Guiding Your Children

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The Family: A Proclamation to the World places the responsibility of guiding children squarely upon parents. Among other things, the Proclamation directs parents to teach their children to love and serve one another, to keep the commandments of God, and to be contributing citizens of the world.

Guiding children without being coercive or controlling is extremely important and can be very challenging. How can parents do this successfully?

According to parenting scholars Craig Hart and Lloyd Newell at Brigham Young University, wise parents guide their children by creating a "safety net" of appropriate limits. They also encourage desirable behavior with positive reinforcement, are clear and firm about rules and expectations, explain the reasons behind rules, and enforce the consequences of breaking them. This gentle-but-firm guidance is crucial because it helps children develop an internal sense of self-responsibility and morality.

Setting reasonable limits on children's behavior provides stability and security. When consequences are consistent, children learn the results of poor choices. Experiencing consequences allows children to "rehearse" better behavior and understand how to deal with future situations. Parents also should consider each child's personality and maturity when setting reasonable limits and guiding a child to appropriate learning experiences.

Good parents are rarely viewed by their children as dictatorial. In fact, children are more likely to follow parental guidance when it's given in a context of mutual give and take. They're also more likely to be respectful of parents and others when parents share their power, such as taking their children's input seriously in family decisions. Children of parents who wield total authority are actually less likely to comply.

Parental guidance is so vital because it starts children on the path to developing their own sense of morality and responsibility. As you guide and direct your children, remember this principle offered by parenting specialist Dorothy James: "Children learn by doing, not by having parents do for them. Guiding conveys walking along beside them, showing them the way."

Here are some ideas for guiding children:

  • Explain family rules in advance. Make sure your children know what's expected of them in advance and the consequences if they break the rules. For example:

    Don't wait until your teen asks to spend all night out at a party to discuss a curfew time or what the consequences are if she comes home past curfew.

    Let your children know ahead of time that if they play ball in the house, the ball will be put away for a few days.

    Make sure your children understand that the consequence for name-calling will be a time-out and writing an apology note.

  • Involve your children in setting family rules. As much as you can, discuss family rules with your children and arrive at an agreement together. Children are more likely to comply with rules they've helped set.
  • Encourage good behavior with rewards. Rewarding good behavior with extra privileges and surprises motivates children better than punishment. For example, if your child has worked hard on chores all morning, you could tell her: "You're such a good worker! Why don't we go out for ice cream when you're done?"
  • Speak in positives. Young children tend to respond better when they're redirected to a positive behavior rather than punished for a negative one. For example, instead of saying, "Get away from that vase," say, "Please come over here by me." Instead of saying, "Don't you dare make another mess," say, "Next time remember to pick up your toys, please."
  • Talk it out. When your children make mistakes, sit down and talk with them. Discuss what they did and what the consequences were. Listen to them. Rehearse with them what they might do differently next time.
  • Teach by example. Your own behavior is your children's most influential guide. If you want to teach your children honest, decent, moral behavior, you must behave honestly, decently, and morally yourself. Consider your personal strengths and weaknesses. What can you improve to become a better example for your children? Set a personal goal to improve in one area that will make you a better role model.
  • Hold family meetings. Recommended by religious leaders and family experts alike, family meetings provide an opportunity for parents to guide their children. (Family meetings are separate from "family nights," which should be set aside for fun and togetherness.) Family meetings can be used to clarify family responsibilities and expectations, set goals, assign chores, resolve problems, and celebrate one another's successes. Good meetings allow each person to voice their opinions, express their feelings, and help in solving problems and making decisions.

    Schedule a regular time for family meetings, say the first Sunday of every month. Meetings shouldn't always be used to air concerns and solve problems. Try to talk about fun things, too, like planning a family vacation. Set an agenda and follow it. Before the meeting, encourage family members to add anything to the agenda that they want discussed. You might post a piece of paper on the refrigerator or a bulletin board for this purpose. Rotate conducting the meeting between parents and older children.

    Set ground rules for the meeting, such as:

    1. Everyone is free to express opinions and feelings without fear of being blamed or insulted.
    2. Interrupting the speaker is not allowed. Everyone is expected to listen to the person talking.
    3. The meeting will last an hour at most.
    4. The meeting will end with treats.

Written by Megan Northrup, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, Professor, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.


  1. Hart, C. H., Newell, L. D., & Sine, L. L. (2000). Proclamation-based principles of parenting and supportive scholarship. In D. C. Dollahite (Ed.), Strengthening our families: An in-depth look at the proclamation on the family (pp. 100-123). Salt Lake City: Bookcraft.