On Fatherhood

“You don’t know whether you have succeeded as a parent until you see how the grandchildren turn out.”

– Mary Ellen Smoot

For the first twenty years of my life, I lived next door to my grandfather.  Grandma died when I was three so I don’t remember her much, but I remember grandpa as a very kind, very old, tall and skinny man who had to use a cane to walk and even then had a very severe limp.  Grandpa was born in the last decade of the 19th century and in many ways was a very old-school Mormon.  He wore the old wrists-and-ankles garments, and he personally knew cohabs who had been incarcerated for the practice of plural marriage.  He prayed aloud five times per day — morning and evening, and he also said a looooong, kneel-down prayer before every meal.  I know this because as a young boy I would wake early, get dressed, then go next door to eat an early breakfast with grandpa.  I would then go home and have a second breakfast.  Score!

I’ve been thinking about grandpa lately because I’m transcribing recordings of the memories of his life.  In his last year, my mother took one of those new-fangled cassette tape recorders over to his house, turned it on, and asked him questions about his life — what it was like growing up in rural Utah, his parents and siblings, his education, the depression, his marriage and family, his church service, and so on.  It is an incredible and emotional experience to hear and recognize a voice I haven’t heard in thirty years, and to remember again some of his idiosyncratic and endearing ways of speaking I thought I had forgotten.  And it is especially meaningful to get to know him again from the perspective of an adult who has now shared in some of those experiences.   I’ve learned that grandpa ditched school now and then.  I’ve learned that the world where he grew up wasn’t much different from ours.  Even in LDS communities in rural Utah there was danger and violence.  Grandpa got in brutal fights with boys from the other side of the tracks (today we would speak of gangs and turf wars), and sexual morality was a challenge for the young people then as it is now.  Indeed, if the reports from speakers in general conference in the first decades of the twentieth century can be taken at face value, in many of our communities more than 50% of the marriages were of the shotgun variety.  Maybe the good old days weren’t all that great after all.

But the part that has really caused me to reflect has been the part where grandpa talks about his family.  Several of his children eventually disaffiliated from the LDS church, and an even larger number of the grandchildren and great-grands have done the same.  He served actively in the church his entire life, and with our strong emphasis on teaching the next generation, I wonder if he ever felt like a failure as a father.  It is unfortunate, but whether we like it or not, and whether it is fair or not, we often evaluate ourselves and one another as parents based on how active and committed in the church our children turn out to be. 

Our assumption about our fitness as parents based on how the children and grandchildren turn out is difficult to reconcile with two fundamental LDS beliefs:  our doctrine of the pre-mortal life and our doctrine of agency.  We believe that the children who come to our homes are not blank slates, but that their characters and personalities were developed to some extent before birth.  And if agency means anything at all, it means that we cannot think of our children as lumps of clay we can shape to our will, but as individuals whose abilities, quirks, and tendencies should be taken seriously, even at a relatively young age.  It is a form of idolatry for us to try to shape them after our own likeness and image. So, given our belief that raising children is important, how can we best understand and evaluate what we are trying to do?

Last Father’s Day weekend, The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating piece on parenting. It is worthwhile to read the entire article, but a few quotes will be enough for this blog post.

Parents may feel like their pressure, encouragement, money and time are all that stands between their kids and failure. But decades’ worth of twin and adoption research says the opposite: Parents have a lot more room to safely maneuver than they realize, because the long-run effects of parenting on children’s outcomes are much smaller than they look.

Parents have a strong effect on which religion and political party their kids identify with, but little on their adult behavior or outlook. Some, but not all, twin and adoption studies find that parents have a modest effect on tobacco, alcohol and drug use, juvenile delinquency, and when daughters (but not sons) start having sex.

Many find behavioral genetics depressing, but it’s great news for parents and potential parents. If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful “investments”—and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.

If you enjoy reading with your children, wonderful. But if you skip the nightly book, you’re not stunting their intelligence, ruining their chances for college or dooming them to a dead-end job. The same goes for the other dilemmas that weigh on parents’ consciences. Watching television, playing sports, eating vegetables, living in the right neighborhood: Your choices have little effect on your kids’ development, so it’s OK to relax. In fact, relaxing is better for the whole family. Riding your kids “for their own good” rarely pays off, and it may hurt how your children feel about you.

The most meaningful fruit of parenting, however, is simply appreciation—the way your children perceive and remember you…..If you create a loving and harmonious home for your children, they’ll probably remember it for as long as they live.

From all this, I conclude that parenting is important, but often not in the ways we think, and that we expend a lot of time and effort on things of little long-term value. It is good for us to remember that, as President Hinckley once said, “Most children grow up to be just people.”


  1. I love this post, Mark, particularly your description of your connection to your grandfather.

    Along the lines of your points about parenting, the most liberating book I’ve read on the topic is Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption. It makes arguments similar to those in the Wall Street Journal article. I recall she pointed out that if it doesn’t matter much in the long run how we parent our kids, what’s our incentive to be good parents? She answered this by pointing out that in most of our relationships (spouse, friend, sibling) our goal isn’t to cause some long-term outcome for the other person, but rather just to enjoy the relationship in the present. So I like your conclusion too.

  2. Great post. I’m gonna share it with my wife, who carries around a lot of needless regret over this issue, despite the fact that we have excellent loving relationships with our kids and grandkids.

    BTW, if you haven’t done it already, I’d like to suggest that you digitize those tapes as well as transcribe them.

  3. We believe in being punished for our own sins, not for our children’s transgressions.

  4. This is just exactly what I needed to hear today. Thanks, Mark.

  5. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Something tells me that Mark has some pretty decent grandkids that love him.

  6. Beautiful, Mark. On so many levels and for so many reasons- a healing form of beautiful.

  7. I especially like your memories of your grandfather, Mark.

  8. For someone who has — this week — worried aloud whether all my wife and I are doing is raising a bunch of criminals-to-be, this post was refreshing. Thanks.

  9. On the flip side, what implications does this have for children who have bad relationships with their parents, often struggling as adults because of poor parenting when they were children?

  10. Thank you so much for this Mark and the reminder that kids have their own minds and spirits regardless of what we do or don’t do. As a little tiny bit of a control freak, I have to stop myself from micromanaging and also from beating myself up if my kids aren’t exactly as perfect (spiritually) as I want them to be. They’re pretty great kids and I am trying daily to honor them and provide love and gentle guidance as much as I can.

    You are so lucky to have had that wonderful grandpa in your life!

  11. Mark, I suspect that our emphasis on family, and the influence we can have upon them, is to serve as a motivator toward reconciliation rather than measure of our parental prowess (though the emphasis seems somewhat skewed at times). The conflict and pain that inevitably arise from those associations can all to easily spiral out of control and it occurs to me that unless we are constantly reminded about those associations (either through ritual or through sermon) we might be tempted to cover the alienation we experience.

  12. I’m I the only one who, after reading this, wonders what the point of parenting is? It seems that I can influence very little in my childrens’ lives.

    I can’t shake the feeling this runs counter to some deeply held Mormon beliefs about training children up, and all that.

    I get the point of the post. We don’t need to be so uptight about being a parent. But surely we can influence more than religion and politics, no?

  13. Living in zion says:

    #12 – I think we influence much more than our childrens thoughts on religion and politics. I think we influence how they view themselves.
    I do agree that we don’t influence their actions. We can/should provide them with a clear, loving picture of who they are in God’s eyes.

  14. I was pondering mmiles’ question as well. As someone with no real father figure nor grandfather influence, I’m both envious of those relationships, and curious what that means in the long-run. It certainly feels like that absence effected me in deep ways, and as a solo mom trying to raise three kids, I have to think what I’m doing matters, but also that I can counteract the missing male influence in their lives as well. Curious.

  15. John Mansfield says:

    Great intro, Mark, and interesting thoughts. Concepts of our premortal existence can cut both ways. One the one hand, we’re not blank slates, as you point out; on the other, it also leads to the thought that receiving the particular parents we did wasn’t all happenstance.

    I don’t how to reconcile that WSJ with observation of people around me. I’m thinking right now of one set of my cousins, four brothers, three of which have done time in prison. Not exactly a random grouping. There are some families where it would be shockingly out of the pattern to have someone go to prison, and others where, sadly, it is not.

  16. #12 Ben, I have wondered about this over time, too. I used to worry incenssantly about my kids’ poor (in my eyes) choices. Then I wondered what’s the point if I don’t have any input.

    What I came to terms with is that I don’t have CONTROL over them. I do have input, and it’s valuable for them to have my input in a way they can receive it. How can they choose well if they don’t have alternatives from which to choose? I can provide good options.

    I also determined that the relationship is the reward. The final quoted paragraph from the WSJ article is valuable to me, and it’s supported by my experience.

    If it’s true we won’t have wards or stakes in the next life, but we will have our families, it seems building lasting relationships is key now. D&C 121’s concluding thoughts about one’s dominion flowing to him without compulsion is valuable if we think about one’s eternal dominion being his family — those eternal connections will be voluntary, not forced.

    As a post-script, I’d suggest the teen years are probably the wrong time for a self-assessment of the relationship; kids in those years are hard wired to separate from us and it takes some time for them to come back to the relationship.

  17. Um, not to be naive here, but doesn’t this run counter to general trends in terms of alcohol consumption, premarital sex etc differences across religious groups/family backgrounds?

    It looked to me in the article that the results were based on cohorts born in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Might family lives have been more homogeneous then, so that twins growing up in different homes weren’t in families that were all that different?

    I mean, if most Mormon kids don’t drink/have sex before marriage, then saying that parents have no influence is a little silly. I agree that it might be the LDS peers that make much of the difference, but access to LDS peers is surely not random.

    Or am I wrong in my assumption that Mormon patterns of behavior for teens are different?

  18. This hit home for me. We are 50/50 with our six adult children, 5 married, and the youngest still at home attending college. My wife and I understand these issues on an intellectual level, but struggle with the eternal implications. However. my son that was always the biggest problem as a teenager, and a huge headache in his early 20’s, has turned out to be an extremely kind, caring and thoughtful husband and father. We are pretty happy with that.

    The whole agency thing is tough for us a parents. If you want to take credit for the good stuff, you also have to take the blame for the bad stuff, it would seem. And to write the whole thing off as the kids exercising their agency, well then what are we parents for in the first place?

    About the only thing that helps is that I think Heavenly Father must feel the same way often.

  19. 17 cms — I think parents are one input. But I know for my children who also had close LDS friends, they reinforced their choices to live like LDS kids. My children who did not have LDS friends often chose a different path. My experience (and I’m not a social scientist, only the father of seven) is that friends exert a huge influence in those teenage years. By then whatever influence I was going to exert was done. Yes, they learned foundational lessons from me, and they still had house rules to reinforce those lessons, but I came to understand that when they walked out my door, I had no hold on them.

  20. Second breakfast?!

    What a fine, fine Hobbit you’d make.

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