The Benevolent Monarch Reigns

Dear Will:

With Independence Day fast approaching, I find myself pondering the significance of personal freedom. A couple of hundred years ago, self-determination was an idea worth committing treason for—worth fighting and dying for—and you and I and millions of others are now the beneficiaries of that fight, citizens of history’s most influential republic.

Of course, my children are filled with consternation over the fact that our home is less republic than benevolent dictatorship (their noun) or monarchy (my noun). They get frustrated by the fact that they are not always free to choose because their parents sometimes impose choice upon them. As we speak, my 12-year-old Seth is upset that his mother has filled his summer with productive, worthwhile activities rather than leaving him to his own devices. Given the choice, he would spend the next two months watching TV and playing computer games. Having had the choice made for him, however, he looks over the next eight or nine weeks to discover his days cluttered with basketball camp, art classes, tennis and golf lessons, and something or other to do with horses. (Outrageous, I know.) “My summer is ruined,” he declares. “You haven’t left me any time for fun!”

I know as well as you do that the central issue here is not whether basketball camp will be fun but rather that he is being forced to attend. Sometimes we do that as parents, constraining our kids to do things “for their own good.” It is part of our divine responsibility, in fact, to nurture and teach our children and, yes, from time to time compel them to stretch. The Church has declared: “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” I realize that it doesn’t say anything in there about tennis lessons, but it does give me some assurance that I am duty-bound to teach my kids to do things they might not otherwise do.

It gets a little trickier as our children get older though, doesn’t it? My eldest child is now 21, which pretty much means that his choices are his and his alone. Inasmuch as he’s still getting some financial support as he finishes college, he is still not completely independent, but I can assure you that these days he makes plenty of choices with which I wholeheartedly disagree. It is painful, I confess, to stand by and watch him make mistakes, but mistakes are part of the Divine Plan too.

Central to that Plan is the idea of individual choice. The scripture tell us: “Men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:27). Freedom to choose for our­selves allows us the privilege to do as we please with the time we are given in mortality. Metaphori­cally speaking, God will not impose basketball camp on any of us; rather we’re free to spend our time watching all of the sitcoms and playing all of the video games we can stomach. But when the great summer of life comes to an end, we will be held accountable for the choices we have made. Whether our lives lead to liberty and eternal life or something significantly worse is pretty much up to us.

You probably guessed without my telling you that Seth is quick to cite this same scripture in a futile attempt to rescue his summer from his mother and father, but we are unyielding. At this point in life, our choice trumps his. The day of his complete independence will come soon enough. Until then, the Benevolent Monarch will continue to reign.


No Matter What

Dear Will:

My son is mad at me. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, but he’s finally old enough (nearly 18) that he is confident in wielding his agency against me. And I’m not enjoying it.

I’ll spare you the gory details. But the essence of the disagreement that provoked his anger went something like this:

Luke: “I’m going to Australia with my girlfriend and her family. It will cost $2,000 or so. I will raise that money myself between now and July and it won’t cost you a dime. I just need your consent.”

Me: “No.”

Luke: “This should be my decision, not yours. When are you going to let me make decisions for myself?”

Me: “When you move out and pay your own way. Until then, you’re not spending $2000 you don’t have to vacation with your girlfriend.”

At this point you can assume that we continued to repeat these same thoughts over and over for several days and that he grew angrier and angrier the more intransigent I became. Finally he presented the following bit of desperate extortion: “If you don’t let me go, I will cease all activity with the Church. Immediately. Starting right now.”

And he has made good on that threat.

As you might imagine, I watch Luke’s rebellion with a mixture of sadness and bemusement. For instance, I wonder how this plays itself out. Does Luke put on a show for a few weeks and then come inching back into the fold, or does he dig in his heals, never to return? Will he retain a semblance of faith, expressed elsewhere and/or in different ways? Or will he drift into a state of agnosticism or indifference? And in all of this, what role, if any, should I take? And what’s my next move?

Now as one who for whatever reason has also chosen to disassociate yourself with the Church, perhaps you recognize a little of yourself in all of this. Or perhaps you merely see Luke as the rational one in the family. On the other hand, maybe you see him making a familiar mistake that’s hard to reverse. (In fact, I would be very interested in knowing your honest perspective on all of this. If you’re willing, drop me a note and let me know.)

Meanwhile, I take little comfort in the fact that throughout the scriptures there are stories of faithful men whose sons for one reason or another rebelled. However, I do take especial interest in the story of the Prodigal Son. In that parable, Jesus tells of a young man who asks his wealthy father for an early inheritance. Flush with cash, the youth “[wastes] his substance with riotous living.” Before long, he finds himself working for a pig farmer and coveting the pig’s food.

When he finally hits bottom, the young man decides to return to his father, beg his forgiveness, and ask to become one of his servants. The surprise (to him) comes during the journey home. Jesus says: “But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him.” Note that the son didn’t have to come all the way back. He merely had to head back in the right direction and his father came running to meet him.

So I guess that’s my task: Not to wait for Luke to come back to me, but rather to watch for signs that he is beginning to turn around. When he does, I must show him an outpouring of love. Whether he returns to church is almost immaterial. The important thing is letting him know that, no matter what, I will and do always love him. Now the question is: Can I pull it off?