a tale of two brothers

Just about four years ago I posted this photo on my (former) personal blog as food for thought in the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge advocate of nurturing. I believe in its inherent powers so strongly I chose to forgo a career and gave up the “getting ahead” two incomes may have afforded us–and pretty much my heart, might, mind, body and soul–to become a stay-at-home mother. Even though it wasn’t–at the time–something I did very well or what came naturally to me.

Just about four months ago I reposted this same photo and a map of the northern half of England on my current blog, asking my readers to imagine the map superimposed over the two bedrooms. The son responsible for the left bedroom was serving in the England Manchester Mission (northwest England) and the son responsible for the right bedroom had just received his call to serve in the England Leeds Mission (northeast England).

As both sons left, almost two years apart, over and over again I heard the words, “You must be such a good mom.”

While I appreciate the sentiment and recognize it was always expressed with love, I’ll be honest. It made me squirm a little.

I’m just not comfortable taking credit for my kids’ being who they are and making their own choices. By that logic, if my sons had chosen differently, would that have negated all my parenting efforts and somehow meant I was a bad mom? And what would it say about me if one had chosen to go and one had chosen not to go?

As the photos of their very different bedroom decors suggest, the truth is that I am no more responsible for their good personal choices than I would be responsible for their bad choices had they taken other paths.

It may seem a contradiction, but while I have devoted my life’s work to parenting and I firmly believe both quantity and quality do matter, I also suspect we, as parents, often forget the importance and effects of divine nature and agency, and fool ourselves into believing we have more control over outcomes than we actually do.

A recent article from the Wall Street Journal seems to bear this out:

The main problem with parenting pessimists, though, is that they assume there’s no acceptable way to make parenting less work and more fun. Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.

The most meaningful fruit of parenting, however, is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you… If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.

If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”—and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family.

I don’t believe everything I read, and you probably shouldn’t either. And this doesn’t in any way mean parenting–particularly mothering–doesn’t matter. But perhaps we would be wise to lay down the guilt trips–both the ones we take ourselves and probably even some of those we try to impose on our kids–and relax.

Enjoy the ride.

Why are we so afraid of our kids’ agency? Do you measure the quality of your parenting by the successes of your children? How do you avoid beating yourself up when your kids choose differently than you would have chosen for them? What helps you worry less and enjoy the ride more?

June 30, 2010


  1. Paradox

    June 29, 2010

    If I may say so, the problem I see in the nature VS nurture argument is that it assumes our influence and control are the only ones that matter.

    We have Heavenly Parents and a heavenly origin. Included in these are both nature and nurturing. I see no reason to mold my perspective to one or the other because thinking about the pre-existence and our place here on earth, it’s impossible not to believe that they work together powerfully for our good.

    Much of the time, we don’t trust the agency of children because we do not understand God’s all-encompassing presence in their lives. Sure, their choices are important–but not nearly as important as Heavenly Father’s love and guidance which is so masterfully subtle, most of the time we do not even recognize it.

  2. Emily W.

    June 29, 2010

    The fact that my children have free agency terrifies me sometimes! I don’t want them to mess up or be hurt or make horrible choices. But I’ve always told myself that if Lehi can raise two rebellious sons, it can happen to the best of us. Which means obviously it’s not all about the parenting.

    Remind me I said this when I have a kid old enough to do something really stupid!

  3. Anon

    June 29, 2010

    Looking back on my own choices in life I do worry about the choices that my kids will make. I’ve made some pretty seriously devastating choices that I truly regret, but I have also turned back to the church and I’m trying my best. I think my choice to return back to the gospel was remembering the happiness of my childhood and living with parents who truly loved the church and tried their best to serve in the church. On the other hand, while I was “partying” and then having to clean the aftermath of those nights, I just remember thinking that I didn’t really want to live like this and I wasn’t truly happy. My parents never judged or preach to me while I was astray, but they did show an increase of love for me and it was that love..love of the gospel, love of family that I will try to show my own children.

  4. Stacey

    June 29, 2010

    I don’t think that what we do as parents doesn’t make a difference. But I think the difference it makes is to offer a safe place and to offer direction and hopefully some wisdom and experience. It is scary and hard to watch your children make choices. You always want for them to make the best choices. But as a neighbor gently reminded me, we also want them to know their Savior. And, sometimes, in order to do that, they will have to make mistakes. I just pray their mistakes are relatively minor.

    I’ve been told that I have good kids and have people that give me all the credit. I too am uncomfortable with that. I always say it’s nothing I’m doing, it’s all them.

  5. Cathy Lane

    June 29, 2010

    A great teacher once pointed out to me that as parents we often act out Satan’s plan for the world. We will MAKE our children live lives of righteousness. The natural man (or Mom)forgets that Christ loves our child more than we do and that if the Savior will work in our lives than we have to trust He will work in our childrens lives also. I too have agnoized over what I have not done for each of my grown children but the Spirit tells me I was a good Mom – not a perfect Mom.

    It’s very hard to let someone run their own life when you’ve worred about the contentens of their diaper.

  6. Jill Shelley

    June 29, 2010

    Do you measure the quality of your parenting by the successes of your children, you ask. I just want my kids to be happy and I know it can come in no other way than by living the teachings of the gospel. So it’s worth all I can do to help them. Parenting is not so much about me, it’s about them. It’s not what other people think, it’s not about my feeling of worth as their Mom, it’s about them.

  7. Blue

    June 29, 2010

    I’ve concluded (rightly or not) that it’s the relationships that matter most. Time spent developing close, loving, mutually-rewarding relationships with our family will, in the end, carry them further than hours of sports, music, art, dance etc.

    The nurture of our children is my top priority, but I try to remember that nurture isn’t necessarily demonstrated by signing up for another class or sport activity. The fun of participating in any kind of pursuit (arts/sports, etc) mustn’t come at the expense of the time needed to have quiet space in our lives enough to feel the spirit and connect with those we love.

    Kids are put in competitive situations by their parents far more these days than in the past, and I worry about the impact of this on them. As parents feed this need to compete by wanting our kids to “win” over others. Whether it’s top grades, biggest scholarships, winning the championship, getting into the preferred college, winning the competition or election etc., there are countless ways we want our kids to win. Some come to feel that their intrinsic worth is less because they’re not “winning”. That is tragic.

    At the end of the day, we will either be happy because we’re living right and have love in our lives, or we won’t. So I’m trying to help my kids find THEIR dreams, THEIR authentic interests and hopes…not my hopes for them. Then my job is to support them and provide them opportunities to make those dreams come true. But I get to sit back, relax, and watch them work their own lives out. Make their mistakes. Know they are loved for who they are, not what they do or how successful/good they are at things. I get to enjoy them. It’s awesome. ♥

  8. jks

    June 29, 2010

    I can’t avoid the nurture effect, especially with two children who need speech and language therapy and I see the difference I make. However, the other thing that it has taught me is that each child has his/her own potential and I don’t get to say exactly what it is.
    I try to view my job as providing opportunities but then the rest is up to their nature or their agency. We’ll see how I do in the upcoming years.
    I do like to take credit sometimes……because I do carefully weigh my options and choose the one I think will work best. Parenting involves a lot of problem solving skills.
    I think the thing that keeps me from MOTHER GUILT is Esther Rasband’s book The Myth of Self Esteem: 12 Steps to Peace (or something like that). So, I do my best and I have faith that the Atonement makes up the difference.

  9. dalene

    June 29, 2010

    Paradox–Love this: “Heavenly Father’s love and guidance which is so masterfully subtle, most of the time we do not even recognize it.” So true.

    Emily W.–The type is clear from the beginning. There have been rebellious children since the pre-existence. It’s easy to know that in our heads, but harder to get it in our broken hearts. I wish you well and hope your kids never do anything really stupid.

    Anon–I believe there is a sacred power in that increase of love. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

    Stacey–I have noticed that some of the people closest to their Savior and also most like Him are those who have–for whatever reason–needed Him most.

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

    June 29, 2010

    Every so often someone will tell me that I must be a great mother because my kids are so great.

    I tell them that my kids came that way.

    We need to remember that along with the “nature” (heredity) and the “nurture” (environment) factors, there is the fact that each of us were born with fully-formed personalities, interests, inclinations, preferences, and abilities, and those are huge.

    All I can offer my children is love, opportunity, and example, and then I pray a lot that everything will work out for their best good.

  11. dalene

    June 29, 2010

    Cathy Lane–Yes! I’ve written about this before but I remember expressing so earnestly my desire to make my child do what I knew was right for him. I was gently reminded, “That was the other plan.”

    Jill Shelley–That’s a very healthy approach. The world would be such a better place if more people remembered “It’s not about me.”

    Blue–I too feel so strongly about relationships and get so frustrated when aspects of my parenting responsibilities seem to get in the way of that. I try to seek and maintain balance (choose my battles, etc.), but find it’s more difficult with some kids than with others. It’s certainly a work in progress.

    jks–That is one of my most fervent prayers–that the atonement will make up the difference.

  12. Kalli

    June 29, 2010

    Ah Dalene, you have a way of invoking the deep thoughts in me…

    My boy is only almost 2 so I his agency at this point is limited to how many times he’ll ignore me when I say no. But having worked with teenagers extensively, I can say from an observational point of view that the best parent/child relationships are developed from the parent setting a good example, creating a loving home environment, setting boundaries and holding reasonable expectations. I’m sure it’s terrifying when your children start dipping their feet or diving full bore into agency, but as a parent the best thing you can do sometimes is let them fail rather then preach them to submission. How else do we as humans learn if not by failure?

  13. dalene

    June 29, 2010

    Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury–I have a friend whose response to many of her problems is “I just turn it over to God.” To me this is what is meant by praying everything will work for their (or my, or our) good.

    We don’t just throw our hands in the air and give up. We step back a bit and work at bending ourselves to God’s will instead of working so hard to bend everyone else’s will to our own.

    This also something I need to do better.

  14. dalene

    June 29, 2010

    Kalli–It IS terrifying, especially when the boundaries you have set up and which were observed without question by one child seem completely invisible and ineffective for another child and you feel helpless to enforce them. I wonder if I were better able to turn it over to God I would somehow be less terrified?

  15. Kalli

    June 29, 2010

    probably not friend, I wish, but that’s not how a mother heart works now is it?

    My mom probably has some deep thoughts on this as that exact situation has replayed itself in our family over and over. I think one thing that has really helped her is finally coming to the realization that past a certain point, she has no control over what her children do or how they act, especially as adults. That’s the frustrating and freeing thing about agency I suppose.

  16. Olive

    June 29, 2010

    I would cringe, too, if people said that to me. It also bothers me when people say “I was blessed with this because I did…” when 1) they have no idea what God does or doesn’t do and/or why and 2) it alludes to the same thing, that if someone has something bad happen to them, it is because they did something wrong (or didn’t do something right ‘enough’)

    Even if it all “turns out okay in the end” (ie, in heaven), in the meantime, they can make horrible decisions that can negatively affect them for the rest of their mortality, and also affecting generations after. Mortality is terrifying… not because we don’t know any better, of course we do, we have the gospel, we know it all works out in the end. But in the meantime life is hard, and painful, and unfair…anyone who tries to paint those realities away is hiding in a bubble that will eventually be popped. The gospel doesn’t take the pain out of life.

  17. Klin

    June 29, 2010

    As I am working with parents I remind them that our perfect Heavenly parents lost 1/3 of their children in the war in Heaven.

    Children need good enough parents and most of us do our best to provide that. I love how you point out that you are still a good mother even when your children make poor choices or choices that you’d rather they not make.

    Great post Dalene.

  18. Katie

    June 29, 2010

    I like to think of Heavenly Father as the ultimate example of good parenting. In the scriptures I feel like God does a great job of giving us the credit of the choices we make, while also making his own role clear and important.

    I know from experience how hard it can be to have parents who don’t care, but I can no more abdicate my responsibility for my actions by blaming my parents than good parents can claim responsibility for their children’s good choices. Parenting makes a HUGE difference, but it doesn’t make my choices for me.

    Realizing this helps me be a better parent. When I focus on MY choices instead of controlling my children’s choices life is happier for all of us. If my 2 year old chooses to throw the mother of all tantrums in the grocery store I am not responsible for her choice – however, I am responsible for my choice to take her to the store when I should have put her down for nap, or I am responsible if I lose my temper with her. I cannot control her choices, but I can control mine and I will be held accountable for those choices no matter what my children do.

  19. Amanda

    June 29, 2010

    I have thought the same thought – that if a parent is commended for raising good children, are they to be blamed if their children turn out bad?
    I often think of my parents as examples of good parents. They raised 6 very different children…and we all turned out very differently. I think that is a testament to good parenting – they didn’t try to mold us into what they thought we should be, but instead worked with us on our individual strengths and weakness to reach our own individual potential.

  20. Sage

    June 30, 2010


    This is a wonderful post. And great comments. Katie said it well, we are responsible for our own choices as parents just as our kids are responsible for theirs.

    We are told in the scriptures that we are accountable for what we teach our children, not how they turn out.

    It is scary as a parent seeing that this little being you love and helped create could become anything. I get glimpses sometimes of where they may go if they continue with certain behaviors and I do my best to help them see the effect of their choices.

    I also recognize my children came a lot easier than some of my friends.

    I just have to do my best to love them, and I can thank them for their help in developing who I am as I learn not to lose my temper or any of the hundreds of other challenges parenting gives me to become a more Christ-like person.

    Then I will pray for the Atonement to help my kids as it has helped me.

  21. Kay

    June 30, 2010

    How successful am I as a parent? I truly don’t know. Some days I think I am rubbish, other days I can feel that we are all happy and things are o.k. It really hurts when your children tell you that you are a useless parent, even when said in anger.

    I also have to admit that I worry about what others think of me as a parent. In reality, I know it is none of their business. I have been ill recently and my husband took over the reins for nearly 2 weeks. This meant that a couple of days my son went to school in very dirty t-shirts, neither my husband nor my son cared about this. I worried that it showed I was a bad mother.

    My kids are great, except when they are not!! I love them. I try hard. Some days I am proud of their achievements, others I want to jump off a cliff. I do wish I could be more relaxed about it all and not worry so much. I do find it incredibly tough to let go and watch them make choices. Maybe a control freak doesn’t make the best kind of mother.

  22. Em-Cat

    June 30, 2010

    What a great post Dalene! I’m a young mother to a toddler and I find myself thinking worrying constantly about whether or not my son will serve a mission, make the right choices as far as the church is concerned and be a righteous, good member of society. I also worry about standing back and letting my child make his own choices and be his own person…because sometimes I feel like I need to control every aspect of his life.

    This post has put a lot of things into perspective for me. Even before reading this, I’ve begun to learn that, even at this young age, he needs to try his strengths and weaknesses a little and just be his own little person with me standing in the background ready to help when necessary. Though I feel like I need to continue giving him every opportunity to grow and be nourished in the Gospel, I know I need to chill out a little and trust that he will learn, grow and be blessed according to his own choices. A lot easier said than done!

  23. Human Bean

    June 30, 2010

    Love this post Dalene!

    I’m sitting here watching my 2 1/2 yr. old drama queen thrash around on the floor in a raging tantrum like one of those blooming flower fireworks, (there is shrieking, fist pounding, tears- the whole nine yards)all because of today’s outfit choice. *I* picked out a lovely pastel t-shirt with adorable polka dotted capri pants and those overpriced hot pink jelly sandals we should never have been guilted into. *She* picked out a wife beater tank top with a tacky fish print (which she grew out of LAST summer) and a dirty pair of pajama stretch pants which she dug out of the laundry pile. She has managed to wrestle out of the tasteful outfit and is now down to her underthings shrieking “I HATE those clothes!”

    I lose.

    There she goes- out to play with the big kids- tacky fish print, dirty pants and bare feet. I look at her through one eye and think ‘I’m in big, big trouble.’ Then I close that eye and look at her through the other and think ‘She’s happy and she knows what she wants. I should be happy too.’

    I know I have just started the long journey of parenthood and I know the battles will just get bigger. But, maybe if I can learn to let go of a few things now it will be a few degrees easier in the long run. -sigh-

  24. Rynell

    June 30, 2010

    My kids are good in spite of me.

  25. Melody

    July 6, 2010

    Human Bean – perfect! My kids always chose their own clothes. I was not ashamed. Some of the clothing choices were hilarious. They are nice-looking, well dressed adults today. I had little or nothing to do with that.

    My children are all good writers. I saw it even in elementary school. I had something to do with that.

    They are creative, interested, interesting people. I had a little to do with that.

    They are happy healthy, forward-moving, God-and-fellow-human-being-loving adults. I have nothing to do with that.
    Whatever I gave or “invested” I knew that, once given, it was no longer mine; nor, once grown, were they.

    I like it when people compliment me as a mother via my children. I understand what they mean. And it’s nice to be honored for what I gave and gave up to provide the best possible environment with my limited emotional, financial, physical single-working-sometimes-negligent-mom resources.

    What Rynell said.

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