The Problem with “Know Them by Their Fruits” Parenting

While we are on the subject of stripling warriors …

One of my least favourite interpretations of scripture focuses upon the story of the army of Helaman. In Alma 56, the standard of good motherhood is set forth:

Now they never had fought yet they did not fear death; and they did think more upon the liberty of their fathers than they did upon their own lives; yea, they had been trained by their mothers, that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them. And they rehearsed unto me the words of their mothers, saying We did not doubt our mothers knew it.

The simplistic conclusion that often seems to arise from any discussion of the army of Helaman is that these relatively unknown women were “good” mothers because their children did not doubt.

It is easy to see how Latter-day Saints could form a philosophy of “know them by their fruits” parenting. Good trees don’t bring forth corrupt fruits, the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself and every seed bringeth forth its own likeness. In other fruity language, “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree”.

“Good” LDS parents have children who are quiet and reverent in Primary and don’t run in the halls. They raise teenage daughters who always dress modestly and sons who go on missions. Their young adult children marry in the temple. These kids don’t doubt, always conform, don’t get strange haircuts or take unexpected or prolonged detours.

I have seen this “know them by their fruits” defense used in relation to a variety of parenting styles and family configurations in real life and here in the Bloggernacle. However, it seems to me that judging one’s merits or successes as a parent based on the actions of another individual just doesn’t make sense. It flies in the face of our doctrine on agency as well as scriptural teachings about parenting. Section 68 declares that the duty of a parent is to teach, not to ensure the outcome of another’s life choices.

Who is a successful LDS parent then? I just can’t believe that I can put my feet up and relax when the last child is delivered to the bride’s room in the Toronto temple. While it is tempting to set our sights on a checklist of events or our kids characteristics, I am more inclined to believe that a better measurement is how my heart is with my child and with my God. Is my love unfeigned? Am I long suffering and gentle and meek in raising my children? Do I recognize that I can still “lovingly” coerce even for the best of causes?

Undeniably, there is something to the idea that “good parents produce good kids”. But the bottom line is that even if all 2000 of those young men ran away like cowards, feared death or had other doubts, if their mothers actions had remained the same, they still would have been “good” parents. To think otherwise, seems to place a difficult and unnecessary burden on parents that even our Father in Heaven doesn’t assume.


  1. cont. from above
    My sister is 36. She seems to be slowly inching back to the path taught to her in her youth. I think it may very well take another 20 or 30 years.

  2. Bryce: re: Bishop’s kids being the rottenest.

    That’s the origin of the phrase “son of a BISHop”.

    Here in the Bible-belt of the Midwest, they’re called “PK”s, “Preacher’s Kids.”

  3. Lisa and the good child, I am like your mothers, my poor daughter is under so much pressure. I really appreciate this topic, Kris, and the posts. It is so hard to be a parent.

  4. That verse says that when he is OLD he will not depart from it. So, maybe you have to wait until he’s 80. ANd if he didn’t live until 80? The Lord doesn’t let that stop him. He knows the heart and knows what your child would have learned and become by the time he was 80.

  5. the good child says:


    It’s nice to hear that someone else feels the same way I do regarding the pressure to perform or be a certain way for our parents. I wonder how I can escape this and finally truly be my own person. Sometimes it feels like leaving the church would be the only way to do that.

  6. LDS parents often measure success by whether or not the kids stay in the church. I think that’s an arbitrary and not necessarily helpful measure. Danithew’s example of the man who disagreed with Proverbs 22:6 brought this idea to mind for me.

    I prefer measures like: are the kids honest? Are they good spouses? Are they good parents? Are they hard-working? Are they kind? Helpful? If an adult child is all of these things, but leaves the church, is that a failure? I don’t think so.

    I think it’s most important that our children turn out to be good people, and less important that they turn out to be good members of the church. After all, it IS possible to be a good person and not a member of the church.

    Of course, this POV doesn’t help the parents of kids who turn out to be none of those things, who nonetheless did their best. At some point, we have to just say “we did our best, and they made their choices,” and let it go. I disagree that somebody else’s poor choices can be OUR failures.

  7. Besides the story of the sons of Helaman, I think there’s another passage that is a real clunker for some parents:

    Proverbs 22:6
    Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

    My mother told me of a man in her ward who had a real issue with this verse. His children had strayed from the Church and he felt strongly that he had raised them in the right way — they simply chose to follow other paths.

  8. I know I see this in my life. My mom is so heart broken by any hint of behavior that might be suspect. I haven’t really even confessed (!) my feminism to her because I just know she’ll see it as a failure in herself. And I’d just rather spare her that pain.

    (would it be better or worse than the tattoo melt-down?)

    I have two (of eight) inactive siblings. One who has rejected all organized religion, and one who believes but does not attend. I know my mother considers these personal failures and worries about them CONSTANTLY. (I also know that to her own shame, she compares herself to her sister and all those perfectly turned out mormon princesses that are my cousins)

    What a waste it is. All that self-doubt. She really was the best mom. Yet she eats herself up with self-doubt because my siblings make full use of their free agency.

    And I have to agree the pressure to perform, to be perfect, to make mom happy is . . . unpleasant. Probably more than half the reason those two jumped ship in the first place.

  9. I keep waiting for my kids to realize what lame parents we are and start their teenage rebelling, but it hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it’s hard to rebel when your dad’s a surfer/skater/snowboarder and your mom’s a web developer/rock concert photographer.

    We really do have such great kids, and I don’t know how we managed it. We’re fully aware of where we lack in our parenting. But you know, give them a few years…then check in.

  10. I used to find it easy to judge other parents and their parenting by their kids. I taught some of their rebellious brats.

    Things are different with me now. I’ve seen some of those “brats” become great active members and I’ve seen one of our “perfectly taught” kids not serve a mission and go less active.

    Do we still love him? Of course! Does he know we love him? Yes, he does!

    We pray like Alma Sr. and now try not to judge like we did before.

  11. gst — I probably am conflating good and successful and several other ideas but I’m thinking there is no universal of either possibly? If for one, their individual challenge is to be obedient to the counsel of the prophet in teaching children and for the other, the challenge is to endure the difficulties of a rebellious child in a Christlike manner, how can the successful (or good) parent be judged through human eyes.

  12. This is an interesting subject. I’ve got so many thoughts on this I won’t have time to put everything down. I can’t phrase my parenting philosophy it in one sentence! but maybe I can try?
    I would say that I will consider myself successful if:

    I do everything I can to help my children reach their individual potential

    I think that “potential” and “individual” are the key words. Each child is different with their own strengths and weaknesses, their own personality, their own issues, their own experiences. I can parent one child a certain way, but I need to adjust my parenting to meet the needs of another child. And the “everything I can” means that I will use all the resources I have to do my human best, which will never be perfect. I try to stop and re-evaluate my children’s individual issues on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. What can I do to help them in their behavior? Their education? Their spiritual development? Their health and fitness? Their happiness? Their work ethic? Their honesty? The list is endless, but not overwhelming if I don’t try to do everything at once.
    Loving my children? That’s a given. I can’t not love them. But I want to fulfill my responsibility to them for their sakes, as well as my own sake. It is an honor to be given these children and I realize that their “success” in life or eternity is not guarenteed. Even if I do everything I can, there is no guarantee of anything.
    All I really am here to do is to help them, teach them, provide a home for them, be a mother to them, be their advocate as they learn about life.

  13. Mark,
    They will love me! They will!

    (I got the benchmark from my parents, two of whose children don’t go to church but who are adored anyway. As a consequence they adore my parents.)

    Good child: my wife feels the same.

  14. Mark B. and Ronan —

    Perhaps Ronan’s formulation might be better stated “Do I love my children? Do my children know I love them?”

  15. I think it’s important to remember, too, that if any people were perfect parents, it would have been our Heavenly Father and Mother…and they lost a third (!) of their spirit children to agency.

  16. Why not “Do my children know I love them? and have I taught them to love others?” I think that pretty much covers it and allows for agency.

  17. Wait a minute, aren’t we conflating “good” with “successful”? Surely there are wonderful parents who are nevertheless unsuccessful. If you are entrusted with a child and instructed to help that child grow in the Gospel, and the child doesn’t, you’ve failed. It doesn’t mean you didn’t do your damndest. The best practitioners of all disciplines, including parenting, occasionally fail.

  18. the good child says:

    This post hits home for me. I’m the “good one” in my family, and I feel like my mother measures her success as a parent by me. Now that I’m an adult my role in the family is ever more clear to me. I’m having difficulty escaping it and it is a large burden to bear. I fear that if my mother knew who I really am and some of my frustrations with the church, her sense of self would be shattered.

    I think it’s difficult for both the parents and the children when parents measure their own success/goodness as a person by their children.

  19. Dave — too funny! I was married in the Toronto temple and my kids should be just like me! Right, right ….

  20. Ronan,

    I understand your benchmark, but I’m not sure that the second part of it should be there. What if your children don’t love you? What if despite your best efforts, and your unfeigned love for them, they turn against you, and decide to hate you and all that you stand for?

    I imagine that Lehi and Sariah struggled with this, as did Alma the elder, and countless other parents who have struggled to love their children and rear them in righteousness, only to see that love rejected.

  21. RT — I have seen evidence of this too from people who genuinely love their children and want the best for them. I think the idea that our family may not “be forever” is really frightening. Sometimes as a parent, the plan Satan presented at the council in Heaven sounds like a good idea :)

  22. I recently sat in the Nauvoo Temple with all my siblings and parents while my nephew received his endowment. Very spiritual. I tend to think my parents were great, but when we got out of the temple, my parents were like, “just got there by the skin of our teeth, eh?”

    I agree with your condemnation of ends focused parenting, Kris. I tend to think of the stripling warriors as a great example of relationships. Not only did they know their mothers did not doubt, but their relationships with their mothers were such that their mothers belief mattered to them.

    I know plenty of people that do not doubt in a number of things, but it makes no difference to me. Why? Because I don’t particularly care about them or respect them.

  23. Good points Bryce and perhaps my presentation of my idea is a bit loose, but is meant to reflect some of the ideas that go flying around in Sunday discussions of good LDS parenting. Perhaps it is just my ward, but think about the talks you hear from GAs about tearful parents wondering “what they did wrong”. I think as a culture we still run with the idea that a “successful” parent is one whose children are active in the church or meet certain standards of behaviour.

    Similarly, I think Ronan’s idea of not judging is correct and too often when we use “know them by their fruits’ to defend our own parenting or in looking for models around us, we drift into a judgement that is dangerous.

    Thanks Ann and A. Gant, your comments are heartening.

  24. Toronto … well, you’ve got problems already, aiming for some new, upstart temple. Don’t you know that good Mormon parents instill in their brood of Mormonlings a deep need to follow the family tradition and be married in one of those out-of-the-way Utah temples like Manti, Logan, or St. George?

  25. When my daughter was Hell on Wheels, I simply didn’t know WHAT to do. I took some comfort from an Ensign article that said (paraphrasing) “There are children who rise above horrific parenting to lead happy, productive lives, and children whose choices dismay the most ideal parents.”

    We do the best we can with what we have.

  26. A related point: the pressure that this idea puts on parents can lead them to do really horrible things to their children. What do parents who believe in ends-not-means as a parenting philosophy do when their child decides not to serve a mission? To get married outside the temple? To leave the church? The child has to be free to make any of these decisions, because otherwise a decision to serve, to marry in the temple, or to stay active would be meaningless. But, paradoxically, the parents aren’t free to let the child make these decisions–because, if the child does, the parents will suddenly consider themselves to be failures.

    So the parents do everything they can to force the child into compliance. I’ve seen people withdraw family recognition of teenage and adult children over such issues. In one case, I even saw a set of parents systematically sabotage a friend of mine’s life (taking actions to get him fired from his job and evicted from his apartment, convincing his girlfriend’s parents to threaten similar actions against her unless she broke up with him) in order to get him to go on a mission. There’s just no way this kind of behavior makes you good parents! Yet the idea that we judge parents by their children’s decisions on major life choices can end up justifying this kind of stuff.

  27. Everyone knows people with multiple children who have taken completely different paths. I guess I’ve only every thought of “fruits” as a persons actions, not as the actions of their children.

  28. If “good LDS parenting” = “kids remain faithful” then what are we (from a Brighamite perspective) to do about the children of Joseph Smith?

    Answer: nothing. We cannot make such judgements.

    And if I can up the theological ante here: what about God, whom we consider our “father”? Does he “fail” when his children “go astray” according to this benchmark?

    But to be honest, Kris, as Bryce suggests I think most sensible Latter-day Saints don’t make such a value judgement. Some do, but not all.

    The only benchmark I am considering entering into my own parenting is this: do I love my children? do they love me? If yes, then something is going right.

  29. Yay! Kris has returned!!

  30. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — Parents get too much blame when their kids do wrong and too much credit when their kids do right (much like quarterbacks in football and managers in baseball). The idea that good parents have good kids is given the lie by just about every bishop and stake president you’ve ever known. Isn’t the cliche that the bishop’s kid is the rottenest kid in the ward?

    You’re misreading the stripling warrior just a bit, though. You claim that “The simplistic conclusion that often seems to arise from any discussion of the army of Helaman is that these relatively unknown women were “good” mothers because their children did not doubt.” I assume the implication is that the word “doubt” here attaches to the phrase “if they did not doubt, God would deliver them.” However, the important lesson learned by these young men is that they did not doubt that their mothers knew this fact, not the fact itself.

    The distinction is important. As parents, we have responsibilities to teach our children, but we ultimately have no control over how that teaching is received. Each child is free to accept or reject what it taught. We have much greater control over how our children perceive our love for them. To me, the fruit borne in this story is not the faithfulness of the warriors, but the evident love for their children and the goodness of the lives of the mothers which causes their children to trust them.

    In other words, the take home message is that good parents should not only teach the gospel to their children (a given), but live the gospel in such a way as to make the truth of our own testimonies of it evident in our lives.