Parenting Paradigm: Willful Israelites

This is the second in a parenting series from the scriptures. The first installment is Parenting Paradigm: Little Patriarchs you’ll want to read that first.

Building upon a foundation of love and understanding our children’s potential, we come to the years where they start to be stinkers. It’s a good thing their superpowers have indentured us to them for a lifetime of love and service, because we would probably leave them in a parking lot somewhere when they turn five. To understand how to parent these squirrely kids and tweens, it is helpful to look at how the Lord interacted with the Israelites under Moses.

The Israelites knew that they were valued. They knew God loved them and would protect them. He displayed repeated unheard-of miracles to free them from Pharaoh. But once they got out in the wilderness, they came apart. Whining, complaining, ungrateful, faithless. They had a very short memory span. Again, the Lord fed them every day, and provided water for them. He kept them alive because the Lord was good, not because the people were.

Rules and specifics

Moses received 10 commandments from the Lord on Sinai, plus additional instructions for how to build the tabernacle, what the priests should wear and their duties–basically setting up the church from scratch, but as time went on, the Lord found it necessary to clarify those 10 commandments by adding laws for every situation in which they could break the commandment. First He said, “Thou shalt not steal”; next comes “If you steal in this situation, this is the punishment, if you steal in that situation, that is the punishment.” Not only did God elucidate the 10 commandments, He also gave them commandments for daily life: hygiene, dealing with the dead, weights and measures, military rules, justice, etc. God made rules for every situation in order to train His people to live righteously. I imagine it was not fun to be so nit-picky, but if He didn’t train them in every particular, they would never become His “peculiar treasure above all people“, worthy to carry His covenants.

In a similar way, parents of young (willful, disobedient, squirrely) children have to reinforce right behavior for a few years to train them to live well. The idea is always to rule themselves by correct principles, but when they don’t know what that looks like, its hard for them to create a righteous productive life from scratch. We need to direct them in particulars until they create good habits and experience order, cleanliness, kindness, respect and righteousness for themselves. Then, as adults, they will have a true opportunity to choose for themselves because they will have grown up tasting the fruit of righteousness. Why would they choose all of the effort required to be righteous when they haven’t experienced the joy and peace that comes from it firsthand?

It is helpful to look at the 10 commandments and get our basic principles from them. The first half deal with our relationship with God. The second half deal with relationships with other people. These can be our guiding principles in the home–our higher law. “We honor and respect God and we honor and respect each other.” But tell that to your seven-year and see how well it comes out. These kids need specifics. In our house, we feel the Spirit more when our house is clean and orderly. (Principle level). We have chores to clean up. (Commandment level). When I asked my seven-year-old yesterday to “set the table” and she carefully jigsawed the plates on the table in between the play-dough, pencils, extra cups and used napkins, I had to get a little more “law of Moses” with her. “Put the cups away. Put the play dough away. Get everything off of the table to make it clean then wipe it off. Now, we need utensils, cups, napkins as well as plates.” It’s not that kids are lazy or dumb, they just have to be trained to see what a clean room, or a set table, or a kind interaction looks like. For that, they need specifics.

Punishments

“Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” God gave the Israelites punishments that made sense to them–that seemed fair. But they were also punishments that needed to be meted out, not naturally occurring. People were stoned, people were exiled, people were killed. The Lord had his own punishments listed for general disobedience: “The Lord will smite thee with the botch of Egypt, and with the emerods, and with the scab and with the itch. . . with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart.” They had seen what He could do to the Egyptians and knew that they could be the recipient of similar plagues if God willed it.

When people broke one of the rules, they were punished without delay. In the story of Joshua and the battle of Ai, for example, when they found the one who took treasure from Jericho, he was burned immediately, along with all of his family and possessions. God could have no tolerance for disobedience as He was training them.

In contrast, our apostles have discouraged us from stoning our children. In fact, they have warned against any physical punishment. President Hinckley said:

In terms of physical abuse, I have never accepted the principle of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” I will be forever grateful for a father who never laid a hand in anger upon his children. Somehow he had the wonderful talent to let them know what was expected of them and to give them encouragement in achieving it.

I am persuaded that violent fathers produce violent sons. I am satisfied that such punishment in most instances does more damage than good. Children don’t need beating. They need love and encouragement. They need fathers to whom they can look with respect rather than fear. Above all, they need example.

Parents should counsel together first about their “guiding principles”, then the Law of Moses rules to achieve them, and then the punishments affixed to those laws. Then they can present the whole plan to their family, in context of the principles and what the overarching goal for the family is. God didn’t ask the Israelites what they thought their punishment should be, and parents shouldn’t put the job of parenting into the hands of their young children.

Often, our young Israelites need immediate serious correction–like a wild child sitting on a lap, restrained by the parent’s firm arms for a period of time, or a screamer being deposited hastily in their room with the door shut until everyone cools down. Those punishments deprive them of interactions with people they love temporarily and can be effective for the younger Israelites. Their brains aren’t capable of reason and logic yet, so it is maddening and futile to try to convince them that they need to share or not bite or be obedient. Physical reminders really are more effective with little kids. They grow out of needing “time out” type of things as their brains mature and can reason with you. As they are immediately corrected for breaking the rules, they start to get it and need less correction. That is the whole point of this phase.

It seems crucial that God did His training in the wilderness, not in a wonderland. There were no distractions there, it was easier for Him to have their attention. If we are trying to discipline our Israelites in a wonderland, with screens and toys in every room, it isn’t effective.

In our house, we recently ran an experiment to create better habits with our five Israelites (ages 3-12). We want them to learn, be responsible, and be clean. Those are our guiding principles. Breaking them down into laws we wanted each of them to make their beds, brush their teeth, make their lunches, practice, feed their animals, keep their room and a part of house clean. We showed them what a completed job looked like, and we knew they could handle it. They were free to play as soon as those items were done. So we talked to them about habits and how it takes about 60 days to create a habit that sticks with you, and determined that if we kept a job chart with all of their tasks for the week, after two months they would have the habit to do those things and it wouldn’t bug them anymore, it would be easy. We explained Emerson’s quote:

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”

Then we decided that each week that everyone got all of their tasks done, we would do a big fun family activity–several weeks we went swimming, one time we went out for ice cream, one time we went to the movie. My husband and I determined that it was worth it for us to spend some money to help them be motivated to do their jobs and have a clean house. They knew that if they didn’t get their jobs done, they really wouldn’t get to do the activity. We weren’t going to budge on it, so we didn’t choose activities that kids would participate in no matter what (like a weekend trip–we couldn’t leave anyone home). This is another version of a modern-day punishment: not doing the fun thing that is assigned to the rule. Really sticking with it helps them know we are serious and that they have to be obedient.

In our family, the habits have stuck, and so has a new reward–30 minutes of screen time each day when they finish their jobs. They are motivated to get to that screen, so they rush around to do it. My husband and I are rolling our eyes that family time together wasn’t enough motivation–but whatever. We see our older three kids slowly evolving out of Israelite phase and we are relieved–they are becoming responsible, caring and capable. It isn’t fun to be an Israelite parent, but it is a necessary stage to go through if we want our children to be “peculiar treasures” in our own unique family culture. Luckily, with multiple children, it is less and less work to train the younger ones because the older ones show them the example of what it means to be a part of the family. It starts to solidify as the norm. That means we have to be really diligent with our older ones though, to set the stage for everyone who follows.

Tying it back to principles

The Israelites got so good at keeping their laws that they started to worship them. The law was going to save them–their own perfect execution of the law would perfect them. This is why the Pharisees and Sadduccees were so haughty and judgmental when Christ came. In contrast, the Nephites always kept the tradition that Christ was the purpose of the law. When He came to them and told them the law was fulfilled, they switched right over, gladly. They understood the intent of the law was to “point their souls to Him“.

Parents need to reference their guiding principles often and remember that having the Spirit in their home is the objective–not making sure the toilet seats are wiped down just so. The point of this all isn’t to have a job chart that works perfectly, it is to graduate out of job charts. Be cautious that the smaller laws don’t become point of it all. God showed mercy to the Israelites often, and we should do the same to our kids, who are just learning how to live a good life, from scratch.

One comment

  1. I love your thoughts! When my oldest turned six and I felt out of my depth as a mom, I prayed to know what to do and was told to study the first 6 books of the Old Testament. These elementary kids really are Israelites in behavior! I love your thought about the wilderness being a place free from distractions- you’ve given me the key to what I need to do next in my parenting journey. As a tip for other Israelite mothers, my 7 year old was having a hard time with the list of “rules, chores, and commandments” until one day I felt prompted to explain the difference between the commands I gave and what I was actually testing him on. I wasn’t testing him on his ability to accomplish the list of chores completely, I was testing his attitude in doing what was asked of him- would he work quickly and cheerfully and accept correction and training? Now when he sees an overwhelming list of things to do, he doesn’t run away and hide in the corner, he asks me, “Okay Mom, what am I being tested on today?” Isn’t it nice to give ourselves a little grace too and ask the Lord, “What am I being tested on today?”

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