He was seventeen when he told us. “Mom, Dad, you’ve been great parents. You’ve done your job. It’s up to me now.” And then he dropped the bomb. “I’m not following your rules anymore.”
We were stunned. He had struggled some with gospel principles and with parental authority, but we had never expected this. How do you respond when your child says I’m not following your rules anymore?
Over my dead body? Enjoy your rebellion? Come back when you grow up?
I was devastated. I couldn’t think of anything wise to say, so I said simply, “I really want my boy back.”
He put his arm around me and said, “Come on, Mom. Don’t you believe in the promise of Family Home Evening?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then there’s nothing to worry about. I’ll be back.”
Actually there was a lot to worry about, but I appreciated his tender reassurance.
The promise of Family Home Evening. I’ve been searching for the words we clung to in those years. There are some good quotes around, but none are the exact quote that we hung on our wall. As I recall, it came from the First Presidency and was printed in a particular family home evening manual. The idea was that if you are faithful in holding your family home evenings, though children may stray, they will return. The quote had made an impression on my wandering child.
Free to Choose
In the weeks that followed we realized how little control we had over our son’s choices. There was nothing we could do to change his mind or to control his environment. Curfew was a thing of the past. Often he didn’t come home at all. Sometimes we didn’t see him for days. We had unanswered questions about his behavior. We seldom knew where he was.
Some parents faced with this kind of dilemma have asked a child to move out. We wondered about this choice. Because we had no younger children in the home we weren’t worried about his influence on them. We prayed for guidance and felt that keeping our door open to him was important. Whenever he came home he could be reminded of family values and have a chance, however briefly, to feel the spirit.
With that thought in mind we wanted the Holy Ghost in our home. We worked to stay close to Heavenly Father, to keep our spirits up ,and to be open to heavenly guidance. We prayed constantly.
When a child wanders, many parents feel guilt and shame. Where did we go wrong? What did we do to deserve this? are some of the thoughts that may intrude on the parents of wayward children. I understand these feelings, but I never went there. I knew this wasn’t my fault. I am not responsible for someone else’s choices.
Though I didn’t feel guilty, I was in pain. My heart hurt in a way that I had never known. The fabric of my eternal family was torn. I couldn’t repair the damage. I bled emotionally. I didn’t mind suffering for my own choices, but I really hated suffering for someone else’s. I felt powerless.
I had lots of questions. My husband and I had followed the recipe. We were married in the temple. We taught our children the gospel. We took them to Church. We had family home evening, family prayer, scripture study. How could this happen to us?
I wanted my child fixed. I wondered what I could do. What could I say that would make a difference?
If I couldn’t fix him, I wanted Heavenly Father to fix him. What was taking Him so long? He sent an angel to Alma’s son. Wasn’t my son just as important? Was I praying hard enough? Should I fast longer? Go to the temple more often? Was I using the right words when I prayed?
When the pain began to dull, I was ready to learn. Life is a good teacher.
“Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose capitivity and death according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.”
Force is the devil’s plan. My husband and I understood this with new clarity. Agency is our Savior’s plan. How much did I love agency? Did I believe in my son’s right to Choose the Wrong?
I could not control my son. I could not choose for him. I could not carry him kicking and screaming into the Celestial Kingdom. I could not make him love the gospel. What weapons did I have to win this battle?
I searched for answers. As a family we fasted, prayed, and hoped. Surprisingly, the spirit whispered, “love.”
“…that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend…and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge…”
Love. It was all I had. Would it be enough?
Can you love someone who has hurt you, disappointed you, rejected you? There was no doubt. I did. The ache in my heart testified of this.
I pondered the words unconditional love. Could I love as God loves? Could I love unconditionally? For the first time I began to understand the un part of unconditional love. This was new territory. Most of my experience with life and with love had been conditional. I was about to test the unconditional nature of my own heart.
Loving unconditionally does not mean acceptance of bad behavior, or tolerance of sin. It doesn’t mean I approve of unrighteous choices. It means I will always love my son no matter what he does. Always. Unconditional love does not mean I cannot set boundaries. Some behavior is unacceptable in my home. My son can learn respect for my boundaries.
The Shepherd will find His Sheep
“As a shepherd seeketh out his flock in the day that he is among his sheep that are scattered; so will I seek out my sheep, and will deliver them out of all places where they have been scattered in the cloudy and dark day.”
For me, this was a cloudy and dark day, but I began to trust the shepherd. I began to trust the atonement. I had always assumed the atonement to be a powerful gift for the righteous. Was there more? Did Jesus have power to influence my wandering child?
“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
My son had kept his first estate. Was he one of Christ’s sheep? Could Jesus bring him home?
“You parents of the willful and the wayward! Don’t give them up. Don’t cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were his before they were yours--long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them.”
Letting go of pain and control allowed me to learn to trust . I learned to trust my Father’s plan, the Plan of Salvation. My Father has a plan for all his children even my wandering son. I know this is true. The spirit has assured us with confidence that he will return. We have learned that love is the most powerful force in the universe. Through love, our Father sent his only begotten son. Through love our Savior gave the most amazing gift of all.
As I learned to trust I found peace. I learned the power of love to heal relationships. I learned to concentrate on my own growth, and my own spirituality.
Gratitude for Growth
Some years have passed since the day my son chose a different path. He was the first, but not the last. There have been many bumps in the road. There has also been progress. Much of it has been painful, but I don’t hurt anymore. I don’t hurt, because I have learned to trust Our Heavenly Father’s Plan. They are His children. He knows how to bring them home.
Watching people change is like watching grass grow. The changes are almost imperceptible, until one day you notice growth. I think of this whenever it’s time to cut the grass, and it gives me hope.
My children are not the only ones who are growing. I have grown too.
I adore my obedient children and enjoy their involvement in the gospel plan. I appreciate them for validating my parenting. It is easy to feel like a failure when children wander. In truth, I believe we take far too much credit when our children succeed, and far too much blame when our children struggle. We are responsible to teach, but the choices belong to them.
I have learned more about the gospel from my wandering children than I have learned from the obedient ones. I have learned to honor agency, to practice unconditional love, and to embrace the power of the atonement. I have learned to trust our Father’s plan, and his beloved Son, who is mighty to save.
I am grateful that Heavenly Father trusted me with some of his difficult children. They have been my teachers and I look forward to the day when they remember who they are and claim the blessings of obedience through their righteousness.
I long to sit down in the temple with all my children. I have the witness of the spirit that the hoped-for day will come. For now, that is enough.