I can relate to a phrase Nephi uses to describe his father’s counsel to his children. 1 Nephi 8:37 states that “he did exhort them then with all the feeling of a tender parent.” As my oldest child prepares to serve a mission, I find myself frequently returning to the phrase: “with all the feeling of a tender parent.”
For me, there are three aspects of this parental tenderness. The first is coming to terms with the fact that my children are growing up and will eventually leave our home to be on their own. The second is closely related to this, as I wonder whether we have taught our children well enough before they leave us. And third is considering what words of counsel I most want to give my children before they leave.
Because my son has attended two years of college, I have previously faced the first two junctures. The summer between his high school graduation and his first year of college, I agonized over his leaving. “Have we taught him enough? He will never truly be ‘home’ again, not as a child. He is now an adult – oh my!” This was my first, my baby who absolutely refused to go to sleep on his own until he was nearly 18 months old. At the worst times of frustration, I would often claim that I would be nursing this child to sleep when he was 15 years old, not just 15 months! He did, of course, eventually claim his independence. While we have, at times, butted heads (particularly over issues of control / independence), my oldest has become a young man who is confident, funny, interesting, and articulate.
That summer of 2006 is when I came face to face with the reality that while my most important role is motherhood, eventually I will have an empty nest. My active participation in that role will eventually evolve from my children needing me for everything to my children (hopefully!) needing or wanting me on occasion. I had to grieve in a way for that loss of being “everything.” However, there is one thought that helped me adjust to this new frame of reference. I realized that having productive adult children is the ideal towards which we were working. As much as I love my children, and miss them when they are gone, our efforts have been to teach and help them become compassionate, helpful, considerate people who live their standards and accept others. I came to understand that I really do not want 30-year-old children living in my basement, dependent on us for the necessities of life, unable to fend for themselves. (Though this option is always available when necessity dictates. Our home is known as the Hotel D, after all!) I want my children to grow up, become educated, have jobs, serve missions, get married, have their own families, and be productive citizens in their wards, communities, and the world. That is what we have aimed to teach, guide, and train them to do. And that means I need to enjoy the seasons of my life with my children while I have them, for they are fleeting.
We are taught in D&C 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.
26 For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized.
27 And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands.
28 And they shall also teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord.
This offers some concrete principles with which to start as we teach our children. There are, of course, many other things to teach them – gospel principles and values that will help them return to Heavenly Father, as well as practical attitudes and tools that will assist them in their earthly life. But these verses have been a good starting point for me.
Another concept I had to accept was that whether or not we had taught our oldest son “enough” – it was a little late to change the past. We have always believed and tried to emulate the teaching of Joseph Smith: “I teach them correct principles and they govern themselves.” That summer of stretching for me included the agonizing questions of whether we had done enough, had we taught our oldest son well enough, would he be strong enough to stand on his own? The perspective of two years of college shows that we could have done better in some areas, but in the areas that really count, we didn’t do such a bad job. My son has truly come to know and accept himself. He went to a college in the Southeast. He could easily have been swayed by friends, video games, independence, love of theater, and Evangelical mindsets to continue with his education, to leave behind his childhood desire to serve a mission. We weren’t there to provide personal and immediate feedback of his values. He chose himself what he wanted and needed to do. He has gotten some grief over his decision. Yet he stood his ground. Yes, we made some mistakes, but I am so proud of who he has become – and who he still is becoming.
As my son prepares to leave to serve a mission, I have come to realize that his two years of college have been good preparation for me as a mother in saying temporary good-byes and in trusting the Lord – and in trusting my son. This trust comes easier when I remember scriptures such as these:
“Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand … That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.” (D&C 88:78, 80)
And from D&C 68:
2 this is an ensample unto all those who were ordained unto this priesthood, whose mission is appointed unto them to go forth
4 And whatsoever they shall speak when moved upon by the Holy Ghost shall be scripture, shall be the will of the Lord, shall be the mind of the Lord, shall be the word of the Lord, shall be the voice of the Lord, and the power of God unto salvation.
5 Behold, this is the promise of the Lord unto you, O ye my servants.
6 Wherefore, be of good cheer, and do not fear, for I the Lord am with you, and will stand by you; and ye shall bear record of me, even Jesus Christ, that I am the Son of the living God, that I was, that I am, and that I am to come.
8 Go ye into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature, acting in the authority which I have given you, baptizing in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
And so I come to what, in my mind, now becomes most important. What words of advice and counsel do I offer my son? I have tried to remember everything I told him before he left for college: Be good. Be true to yourself. Be kind. Do your homework. Don’t stay up all night! Learn to balance everything you need and want to do. Keep in touch! Remember who you are. Read your patriarchal blessing occasionally. Go to church and Institute. Never forget how much I love you and how proud I am of you!
I am still sorting through my mission farewell to my son. I have a few months to bring it into concise focus, offering loving (rather than nagging) advice. But I know that once again my oldest son is going to return a changed and better person. And I will have done my best to teach and share the feelings of this tender parent.