Parents are people

It’s been a stressful time for us. My father in law had been battling leukemia for over a year, when he suddenly took a turn for the worse. FIL’s illness lasted a few more weeks, and he finally passed away. This has affected the family in a number of ways; most importantly for this post, it resulted in a complicated set of travel plans.

We came to visit at M’s parent’s home in Arizona a few weeks ago when FIL became ill. Then I had to go back home for work. M stayed in Arizona for an uncertain period of time (which ended up being two weeks), helping care for her father during his illness, and then helping make arrangements after he passed away. The kids and I stayed in California, kids in school, me working, and their other Grandpa in town to help watch them. It was a complicated juggle. We tried to make it as relaxed and enjoyable time as possible for the kids, but everyone has been on edge for the past month.

Thursday morning, we were up at 4:30 for the drive to Arizona. I had stayed up late on Wednesday night, packing and trying (not entirely succesfully) to tie up loose ends at work, so that I could be away. Tuesday night had been late too, with class prep and then early class on Wednesday. And I hadn’t slept well in general for the past few weeks — I never sleep very well without M.

The drive over went fine, though the kids were pretty restless by the time we arrived in Arizona and set up at Grandma’s house, where a half dozen other cousins were also staying. M and I had one room for ourselves, where we threw our and the kids’ bags. The boys would be sleeping in a tent, Daughter on a couch in the living room. The day was full of pre-funeral chaos, with family in town, children everywhere underfoot, and a thousand things to do, like watch 12 cousins while the brothers and uncles go to dress their father.

At about ten, I stepped into our temporary guest room and collapsed on the bed. The house was still chaos, but it had to wind down sooner or later. I was seriously sleep deprived at this point, with four or five hours each of the previous nights, and a work meeting I would have to phone into early the next day. M came to bed soon after, locked the door and snuggled up to me. It had been two weeks since we had seen each other, and thus two weeks without sex; sleep deprived as we both were, we still had energy to remedy that lapse. Then we snuggled under the blanket and drifted off to sleep. Finally.


Knock-knock-knock. The knock was quiet, a child at the door. I lifted up my head, groggy and undressed. It must have been around ten-thirty or eleven.

“Who is it?”

“I need my book,” came Daughter’s voice. “I don’t have anything to read.”

I processed that for a minute. I was half asleep, still undressed, and the guest room was piled with bags and suitcases. I didn’t want to get up, get dressed, and try to dig up Daughter’s book. The bed felt comfortable. Daughter was seven, she could find something else to go to sleep with.

“Find something else,” I called. “We’re asleep in here.” I curled back up to the pillow and was back asleep in seconds.


Knock-knock-knock. Daughter again, what must have been ten or fifteen minutes later.

“I really need my book.”

Still half-asleep, a little perturbed. Couldn’t a guy get some sleep around here?

“No. We’re all in bed. Now go to sleep.”

Silence. Back to sleep. Bliss.


KNOCK – KNOCK – KNOCK. This time it was an adult knocking. “What is it,” I called.

It was Aunt C at the door, and she did not sound pleased. “Your Daughter is still crying, and it’s keeping my kids up. Can you do something about it?”

I nudged M. Can you take this? No response at all, she was out like a light. Reluctantly, I sat up. Apparently, I was going to have to do something. I poked around for some clothes.


I was upset. Was a few hour’s sleep too much to ask? I could understand Daughter being sad, but her keeping the whole house awake was ridiculous.

I very briefly thought about finding her book, but immediately dismissed the idea. A dozen half-remembered fragments from parenting books or blog comments whispered to me: You can’t reward bad behavior. That will just create bad incentives.

I stepped out into the hall, and heard her from there. She was crying, loudly, broadcasting her sorrow for the whole house to hear. I marched out to the living room.

She looked up from behind the couch, her eyes dripping tears, her expression a mix of hopefulness and worry. She knew that she was probably in trouble; but the hopeful part seemed to say, maybe he brought me a book.

No such luck. I swatted her butt, and sternly told her that she needed to stop crying, right now. But I don’t have a book, she protested. I had one earlier today, but I can’t find it, and there’s nothing else for me to read, and I can’t go to sleep without it.

That’s too bad, I told her. You need to just lay down and go to sleep. I resorted to threats to drive home the point. If you keep up all this fussing, I will take away your other books, too. “Not a peep out of you,” I threatened, “or I will take your other books away, and your stuffed animals too.” She lay down dutifully, cowed, without a further sound. I walked back to the bedroom, and sat and thought about it.

My sleepy brain was slowly coming to the conclusion that I had handled it wrong. I reviewed my thoughts, piece by piece.

Yes, I’m not supposed to reward bad behavior. But was that really the case here? Daughter did try to get her book earlier. And we chased her away. She’s not making an unreasonable request; she always goes to sleep with a book.

And what about my reasons for not responding earlier? Well, I didn’t get up earlier because I was in bed and didn’t want to get dressed; but I had already done that now, either way.

I checked briefly for her book. It wasn’t hard to find; not on the dresser top, but located a moment later on the floor. I picked it up and walked back out to the living room. The room was silent, Daughter curled in a blanket behind the couch, quiet now, tears in her eyes. I sat down.

“You’ve had a hard few days, haven’t you?” She nodded.

“You do have to be quiet,” I told her. “You can’t keep the whole house up. But you’re right, we should have given you a book earlier. I’m sorry we didn’t. I was tired and in bed.” I handed it to her the book, and her eyes lit up. (And then I pointed out that she was in a room with two celing-high bookcases; and though a lot of the books were boring adult books, there were kid books there, too.) She curled up with her book, and I went back to bed.

And lay there for an hour, thinking about it.


Did I do the right thing?

I knew that I felt good about making Daughter happy. That was what I wanted to do. Truth was, I empathize with Daughter very easily. In many ways, she is more like me than my other children. She reads herself to sleep every night, just like I did at that age. Giving her a book made me feel good.

I probably should have been kinder and more compassionate to begin with. Couldn’t I have handled it better from the start?, I asked myself. Yes, I admitted ruefully. I could have. But then, I’m human too. Parents are people. I had just wanted to lay down and get some long-awaited sleep, and some time with M. That wasn’t unreasonable, either.

Sometimes people drop the ball. Sometimes parents are overwhelmed by things around them. Sometimes it’s my own fault; other times it’s just the chain of events, the circumstances lined up. I reacted as an imperfect person, and then regretted it, especially remembering Daughter’s hopeful look. “This is Dad, and he understands me. He will have brought me a book.” Yep, I blew it. But I had fixed it, imperfectly. I had apologized, and tried to make it better.

Had I swung too far the other direction? Was I rewarding bad behavior, giving in when I shouldn’t have? Was this bad parenting?

On reflection, I wasn’t so sure. Daughter’s crying was not appropriate, yes. But she was only seven, in a strange room in a strange house, with her world upside down and no book to read. She was a lot like me and M, really — tired and stressed and overwhelmed. And like us, her own reactions affected other people. Inaction from M and I had left her feeling hurt; she passed this along to her poor cousins trying to sleep.

The theory of not-rewarding-bad-behavior may sound reasonable to my inner economist. But was this idea even correct? After all, I thought audaciously, isn’t the whole idea of atonement ultimately a way to let people behave badly, without suffering? If Economist Jesus was really about creating efficient incentives, surely He would have said, sorry kids, sin and you go straight to Hell. But He didn’t say that. And if a more lenient approach works for Jesus, why not for me? (Though, I had to admit, my own motives were imperfect. I had been feeling guilty about overreacting; and sad, and sympathetic, remembering Daughter’s hopeful expression.)


That was my thought process, at 2 a.m. A week has passed, and I’ve gotten a little more sleep since then. But that’s still where I am, more or less. I don’t know if I did the right thing.

I did go back an hour after giving her the book, and Daughter was fast asleep. I wonder now how she’ll remember this. I hope she’ll remember the book, and the hug, and not so much the scolding.

I do try to be a good parent. I don’t get everything right. I interact with a lot of people in a lot of areas — I’m a professor and a parent and blogger and a neighbor and a ward member. I try to do the right thing, but I don’t always get it right. I think that we can truly empathize with others when we see them and realize, they are struggling too. Parents are people. We all are.


I have my doubts sometimes about aspects of church historicity and doctrine. But in my less cynical moments, one idea that particularly resonates with me, is that Parents are People. And maybe our Heavenly Parents are learning, too. The angry outburst of the flood, followed by a promise not to get so mad in the future; the harsh laws of the Old Testament, followed by a shift to a more loving standard; goodness, this sounds awfully familiar. As man now is, God once was. And maybe still is, a little bit, I wonder.

And doesn’t the same go for Prophets, for church leaders? Critics can be awfully harsh on church leadership; I’ve been critical at times myself, and probably will be in the future. But I hope I never lose sight of the fact that church leaders are people, trying to do what they think is right. And even in disagreement, I should give them space to be human. Indeed, it is the human picture of prophets — like the flawed but captivating Joseph Smith in Rough Stone Rolling — that is most compelling.

We like to act invulnerable in our interactions with others — nonchalant and tough, like nothing can touch us. But we are, all of us, struggling and imperfect, confused and learning, overwhelmed and doing the best we can.


Parents are people
People with children
When parents were little, they used to be kids
Just like you
But then they grew

32 comments for “Parents are people

  1. First, my condolences, to you and your family – especially your wife.

    A couple of things – while there was no such thing as blogs on the internet when I married my wife, I was very struck by the fact that you are comfortable discussing the fact that you had not had sex for two weeks, needed it, engaged in it and then lay in bed undressed afterwards.

    No good Mormon would ever have publicly admitted such a thing back then, let alone wrote about it.

    And it reminded me of when, shortly after we got married, our phone rang and got us out of bed with the news that my father-in-law had just been killed in a car crash. We went back to bed and I held my wife in my arms as she wept. And then, even as the tears continued, we began to kiss and soon we made love.

    Lastly, hell yes, you did the right thing and even if parts of it were wrong, they weren’t wrong. It was just life, and everybody was having a rough time. In the end, you’re daughter got the book – and more importantly, I’m certain, the affirmation that was important enough to her father that he would get her the book and you got some things to think about.

    So don’t beat yourself up about it.

    And lastly, I am struck by the fact that you can write about disagreeing with church leaders. Back then, that was a no, no!

    Not just with the Prophet and general authorities, but our immediate superiors – the branch president, bishop, stake president or whatever – because, we were admonished, when they counseled us, they did so through divine inspiration and we were not to question.

    So this seems to represent a bit of progress. Not enough to bring me back to church on Sundays, but progress just the same.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. This kind of writing is why I visit T & S. Your story was lovely. Thank you for sharing. I loved it.

  3. Lovely, Kaimi. I hope you and your family are doing okay. Your daughter is a lucky girl to have you.

  4. I’m sorry for your family.
    I think it is important to be consistent and “no means no” and don’t reward bad behavior. What if you make a rule or say no and it is the wrong call (like it was the wrong call in this situation)? Sometimes, it is no big deal and you can still ride it out and stick with the “no” with no real harm done (sticking with the no sometimes does less harm that changing what you said).
    However, sometimes stubbornly refusing to change your mind and admit that you were wrong does more harm than the possibility that your child feels rewarded for bad behavior and risking future bad behavior. My vote is that it seems pretty clear that you did the right thing in realizing that.
    I see the imperfections in myself. However, I don’t agree with your analogy to God. I believe he is perfect.

  5. Interesting post! (Condolences to your family.)

    Personally, I find the image of a God who changes his mind, who can be talked into things, extremely appealing.

  6. My favorite post of yours, Kaimi.

    There’s a reason the Holy Ghost is called the Comforter and that we emphasize so much that Christ understands us, that He bore OUR sorrows, that God is perfectly empathetic, and unconditionally loving.

  7. I have no children yet, and it will be a long time before I have a child who is seven years old. However, I’m going to respond to the question, “Did I do the right thing?” even if I have no actual experience in the situation.

    Punishing a child for being upset because her parents refuse to help her find her book so that she can go to bed when everyone in the house (which includes far more people that just Mum, Dad, and siblings) is going through a really rough emotional time? Um… yeah, I’m going to say that that was probably not the best response. Especially when you’ve acknowledged that your daughter is a lot like you, and has the same going-to-sleep routine that you have.

    Realising that you made a mistake, going back and trying to make things right, and going back to your room with the knowledge that you are once again your daughter’s hero? Probably a great idea. I don’t see this as a case of rewarding bad behaviour, even if your daughter was wailing and moaning and making life miserable for everyone. Heck, I’d be pretty upset if I couldn’t find my book, too!

    Regarding the notion of God still progressing… Well, that just seems to make sense. One of the tenets of the LDS faith is that we believe in eternal progression. I’m fairly confident that this progression applies to our Heavenly Father and to Jesus Christ just as much as it applies to us.

  8. I really enjoyed this post.

    I feel like your daughter is very lucky to have you, as ECS said. And I do agree that you should stop beating yourself up about it. Of course, we can’t justify mistakes on “hard times”, but at least you did everything you could to correct the mistake.

    It’s the process of progression.

  9. I get a little crazy when people deny each other humanity – it just strikes me as uncharitable to insist, INSIST that Joseph Smith was nearly as perfect as Christ. I find it inspirational to look at all his screw ups and realize that he still did so much good. It gives me hope for myself.

    I love extending this idea to God. I think that’s beautiful. I hope you guys are all finding healing.

  10. Kaimi, I’ve been there. I too have a seven-year-old daughter who did almost exactly the same thing and I responded in almost exactly the same way. I too lay awake afterwards wondering if I had handled it right. I didn’t want to reward bad behavior either, but I also felt I’d acted partly out of selfishness, and it felt right to “repent”. And I was so, so tired.

    I’ve watched our bishop be inundated with people needing this or that, and I’ve watched him handle a few things differently than he probably should have. I’ve seen how many hours he’s put in, and I’ve seen him act tired. I think the parallels you draw are valid.

    But to me, I can’t accept the concept of a God who’s still learning. I need to be able to bring anything to him. If he’s still learning, what if the thing I’m bringing to him is something he hasn’t figured out yet?

    No, part of the comfort I feel in my faith is that God has all the answers, and because He does, eventually I will too. If we were just in the journey together (like us and our daughters), it doesn’t matter that He is far ahead of us, there’s no guarantee that we’ll get where we want to go.

    When I cry out selfishly to my Father in the middle of the night, I have faith He will handle it exactly as it should be handled.

  11. “If Economist Jesus was really about creating efficient incentives, surely He would have said, sorry kids, sin and you go straight to Hell.”

    This is probably right if you are in a model where nobody makes mistakes. But game theory has a very large and rich literature on dynamic incentives, and in a game where people make mistakes (like the real world in your post), allowing repentance is efficient (though costly).

    So you can still be economist Kaimi without doctrinal incoherence.

  12. I am not sure that your daughter behaved badly. “No” is no substitute for taking care of a child.

    Parents often find themselves at the end of their rope. It would be nice (and just) if we could just switch our children off on those occasions. That’s why we tell them “no” and “go away.” Unfortunately, life does not work that way.

    Children have needs and, ideally, they will bug their parents until their needs are satisfied. That’s annoying but it is a good thing because it is a survival requirement for a mammal species.

    Instead of looking at this incident in terms of rewarding bad behavior, I prefer your other interpretation. Sometimes, parents have to take a breather before they can satisfy the needs of their children.

    Your daughter just sought comfort in a routine in a strange house in a stressful situation. That’s why she couldn’t notice any of the other books. It was not part of the routine.

    She did not behave badly. She behaved age appropriately. It just took you a moment to create the capacity to respond to her need properly. That’s only human.

  13. A totally OT riff on Frank’s comment:

    It seems like if you wanted to set up a system that would get the maximum amount of obedience to the rules over time, you would make a system that has fairly low costs for “getting on (or back on) the wagon.” Frank, if you would write a blog post about that and include the term “multiple-iterative game theory” or something similar, it would make my week.

  14. Yes, parents are people and are liable to err.

    However, I caution against extrapolating that truth to our heavenly father and teaching that he also is liable to err. Our LDS scripture teaches of a perfect God, unchangeable, and so forth. I take peace in knowing that however imperfect I might be as a parent, my heavenly father is perfect.

    “As man is, God once was…” is a thread in the tapestry of LDS thought but is not official doctrine of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Teaching that the flood and other perceived Old Testament harshness is evidence of an immature or growing God who progressed into the kind and mature God of the New Testament is a teaching unsupported by our doctrine. Our doctrine (and my faith) is a perfect God who knows the beginning from the end and whose every action is perfect. I know that his plan provides for correction of all my mistakes — every tear will be wiped away — both my own tears and any tears I might cause to my children.

    I appreciate the posting, but it would be unfortunate for an unsuspecting reader to read the small statement above about God’s being imperfect or immature and for that reader to assume such is true doctrine of the Latter-day Saints or to have his or her faith damaged by so believing. I believe my God and heavenly father is perfect, and hope that any person struggling with his or her mortal imperfections will put his or her faith in that perfect God.

  15. About your daughter’s remembrances – when I was about the same age she was, my mom punished me for something she later regretted punishing me for. I don’t remember what the punishment was, but I do remember what I’d done to (not) deserve it and I remember most how my mother came in to my bedroom that night and woke me up to apologize.

    Once she’d had time to gather herself together, she realized that she was acting out of stress and that I’d actually been trying to fix something/cope with it in my own 7-year-old way. I was doing the best I knew how to do and didn’t know I was making things worse in trying to fix it.

    But her small action made a huge difference in the future of our relationship – I knew she respected me enough to say she was wrong, so I knew I’d be able to do the same. I also learned that all I could do was my best – and my best was always good enough, no matter what. I have to think that helped us navigate my teenage years without too much trauma.

  16. I agree with what you have said. Parents are human. Children do not always understand that we are human and still learning. Sometimes when, they are young, they think we are perfect (at times) and know everything. Enjoy the moments when they think this way. All too soon, they will be teens and you will be the dumbest and most heartless person in the world. Luckily, they get over that too. My kids now call me the “coolest square” they know. I am flattered.

  17. ji (19) Is it not possible to learn through making correct choices? What about when there are several options, all of which are good? One may be more appropriate at a time than another, but none are wrong choices. Making a right choice does not automatically make all other choices errant.

    When I think of my Heavenly Father’s eternal progression, I think of Him progressing in this manner. He doesn’t learn through His mistakes. He learns through His right choices. He learns that what was right one isn’t always the right choice. He learns through the understanding that His children are all unique. He learns that while it was right to flood the earth at the time of Noah, it would not be right to do so again.

  18. Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how selfishness/stress impacts parenting. Parenting, and in particular “good parenting” (because nearly any schmuck can put in a half-hearted effort) requires a significant amount of selflessness and patience, to a degree I did not and could not fathom before I actually became a parent myself. I suspect some of the most striking moments in my oldest child’s development have been instances, such as the one described above, where I have come unglued due to selfishness/stress and my son has come to the horrifying realization that his father is not perfect.

    However, I disagree with Bill’s comment above (#1) that even if parts of your reaction were wrong, they weren’t wrong, because thats just life. Life involves a series of right and wrong choices, and we have to take responsibility for those, regardless of the extraneous circumstances. I think it is good, and important, that we are willing to fess up to our mistakes. That said, after making a few early mistakes, I think you did a good job of rallying and making up with your daughter, and my guess is she does and will respect you for that. So I think there were elements of both right and wrong in this situation, which I think is common in parenting.

    I also have to disagree with your analogy to Godly parenting. I think the notion that God deals with us in an interactive learning process has a lot of appeal, and the first time I learned of this “open-god theory” of divine nature, I really wanted to believe it. But as someone noted above, in order for this to be true, we would have to manipulative the doctrine to a tedious and untenable degree. While we can progress eternally, as can God, I’m willing to accept the fact that the nature of God’s eternal progression is something that transcends my current ability to understand. That his eternal progression may be “boring,” however, is entirely irrelevant to its veracity.

    My condolences to you and your family for your loss. I hope everyone is doing okay.

  19. I really like this post, Kaimi. I’m sorry to hear of the death of your father in law.

    I agree with Kiskilili (#5) that the image of a persuadable God is appealing. So I really like that you were persuadable and went back and gave your daughter her book. I don’t know if I’ve ever thought about it in quite these terms, but one thing I’ve tried to do as a parent is show that in the end behind all the rules I may make up for them, I’m trying to be human and understand that there will need to be exceptions. I don’t know if I’m explaining that very well, but it’s that part of your story that really resonates with me.

  20. For Alex V., no. 22. No, Alex, I can’t come that far. Thinking of doing so necessarily reminds me of 2 Tim. 4:3. I prefer not to think of God by lowering him to our way of thinking, however beautiful such might sound in our ears. Rather, I know that his ways are not my ways.

  21. ji, I am not trying to say that our ways are God’s ways. We tend to learn through our mistakes. It is possible to learn through making the right choices, but that is not how imperfect humans learn. However, it must be possible to learn through right choices, because we know that the Saviour experienced growth and learning during His mortal existence, and yet He never sinned.

    To me, there is something beautifully sublime in knowing that, at some point in my existence, probably long after I have passed through the veil, I will be able to cast of the shackles of my imperfect methods of learning and come to live as God lives, to learn as He learns, and to love as He loves. In the meantime, I expect do the best with what I have, knowing that my best will never be good enough, but that God loves me enough to accept my offerings anyway.

  22. Good stuff, Kaimi. Thanks for this post.

    In my life I’ve struggled a lot with what I call relationship perfectionism–the idea that I have to be perfect in a relationship, to always do the right thing. Which of course leads to a lot of guilt and self-recrimination, as I am far from meeting that ideal. But lately it’s occurred to me that that ideal itself might be problematic; if my focus is on always getting it right, being the perfect sister or friend or whatever, it actually undermines the relationship–because genuine relationships involve two real, vulnerable human beings. I don’t want my friends to be some ideal of the perfect friend; I value them because of who they are as real people.

    I don’t know what I think about this in the context of divine-human relationships. But I do wonder–if God always does the right thing, makes the ideal response, what does it mean to have a relationship with him in particular, as opposed to any other exalted being (who would presumably also always do the right thing)? Not that I necessarily think that God is sometimes getting it wrong. But I want a different way to think about this.

  23. As children we may think our parents are perfect and all powerful. We find as we get in our teenage years that they are anything but perfect and all powerful.

    As we get older and have children of our own we find out that our parents knew and know a lot and most have tried to do their best.

    The atonement is for all of us. Our children, and ourselves. The very nature of our experience here is that we will make mistakes. Even if we follow the guidance of the Holy Ghost in every thought and act, our children have experiences and thoughts that give them pause to evaluate thoughts and actions of their own and those around them. Their experiences can help them develop and obtain testimonies of their own.

    The thoughts I had as I read your experiences. I love that the atonement works for me each day. I hope your experience brings you closer to the saviour and to each other.

  24. my condolences, to you and your family


    As to your daughter, in the end you did the right thing, giving her comfort when she needed it and was confused and stressed and in a situation beyond her control. She is only seven …

    LRC has it right.

  25. I’ve been thinking about this beautiful post all week. I love how your family and extended family pulled together so M could be with her Dad. I love the depiction of exhaustion and married life and parenting.

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