By Michael Farnworth
Law and Love in the Family
Obedience is the first law of heaven. The way we interpret this aphorism—one of the most famous in Mormonism—says a lot about our parenting style.
The aphorism is based on D&C 130:20–21: “There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated.”
The most popular interpretation of “obedience is the first law of heaven” is that law reigns supreme in the universe; that the economy of heaven is a Newtonian one. Just as cause produces effect, obedience produces blessings. This letter-of-the-law, legalistic theology, often bleeds deeply into Mormon parenting. I don’t know of any LDS parents who aren’t at least somewhat preoccupied with getting their children to be obedient. LDS parents are prone to taking on a “godlike” role, establishing the rules that children must obey in order to receive not only the blessings of parental approval and support, but also the blessings of the Mormon Church and God. Those children who don’t obey are “justly” punished until they repent and do the will of the parent. Children are “righteous” insofar as they relinquish their own wills and become obedient to the parents’ commands. Children who rebel against the parents’ agenda are considered unrighteous.
But another scripture gives an entirely different interpretation of this “law of obedience.”
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:40)
According to this scripture, love, not obedience, is the first law of heaven. Love gives life and spirit. This is a difficult concept to understand because we live in a culture that values power and control over love and compassion. But we all know that we cannot force or command love. It can only be given freely from the heart. Heaven seems more interested in the dynamics of love than those of control. But earthly cultures are more determined to produce easily directed citizens. After all, the more obedient citizens a culture has, the more power it can wield. There is little room in such a system for the unpredictable cog of love. Our culture has enthroned power and control as the ultimate values—and where culture points, there follows the family.
When I would cry as a child, I remember my father would often say to me, “Stop crying, or I will give you something to cry about!” In other words, my father didn’t sympathize with the reason I was crying. To his thinking, crying was an unreasonable act and therefore a disobedient one. If he spanked me, then he would understand the reason I cried—because of my disobedience and the resultant spanking. The law would have a consequence, and his authority would be affirmed: cause and effect. A law irrevocably decreed would be fulfilled, and he would be back in control.
But in the sciences, the Newtonian paradigm—cause and effect—is starting to be replaced with the paradigm of quantum physics. This paradigm, instead of enshrining cause and effect, embraces frequency, relationships, and consciousness as the realities underlying the physical world.
Newtonian parenting is focused on the outward behavior of children. It sees children as billiard balls that, when launched in a particular direction, should follow the ordained path and create predictable effects. That is why we obsess about such things as our children’s grades, hobbies, and table manners. Outward behavior can be controlled and predicted. But quantum parenting is about the invisible and unmeasurable—consciousness, relationships, and fields of energy. Margaret Wheatley’s book Leadership and The New Science is a good introduction to these ideas. It helps us understand that perceptions, feelings, and levels of consciousness create a virtual reality for each child that is different from everyone else’s. That is why siblings can have such different memories of shared family experiences.
The Newtonian approach to the world—if the outside is right, the inside must be right as well—is so ingrained in our culture that we often fall into living our life and performing our parenting in a role-determined way, forcing our children to do likewise. But our focus on outward behavior, dress, and obedience as a measure for all things may make us guilty of leading the same kind of hypocritical life for which Christ condemned the Pharisees. We can be guilty of socializing our children to sacrifice their inner realities to fit the outer circumstances our culture has created.
Christ, on the other hand, insisted that one’s inner life, not one’s outer life, is the most important aspect of our souls. That’s why he had such a strange variety of friends—from tax collectors to prostitutes to the homeless—and why he delivered such scorching indictments of his culture’s political and religious leaders. He was a quantum thinker, understanding invisible human soulspace. He was never seduced by the outward appearance of things.
Interestingly, one of Mormonism’s foundational stories speaks directly to this mistaken focus on external obedience. The late Carlfred B. Broderick, an LDS psychologist, relates a story about a Mormon family experiencing difficulties with a rebellious teenager.
[W]hen teenagers get into trouble it is generally a case of too little supervision and too few consequences for breaking family rules, or, equally often, a case of too many rigid rules and overly strict and intrusive enforcement leading to rebellion. In the first case, the therapist works with the family to set up a more structured home environment. In the second case, the therapist works with the family to unwind the system a little. The family who called appeared to be of the second type.”
The family wanted to consult Broderick but lived so far away that he suggested they visit a Jewish therapist friend of his. A few weeks later, the therapist called asking for some help.
“This kid is about to run away from home or attempt suicide or do something else drastic,” he said. “But, Carl, every time I suggest any movement in the direction of loosening up they patiently explain to me that I just don’t understand their religious obligations as Mormon parents to keep this kid in line. Frankly, I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t want to attack their religious beliefs, but the situation is explosive.”
I thought a moment and then said: “Here’s what you do. First, tell them that since you have started working with them on their problems you have developed a real curiosity about the Mormon religion. This will serve to get their attention. Then say that there is one issue that keeps coming up when you ask about it that has you mystified. You keep hearing about some ‘war in heaven,’ but you can never quite figure out what it is about.”
The therapist followed Broderick’s advice and was amazed when even the rebellious teenager offered to give him a Book of Mormon with her testimony inscribed. But the real surprise came when he asked about the “war in heaven.”
“Well, the mom in this family didn’t as much as take a minute to collect her thoughts. In seconds she had launched into some story about a council in heaven and two plans, and she gets about three minutes into it and she stops cold in her tracks and gives me a funny look and says, ‘All right, Doctor, you’ve made your point.’ From that point on they were like putty in my hands. It was like magic. Carl, what is this ‘war in heaven’?”
Of course, there was no magic. This good LDS woman simply had the unnerving experience of explaining Satan’s plan to an “investigator” and in the midst of her explanation recognizing it as substantially identical with her own version of responsible Mormon parenting as she had outlined it to him the week before. She understood the gospel principle fully. She just had been blinded to its applicability to her everyday challenges as a parent.1
A Model Imperative
Watching a good model in action is the best way for a child to learn. This is true of learning both physical acts, such as needlework or wood carving, and inner acts—mental, emotional, and spiritual. Neurologically, one of the most lasting and important things a child can gain from a good model is increased brain development and the growth of higher mental and emotional functions. Watching an adult who already has these functions and developments in place will stimulate similar growth in the child. As Dorothy Law Nolte illustrates in her poem, “Children Learn What They Live,” if children live in an environment of compassion and kindness, they will develop similar qualities. If they are exposed to neglect, shame, and fear, they will develop differently. Neurologically, this is absolutely true. Children who spend their time with loving, attentive caregivers who touch, look at, talk to, hold, play with, smile at, and read to them will experience important brain development that sets a solid foundation for later learning well into adulthood. They will naturally want to reproduce the behavior and expectations they have been marinated in. On the other hand, children who are forced, manipulated, threatened, neglected, shamed, and abused will have problems with emotional regulation, impulse control, and relationship formations.
If Jesus was a quantum thinker, then we will want to be quantum parents. For example, take a moment to think of our children as having “strange attractors” that govern their behaviors. Chaos theory holds that even in seeming chaos, boundaries and regulations (known as strange attractors) do exist—they are simply beyond our ability to observe and study. Except in cases of extreme pollution, seeming chaos will settle into stable patterns due to strange attractors. Children can certainly seem to embody chaos: constantly changing physically and mentally; their patterns of thinking and communicating developing; the relationships around them forming, growing, and sometimes destructing. Quantum parents look past these erratic dynamics and trust in the innate order of their children’s Godly nature—their strange attractors—surrendering to the complexity of life instead of trying to force the outward responses they think are right.
A quantum parent is one who follows Jesus’s example: modeling a life of inner maturity and moral responsibility grounded in a higher level of consciousness. A quantum parent values and trusts the child’s inner life over the outer.
The Biology of Belief
In his book, The Biology of Belief, Bruce Lipton argues that the fifty trillion cells of a human body are primarily governed not by genes but by the environment. The brain of a cell is its membrane, which tests its environment via antennas and receptors. The cell reacts according to what it senses in the environment and follows one of two programs: growth or protection. When it detects safety and nourishment, it puts energy into growth. When it perceives antagonism and toxicity, it sets up defenses and ceases to grow.
Humans act the same way: growing in a nurturing environment, digging down in an antagonistic environment. Interestingly, each of our cells reflects the state of the body as a whole. When we perceive signals of danger, both we and our cells go into protection mode, shutting growth down as we deal with the threat. On a macro-scale, the stress could come from parental anger, feelings of shame, or abuse; on a micro-scale, the stress could originate from attacking bacteria, viruses, or other foreign bodies. A perpetual state of growth leads to health; a perpetual state of defense eventually leads to disease, both physically and spiritually.
Quantum parents work to maintain a safe, nurturing environment, encouraging growth—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. They are conscious of and guard their child’s inner life. The essence of a person’s childhood bleeds into adulthood. Children who feel safe and accepted in their early years will feel beneficial effects their entire lives, both biologically and neurologically. As parents, they will bless the next generation of children.
Becoming a quantum parent is a long and difficult process, especially after being socialized by a Newtonian culture. We’ve talked about parts of that process in previous Family Forum columns. We’ve talked about being willing to suffer the shame, sadness, and anger of our own childhoods so that we don’t pass them on to our children. We’ve also talked about encountering our shadow side and how role-play relationships can separate us from our loved ones, making us forget both their humanity and our own. Most recently we talked about integrating our childhood selves into our adult personas. In essence, the most beneficial thing we can do for future generations is to heal our own souls so that our children can see on a daily basis how a mentally, emotionally, and spiritually healthy adult lives.
Our children may choose to follow a path other than the one we desire for them, but living in a manipulative relationship with our children, even for the sake of setting them on the “right” path, is dangerous and destructive. Controlling but well-meaning parents often become the reactive motivation for their children’s rebellion.
Keep in mind Carol Lynn Pearson’s poem “Mother’s Post Pledge” as you continue on your parenting journey:
Cross out my critique
of your performance,
Toss out my list of
things you need to do,
Swear up and down
I will not do it again.
Of course it’s odd,
But for a while there
I mistook myself for God.2
1. Carlfred B. Broderick, “Surviving (Eternal) Marriage,” in My Parents Married on a Dare (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996) 87–89.
2. Carol Lynn Pearson, Beginnings and Beyond (Provo, UT: Cedar Fort, 2011), 165.