Raising Kids Not Cows

 I love mountain biking. I love the beauty and solitude of nature and the challenge of the terrain; I love the effort required to climb a mountain and the thrill of speed on the way back down. It’s my favorite way to get break away from the grind and get a little exercise, and I try to ride at least a few hours every week. This afternoon, when I would’ve typically gone for a quick solo ride, I had an impression to take my two oldest kids along. Gracie (6) has been riding a pedal bike for three years, and Jonah (3) is just about ready to graduate from the balance bike to a pedal bike. While we ride around the neighborhood often, neither have spent much time on the dirt. For some reason today was the day.

Desert bliss. 

Desert bliss. 

I knew at best they would ride a short distance, get some exercise, and have some fun. At worst, they would give out before we even got going or I would get one of them hurt. Either way, I knew that almost everything I typically enjoy about mountain biking would be lost.

I was thinking about this trade-off as we headed up the trail, and I realized that I was okay giving up my usual bike ride because if I want my kids to enjoy real rides with me in the future, which I’ve long hoped for, I have to make some sacrifices now to teach them to ride.

Proverbs 22:6 came to mind:

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Lest you think I’m some kind of fanatic (I actually am a bit of a fanatic) I realize that it doesn’t matter if my kids enjoy mountain biking. (Although I will defend it as a wholesome recreational activity.) Mountain biking isn’t what really matters here. The real revelation came to mind in the next moment: Many of the things we need to teach our children are like this. Think of the list of tasks and activities where on the surface, the parents’ experience is reduced when children are involved. For example:

  • Chores
  • Sacrament meeting
  • Scripture Study
  • Vacations
  • mealtime
  • Prayer

In shallow, selfish terms, children almost always reduce the quality of these experiences. But we have to make the sacrifice so our children can be “trained up” and be successful later. And if we aren’t willing to sacrifice our experience as parents, we cripple our kids’ futures. At the extreme, there are those who choose not to have children at all because they are unwilling to sacrifice the quality of their personal experience. Faithful parents know the truth, that children have a weird way of increasing our overall joy while throwing a wrench in day to day life. But my hunch is even great parents still struggle from time to time.

 Although it was different from my typical bike rides, I really enjoyed my ride with my kids. I enjoyed it because I had absolutely no expectation of my normal bike ride experience. I went into it planning on giving my kids an experience, and we had a great time. In fact, I always have a good time with my kids, as long as I'm focused on them and their experience rather than myself or whatever else I'm trying to accomplish. 

The risk is that we might carry the wrong expectation into these other activities with our kids. We may go to sacrament meeting and get frustrated when we fail to feel the Spirit like we did in the singles ward back in college. We get frustrated when studying the scriptures with our kids doesn’t yield any meaningful insight. We “clean the house” together, but nothing actually gets clean.  Dinner is chaos. Prayers are at best comical.

But if we shift our expectations  and see more of these  tasks and activities as training experiences for our kids, just as I saw our bike ride, we might reduce frustration and increase joy in parenthood. This shift in perspective is illustrated well by this anecdote quoted by Elder Dallin H. Oaks in 1985 General Conference:

Elder Loren C. Dunn described how his father, a busy stake president in Tooele, gave his two young sons the responsibility of raising cows on the family farm. He gave the boys large latitude in what they could do, and they made some mistakes. These were observed by an alert neighbor, who complained to their father about what the young cow-raisers were doing. “Jim, you don’t understand,” President Dunn replied. “You see, I’m raising boys, not cows.” (“Our Spiritual Heritage,” in Brigham Young University 1981–82 Fireside and Devotional Speeches, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1982, p. 138.)

Elder David A. Bednar’s recent brush stroke analogy is also relevant:

"In my office is a beautiful painting of a wheat field. The painting is a vast collection of individual brushstrokes—none of which in isolation is very interesting or impressive. In fact, if you stand close to the canvas, all you can see is a mass of seemingly unrelated and unattractive streaks of yellow and gold and brown paint. However, as you gradually move away from the canvas, all of the individual brushstrokes combine together and produce a magnificent landscape of a wheat field. Many ordinary, individual brushstrokes work together to create a captivating and beautiful painting.

Each family prayer, each episode of family scripture study, and each family home evening is a brushstroke on the canvas of our souls. No one event may appear to be very impressive or memorable. But just as the yellow and gold and brown strokes of paint complement each other and produce an impressive masterpiece, so our consistency in doing seemingly small things can lead to significant spiritual results. “Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33). Consistency is a key principle as we lay the foundation of a great work in our individual lives and as we become more diligent and concerned in our own homes."

I'm going to pause here and compliment my parents, who did an excellent job of remembering they were raising kids not cows. I know I botched many a chore for my Mom, and Dad always took me hunting even though I always slowed him down, to name two of many examples. They had faith in the eventual value of the brush strokes, and now that their five children are grown, I'd like to think they painted a pretty awesome picture. 

I know this is a tall order. And I’m not saying that we should forfeit all quality personal experiences. I'll still go on "real" bike rides. But righteous parenthood asks us to see almost everything we do through the lens of raising our children. When our children in a sense become our life, we are less inclined to think of them as messing up our life. After all, we don’t expect anything less of our Heavenly Father, do we?

For behold, this is my work and my glory, to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.
— Moses 1:39