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I may or may not have spanked my children

By Hildie Westenhaver

Do you look at your children and pat yourself on the back? Or perhaps blame yourself for the issues that they have?

I have six children, including three teenagers, and they are all pretty good, easy kids. For a long, long time I thought they were all great due to my exemplary parenting skills. But now I’m realizing it might have very little to do with me. Maybe I could have been a crack whore they still would be turning out pretty well.

Disclosure: I have children who are in the younger grades who might still end up getting pregnant in high school/selling drugs/becoming the anti-Christ but I am hopeful that they won’t.

As I get older I have seen many of my friends children go seriously astray. Kids who had fantastic, caring, disciplined parents. I understand free agency and all that but I’m really still scratching my head wondering nature or nurture?

A couple of weeks ago I took care of my sister’s three children for over a week while she and her husband went on a trip.  Her six-year-old daughter has always been defiant and incredibly emotional and she basically gave me a run for my money.  As I sat and watched my niece freak out yet again I wondered if she would be the same way if I had been her mother. It’s hard not to see where other parents fall short, but does it really matter? Is there really that much difference to be had by parenting differently?

I know it’s heresy to even suggest such a thing. The amount of parenting books is mind-blowing.  Never before have there been so many resources for children:  doctors, music lessons, special schools, therapists, classes, camps. We should have childhood all figured out by now. Obviously we don’t.

Is there a basic minimum that every child needs and everything beyond that is pointless?  Does everything really come down to the child’s personality and free-agency?  Does the important part of my job really consist of nothing more than providing unconditional love and acceptance?

How do you, as a parent, a teacher, or even just an observer of children, determine what really makes a difference in bringing up kids?

About Hildie Westenhaver

(Blog Team) was born and raised in Detroit, but is happy to call Austin, TX home now. She majored in Art History and Geography at BYU and graduated a week before having her first baby. There have been five more babies since then. Hildie is an avid baker and tries to fatten up the people she loves.

27 thoughts on “I may or may not have spanked my children”

  1. As a parent, who was once a teenager, I believe everything has a result, be it parenting, environment, and friends. Our agency is how we choose to react to those forces. I saw an interesting story of conjoined twins that had such different personalities and ideas of the world, and to think they both had the same parenting, circumstances and had to deal with them together. It really helped me understand that each of is has a choice on how we look at things.

  2. "Does everything really come down to the child’s personality and free-agency?"


    "Does the important part of my job really consist of nothing more than providing unconditional love and acceptance?"


    At least that's what parenting one of those kids like your niece has taught me.

  3. Considering that agency was regarded by God as so important that He allowed His Son to be tortured to death to ensure we could exercise it, we sure talk a lot like we don't really believe in it. Children are not the blank slates a lot of the parental self-help books would have us believe.

    I'm not denying parenting makes some difference, but I think kids bring an awful lot of it with them.

  4. Parenting makes a difference. Don't kid yourself-it is a good thing that you are not a crack whore. They would have turned out differently.

  5. Love your title. 🙂
    It IS so easy to see the beam in another's parenting choices and miss our own motes. I don't have much to add that you did not express already. Just wanted to say that I enjoyed reading it and relate very much.

  6. I understand what you're talking about. My parents rasied us very similarly to the way some good friends raised their kids. My mom gets on her knees daily and thanks God that her children are all temple worthy, all college grads, all married in the Temple, all parents. She knows it's a shot in a million to get 100% like that (for now –who knows what could change in the future??). Our friends? Very different story. One out of five is still active in the Church, and I won't divulge the pains the choices their children have made has caused.

    I once had a friend tell me: "When our kids go astray, we know it's because of agency. But when they make good choices, we know it's because of our good parenting."

    I wanted to smack him in the face.

    If I can't claim my children's failures, then why in the world would I be arrogant enough to claim their successes? I think it's gotta cut both ways.

    I'm constantly amazed at how well my kids are doing in SPITE of me. I wish I could say it's because I rock, but I'm too much of a realist. The one thing I can claim, though? Teaching them the Gospel of Christ from a very young age. I take that part of my stewardship very, very seriously, and I really do hope it's helped. They are all still too young to know how they'll turn out, but so far, so good! I'm constantly amazed at how well they are doing. I just hope I have enough money in their savings accounts for all their future therapy sessions (which I can laugh about, because I'm seriously in therapy myself, so, you know…). 🙂

  7. How children turn out is combination of the two.

    All children require that their basic needs are met. They need food, to be kept clean, love and affection, discipline, routines, and boundaries for example. If children don't have these things from their parents, they are guaranteed to have serious problems. However, once those basic needs are mostly met, how they turn out is a result of their own personal choices.

    I have also come to the conclusion that some equally well-intentioned parents are more adept at handling more difficult children than others.

    The original post addresses the large number of parenting books available. I think the majority of them are not very good, but I have found a few books to be really helpful and some advice I have read have been answers to my prayers.

  8. "Does the important part of my job really consist of nothing more than providing unconditional love and acceptance?"

    The more I go along the more I think I agree with your statement up there. (Of course, sometimes that unconditional love is packaged as discipline–read "spank" there if you want–remember the scripture in Revelation: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten.) I am learning that I can teach and administer consequences over and over again but how those are received by my children, their level of obedience and acceptance of what I say is largely out of my control. Often the best I can do is try and focus on my love for them and not overreact when they choose things that drive me right up the wall (knock on wood so far I don't see any of my children turning out to be the anti-Christ either. ;)) I see Heavenly Father doing that as well–he teaches and teaches and teaches and sometimes gets very sharp with us but he never seems to lose his cool–he can't/won't control us and he knows it. I know that I am best motivated when I feel his love for me and I think he knows that too. I also agree with RK who said "some equally well-intentioned parents are more adept at handling more difficult children than others".

  9. The thing about agency is we have to KNOW {for the most part} before making choices, or rather before we are held accountable for those choices, which is why parenting is so essential. Teaching our children right from wrong makes them responsible for their actions. If we don't parent and teach them then we become responsible.

    Doctrine and Covenants 68:25
    "And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents."

    And that's the hard thing. Allowing them to suffer the consequences because of their agency.

  10. When it comes to my kids I doubt myself constantly. But I believe as long as they know I love them no matter what, anything else is a bonus.

    The older they get the more I realise any parenting 'success' is not because of me, it's because of them – their personalities, their choices. Though there is an expectation that I'll fail or be less of a 'good' parent because I'm a single parent, with comments made along the lines of "The Lord will understand any failings in your family (you know, because THEY LIVE IN A BROKEN HOME)…"

    My reply to that is usually along the lines of "Bite me. My kids rock!"

    I hope to dodge the 'My kid's the Anti-Christ' outcome though.

  11. Once when my parents came to visit my little family, my son was about three and my daughter one. My mom couldn't believe how much sass was packed into that little one year old body. Finally, exasperated, I told my mother that this is how God sent her to me. At one, I can't say that she had been thinking too much about agency.

  12. I don't think we can change our children's potential. I think they come as they are, and if we provide a safe, secure environment, we increase the odds they will reach their own potential. If we neglect our responsibilities, we can do a lot of damage and greatly limit the chance of them reaching their potential. They might not even be aware of their potential, so we can try to help them see it, but I don't really think we can change it.

    I do not have "good, easy kids". My mom raised four sons and two daughters. My in-laws raised five sons and one daughter. I have four sons and one daughter. Every single one is high energy and loud and messy and exhausting. When I finally had a girl, I thought it would finally be my chance to have a quiet, sweet child. Nope – she is worse then all the rest of them put together.

    My husband called his parents once and said, "Stephanie is really struggling with our kids. What advice do you have?" They said, "We don't know. Our kids weren't really like that". So I called my mom to ask what I should do. She said, "I don't know. My kids weren't really like that".

    So, no answers. I got a book called "Easy to Love, Hard to Raise" hoping it would have answers, but it primarily focuses on children with ADHD, and after reading most of it, I am pretty convinced that my children do not have ADHD – they are just high energy, active kids.

    My hope at this point is really just to survive their childhood without damaging them too much.

  13. I think there is a MASSIVE difference between choices like co-sleeping and when to introduce solids, or how much tv time the kid gets, to the bigger things like neglecting to pay any attention to what your kid is doing or with who.

    As a daughter of neglectful and abusive parents, I can assure you that there is a very large difference between bad and good parenting – it's just we tend to obsess far too much over the tiny nuances in "good" parenting far, far too much. My future has been far more difficult because of my parents. I've missed out on I don't know how many things because of their issues. I'm mature enough now to forgive and move on, but I sure think about that a lot as I raise my own kids now.

    The most important things to give a child are unconditional love and proper care and guidance. These can be accomplished an infinite number of ways. However, if you were a crack head mother, I seriously doubt your kids would have turned out the same. Maybe they would have persevered and made good lives for themselves, but there would have been a massive amount of pain and struggle along the way.

    Finally, there is NO WAY to know what actually happens in someone's home. None. Even people we think we know intimately can surprise us. A whole lot of people in our ward thought (and still do think) that my parents were model Mormon parents. To be honest, I'm sort of shocked sometimes that I stuck with my religion because of that. People can hide all kinds of things. (This is not to say that I don't recognize that good parents can produce kids who choose badly, and bad parents can have kids who choose well. Agency is a wonderful thing.)

    Oh, and I shudder every time someone tells me I must have had good parents because I turned out well. I turned out well in spite of them, not because of them.

  14. The kids (7) who acted out during high school are now all recovered and active in the church. (including teen pregnancy, drug abuse, alcohol experimentation and eating disorder) I learned early to discuss the consequences and allow them also, no rescue. Only one is still a little dicey but on the way to recovery. I learned from the very first one, I'm on the no credit, no blame parenting list. If I can't take the blame, I can't take the credit.

  15. I will take the credit for what I do because I do a lot. I have a child with a learning disability and sure I wish I started intervention before age 2 years 10 months, but I can live with my mistakes….I did the best I could. I am happy and proud of myself for doing what I have worked hard to do. Does my kid need to get into Harvard for me to pat myself on the back? No. I see my children learning and growing everyday. I make decisions every day. I know each little decision isn't a make it or break it kind of thing, but I see a difference and I know my efforts are of benefit to my children. Without me as a mother, they would perhaps learn some different things and that is ok.
    Understanding the atonement helps. I know that I can't mess up my child's eternal potential. The atonement will make up for any thing my child is denied in this life based on lack of opportunity or mistakes made by me or others. So I am not too results oriented. I view life as a learning process for myself and my children so even failures seem like good learning experiences for them, rather than evidence that I have messed up.
    So, there you have it. You can't tell me that what I do doesn't make a difference. I know it does. And you can't tell me I have to beat myself up about any failures because it is ok if my kids aren't perfect or I make a mistake.
    My kids are all very individual and rather than thinking it is pointless to try to parent them, I just think it is a wonderful, interesting challenge to teach each of them and help them toward their individual potential.

  16. As the parent of grown children, I have considered this subject over the years, as I raised my own children and now as I watch my daughter raising hers.

    I have come to believe that agency is a much greater part of what we are supposed to be learning down here then I had thought before. As mentioned above, our Heavenly Father and elder brother, Jesus Christ, were willing to go to extreme lengths to protect our agency. As you parent children, especially in the teen years, it can be painfully difficult to let them have agency. I remember when one of my particularly challenging sons was small; I was absolutely frantic trying to figure out how to parent him to avoid the problems I could see looming on the horizon. We got through those years (barely) but did we avoid all those problems? No. I want to say we both learned something from those years of trial; but all I can offer is that somehow, we both still like each other and have a relationship. There was actually a point in his teen years where the Lord told me I was done teaching him; he knew the essentials; now my job was just to love him. That is the role I've taken on with my adult children; to love and encourage them.

    So do I believe my role as a parent helped or hindered my children? To be honest, probably a little bit of both. I was doing the best I could at the time, as an imperfect person in an imperfect world. I have to believe the atonement will make up for everything I lacked as a parent.

  17. "I will take the credit for what I do because I do a lot."

    I agree we should take credit for what we do, and find satisfaction in what we do.

    But that's a whole 'nother issue from taking credit for how the kids turn out.

    I love how President Hunter put it: "“A successful parent is one who has loved, one who has sacrificed, and one who has cared for, taught, and ministered to the needs of a child. If you have done all of these and your child is still wayward or troublesome or worldly, it could well be that you are, nevertheless, a successful parent. Perhaps there are children who have come into the world that would challenge any set of parents under any set of circumstances. Likewise, perhaps there are others who would bless the lives of, and be a joy to, almost any father or mother."

  18. Oh, this is such an emotional issue. In watching other struggle with real parenting challenges, I have a strong invitation not to judge them. The situation is so complex. What other mothers need from me is support, acceptance, affection, encouragement, and praise for their good efforts.

    For myself, the plan of salvation lets me see my kids as equals to me but ones that I have stewardship over. What if my get girlfriend had been my child? What if my daughter had been my mother? I try to give them resources and support, and I try not to micromanage them too much or have too specific of a vision for their futures.

    If I get really ego driven either way, I mess myself up and I mess them up. What I mean by that, if I take credit for their successes or worry that their failures make me look bad, then I have too much ego ruining everything. Instead, I try to enjoy the gifts they have to offer and support them in their worthwhile goals. And then I pray like crazy that they don't fall into some kind of tragedy.

    The other night I was driving my son to scouts and I was nagging him about hygiene. Before he walked away from the van, I realized what I had done, and I asked for his hand. I looked him in the eye and said, "Hey, I'm sorry. Let's just enjoy the time we have together in this family because it's short lived. I love you, and I hope for the very best." I think he heard me, but his 14 year old self was looking over his shoulder to make sure no other youth saw him holding his mom's hand! I'm trying to seize the day (and seize the hand) of these kids while I can.

  19. Jennie: I forgot to thank you for your thoughtful post. You did a good job describing the complexities of parenting–and in a small space. Good key questions about nature-nurture. Yes, parenting is mind-boggling and soul wrenching.

    Also, sorry for the additional comment clutter. I'm working from my laptop instead of the standalone in the kitchen, and the website field has been my goodreads account when I now want my blog address (which is only 9 weeks old). I keep forgetting to change the field on my laptop. Done. Move along. Thanks for your patience. 🙂

  20. I guess because my awesome parents had two "wayward" children I don't view that as how to judge my parenting so perhaps I am talking at cross purposes.
    I guess because I have one quick, bright, gifted program child and one bright, learning disabled child I judge my parenting a little differently. To me "results" and "expectations" are individualized to the child in all sorts of areas from speaking to listening to writing to completing chores to physical, etc. Spiritually it is the same. I expect my children to be on their own individual journey and think it is exciting to be a part of the journey but it is not a pass fail.

  21. Having three children who are adopted has influenced my perspective on this. My kids obviously have completely different genetics than do my husband and I. I think that has been a blessing in a way because we have never been able to see them simply as extensions of us. Each one of them look very differently than we do and have unique temperaments, talents, and interests that are a combination of what they inherited genetically from their birth families and also their own spirits. So there's a lot that I could never take credit for right from the beginning. I think this has given me some freedom to sit back and see who they will become instead of imposing my own expectations on them.

    However, the fact that my kids are adopted has also really impacted my view that environment absolutely makes a difference. Realizing that each one of my kids were so very close to being raised in a totally different environment is a pretty profound thought, and it's interesting to speculate on how each child might be different if they had remained with their birth families. For one child in particular, her life would be utterly different, as her birth mother struggles with addiction and her bmom's life is very unstable. This particular child has some challenges potentially inherited from her birth mother (affects of being drug-exposed in the womb, possible ADHD) and I often wonder what will win out, genetics/prenatal exposure or environment/being raised in a stable family. Probably a combination of both. What I am here to do is love her and support her no matter what.

  22. What a great post, a great question. I agree with what others have said about appreciation for the atonement and the paramount importance of agency.

    Honoring my children's agency is what makes parenting hardest for me, because I'm such a control freak. I know I do the most damage (as my parents did with me) when I try to impose my own will on my them instead of–as Joseph Smith put it–"teaching them correct principles and letting them govern themselves." If I do my job as a mother, I will have rendered myself obsolete because my kids will have learned to be both spiritually and temporally self-reliant. Some of that teaching I will do, and some of it I will need to stand aside and allow the Lord and his Spirit to do.

    I think teaching correct principles is an incremental approach to agency–line upon line. Allow kids to make age appropriate choices both before and after they reach the age of accountability, and then lovingly and repeatedly explain the relationship between their choices and the consequences of those choices–as many times as it takes, knowing that for some kids, once is enough and for others there will never be enough times. (All of this much easier said than done, of course.)

    My parents made a lot of mistakes raising me, some more serious than others. Some of what I learned from them falls under the heading of "what not to do" but I took away good things, too. I'm grateful that both recognized and accepted the Gospel and chose to try and raise me in keeping with its principles. Now that I'm a parent myself, I'm most deeply grateful for their mercy, for modeling forgiveness and humility when I confronted them with their mistakes. It gives me hope that someday, my kids and I can do the same for each other.

  23. There were some fabulous comments here already and a thought-provoking post. A few more random thoughts on the topic:

    My mom always said that the greatest proof to her of the pre-existence is that children come as somebody already.

    Perhaps our responsibilities as parents to teach our children (including the part in D&C about teaching faith in Jesus Christ and repentance before baptism) has as much to do with our own growth and commitments to God as it does with helping our children. Whatever my children choose, I want to know that I did my best for them, however imperfect that best may have been. Then if they stray, I will be sad, but not feel responsible. That unconditional love part is huge too.

    Our sealer told us on our wedding day that the true mark of our parenting is seen not in our children, but in our grandchildren.

    Interesting idea.

  24. This is a sobering subject, one we all struggle with. Thanks, Jennie!

    I have two sets of kids: 4 biological kids, then 10 years later, 2 adopted kids. Adoption is a much more intentional way to build a family and I prayed long and hard about how to parent these last two, not because they were adopted, but because I felt old and worn out with parenting. God relieved my spirit by telling me: "You only need to do two things — teach them the gospel and make sure they know they are loved." They are teenagers now and I still fall back on that divine counsel over and over.

    Parenting does matter, though clearly agency trumps all. I work with several families with generational dysfunction — it's so sad what bad parenting can do to a child/person. I just hope my example of Christian living (with lots of repentance!) provides a guide for my kids, to point their way to Jesus.

  25. I'm just a kid. I'm 13 and my parents spank me often with belt or cane. It helps me behave I thik it's good parenting and discipline.

  26. I'm coming to this late, so I don't know if anyone will read this comment, but . . .

    My wife and I have six kids of our own, but we also have housed temporarily a number of our children's friends for various reasons. I believe fully and passionately that a lot of what makes children tick is the personality they bring with them when they are born into this world (combined with what they inherit from their ancestors), but housing others' kids and having them talk with us openly about the differences between our family and the families in which they were raised convinces me that parenting is every bit as important as inherent personality.

    It's a balance, and understanding each kid's personality then adapting to it in appropriate ways is the real key, imo.


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