I love looking back through photos of my kids when they were small. Sparkly smiles, frequent messes, and small triumphs mark their development from infant to toddler to kid. For my older daughter, this developmental pathway has led to the stage of an aloof pre-teen who may be enjoying or suffering from the isolation of the past year—I haven’t quite figured out which.
Last year, I studied child and human development. Advances in brain imagery and neuroscience teach us that babies and toddlers need interaction and love to build healthy brains. Our brains don’t fully mature until our mid-twenties. This leaves teens and young adults at a disadvantage right when they are trying to assert their independence. They are more susceptible to making poor decisions that provide instant gratification, ignore potential consequences, or please their peers.
While I understand some of the biological and environmental forces that shape my children’s experiences, this insight has not made parenting significantly easier. I struggle to apply what I have learned from my upbringing, studies, and the overwhelming amount of advice in parenting books and blogs. It is too easy to compare my children’s successes or challenges to “the other kids” who represent families that are “doing it right.”
Just as children grow in their capacity to understand the world and make independent choices, we all follow a path of spiritual development. Whether we connect with God as children or find our spiritual path later in life, we progress through different stages of learning and growth.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides Primary classes on Sunday for young children ages 3-10. They sing and learn about Jesus and how to recognize and follow his Spirit. We teach our kids when they are young to seek answers to life’s problems through prayer and scripture study. Young children love to please their parents and teachers. Their faith reflects their innocence and desire to learn.
As they mature, children begin to experience temptation and the pull of conflicting interests. I currently lead a group of young women aged 11-18. As we discuss the scriptures and the challenges in their lives, they often refer to the “Primary answers” of prayer, scripture study, and faith in Christ. They call them “Primary answers” because they learned them in Primary—and they seem to be the most obvious solutions to most questions. Sometimes class members sound almost apologetic for offering examples of personal scripture study or prayer—again—as ways to connect with God and to access his help.
These primary answers are the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Faith and repentance are essential throughout our lives. Consistent and continual repentance turns our hearts toward God and gives us strength and comfort, especially when facing challenges. We seek answers to prayer through personal revelation and study.
The essential gospel ordinances of baptism, receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost, and participating in the sacrament weekly, bring blessings and increased access to the Spirit. The prophet Isaiah taught that the word of the Lord builds within us “precept upon precept…line upon line” (Isaiah 28: 10) as we grow in our spiritual capacity and faith. While we find strength and support in our faith communities and congregations, our relationship with God is ultimately personal—he wants us to ask the hard questions and come out the other side purified and refined.
In our adolescent stage of spiritual progression, we may be more concerned with the outward appearances of obedience or faith. We may worry more about what family, friends, or peers think about our actions; we may try to hide our mistakes from others, ourselves, and even God. However, the appearance of goodness cannot ultimately sustain us through life’s trials and difficulties.
My greatest comfort as a parent comes with the understanding that I will fall short, but through Christ my efforts will be good enough. I can resist the temptation to compare myself to others and trust that my children will develop their innate gifts and talents to offset the inevitable damage we inflict on our kids. I join with the Apostle Paul in wanting the Lord to remove my thorns but I always find more imperfections to stumble over. The Lord’s answer to Paul applies to us all, “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).