From the article “To Help your Struggling Children: Swim for Shore” by Colleen C. Harrison, and original published at Meridian Magazine.
Years ago I heard a compelling story. I can’t find any reference to it in Church magazines, so I assume I heard it at a stake conference or a BYU Education Week. Wherever I heard it, the Spirit brought it home to my heart with such power that its message has never left me. It became the guiding vision of my most recent and most successful parenting experiences. I only wish I had heard it twenty years earlier. Today, I am grateful to have the opportunity to honor it as the overarching metaphor for my testimony concerning parenting.
A Great Adventure Suddenly Turned Dangerous
The speaker began his story describing a family vacation and the high adventure of spending a day on a white-water river rafting trip. Most of the course of the swift river was smooth and invigorating, surrounded as it was by exquisite mountain scenery. There would be some stretches of rapids, though, and the anticipation of riding through them was a big part of the thrill of the day.
As the raft full of excited adventurers was carried along on the current, it became obvious that the streambed beneath was growing rockier. Just below the surface, boulders could be seen causing the current to pass over them in smooth, unbroken humps of icy water. The river guide was doing his best to avoid these submerged obstacles, but suddenly the edge of the raft was caught in the upward rise of water over a boulder and the raft bucked and nearly flipped.
In a split second, the fun of running the river turned to terror for this father and one of his children—a daughter—as they were thrown out of the raft and into the snow melt temperature of the river. Even though they were wearing life jackets, the deep current around the rocks pulled them under, and the shock of the cold water was immediate. Dazed and confused, they began to desperately flail around, grabbing at each other.
All their frantic efforts only served to submerge both of them over and over. Gasping for breath, the father realized he and his child were being swept away from the raft and ever closer to the actual rapids. Suddenly, terror set in as he realized they could die in this incident. “O God,” he cried out. “Please let me save my child. Please!”
Into his mind came the most irrational and counterintuitive thought: “Turn and swim for shore.” He couldn’t believe that thought could be from God! How could God tell him to turn away from his child and swim for his own life? He knew he could probably make it on his own, but he couldn’t just abandon her to be pulled under and swept away, possibly to her death! In a growing panic, he kept trying to get some hold on her, but with no lasting success. He could feel his strength waning. In a short time, he knew he wouldn’t have the strength to even save himself. They would both be lost. “Swim for shore.” The words came to his mind again, and finally a third time. “ Swim for shore! ” He could no longer deny the clarity and the finality in the words. They were a command.
Feeling like a failure, feeling he had lost his daughter, feeling he was saving himself while leaving her to drown, he turned sobbing and swam diagonally across the powerful current toward the shoreline. He couldn’t believe how strong the current was. Every stroke felt like his last. He felt like he weighed a thousand pounds and even when his feet finally found some footing, he couldn’t keep his balance and had to keep swimming.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, he found himself in water shallow and slow enough that he could touch the bottom and get his feet under him. Only then, when he tried to stand up, did he realize that what he had thought was the terrible grasp of the swift current pulling him backwards was actually the weight of his daughter who had grabbed hold of a dangling strap on the back of his life jacket. Thus, in obeying the impressions of the Spirit to swim for shore, he had not only saved himself, but his child as well.
Likening the Story to Ourselves
As I sat there that day, listening to this story, I cried. I knew it was the Spirit of Truth bearing down upon my soul in personal witness. I knew this is what I needed to do, too. I needed to listen to the Spirit and follow the impressions He whispered to my mind. I couldn’t go on doing what I was doing, which was flailing around in my attempts to parent my children through the treacherous rapids of the world they faced every time they stepped out of our home. Like this father, I was in despair, because all of my attempts to reach them only seemed to push them further from me.
And then there was the question of how I could know the Spirit’s voice from all the other voices (trains of thought) running through my mind? There were new books constantly coming out, telling me what the latest techniques and approaches to parenting offered. I truly felt like someone caught in the “Lo here! Lo there!” dilemma the Prophet Joseph Smith described about all the religious traditions and persuasions in his day. Which of all of them was right?
Desperately, I looked for one approach that would have all the answers in the day to day interactions with my growing number of teens and pre-teens. What had happened to those days when they were all in grade school and I weighed two or three times more than all of them? I was losing control. The currents of social and peer influence were sweeping them away from me. What could I do to save them?
Feeling the truth of the speaker’s story, I knew that the Lord was answering my question that day. Save myself? But how? I had to admit that I didn’t feel very safe or saved, myself, despite decades of intense striving to be a good, faithful, active Latter-day Saint. My children knew, believe me, where I stood, when it came to activity and dedication to the Church. Dead center. Rock of Gibraltar . We never missed a jot or tittle of Church involvement. My husband and I both held multiple callings in every ward we ever lived in. Weekday primary. Weekday Relief Society. Weekday MIA activities. Sunday moratoriums on anything but the most exemplary, faithful activities.
And the work ethic ruled supreme in our home. All allowances were either earned or forfeited. Family Home Evening was mandatory—the only family argument that (as the old saying goes) began and ended with prayer. I’m afraid I didn’t smile when someone would pop that “joke.” It wasn’t funny to me. It was true.
As I wrote in the preface to the first edition of He Did Deliver Me from Bondage:
In 1981 I tipped the scale at over 300 pounds. Believe me, I was the most miserable “active” Latter-day Saint I knew. Of course, I didn’t know many people, Latter-day Saint or otherwise, because of the isolated, imprisoned lifestyle I lived. I walled myself in with cleaning, cooking, canning, sewing, even with children and husband and, of course, with eating. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with cooking and cleaning—they are the necessities of life. Sewing and canning are worthwhile activities too. They are good basic skills that every person should know to be prepared for hard times when life might be scarce instead of abundant.
The only problem was that I made my life scarce doing those very things. While my children languished around me, I sewed and canned and crafted my way through 16 years and 11 pregnancies. I made my energy and time so scarce that there was a “famine in the land” emotionally, while I obsessively tried to fit into the Mollie Mormon mold.
And my husband and children? In my obsession to make everything perfect, I created a prison out of something as potentially exalting as my family. I used their lives as an excuse to never get around to my own life. Even their cleanliness came before mine. I went to bed when they went to bed (11:00 p.m. because of someone’s just remembered school project), stayed awake until they fell asleep (12:00 midnight with my husband), got up when they got up (3:00 a.m. with the baby), and started the day before they did so their foundation got properly laid (6:00 a.m. to fix breakfast, conduct scripture study).
And what was I doing to sustain this concentrated pretense of perfection? Was I pursuing a course of daily personal prayer and scripture study to receive God’s direction and power in my own life? Heavens, no! After all, I had no life outside my husband and children—cleaning for them, cooking, sewing, canning; thinking, planning.
And holding mandatory family prayer, Home Evenings, scripture study. It was our duty to God. These were the rules. Lay down the law and live it. Look to the law and live. “We are a happy family,” we would sing . . . or else.
I was frantic to save my children, and I was pushing them away from me and from the Church by doing everything I had been told would ensure their protection from the lies of the world. What more could I do to save them?
Save myself ? Like the father in the story, I resisted such a thought. Instead, I increased my efforts to grab and hold fast to my children. The rules multiplied and the “happy” successful Mormon family façade became even more mandatory.
It was several years later and further downstream into the increasing rapids and deadly undertows of worldly influences, with increasing reasons to be alarmed at my oldest children’s choices, that I was finally humble enough to let go and swim for shore to save my own life. Finally, I was desperate enough to do the unthinkable—to do something to save my own sanity. I joined a Twelve Step based program and learned how to “save myself,” by using the true principles in the steps to find the Savior’s encircling arms of safety. As I used the steps to do a heart-deep cleansing of my own inner vessel, I began to hear and recognize the words of Christ introduced into my mind through His own Light as well as through the Holy Spirit’s enhancing witness.
I began to learn how to put God first in my life, and I watched everything else—including my relationships and interactions with my family members—fall into their proper places, just as President Benson once promised us they would:
When we put God [and the spiritual life] first, all other things fall into their proper place or drop out of our lives. Our love of the Lord [must] govern the claims for our affection, the demands on our time, the interests we pursue, and the order of our priorities (Ezra T. Benson, Ensign, May 1988, p. 4).
A Sure Foundation in Christ, Not Just in His Church
As I studied the Book of Mormon, seeking validation for each of the Twelve Steps, I began to see something in it I had never seen before. I began to hear its witness of the absolute need I had for a Savior. I began to awaken to the fact that He was the Holy One of Israel , commissioned and sent by our Father in Heaven to save us—to save me! He was the “shore.” He was the sure foundation. He was the rock, the source of all revelation I needed to counsel and comfort me in every area of my life.
Only then could I face the awful spiritual hurricanes and tornadoes—the very whirlwinds the prophets had foretold—that were ripping every traditional value and cultural standard apart. And only by coming to Him to save my own life, could I offer my children—even the ones slipping into the undertow of the evils and addictive behaviors the world portrayed as “fun”—any hope of rescue or recovery.
So What Are These True Principles That Will Guide You As Parents?
First of all, let me say, they are not more principles of parenting, per se. They are not a list of new techniques or approaches you can use to parent successfully. They are, instead, principles that will require you to focus on your own internal spiritual life and well-being. They are principles that will help you establish a relationship of humility and honesty with the Spirit of the Lord, who will, in turn, empower you to be humble and honest toward your family members. There is no other source of wisdom and clarity that can guide your parenting like He can. He is the ultimate authority on what to do for each of your children. He knows them to a depth that you can never reach. These principles will put you into as constant companionship with the Lord as you’re willing to believe and receive from Him.
Prayerful Scripture Study and Journaling Will Bring Revelation
There will be some practices that you will find strongly encouraged by the Twelve Step process, and none of them will have anything to do with saving your children, at least not directly. They will have to do with saving you, through daily, deliberate practice of prayerful scripture study and prayerful pondering and prayerful journaling. Notice that all your actions will be done prayerfully . Prayer will take on a new meaning for you. It will become a natural way of thinking, directing your thoughts to the Lord and receiving answers (replies) to your prayers that will keep you anchored in truth, no matter what your children choose to do. Living this kind of life—from the inside out—will do more to pull your children toward the Savior for themselves, than any amount of frantic energy you can expend toward them. In that peace that only Christ can extend—that peace that passes understanding or in other words makes no sense under the circumstances you face—you will not contribute to your children’s “fight or flight” reaction.
Only Internal Peace Can Make Us Peacemakers
Attempting to change negative behaviors by grabbing at our children when we too are in water over our heads is like the father and daughter pulling each other down. We can never get our children to quit doing drugs, quit arguing, or even to quit throwing their clothes on the floor by coming at them head on. Nor will we get them to do the things that are right. The only effective solution in the long run is to help them come to Christ, to show them by our own lives what it means to love the Lord with heart, might, mind and strength. We cannot be agents of peace unless we have peace in our own hearts. Only parents who come to Christ, who find peace and strength in their own souls, can be peacemakers in their own homes.
Love alone brings this peace—the “pure love of Christ” kind of love. A person who loves the Lord above all others and knows the sweetness of His love in return not only loses the desire to participate in self-destructive behaviors but learns a “peaceable walk with the children of men” (Moroni 7: 3-4). He becomes a disciple indeed.
Feeling His Love for Us
How on earth can we develop such love?
“We love him, because he first loved us” ( 1 John 4:19 ). We can’t keep the first commandment to love the Lord with heart, might, mind and strength until we feel His love for us. And never in my life, until I was led to the Twelve Steps and combined them with the Book of Mormon, was I able to feel my Father and my Savior’s love for me. Before, everything had been about rules and duty, even in my own life. In the light of these principles, I experienced what I could only describe as a “mighty change of heart” as I began to comprehend God’s unwavering patience and tender love for me.
Only parents who have experienced this love can help their children know Him and be encircled in the arms of His love. At least this is the experience that I have lived. I had to first come to Christ as a little child, myself, and place myself unreservedly in His care. Only then, did His spirit start to shed itself abroad in my interactions with my family. Before that, I was just guessing, just faking it, just trying to be like Jesus—having no idea how or where to get the direction or power to do such a thing.
How could I be like Jesus without the Spirit of Christ to guide me? Until the admonition and nurture of the living Christ was established in my own heart and mind, I could not convey it to my children. It had to be a lived experience, a visceral experience, not just a hopeful theory. Children are truth speakers and truth seekers. I had to know Him and know His love, so that I could testify with the authority of experience—the only authority children recognize—that they could count on Him to love and save them.
I thought I loved my children before, but until I knew the love of God for myself, I had no idea what true love felt like. My love for them was genuine enough, but it was mortal and finite, and sooner or later it would fail me . . . and them. I would be left desperate, confused, feeling impotent, helpless and angry. As I learned to take these feelings to the Lord, He began to gently reveal to me that while it was good to be engaged in many good works in His name, my children didn’t want me to think of them as my “work.” They wanted to be my joy.
Is It Ever Too Late?
I know how it feels to be tormented with this thought. Before I awakened to the need to seek the Savior’s Spirit for my own sake, my older children were already convinced the gospel was only a lot of rules and not a place to find love or spiritual strength. Because I didn’t know Him, obviously I couldn’t introduce them to Him. Several of these children have chosen to leave the Church. I have wept many heart-wrenching tears over this reality. In laying this tremendous, crushing burden at the Lord’s feet, however, I have felt Him testify to me that He has the power to save them and will not give up in feeling after my children and repairing all the mistakes I made in my ignorance of Him. He will bring them home, first to Himself, and then to me. What I must do is stay close to Him and follow His promptings to extend love to my children, even if they choose to separate themselves from me.
Admitting my own part in influencing my children to leave the true Church and seek comfort and comradeship in the empty enticements of the world has been a heartbreaking and humbling experience, but I know that it is never too late for me or for my children. For that reason, I treasure such statements as this one by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
To all of you who think you are lost or without hope, or who think you have done too much that was too wrong for too long, to every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, [hear] Jehovah’s unrelenting refrain, “[My] hand is stretched out still” (Isaiah 5:25; 9:17, 21). . . . His mercy endureth forever, and His hand is stretched out still. His is the pure love of Christ, the charity that never faileth, that compassion which endures even when all other strength disappears (see Moroni 7:46-47). I testify of this reaching, rescuing, merciful Jesus ( Ensign , November, 2006, pp. 106-107).
I have to admit my sorrow to the Lord that I cannot go back and apply these principles in the life that I lived two or three or four decades ago. I can only build on them now. I testify to you, though, that when we begin to build our lives on the rock of our Redeemer, it will touch our children and beckon them to follow. There is a spiritual power in turning our lives over to the Savior and trusting Him in all things, no matter what our children may choose to do. With Nephi, we can pray:
O Lord, I have trusted in thee, and I will trust in thee forever. I will not put my trust in the arm of flesh; for I know that cursed is he that putteth his trust in the arm of flesh. Yea, cursed is he that putteth his trust in man or maketh flesh his arm.
Yea, I know that God will give liberally to him that asketh. Yea, my God will give me, if I ask not amiss; therefore I will lift up my voice unto thee; yea, I will cry unto thee, my God, the rock my righteousness. Behold, my voice shall forever ascend up unto thee, my rock and mine everlasting God. Amen (2 Nephi 4:34-35).
I am humbly grateful to report that through the application of these true principles, Christ became the center of my life and of my parenting in time for several of my children to recognize that, like the sons of Helaman, their mother knows Him. And it shows in their lives. They have become grounded, themselves, in the Christ-centered practices and principles the LDS version of the Twelve Steps represents. They and their children are safe on the shore of Christ , anchored to His rock of personal relationship and revelation. In gratitude for this miracle I praise our Father for sending me (and my children) “my Jesus.” (See 2 Nephi 33:6.)