Were there dangers for children back in the old days? Did parents worry about keeping their children safe from social ills like we do today? In his recent book, Mormon Parenting Secrets (don't let the name fool you, it's for all families and all faiths), Flint Stephens says that pioneer families (1850's) did have fears and concerns about the safety of their children, but those dangers were often different than we face today. He says that pioneer parents were afraid of rattlesnakes and cliffs, high rivers and getting lost in the wilderness.
Modern families also have fears, but our fears are moral fears rather than physical fears. This is not to say that there weren't any moral issues in pioneer times. But, as a general rule, people didn't have time to be immoral. The demands of pioneer living were so time consuming and the reputation a man or woman had with his few neighbors was so important that the laziness induced immorality, which is so common today, was rarely ever a temptation.
So, how did old fashioned parents keep their families happy, moral and safe? Flint Stephens says there are some child raising principles which have been forgotten in our convenient living society. I will discuss a few of those principles here because I appreciate Mr. Stephens' boldness in declaring what social ills our society is fighting right now and his good suggestions for changing current parenting trends. I also think that, coupled with self-government principles, his findings are a healing voice to modern family problems.
“...One of the more serious sins of the pioneer era” was “idleness. It is a little ironic that people today rarely think of idleness as something bad...In fact...We idolize the idle.” (Flint Stephens)
When I read this statement I was so refreshed. I have often thought that we have missed the boat about work. For some reason it is the ambition of humanity to make life easier by finding more ways to alleviate work. This desire certainly fuels innovation, which has blessed us all, but it also preaches a quiet message to the world. The silent sermon suggests that if you have to do too much work, your life cannot be happy. We learn that idleness and stimulation are desirable and work is only fit for those in lower stations in life.
Without getting into too much politics, it is worth mentioning that when Rome fell, they had adopted the idea that manual labor was only fit for slaves and indigent classes of people. I hope other families have noticed that, just like the early Romans, our society is also out of balance.
Stephens talks openly in his book about how parents from the pioneer era knew that pampering or indulging a child was a disservice to the child. They knew that doing too much for a child would leave the child unprepared for adult life or to face the future challenges of sustaining life for their future family.
Work is the flour in the building-character bread recipe. It is the main ingredient for molding the character of a child. Work is also the antidote for a sick character. Work with your children. Incrementally teach them adult skills. Even a three year old can learn to fold towels, put their laundry away, and polish and dust.
By the time they are eight they should be able to prepare a simple meal and handle meal time clean up, as well as handle basic home and yard stewardships.
When a child is twelve years old, they are able to do most of the home-making and yard responsibilities which Mom and Dad can do. It feels so good to watch your young man or woman can apple pie filling all alone while you sit at the table paring pears. The feeling is even more satisfying when you see your son or daughter glow with satisfaction because they know that they did an adult project alone. They mature and gain needed confidence for adult success.
“We should train our children to work and they should learn to share responsibilities of the home and the yard. … Children may be given assignments also to take care of the garden, and this will be far better than to have them for long hours sitting at a television.” (1976 Spencer Kimball, quoted by Flint Stephens)
I will never forget the look on James' face during the making of the BBC show when I showed him how to clean a bathroom. He was so proud of himself. He said, “When I get back home I am going to surprise my mom by cleaning our bathroom. She will be so surprised that I know how.”
James was seventeen and had just learned a new adult skill. He felt good about himself and wanted to learn more. Most people crave learning to work. They don't always know to ask for the teaching, but after the fact, they are happy they are a bit more self sufficient.
“...Today's children are not used to waiting—for anything. That was not the case for earlier generations.” (Flint Stephens)
I'm sure we have all noticed how quickly we get what we want now days. When we order fast food, they even post a timer at the drive up window to show us just how fast they got us our meal. We embrace this kind of efficiency; even expect it. How frustrating is it when we have to actually go inside a service station and talk to an attendant about a problem, or pay at the counter instead of at the pump!
Have you ever stopped to think about what this efficiency is doing to our relationships, and our ability to accomplish goals? If our child isn't perfect when we want them that way, we begin forcing change in relationship-damaging ways. If a child is used to getting what he wants when he wants it, what is going to happen when a parent is ill, or didn't have time to go the store? Will the child change and learn a new skill, or will he feel entitled and whine or complain?
Big projects are great ways to teach children patience. Baking bread rather than buying it once in a while, or growing a garden and canning the produce, teaches children to wait and plan. Building, painting, sewing and creating also teaches planning and patience. And don't forget developing talents. Learning to play an instrument, learning a new sport, or learning a foreign language all help teach a child self discipline, patience and how not to give up. Success doesn't happen overnight. A person must trust the educational process, work and wait.
If there is one complaint I hear from my friends and neighbors continually, it's that there is never enough time. William Jordan, a favorite author of mine said, “...all we have is time.” He goes on to say that the reason we feel time is so short is because we don't appreciate the time we have been given. It is a scarcity mindset based on excuse making and selfishness. I have frequently made these kinds of statements about not having enough time over the years. I didn't know I wasn't being ungrateful, but that is just what I was doing.
Just knowing that time is a gift from God makes me want to appreciate each minute and make it count for something.
So what counts? Reading a book with a child. Weeding the strawberries together. Cleaning out the garage as a family. Discussing the scriptures. Making a puppet show. All these ideas, and many others, connect hearts together and open the door to communication and lasting memories.
“One of the challenges of this mortal experience is to not allow the stresses and strains of life to get the better of us—to endure the varied seasons of life while remaining positive, even optimistic.” (L. Tom Perry quoted by Flint Stephens)
Stephens said that “one of the greatest lessons parents can teach their children is to confront adversity, fear, and challenges with optimism.” We live in troubling times. Families face more and more stress each day. If we spend our days thinking of all the problems in the world, we will soon adopt an attitude which brings problems to our relationships and personal endeavors, as well.
Since we live in times of world crisis and stress, we have the perfect opportunity to practice optimism, and teach it to our children. Optimism is the medicine for the soul. It is self-administered, and self-healing. However, to chose optimism when others preach pessimism requires deliberate choosing and self-government.
Who are the people we turn to in trouble? Who are the ones who historically lead us from adversity to triumph? They are the optimists. The rare souls who see challenges as blessings and strive to become greater because of the hardship.
What can we do to teach our children optimism? We can discuss life and our place in life. We can serve others and express gratitude to God and others often. We can spend our days finding more and more truth. And, we can use our time wisely and worry not.
Old Fashioned Parenting
As you can tell, I like what Flint Stephens has added to the discussion on raising children. His thoughts are practical and needed, and for the most part, fit nicely with the principles of self-government, which I try to live. This statement by Stephens was probably one of my favorites. It fits perfectly with teaching children self-government, which after all, is the way they parented in the old days.
Real parental power comes when children willingly decide to obey and heed the advice and counsel of their parents. This occurs when they love and trust their parents and innately understand that their parents' innermost desire is for their success and happiness. (Flint Stephens)