crayons and sang her songs. She loved my recordings of Amy Grant and Jon Schmidt music. Her condition worsened and she stopped sitting up when I visited. Over the last weeks of my stay, Maria was transferred back and forth between the hospital, the infectious diseases center, and the orphanage until finally, the medical staff agreed that there was nothing left to be done.

That last goodbye is so engraved in my memory that even now, nine years later, I get emotional thinking about it. The hospital had shoved her in a side room, nothing more than a closet full of stacked chairs and tables. There was barely a movement as I sang her favorite songs. I remember singing some primary songs and feeling the Spirit so strong, it felt like a hallowed place. She blinked as I gave her a kiss and said goodbye. Three months before I hadn’t even known this young girl, and yet, now she felt like a daughter that I had raised and was now being torn away from. As I left, I realized what love was. I loved my family, but this was different. I had sacrificed my time, my money, and my entire heart for this girl.  My selfish degree-seeking college life would never be the same.

The greatest commandment is to love God and our fellowman, and that we need to love others “as He has loved us.” That’s a tall order, because He loves us a lot. We all know that “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and that God “so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.” Is it possible that that’s one of the reasons He gives us children? To experience a sliver of what He has experienced, and to see a glimpse into a joyful eternity? Or perhaps even to get us an inch closer to where He is. Parenting is indeed the challenge and the purpose of mortality.

In April 2012, Elder Boyd K. Packer said, “One of the great discoveries of parenthood is that we learn far more about what really matters from our children than we ever did from our parents.”

Maybe I should write a book called “Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned From My Kids.” I wonder if that book actually exists. Or maybe it’s a book we all write in our heads as we raise our own children. In either case, I am so thankful to be a mom and to learn how to become as a little child again. I’m honored to have three little examples of Christlike living right here in my own home.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Hope you are all well.

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