By Richard and Linda Eyre Photography by Bradley Slade
THE HEART’S TWO DIRECTIONS
Malachi’s biblical scripture is repeated in both the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants, with slight variations in the warning’s wording. In all instances we are told that if hearts are not turned, the earth will be “cursed” or “wasted.”
The scripture’s most common interpretation focuses on genealogy and temple work, turning the hearts of the children to their fathers. Earth and mortality are wasted if we are not linked to our ancestors and their work is not done. But what about the other side of the admonition, the other direction of the heart? How must the hearts of parents turn toward their children, and what is the waste or the curse if this fails to happen?
Certainly the parent-to-child direction of the heart has something to do with prioritizing family, and one curse that results from failure in this stewardship is the tangled web of “social problems” that is choking this country. Too many kids today can rap but not read. Too many know everything about drugs but can’t pass chemistry. Too many have sex but have no love.
We were taping a TV show with Kathie Lee Gifford recently themed around the dramatic increases in social problems among adolescents. She mentioned a survey in the 1940s in which school teachers indicated the top seven problems in school were talking out of turn, chewing gum, making noises, running in the halls, cutting in line, dress code violations, and littering. Today, she said, the top seven problems are suicide, assault, robbery, rape, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy.
Unless our hearts (feelings, attention, priorities) are turned toward and centered more on families (marriage, children, commitments), we will continue to face the individual and societal curse of the expanding social problems that are devastating America. Centering with the young, these social problems have become a curse which produces poverty and isolation, bloats our welfare and justice systems, and imposes oppressive taxes to pay for ineffective “finger-in-the-dike” government solutions.
It’s only recently that sophisticated academic and statistical analysis (some of the best of it being done by BYU) has begun to take us where common sense has pointed all along: Our society’s social problems are caused largely by the decline and breakup of the family. Fragmented or broken homes and parents without commitment produce higher incidents not only of poverty, but of drug and alcohol problems, suicides, teen pregnancy, gang involvement, and virtually every other social problem that can be enumerated.
The vacuum created by disappearing families sucks in everything from gangs to excess government. And our public and private sectors (from child-care systems to big business to electronic media), which should be supporting, supplementing, and protecting families, instead seem to be trying either to substitute for them or to undermine them. Our newest, largest institutions, from giant corporations to information and entertainment systems, are creating misplaced loyalties and false paradigms that contribute to the destruction of the oldest, smallest institution of family. And many parents, hot in pursuit of professional and financial success, can find neither the time nor the inclination to put family first.
Today, social problems threaten this country’s future as much as economic problems threaten the former Soviet Union. So great are these “curses,” and so turned away are our hearts, that as we enter the new millennium there is serious question whether America as we know it will survive. Turning our hearts within our individual families is the best protection against destructive societal trends.
“REVALUING” THE FAMILY
How do we approach the challenge of turning our hearts? How do parents implement that goal and stave off the curse? Only by consciously “revaluing” our individual families. The double meaning is: (1) Reprioritizing our marriages and our children by improving and updating the “infrastructure” of rules, traditions, and practices that govern our families; (2) Putting values back into our families by defining the values we want to teach and by ingraining those values in a purposeful, organized way.
1. REPRIORITIZING OUR MARRIAGES AND OUR CHILDREN
Latter-day Saint parents are perfectly positioned not only to recognize and understand the “curse” but to perceive and implement the “cure” of stronger, more prioritized families. The Church supports families in every way and supplements parenting through its auxiliaries and youth programs.
Still, safeguards for individual families must develop in our individual homes and in our own individually “turned” hearts. The basic ingredients of the cure are the things we have heard all of our church lives: family prayer, family home evening, family scripture study, family reunions, etc. In addition, parents must understand what elements make up a strong and lasting familyand establish them despite the worldly forces that pull in opposite directions.
Tolstoy, on the first page of Anna Karenina, makes a most provocative statement. He says, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own unique way.” When we first read that passage, we disagreed with it on two levels. First of all, no family is completely happy or completely unhappyit’s always a mix. Second, no two families are “alike” anywayhappy or unhappy.
But maybe Tolstoy didn’t mean it the way we first read it. Maybe he simply meant that there are an infinite number of ways to fail as a family and only one basic way to succeed. Perhaps he was suggesting that there are certain essential elements that are a part of all happy families and that these elements don’t changethat certain things buttress and protect a family from forces that otherwise would tear it apart.
We’ve spent the last 25 years writing to, speaking to, and working with parents of almost every conceivable circumstance and conviction throughout the world, and we have concluded that all families that last, and that produce security and happiness for their members, do indeed have some fundamental things in common. From our observations we have identified 11 such factors, 11 essential elements that always seem to exist in some form whether elaborately planned or subconsciously applied in families that are essentially happy and likely to last.
1. Commitment and re-commitment, frequently stated as well as demonstrated. Children and spouses need to know and to be frequently reminded that they are and will always be our top priority. In telling them, we also remind ourselves.
2. Clarity of purposesome kind of family mission statement. The best family mission statements are discussed and written together by the whole family, framed and hung on a wall, and referred to often.
3. True prioritizing of family and family relationshipspersonal time management reinvented to reflect family priority. Be sure your day planner has as much in it about relationships as it does about achievements.
4. Effective communicationinsistence on it and constant effort at it. Family home evenings are great, but it’s one-on-one time where the purest communication happens. And remember that most unexpressed feelings don’t die. They just get buried and resurface again later in uglier forms.
5. Family rules, laws, or standards. These give order to your home and security to your children.
6. Some sort of family “economy” or way of dividing family tasks and teaching responsibility and motivation. Consider a system where instead of an allowance, children receive money based on the completion of assigned responsibilities in common areas of the home or yard.
7. Fun and lasting family traditions that involve humor and service. Traditions that are anticipated and observed over the years hold families together.
8. A sense of heritage, family history, and roots. Knowing their ancestors, particularly through stories and incidents from their lives, can help children form their own strong self-identity.
9. Efforts to help kids gain understanding of other people, other cultures, and the larger institutions that impact their lives. Talk to children about the good and bad aspects of business, media, and government. Help them become good critics.
10. Correct principles being taught, including faith and belief, repentance and forgiveness, baptism and commitment, guidance and the Holy Ghost. Find time each Sunday to discuss what was learned in church that day.
11. Strong efforts to watch and observe each child and to know and treat him or her as an individual. Especially to Latter-day Saints, with our belief in pre-existence, it is essential to get to know these spiritual brothers and sisters of ours who come to us as stewardships and to motivate and discipline and communicate with each as the individual they already are.
One of the most interesting (and disturbing) things about these 11 elements is that they came more naturally and were easier to practice a few generations ago than they are today. Commitment was easier because there were fewer things competing for our attention. Families worked and played more together, watched each other more, knew each other better, and had more shared purpose. True prioritizing was more natural because materialism and “busyness” were less rampant and larger institutions were less demanding. Communication was easier because families and friends spent more time together. Families had clearer rules, better-shared responsibilities, and more lasting traditions because they were together more than they are now on weekends, at the dinner table, and at other family-focused times. Correct principles were more ingrained in society at large, as were commonly recognized values. In those days people typically put down deeper roots, and they understood and empathized more with other people because they interacted more with humans and less with computer screens.
We live today in a world that seems bent on turning our hearts in wrong directions. Family bonds can no longer be taken for granted. Parents need to understand the forces working against them and need an “offense” that includes the conscious establishment and maintenance of the 11 essential elements. When these elements are firmly in place, they provide a sort of family infrastructure that keeps a home strong and functional despite what goes on in the society around it.
2. RE-ESTABLISHING AND RE-EMPHASIZING SPECIFIC VALUES IN OUR FAMILIES
Values are best defined as what matters, what counts, what we care about, what’s right, what’s important, what’s real. Values are more than philosophy or a pleasant placebo of belief. They are practical, practiced personal principles. And real family values (and family value) are anything but a right-wing conspiracy and a political football. They are the truest and most time-tested way to live and are the key underpinning of real happiness.
The hardest thing for most Latter-day Saint parents is not deciding what values they want to teach their children or knowing how to teach those values. The challenge is finding the time and energy to concentrate on and communicate values amid the swirl of day-to-day demands.
We’ve found that what seems to help most is a “calendar of values” where parents focus on one value each month with their children and talk about the “value of the month” at every opportunityin the car, at the dinner table, at bedtime, or on the phone calling in from a business trip. Of course all true values are always important, but concentrating on one each month simplifies everything and really establishes each value. When the year ends, start over and repeat the month-by-month emphasis on the same values. (A 9-year-old learns them on a different level than he or she did as an 8-year-old.)
While you may want to create and define your own list of 12 monthly values, here is the list we recommend:
Month 1: HonestyHonesty with other individuals, with institutions, with society, with self. Inner strength and confidence bred by exacting truthfulness, trustworthiness, and integrity.
Month 2: CourageDaring to attempt difficult things that are good. Strength to not follow the crowd, to say no and mean it and influence others by it. Being true to convictions and following good impulses even when they are unpopular or inconvenient. Boldness to be outgoing and friendly.
Month 3: PeaceabilityCalmness. Peacefulness. Serenity. The tendency to accommodate rather than argue. The understanding that differences are seldom resolved through conflict and that meanness in others reveals their problem or insecurity and thus their need for your understanding. Ability to understand how others feel rather than simply react to them. Control of temper.
Month 4: Self-Reliance and PotentialIndividuality. Awareness and development of gifts and uniqueness. Taking responsibility for one’s actions. Overcoming the tendency to blame others for difficulties. Commitment to personal excellence.
Month 5: Self-Discipline and ModerationPhysical, mental, and financial self-discipline. Controlling and bridling one’s appetites. Understanding the limits of body and mind. Avoiding the dangers of extreme, unbalanced viewpoints. Balancing self-discipline with spontaneity.
Month 6: Fidelity and ChastityThe value and security of fidelity within marriage and of restraint and limits before marriage. The commitments that go with marriage and that should go with sex. A grasp of the long-range (and widespread) consequences that can result from sexual amorality and infidelity.
Month 7: Loyalty and DependabilityLoyalty to family, employers, country, church, schools, and other organizations and institutions to which commitments are made. Support, service, contribution. Reliability and consistency in doing what you say you will do.
Month 8: RespectRespect for life, for property, for parents, for elders, for nature, and for the beliefs and rights of others. Courtesy, politeness, and manners. Self-respect and the avoidance of self-criticism.
Month 9: LoveIndividual and personal caring that goes both beneath and beyond loyalty and respect. Love for friends, neighbors, even adversaries. A prioritized, lifelong commitment of love for family.
Month 10: Unselfishness and SensitivityBecoming more centered on others and less on self. Learning to feel with and for others. Empathy, tolerance, brotherhood. Sensitivity to needs in people and situations.
Month 11: Kindness and FriendlinessAwareness that being kind and considerate is more admirable than being tough or strong. The tendency to understand rather than confront. Gentleness, particularly toward those who are younger or weaker. Making and keeping friends. Helpfulness. Cheerfulness.
Month 12: Justice and MercyObedience to law, fairness in work and play. An understanding of natural consequences and the law of the harvest. A grasp of mercy and forgiveness and an understanding of the futility (and bitter poison) of carrying a grudge.
As in all things, we impact the macro by working on the micro. The only way to save our society is one family at a time. As we turn our own hearts and “revalue” our own families, we are doing the single most significant thing we can do to fight the family-fracturing forces of these last days and to fulfill the positive side of Malachi’s prophecy.
Richard (MA ’69) and Linda Eyre received an Alumni Service to Family Award at BYUHomecoming 2000. The Eyres, who presided over the London South Mission and directed Ronald Reagan’s White House Conference on Parents and Children, are the parents of nine children, the authors of 20 books, and the founders of the 100,000-member parents organization “Joy Schools.” Some of the ideas in this article coincide with parts of the Eyres’ new book,The Happy Family: Restoring the 11 Essential Elements That Make Families Work, which will be published in 2001 by St. Martin’s Press. More information about the Eyres and their work is available on the Internet (https://www.valuesparenting.com).