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Parenting: Why do kids turn out the way they do?

Why do kids turn out the way they do?

I agonized over this questions for some time, especially when I compared two extreme cases.  While I was a missionary in inner-city Detroit, I met a young man  that defied all logic.  He was about 13 years old.  He lived with his alcoholic grandmother, and no-body really knew what happened to his parents.  He had every excuse to slide right into the stereotypical track that other deprived inner-city youth would slide into.  But he did not.  I first met him on our front porch.  He was wearing a baby blue suit he got from the local Salvation Army type clothing store.  He was on our porch selling chocolates and another time, magazines.  Every time I saw this young man, who lived on the same street we did, he was anxiously engaged in a good cause.  It didn’t make sense.

A few years later, while I was working at Decker Lake Youth Center (a maximum security prison for teenagers) in Salt Lake City, Utah, I met a 15 year old Caucasian boy.  I went on to learn that he was raised in a good neighborhood with good parents who had plenty of money.  After interviewing him, I learned that his only goal in life was to learn how to blow people up like the infamous, Mark Hoffman.  No logical explanation.

As I pondered these two cases, 3 scriptural stories came to mind.  We have have Alma the Younger.  His father was the spiritual leader of the people. Notwithstanding all of Alma Sr.’s efforts, his son went through a very long period of misbehavior.

Then we can discuss Cain, brother of Abel.  Maybe if Adam and Eve had been better parents, Cain would not have killed his brother.  Maybe if they had called for a family prayer just one more time, she would not have lost that son, yes?

And let us not forget Laman and Lemuel.  Maybe if Lehi and Sariah had been more loving; maybe if they had read the scriptures with them more or held one more Family Home Evening…  And how do you explain how Nephi and Sam turned out so polarly opposite to Laman and Lemuel although raised by the same 2 parents.

Why do we not blame Adam and Eve for the way Cain turned out?  Why do we not blame Lehi and Sariah for the way Laman and Lemuel turned out?

I am grateful for the improvements made to parenting philosophies that have come to light in the social sciences over the last 40 years.  But let us proceed with caution and remember that prophets will always know more about true principles than will scientists.  Parenting philosophies that have surfaced since the 70’s help us to take more responsibility and accountability for the way we parent our children, but let us not over correct.  I hope all who have taken a close look have come to the conclusion that the dichotomous split of Nature vs. Nurture is an excessive simplification.

Many years ago I was asked to teach a fireside at a youth conference on concept of “Entitlement”.  I was disappointed with my presentation and have worked hard to make some improvements.  Sadly, one of my discoveries has been that parents have accidentally been part of the cause of this sense of entitlement.  I have met many parents who function as if the way the child is turning out is their own fault, leaving very little if any responsibility in the hands of the youth.  Ironically, our doctrine teaches us that age 8 is the age of accountability.  Perhaps that is when we should start teaching them principles like the following:

You are responsible for:
-your lack of gratitude.
-your work ethic.
-desire to do well in school, with friends, in sports.
-your own testimony and relationship with God.
-to make sure you do not feel bored, or any other negative emotion.

I do not mean to say that a parent should cease to make efforts to help at this point, but I am confident that the final statement in each situation should land on the shoulders of the youth.  History has shown many youth taking responsibility for their own development.  We should not make efforts to deprive our children of the same.

It’s my responsibility to Teach them correct Principles and let them govern themselves.
It’s my responsibility to keep the Spirit with me when I am in parenting situations.
It’s my responsibility to be diligent, but it is also my responsibility to not run faster than I have strength.
It’s my responsibility to acknowledge my limitations and have Faith in the Plan of Salvation that includes the idea that Christ’s “grace is sufficient” to compensate for all of my limitations.

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It appears that 50% of what causes a youth to turn out the way he or she does as an adult is based on the quality of his or her spirit before he or she is born.

25% is based on the environment the youth grows up in.  Whether it is ancient Egypt, Jerusalem in the middle of time, modern Afghanistan, or modern Utah.  This 25% includes genetic and biological issues as well.

And the final 25% is split in half by the primary mother figure and the primary father figure.  In other words, you have about 12.5% influence on the way your youth turns out.

So, many ask, what is the point of trying?  I asked this question myself too.  And when I did so sincerely, the conference talks on parenting shifted in their meaning.  God had already made it clear to me that if he needed to, he could raise my children successfully without my help (as he has done in many cases throughout history).  As I listened more closely to conference talks, I began to learn that the opportunity to raise children had more to do with my development and spiritual training than it did with my children’s.  As I listened and read more I began to understand that parent training is about me becoming a better, more Christ-like, more Spiritually anchored person.

Is it possible that when Adam and Eve went before the judgment bar that they each heard, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” even though Cain turned out the way he did?  Is it possible that when Sariah went before the judgment bar that she heard, “Well done, my good and faithful servant,” even though Laman and Lemuel turned out the way they did? Is it possible that you are parenting correctly even though your kid(s) are not turning out the way they are supposed to?

Your children are responsible for the way they turn out.  You are responsible to be diligent in your efforts.  It is your responsibility to live your life such that God will tell you at the end of the day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant!”

Maurice Harker 
is the Director of
 Life Changing Services
and the specialized self-mastery training system for your young men:
Sons of Helaman
[CLICK HERE for introduction Video]

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And That’s Okay”


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40 Responses so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    We are blessed with five children. Our oldest is in another state waiting in jail for his capital murder trial. The death penalty is sought from the state. Or second to oldest drinks and smokes have no desire to attend church. Our third child cuts herself. My husband and I read the scriptures every night, Family Home evening every monday and we had friend over to our epic FHE's. We have our temple recommends and attend regularly. We diligently attend and fulfill our callings. Our forth and fifth child is still at home. As a parent seeking comfort and answer to why my children have turn out they way they have as adults I found comfort in this article. I do know that my children's book isn't fully written. The atonement and the grace of our Savior can be applied. The steps of repentance can be applied in each child life. I express my gratitude everyday in prayer that we have one more day to rewrite the chapters in my child's life.

    • Gayle says:

      I have had the same experiences with my children. I constantly need reminding that they are responsible for their actions, I did what I could to raise them correctly, all I can do now is to remain an example to them. Thank you for sharing!

    • Wendilynn says:

      I think Heavenly Father knew that some would just have a hard time and tried to give those spirits to parents who would just love them and not give up on them. I have some siblings who had rough times too. One of them went through severe drug addiction and jail time and now she has her temple recommend and councils kids through their jail times. You never know what a person has to go through to be or learn what they need to.

    • Anonymous says:

      my heart goes out to the child that cuts herself. i did the same for several years. to the mother of that child, all i can say is be there for her, love her, and try to find the reason why she does it. prayers for your family.!

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear parent,
      When you have done all you can for your children and your daughter cuts, look for outside reasons, especially sexual assault of some sort. She may be hiding a horrible secret. Never assume that amount of self-loathing doesn't have valid reason.

    • helen says:

      May the Lord comfort you as you pass through such difficult trials.

    • Ruthi Cass says:

      Love. The answer repeatedly is LOVE no matter what. No matter who they are, what they are into, who the friends might be LOVE. Don't encourage negative behavior and don't be negative. SHOW LOVE. Had parents all over the world been able to do this holding back judgments, negative comments and other relationship destroying behaviors, eventually those kids would come back. I am going through tough times with a daughter, the only girl out of five children. She says ugly things to me, tells everyone else in the home she can't stand them. Regardless, I show her love. Christ did that, He is my example, I follow him.

    • Anonymous says:

      My heart aches for you. My kids haven't lived the lives I hoped they would either, in spite of my best efforts, teaching them correct principles, and in spite of a lifetime of outpouring unconditional love to them. When someone used ask me, "How's your family doing?" my answers went from "Everyone's doing great!" to "Well, no one's in the hospital or in jail this week, so we're all doing good". Over the years, I've found that I can no longer use that last phrase. It's heartbreaking. I don't know what it will take to turn their hearts around. Or if they ever will.

  2. Chuck Law says:

    As a church leader,I have learned first hand that Satan uses the failures of children to tear down parent's confidence and self worth. As friends and neighbors we should be understanding and supportive to those who are fighting child raising challenges.
    This article is a good illustration of the proper perspective that we all should have. My wife and I learned to never voice judgement of other children's behavior in our early parenting years. It would seem to bring the same afflictions to us in our struggles raising our children.
    Mary we all learn to become loving and kind to all. Including ourselves when it comes to raising a righteous family in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Eleven of our 12 children survived infancy. The level of peace and hope through life's challenges is remarkably higher for those who apply gospel principles they were taught in their earlier years. As parents, we grieve for our children who reject the Lord's plan and search for ways to make their own plans work. We are not perfect parents, but we relied heavily on seeking help from our Perfect Father. We do not claim credit for the mortal failures of some of our children any more than we claim credit for the mortal successes of others. Each much loved child reaps their own reward for their own efforts.

  4. Jessica says:

    Having family prayer, scripture reading, temple attendance, etc. are check boxes, not magic bullets. They won't help every child with everything they need, any more than sending them to school every day and reading with them at home will automatically lead to a well-educated child. Some kids have deeper needs than others, and we don't yet know what to do for all of them. I agree that the above activities are still recommended to do, but it's facile to think it will always bring about the result we desire, because people are complex.

  5. Ken Thornley says:

    Having 2 children that have given us challenges (juvenile court and Residential treatment program) My wife and I are learning that having and raising children is about us learning and growing and following the first 2 Commandments, Love God, and Love others. still working on these two.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Also consider that Heavenly Father is the perfect father and 1/3 of his children chose to not accept his plan.

    • Anonymous says:

      Not a third of his children.The scripture says A third part. There were three categories anxiously willing to follow Fathers Plan, Those anxiously willing to follow Lucifer and the others struggling to decide. It never says three equal parts. We dont know how many However the point you make is correct Father is perfect and several of his spirit children chose evil

    • Anonymous says:

      I was feeling such love and support until I hit your post. You are right…we don't know the exact number, or even percentage, but the principles still apply. We understand the point the previous poster was making in his commonly made comment of 1/3. I appreciate the sentiment , support and nonjudgmental post his comment suggested.

  7. Unknown says:

    As I struggle with these feelings of guilt for 2 out of 4 of our son's rejecting the gospel, I'm glad that our daughter sent this article to me. It helps reassure what I've been told by friends, family and my leaders. Thank you for writing this for parents like us. This must be happening to too many families out there because it is being addressed in many conferences, church magazines and lessons in church more frequently. I know it's been an ongoing problem but it seems to have picked up the pace at least in our area. I do know this has helped me draw on the Lord's help as I plead daily for a softening of our sons hearts as well as their family's. I was told by a leader and friend that we were chosen to raise these children because we were the ones to help them through these difficult times. We are their best hope of coming back if they decide to. They would have been this way with any parent. (?) As we continue living righteously and learning more each day and then being the examples the Lord needs us to be, then great miracles can come our way. With my faith I have hope. The sealing power in the temple can bring me comfort as I know all is not lost. We are all on our journey in life together. They will still have their agency in the end but Heavenly Father is a successful Father.

  8. Joy Cole says:

    What a comforting message during a very difficult period.

  9. Mindracer says:

    EXCELLENT article. I think this is not only beneficial for parents to read, but also others in neighborhoods or wards where there are families with difficult children. We all need to be careful of judging parents/families for the behavior of their children. Just LOVE…..

  10. Anonymous says:

    Love this article and this perspective!! We have ten children in a blended family. It has been a wild ride at times. They have all hung in so far, but not without roller coasters, a ton of patience, heartache and unconditional love. I never judge others now about parenting and I am holding my breath because we aren't done. Sometimes I think God sends tough ones to the strong ones and they still don't all make it. Hang in there amazing parents everywhere! These are tough times!! You are incredible and God loves you so much!

    My favorite Hymn.
    Know this that every soul is free
    to choose his life and what he'll be.
    For this Eternal.truth is given
    that God will force no man to heav'n.

    He'll call, persuade, direct a right.
    Bless with wisdom, love and light.
    In nameless ways be good and kind
    but never force the human mind!

  11. Anonymous says:

    Thank you for this article, I grew up in a home of abuse and neglect. My mother was mentally ill and my dad avoided being home. I had to be an adult at a young age and be sure that my younger siblings were cared for. I still bear the scares and I have struggled feeling less than others and have wondered what I might have become with supportive parents. Perhaps I am doing as well as I should be doing. Perhaps heavenly father has given me the tools I need to succeed and the hurt and pain are not as permanent or damaging as I once thought. This gives me encouragement and makes me feel hopeful that I can break the cycle. The one thing I struggle to grasp is the purpose of mental illness. if we were sent to this earth to given choice so we can learn then why is it that people suffer mental illness when this seems to take a persons choices away.

    • Anonymous says:

      I can't answer your question, but I do have a story to tell. I, too, was raised in an environment of abuse and neglect. Mine was an LDS home where we went to church every week. However, it was not a pleasant environment and was certainly not a safe one. After marrying a returned missionary in the temple who was also abusive to me, I realized I had some real mental health challenges. After eight years, I divorced him and paid a heavy social price in my ward for doing so. During the next 10 or so years, as I sought help for my own issues, I was diagnosed with mental illness after mental illness, and several times had therapists express my situation as hopeless. I was told I was too sick. They could not help me. I finally decided I no longer wanted to turn to the "precepts" of men and worldly knowledge and opinion for help (since it wasn't helping, but making me sicker!), and I surrendered to God and turned my life over to Him. I knew I had done everything in my power to get well, and it was up to Him whether I would live my life with mental illness or be healed. I told Him that if He wanted me to be mentally ill, I would try my hardest to be the best person I could be, even with mental illness. That day began my journey of healing. I am now happier than I have been in my entire life, and I have not experienced symptoms of mental illness for about 15 years. I have found that my personal relationship with my Savior is the answer to every crisis or problem that can come up in life. When that relationship suffers, so do I, and I know where to go and what to do to get back on track and gain relief. I'm grateful for the experiences I have had—even the years of torture and every kind of abuse imaginable from many, many perpetrators—for they brought me to a point where I was humble enough to acknowledge the need for Christ in my life—not as a name in a book in whom I professed to believe—but as an active participator in my life. I love Him and am grateful for His influence in my life and for His love for me, a formerly worthless pile of crap who couldn't do anything right! He has taken that piece of nothing and molded me into a valuable woman of purpose who loves others and reaches out to help those who are struggling with problems—especially, seemingly insurmountable ones! Hang in there. You, too, can heal from the wounds you carry if you turn to the Master Healer and let Him lead you in your life!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thanks for sharing! God is our one true source of Hope and it is true that through the atonement of Christ that all things will eventually be made right.

    • Anonymous says:

      At-one-ment with "The Only One." Spot on. Thank you!

    • Anonymous says:

      Thank you for bearing your testimony! "I have found that my personal relationship with my Savior is the answer to every crisis or problem that can come up in life. When that relationship suffers, so do I, and I know where to go and what to do to get back on track and gain relief." I have had the same experience, with mental and physical illnesses. He really is the master healer. Miracles happen.

  12. Anonymous says:

    We do all that we can with the grace of God, and always show love, no matter what our children's choices are. I learned from BYU professors that a testimony & conversion has got to be achieved on an individual basis, and this process requires hard work. We can't just send them to primary, Y.M.& Y.W. & scouts, etc. Testimonies come from children relying on God early on. But some people are rebellious, strong willed and bent on learning or experiencing life the hard way. They refuse to learn by observation and example of others. Painful! At some point we get strong enough to recognize that it's time for God to take over parenting, & all we can do is ask God to help stop the run away train. And pray they learn from their experiences. At a recent Stake Conference we were told to never give up on our children, and work like crazy to be member missionaries, and our greatest blessings from missionary work will flow back to our families.

  13. Angel Behro says:

    I have been a member all my life but never really started going to church till about 10 years ago when my convert husband (I converted him) and I got married. We have 5 kids (none are biologically his) my oldest in the army and underage drinking, my second failing school as a second year senior, and going to be a father with no job with his 17 year old girlfriend. My 3rd and 5th got caught caught shoplifting about 2 weeks ago. I keep apologizing to my husband saying that I have been the only consistent thing in their lives so it must be my fault. He is such a sweet giving man for standing beside me and acknowledging the fact that they are making their own decisions and are exercising their free will. I keep thinking that if I were more active sooner that this would have never happened..they would be more like the other kids at church, they would be more spiritual and have stronger testimonies. I really needed this article. I know that I have to stop blaming myself, but it is hard to do..I guess now I need to stop seeing them as people that I have to make decisions for, and start realizing that they are responsible for their own life choices. Just as I returned to the church in my own time, perhaps they will too.

  14. Crista White says:

    I don't even know how to begin to thank you for this article and the things you said. I am literally sitting here in tears because an enormous load has been lifted from my heart, as I struggle to love and understand my second child who told my husband and I that he no longer believed in God or any of this church "nonsense", within a few weeks after his older brother left on a mission. We experienced such a wide range of emotions at that time–the joy and blessings of a child who had chosen to serve the Lord and had given us relatively few worries or struggles growing up, to this child who inexpliquably was now turning his back on everything we had raised him to embrace. Our oldest son will be returning home from his mission in two months and we had hoped and prayed that through his service and sharing of his testimony with our family during this time, his brother would soften his heart, but if anything it has hardened even more. We have been devastated by this, and I have spent countless hours wondering what I could have done better, more, etc……I have remembered every mistake, large and small I have made with this child, and felt certain that the weight of his choices were squarely on my shoulders. It has been an enormous weight to bear and I feel I have aged 20 years because of it. You will never know the blessing it has been to me to stumble across these words and the comfort they have brought me. I am sharing it with my husband who has also been heartbroken and felt helpless and less than adequate as a father, knowing it will comfort him as well. I am also printing it out so that I can refer to it constantly as a reminder of what I am and am not responsible for. We continue to pray that our son will soften his heart and the Lord will be able to reach him before he has to experience anything terribly heartbreaking. In the meantime, thank you, for lifting the burden from my shoulders and heart.

    • Anonymous says:

      Dear Crista,
      I too have gone through these emotions that you have described as we have had a similar experience. What I have had to say to myself is that this is not about me or my "success" in parenting, it is about the child and helping them. Your son probably feels like a failure that he is not everything you want, and then hardens himself even more. I believe that we have to love our children for who they are, regardless of their choices, and that they have to know that we don't judge them or look at them as "failures" because they are not living up to their potential in the gospel. He probably will experience things that are "heartbreaking" and you know… I have had to accept the fact that that is Ok too. Life is a journey and everyone has to learn things one way or another. The faster you can convince him that you love him no matter and the wonderful qualities that he has (as hard as that may be some times), the faster he will not resent you and the church. Just ask Heavenly Father to help you get the message to him that you love him and help him know that he is not a failure in your eyes.

    • Anonymous says:

      This is spot on.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I obsessed about what I could have done or done better, or not done. If I hadn't had to work. If I had been more aware of their activities and friends. If I had made stricter rules. After a couple of years I realized what I was telling my kids was that they were not enough. That they failed me and therefore they felt a lack of love from me. I can not change the past. They told me nothing I could have done would have changed the outcome. The startled look on my child's face the day I told her I was proud of the qualities she had achieved, and that I loved her for who she is, was priceless. I can't control my kids actions, but they know I will always love them even though they didn't choose to live my religion. I hope this gives them the freedom to choose. I didn't give up. I gave it to the Lord. I know he will send someone who will reach them and change their heart. Sometimes the last person a child wants to listen to is their parent. They are God's children, too. His first. He loves them and will do what He knows will be for their best good. I can be someone they can come to for loving acceptance no matter what.

  16. Anonymous says:

    I was the parent who didn't do what was best. My seven children tiptoed around me not knowing when I would hit them or scream at them. They tried so hard in the Church but I was a poor example. Two of them hung on. I haven't seen my eldest since 1 Feb 1981, his choice. He is a successful lawyer with a good family and I'm happy for him. None of my children carried on my poor parenting and I am so thankful for that. Robert Millet wrote that when we do what we can to repair any damage we may have caused, the Lord will take care of the rest. I'm counting on that.

  17. Marcy says:

    Thank you! Thank you so very much for this article. Thank you to everyone who has posted. The article and all comments have brought me much comfort as a parent. I wish the LDS community could be more open with each other about our struggles because I feel so alone many times in our family's struggles. I know I will strive to be me more open and supportive with others around me. Thank you again.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Yes,it really break our heart just as it does our Heavenly Father and the Savior,we have childrens,their childrens,some are doing good and others take the wrong path,thru all these time I try not think where we fail,yes we blame ourselves in every way we can,we think we can fix them some how but we have to remember its the choices they make,we love them and pray for them we ask Heavenly Father to be there for them,He is,its just that they do not know that,one day they will,what a joyful day that will be for all of us to know He was there with them,I am so grateful for Him and the Savior they really have carry me thru.

  19. Jake Tesch says:

    Thank you for the blog post! I am constantly thinking how I can be a better father to my three boys. I think one of the most important thing any father and mother can do is listen to their child.

  20. Anonymous says:

    A family lived in our area who had a son who lived the gay lifestyle. When he died of AIDS, they refused to go to his funeral. They said he had dishonored "their" name. They said he had failed his "test" here on earth. And what was the parents' test? Perhaps the greater test is to continue to love, continue to hope, continue to see that there is good in our child, The scriptures tell us that we are all precious in our Father in Heaven's sight. We can't always control the actions of our child, but we have the power to control our responses toward that child and to continually affirm that they are still precious in our sight. That is our test.

  21. Teri Empey says:

    Wonderfully stated! I believe that you are right on the money that raising children is more about our development as a parent than our children's development. One point I would make is the phrase "turned out the way they're supposed to" is very guilt producing. I have learned, as I have watched some of my children make choices not in alignment with God, that those choices are OK with Him because He sees the lessons their spirit is learning. He sees the eternal time line and that sometimes a lifetime of struggles will benefit one's spirit so powerfully that that child will turn to God with such strength that they will never deviate again, even if it comes after this mortal life.

  22. We sometimes forget the big picture. Heavenly Father is preparing us for the level of Celestial responsibility we are willing to accept. As much as we love our children, we are responsible for our actions,reactions, and support of them, not their outcome. Heavenly Father 'lost' one third of his children in this experience and another third are still on the fence. If you aspire to the highest level of Celestial responsibility, you will have many more children who reject good counsel. You love them, love them, love them. Tie a knot in your rope, and hang on for dear life, because Boot Camp is never easy.

  23. Anonymous says:

    While that graph may be true on how children's future will be shaped; if they grow up to be successful, the gratitude is given towards the 25% part from the parents

  24. Tiffani says:

    I am raising twin girls. They are only 6 years old but it is amazing to me how totally and completely different they are. It has strengthened my testimony of the eternal nature of our spirits. I am grateful for the opportunity to give them a home to grow in but I have quickly learned that they have individual spirits with much more than 6 earthly years influencing them. I also have a 10 year old with aspergers. I worry about him and I try so hard to help him navigate his world but I have had many experiences reminding me that he is God's son and God created him just the way he wants him. I have a responsibility to teach him and to help him learn social skills but he also has gifts because of the unique nature of his brain that I know Heavenly Father sent him with for a purpose. I love this article and I have cut and printed a portion of it to go in my scriptures.

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