Heavenly Father: Our Perfect Parental Model
Andrea Tate was a senior in family studies when this paper was presented.
“Of all the titles of respect and honor and admiration that are given to Deity, He has asked us to address Him as Father.” —Elder Jeffrey R. Holland
It has been said by some that there is a “God of wrath” in the Old Testament and a “God of love” in the New Testament. To say this in a Latter-day Saint context would fight against the notion that there is one true God of heaven and earth (see Isaiah 44:6). It would also imply that God has changed over time as a parent, making it impossible for our Heavenly Father to father us all perfectly and impossible for us to follow his lead. Scripture confirms that God never changes. Mormon 9:10 reads, “And now, if ye have imagined up unto yourselves a god who doth vary, and in whom there is shadow of changing, then have ye imagined up unto yourselves a god who is not a God of miracles.” In fact, God never does change, but he uses perfectly tailored approaches to coach his children in the ways of salvation. Heavenly Father has not left his children alone without a perfect, balanced parenting model. All through the scriptures, readers can observe parents who learned from on high how to balance expressions of love with reminders to children of the standards they should live up to in order to be eternally happy.
Although Heavenly Father practices tough love when his children require it, he has a perfect and balanced loving relationship with all of his children. We can see a thread of good parents throughout the scriptures who honor the Lord and follow his lead in parenting in a truly balanced style of love and limits.
In modern-day family sciences, authoritative parenting has been shown to be the best approach that parents can use when they are rearing their children under nonhazardous circumstances. It would be ironic and impossible for parents on earth to have mastered an art of parenting that Heavenly Father himself did not employ in raising his children. No, the Father uses perfect parenting principles that his children are striving to learn here on earth. Some righteous families and examples from the scriptures demonstrate learning from the Lord in their parenting practices. These families include Adam and Eve’s family from the book of Genesis, Lehi’s family and Alma the Younger’s family from the Book of Mormon, and the Smith family from the time of the Restoration of the gospel. Many other words on parenting are also included in scripture, including Paul’s parenting advice in Ephesians 6:4, where fathers are admonished to “provoke not” their children to wrath. The Lord has given additional word on raising children throughout the canon and continues to do so today through modern revelation, including the indispensable counsel given to families in “The Family: A Proclamation to the World.”
To comprehend what humankind has learned about families that function well, it is important to know the parenting styles commonly referred to in the literature. Parents can often be divided into three common categories: authoritarian parents; permissive parents; and authoritative parents, which will be referred to hereafter as “balanced parents.”
Authoritarian parenting. An authoritarian parent is one who “relies predominantly on controlling children’s behavior. . . . Children raised by such standards are not encouraged to think for themselves or to think critically but to look to their parents for approval and solutions to problems.” This style of parenting includes much discipline, perhaps spanking or other abusive practices, accompanied by little warmth. Little discussion is allowed on rules or regulations of the family. Some people mistakenly identify the God of the Old Testament as an authoritarian parent due to the apparent harshness of his actions such as wiping the inhabitants off of the earth during the Flood (see Genesis 7:10), turning Lot’s wife into salt (see Genesis 19:26), and burning Sodom and Gomorrah (see Genesis 19:24). Even the social sciences respect the need that children have for some element of authoritarian parenting. The positive aspect of this style is that children are introduced to limits. They need rules and expectations so that they will learn to achieve and desire success. The piece that is missing from this equation is warmth.
Children who have been raised using such demanding and controlling practices often grow up to have diminished emotional health. This includes lowered self-esteem and anxiety or depression, which can manifest into adulthood. Authoritarian practices are not what the Lord uses to parent his children. In fact, this parenting approach more closely resembles the alternate plan drafted by Lucifer prior to the War in Heaven. Moses 4:1–3 explains that Satan desired Heavenly Father’s honor in exchange for forcing all souls to be saved. Such an approach of lost agency would never be accepted by our Almighty Creator, but it does resemble the authoritarian approach some parents try today. Instead, Jesus Christ was sent to “make intercession for all the children of men; and they that believe in him shall be saved” (2 Nephi 2:9). This is a powerful example testifying that God is a god of love, not just of limits. Certainly, it cannot be denied that Heavenly Father allows and encourages his children to choose for themselves.
Permissive parenting. Permissive parenting can be considered almost directly opposite to the authoritarian approach. Permissive parents lack almost any standards for their children. Their approach includes being present for their children as a friend instead of as an authority figure. It is permissive parents today who do things like throwing their high school children drinking parties, giving in to children’s whining, or avoiding teaching moral standards. Although permissive parents succumb to their children’s wishes, their children are not necessarily learning the lessons that their parents desire them to be learning from having so much autonomy. In fact, these children are not learning from their mistakes at all because appropriate consequences have not occurred. Research has found that “the least self-reliant, curious, and self-controlled children were parented under this style.”
There is a small group of people who would argue that Jesus of the New Testament was permissive. Certainly the Pharisees thought this. He had compassion on the adulterous woman, after all (see John 8:11). A deeper look at the scriptures denies this theory; Christ himself spake that “the wrath of God abideth on him” who believeth not the Son (John 3:36). This makes our Heavenly Father unlike permissive parents. He gives commandments to his children and incorporates the perfect amount of mercy and justice in his dealings with all. His love cannot be refuted, for “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Love in parenting is absolutely essential. Permissive parents do have the warmth in parenting that authoritarian parents are missing, but like authoritarian parents, they are not modeling our Heavenly Father.
Balanced or authoritative parenting. According to research, “Authoritative [parenting] styles combine the best features of both the authoritarian and permissive orientations.” The good element from authoritarian parenting is the institution of limits and rules. Rules allow a child to be safe and learn morals and values. On the other hand, permissive parenting includes love, which also is a divine attribute. The balance of love and limits is what allows these children to be successful in their self-reliance, self-control, overall contentedness, and curiosity about learning. Balanced parents monitor their children, use appropriate scaffolding techniques, and lend great acceptance.
Heavenly Father is a perfectly balanced parent. His actions suit the needs of his children. His commandments are the limits and guidelines that he has sent for the betterment of our world and us as individuals. President Thomas S. Monson said, “There are rules and laws to help ensure our physical safety. Likewise, the Lord has provided guidelines and commandments to help ensure our spiritual safety so that we might successfully navigate this often treacherous mortal existence and return eventually to our Heavenly Father.” As in balanced parenting, our agency is valued by God, and he will never force us to follow him. A hymn emphasizes this principle in these words:
Know this, that every soul is free
To choose his life and what he’ll be;
For this eternal truth is giv’n:
That God will force no man to heav’n.
The perfect paradox of balanced parenting is the ability that these parents have, including Heavenly Father, to set limits yet extend unconditional love to their children no matter their choices. These children are not starving for any of these essential ingredients—feeling loved, knowing the right way, or being able to choose that way themselves.
Balanced Parenting Is Explained in Scripture
The examples of parents who followed the Lord are exactly what the Lord wants us to do in our own families. Elder Lynn G. Robbins said, “The most important way to teach to be is to be the kind of parents to our children that our Father in Heaven is to us. He is the one perfect parent, and he has shared with us his parenting manual—the scriptures.” Parents are not only to observe the righteous principles that they are learning from God, but to try with their might to replicate them in their own homes. A manual is to be used for action and wisdom, not just for obtaining knowledge, and scriptures should be used in this way.
Adam’s family. The aforementioned families throughout scripture are wonderful examples of families that utilize Heavenly Father’s example as a model to parent in their own families, no matter what period of time they were living in. Starting with Adam’s family, who first learned the value of agency on this earth, an authoritative parenting style can be seen at the beginning of this earth’s time. In Moses 5, Adam and Eve rejoice in their being expelled from the garden because of all that they were able to learn, experience, and enjoy with their mortal tabernacles, including the bearing of their children. Even though they rejoiced in their posterity, many of their children followed Satan’s words. Yet Adam and Eve continued striving to teach their children. This is an example of setting limits yet loving children. Authoritarian parents would have tried to force obedience instead of using long-suffering and tender pleadings. Permissive parents would have stopped trying to teach God’s word and may not have continued to call upon the Lord as Adam and Eve did (see Moses 5:16). It can be seen that the Lord approved of this family’s effort to raise children by his giving continued strength and blessings to this family (see Moses 5:58). From these scriptures, the reader can tell that Adam and Eve were doing their best to model Heavenly Father’s parenting methods and that their diligent efforts were efforts in balanced parenting.
Lehi’s family. Lehi and Sariah from the Book of Mormon also demonstrate inspired parenting methods that must have been learned from on high. In 1 Nephi chapter 2, Lehi encourages his children in a way that shows love, yet creates reasonable expectations. Lehi first speaks to Laman, saying, “O that thou mightest be like unto this river, continually running into the fountain of all righteousness!” and follows with a similar statement to Lemuel: “O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord!” It is not Laman and Lemuel’s reactions to Lehi’s attempt that is important. Children can still choose to disobey balanced parents. Instead, Lehi demonstrates enlightened parenting with his combined use of setting expectations for his sons (limits) and believing in their potential (love).
Alma the Younger’s family. Alma the Younger is another prime example of using the model of balanced parenting on his own children. His well-known words to his sons in Alma 36–42 illustrate his obedience in this regard. Helaman, Shiblon, and Corianton were Alma’s three sons about whom the Book of Mormon details his last words of guidance. Alma’s instruction already cues the audience that he is not using permissive parenting but rather is striving to teach his children correct principles. Authoritative parenting also includes reaching children in personalized ways according to their needs. Alma does this clearly in the varied subjects that he discusses with his sons. Alma pleads that Helaman will listen to his advice. Alma tells his conversion story and allows Helaman to draw his own conclusions. Alma also speaks words of trust and encouragement to his son by reminding Helaman that “God has entrusted you with these things” while speaking about the scriptures (Alma 37:14).
When talking to Shiblon, Alma used a different approach. In President Ezra Taft Benson’s words, “In the Book of Mormon, loving fathers commended their sons when they deserved it. Alma complimented Shiblon, saying, ‘You have commenced in your youth to look to the Lord’ (Alma 38:2).” Even though his address to this son was different, Alma still was using authoritative parenting. An authoritarian parent would probably have withheld the encouragement, and a permissive parent might have told Shiblon that he was wonderful in general without specificly commending the efforts that had been made to do right.
Because authoritative parents love their children, they do not always find it easy to discipline or rebuke their children, but they do it anyway because they know that their children will grow from the guidance. This is the task that Alma had to face when addressing his third son, Corianton. His words came from love but included much admonition. He said, “Thou shouldst have tended to the ministry wherewith thou wast entrusted” (Alma 39:4). Alma continued to ask his son rhetorical questions but also in love allowed Corianton’s questions to be answered in areas where he had concern, for example, the Resurrection and the justice of God. Alma’s continuing of the conversation to Corianton demonstrates Godlike tenderness that meets needs and encourages growth.
Paul’s counsel to the Ephesians. The Old Testament and the Book of Mormon have examples of families that have followed the Lord’s way in raising children. Not many examples exist in the New Testament of specific families, but Paul’s words to the Ephesians represent good parenting practices. In Ephesians 6:4 Paul admonishes, “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” Sister Julie B. Beck explains, “To nurture means to cultivate, care for, and make grow.” That is exactly what authoritative parenting does by giving children a model of choosing the right and helping them know that path. Authoritative parents do not use loud language to convey their messages to their children. If a parent screams at a child, the child is unlikely to listen to what the parent says. In fact, President David O. McKay said: “He is a weak man who will curse or condemn some loved one because of a little accident. What good does it do him? He [must] develop his spirit and control that anger, control his tongue. A little thing? Trace it, and you will find that not yielding and not controlling it bring many an unhappy hour in your home.” Instead of using this sorrowful model in their homes, obedient parents are to give encouragement and love to their children. This is the way the Lord has shown. It is no wonder that the children in these balanced homes have the best outcomes, as has been evidenced with numerous studies.
The Smith family. Some exemplary families in the Restoration period also found ways to use balanced parenting to become more Godlike parents. The Smith family is a wonderful example of following Heavenly Father in this way. Lucy Mack Smith nurtured her children and believed in them. She set limits for the children by leading the whole family in prayer each day and teaching them to read and love the Bible. She created great experiences for them by helping them love the Lord and enjoy every worthwhile opportunity she could provide. Her parenting efforts were not wasted and were approved by the Lord, given the influential children she was given stewardship over. Her children led beautiful lives of following the Savior. Though there were great trials in their lives, they were prepared by their loving family to meet them. Again, although it is not guaranteed that authoritative parents’ children will make correct choices, it is these children that have the greatest chance to do so.
Additional wisdom from the scriptures. Even after recognizing these examples of parents who fit into the balanced parenting category, it is important to understand that social sciences have not had the inclination to completely map out what it takes to be a perfect parent like our Heavenly Father. The words of living prophets and the words of the scriptures are more complete than these man-made patterns. Hence, it is important to understand more of what the Lord has told us about parenting in order to become more like him. Scriptures on parenting include Proverbs 17:6, which says, “Children’s children are the crown of old men; and the glory of children are their fathers.” Parenting is more than a top-down influence relationship. Children have a unique and needed influence on their parents and grandparents, bringing joy to the whole family and reminding everyone of Christlike principles. After all, as President Boyd K. Packer has said, “Each time a child is born, the world is renewed in innocence.” We are to learn from little children and be like them. Christ spoke these words unto his Apostles: “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3–4). A child can teach his or her parents to be “Submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him” (Moroni 3:19).
Other scriptures further demonstrate that God’s children have much to learn about the divine role of parenting. These lessons will prove paramount in the eternities, since our divine destinies are made of the potential to be parents as our Father is to us. Matthew 18:12–14 speaks of being like the Good Shepherd, leaving the ninety and nine and rescuing the one. This passage pertains to parents as well. We are to look after each individual child with great care and persistence. We are never to surrender, just as our Heavenly Father never gives up on us.
Yet another powerful scripture gives solace to the aching heart of a parent who has done all that he or she can. Proverbs 22:6 says, “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.” This heavenly promise escapes our mortal understanding of parenting and truly reflects the all-seeing eye of one who knows all things. Parents can be blessed by applying these and other scriptures to their lives in order to be more like their perfect Parent in Heaven.
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World.” Modern-day revelation also provides powerful knowledge for families in their efforts to follow their Heavenly Father’s example. “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” which was read first in a Relief Society general meeting by President Gordon B. Hinckley, emphasizes the importance of mothers and fathers who together intentionally teach their children in diligence. It proclaims, “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, and to teach them to love and serve one another, observe the commandments of God, and 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.” Not only is this counsel sobering, it is also prophetic. These obligations that parents have to their children will never, throughout time, cease. The mentioning of love and righteousness, as well as the responsibility to teach reasserts that the Lord would have his children be balanced parents.
It is a sacred call to be a parent here on earth. It is a challenge for all parents to raise their children perfectly, but they can remember with hope that they have Heavenly Father to look to as a guide for their efforts. Surely no other example could be as applicable in any dispensation of the world as the Almighty God himself, who desires for us to call him Father. When his children look to his example, they will see that he parents in a perfectly balanced style of limits and love, and also possesses many other divine attributes that are possible to learn as we look to him. His message of love and hope will never end, and he will help his children to someday become parents like him.
Roger Campbell, “A God of Love, or a God of Wrath?,” Union Grove Church of Christ, http://www.ugcoc.org/God/a_god_of_love_or_a_god_of_wrath.htm.
Elise Devore and Kenneth Ginsburg, “The Protective Effects of Good Parenting on Adolescents,” Current Opinion in Pediatrics 17, no. 4 (2005): 460–65.
Jerry Bigner, Parent-Child Relations: An Introduction to Parenting (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education), 94.
Miller, 2006, as cited in Bigner, Parent-Child Relations, 94.
Bigner, Parent-Child Relations, 95.
Bigner, Parent-Child Relations, 95.
“Scaffolding” is a term used in social science to illustrate the way that parents appropriately lend just enough support that a child can reach his or her greatest potential and gradually take down the scaffolding to allow the children to do things for themselves.
Thomas S. Monson, “Obedience Brings Blessings,” Ensign, May 2013, 90.
Roger L. Miller, “Know This, That Every Soul Is Free,” Hymns (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985), no. 240.
Lynn G. Robbins, “What Manner of Men and Women Ought Ye to Be?,” Ensign, May 2011, 105.
Ezra Taft Benson, “Worthy Fathers, Worthy Sons,” Ensign, November 1985, 36.
Julie B. Beck, “Mothers Who Know,” Ensign, November 2007, 76.
David O. McKay, Gospel Ideals (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1953), 490.
See Devore and Ginsburg, “The Protective Effects,” 460–65.
See Jaynann Payne, “Lucy Mack Smith: Woman of Great Faith,” Ensign, November 1972, 68–74.
Boyd K. Packer, “Little Children,” Ensign, November 1986, 17.
“The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” Ensign, November 1995, 102.