As a young girl, motherhood was the substance of my dreams. I longed for the day when I would have a houseful of cute and chubby babies to snuggle. At some point in my teenage years, I decided that eight kids would be ideal because my favorite families were the ones with eight kids, big homes, and lots of stuff happening at any given moment. To seal the deal, I wrote a list of names I thought would be perfect for my future children, complete with the order of girls and boys. I would have a boy first, of course, because I had long wished for an older brother who would allow me to tag along with him and his handsome friends, at least one of whom would look like the dreamy Christian Bale in the Disney musical, Newsies.
When I arrived at Brigham Young University just one month after high school graduation, deciding on a major was agonizing because the future I pictured for myself did not include a career. A college degree was something I desperately wanted, but only to compliment the work of motherhood and family life I had aspired to for as long as I could remember. After months of prayer, internal debate, and priesthood blessings, I decided to pursue a degree in Family Science. My main goal was to learn as much as I could about creating and maintaining a strong family to prepare myself for future success and happiness when I married and had children.
As fate would have it, I did not have to wait long for Prince Charming to sweep me off my feet. We met, dated for a few months, and became inseparable friends during my junior year of high school. He left on his mission halfway through my senior year and, with two years of weekly letters under our belts, we got married shortly after his homecoming, one month after my 20th birthday. We were young, naïve, and poor as church mice, but life was simple and happy.
As I prepared for the arrival of my first baby, who was born three weeks before I finished my Family Science degree, I reflected on the years of study behind me. I had read the research about successful families, written the papers, studied the theories and, as a result, felt reasonably prepared for any challenge this child or future children would throw my way. I could already see the well-behaved, well-mannered gaggle of Sheppard children alongside their calm and grounded parents who never yelled or lost their cool. I could hear them happily saying, “Yes, mother,” when I asked them to do something, whistling as they worked. Of course, they would never consider arguing, fighting, talking back, or throwing a fit if they did not get their way. When I dreamed about the future, a peaceful home with obedient and faithful children was all I could see.
Why didn’t anybody warn me that God had a sense of humor? He must have been smiling that November evening when the nurse placed a wriggling bundle into my confident arms. I imagine He watched closely as Greg and I took our new son home, excited to begin our lives as a family of three. I believe He observed from His heavenly throne as we took turns walking the halls of our apartment all through that first full night of parenthood, trying to console a crying baby who refused to be comforted. I have no doubt that He knew of my perfect plans and decided to chuckle and send me the exact challenges I was sure my education would qualify me to avoid.
Thus, my dreams of idyllic motherhood were dashed before they ever got off the ground. Rather than easing into family life by snuggling with a content newborn, I was thrown into a graduate-level parenting experiment with a baby who screamed for the first nine months of his life. From the earliest hours of his mortal existence, he wanted things his way, no matter what. When things fell short of his expectations, he cried. And howled. And screeched. When we tried to comfort him by holding him close, he arched his back as if he were trying to escape, and continued his piercing song of distress.
At 21 years old, I had no idea how to handle this unexpected turn of events. The reality of life with a newborn was not at all what I had pictured. Research papers and psychological theories had not adequately prepared me for the physical and emotional rigor this baby demanded. To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. Of course, I loved my son with my whole heart, but my confidence waned after weeks that melted into months of persistent and often inconsolable crying, followed by years of behavior that tested my patience to the very edge of its limits and beyond.
As my baby grew into toddlerhood, his determination increased. Every day, he would stand on a kitchen chair to play with a nearby light switch. Upon seeing him there, I would pull him away from the chair and try to redirect him to something else. But, as soon as I turned around, he was back on the chair playing with the switch. If I moved the chair to discourage him, he would scream and push it back to the position he wanted it. And then we would start again; day after day, and week after week. Even before he could verbalize it, “I will always get my way,” and “You are not the boss of me,” were his unfailing mantras.
In those early years, I could not take him anywhere unless he was confined because he would run off and not look back. When I tried to take him to the library for story time, he pulled stacks of books off the shelves and screamed when I tried to put them away. While I cleaned up his mess, he ran off to find the drinking fountain and proceeded to play in the water until he was soaked through. When I tried to put him in the stroller, he threw a massive fit. I hurried to my car with a wet and out-of-control toddler and gave up my dream of attending story time. I avoided the library and the quiet and well-behaved children therein for several more years.
I knew better than to attempt the grocery store with him but sometimes, it was inevitable. One particular day when he was two years old, I took him and his baby brother shopping because I was in a bind. The oldest loudly and profusely protested when I put him in the cart. Wanting to keep the peace, I let him walk. Not surprisingly, he ran away. I hurried after him, cart and baby in tow, catching up to him just in time to see him climbing shelves and tossing food onto the floor. I pulled him down and returned the boxes to their rightful place. He screamed. I opened a box of crackers to keep him quiet. He ate two crackers and ran away again. After several more minutes of this, we finally arrived at the checkout. Wiping perspiration off my face, I felt like I had run a marathon. While I paid, my fearless toddler ran out the door. Two older ladies behind me shook their heads. “I have no idea how she does it,” was the last thing I heard before I sprinted after my him, carrying my baby and leaving my groceries at the register. I did my shopping when he could stay home with Greg from that time forth.
The part of me that thought I knew how to be a good mother soon vanished underneath layer upon layer of inadequacy and self-doubt. My young children and, by extension, my life usually felt out of control. We hit rock bottom when I was pregnant with my fourth baby and Greg was in his last months of dental school. I vividly recall the day when my willful son, then six years old, looked at me with rage in his eyes and repeatedly screamed the phrase, “I wish I were dead!” because I would not give him something he wanted. A few weeks prior, he had spit in my face when he did not get his way. We had to remove everything but furniture from his bedroom because he threw books and toys at the walls when he got upset, sometimes leaving holes in the sheetrock. Then, when we attempted to restore order, he threatened to run away and live with his friend Jimmy because we apparently did not love him.
It is not difficult to discern why I had a headache that lasted for that entire pregnancy and several months thereafter. The stress and worry were, at times, crushing. Day after day, I attempted to mold little souls who felt more like brick walls than soft clay. And night after night, I crawled into bed feeling like a failure. I questioned my abilities by the minute. Why, when I had dreamed my whole life of being a mother, and had chosen to devote my entire soul to this calling, could I not successfully teach my children to be kind? To listen? To obey? Why were my kids nearly impossible to manage when most others I knew were relatively easy-going and adaptable? Would they grow up to hate me forever? Did I bring this upon myself? Why did Heavenly Father send me these particular kids? I don’t think I am the best one for this job.
Fear was my constant companion, though I did not realize it then. I was merely trying to survive the rigors of life with a houseful of young and willful kids. But, looking back, it was fear, not my kids’ strong personalities and challenging behavior, that was my enemy. When push came to shove, fear of failing as a mom – of failing my kids – of failing the Lord was almost tangible as I muddled through day after day of motherhood. If I could not succeed in raising kids who were capable of doing what God had sent them to Earth to accomplish, where would that leave me? And, if I failed, what would happen to my children? Would they lead lives of sin and delinquency? I could already see them looking out from behind prison bars, cursing my name.
One summer day in 2003, I had a conversation with a friend whose kids were slightly younger than mine. My oldest was almost five and kindergarten was approaching. Over the course of an afternoon, my friend almost convinced me that homeschool was the answer to all of my problems. This was in the days before homeschooling gained popularity but, as I listened to her talk about the millions of ways kids could get into trouble in middle school and high school, my heart grew heavy. I wondered if I could protect my little ones from the inevitable storms of life by educating them in my home instead of sending them into the temptation-filled halls of a public school. But, at that time, the thought of homeschooling was simply too much. I could barely manage to get everybody through the day in one piece when we were not worrying about education. I knew I could not reasonably place myself among the hall of homeschooling rock stars under those conditions.
When I returned home from that meeting, a dark cloud hung over me. I wondered how I could possibly take these strong-willed children that God had entrusted in my care and adequately prepare them to face the challenges they would inevitably face as they grew. That goal seemed unreachable because I could not even manage to teach them to listen to me without losing their cool in a spectacular fashion. How could I possibly teach them to listen to and follow God?
That night, I poured out my heart to the Lord in prayer, tears falling down my cheeks in quiet streams, puddling on my bed as I knelt beside it. I told Him how ill-equipped I felt to prepare my kids to face and overcome the confusion and temptations that were multiplying with each passing year. I explained that I wanted to protect them from evil, but didn’t know if I was up to the challenge.
Then, soft and sweet, yet clear as day, this thought permeated my mind, “You have no idea how strong your kids are. I reserved them to come to earth at this time because of their incredible strength.”
As I wiped my tear-stained cheeks, the Spirit enveloped me like a blanket. Peace pushed fear aside, and I caught a glimpse of the strong and noble spirits whom the Lord had seen fit to send to me. They were warriors in a fallen world, equipped with power from their heavenly home locked deep within their souls, waiting to be discovered and nurtured. They were prepared by heavenly parents in a former time and place to meet the adversary in all of his fury, and to help prepare the world for the return of the Savior. They had stood firmly against incredible opposition once before and were on earth now to do it again, despite the growing tide of evil.
And yet, with my finite eyes, I could not see my children as weathered soldiers. Instead, I saw unyielding determination in its raw and unschooled form. I saw frustration. I saw challenge. I saw endless days of power struggles, leaving me exhausted and defeated. But God, who knows all things, saw, in those same impossible young children, strength to accomplish His purposes and faith to do His will.
That night, as I knelt beside my bed, my fear shrunk into the shadows of a heavenly perspective. For a brief moment, I saw my children in the light of potential. Even with a glimpse into their eternal natures, however, the storms of life did not cease. I still had daily struggles that grew in intensity. I tried to teach kids who thought they were always right and who collapsed into spectacular tantrums when they could not call the shots. I still fell into bed exhausted at the end of each day, frustrated with my lack of progress in molding unrefined determination into something resembling civility. Greg and I had no long-term parenting plan other than survival and, some days, the fact that we were all still alive was a feat. Although I knew my kids had potential to accomplish great things, most days, reality fell far below the mark of greatness and I worried about how I could possibly fill the gap. Thankfully, the Lord put people in my path who helped me see the forest over the trees.
One crisp fall day in 2005, Greg came home from his pediatric dental residency program with a stack of parenting books in his arms. He had spent the day at a conference with other pediatric dentists and residents who had gathered to hear a parenting presentation by a popular family psychologist, author, and speaker. Because the dentists spent their careers working with parents and their kids, it made sense for a parenting expert to speak to them. At that time, we were neck deep in child-rearing mud. We had yet to figure out how to bring out the best in our fiercely determined children and spent a majority of our time trying to keep our heads above water while the kids clearly ran the show.
As Greg laid the stack of books on the table next to me, he excitedly told me about his epiphany. “These books hold the answer to all of our parenting problems. You simply must read them.”
Having read approximately one million parenting books that claimed to have the solution to my child-rearing woes, all of which fell short in a massive way, I was skeptical. I had given up hope that any book held the answers to help my children who seemed to be beyond help. But I was desperate, and these books were sitting right in front of me. Setting aside my doubts, I dug into a new and unfamiliar world of parenting wisdom. With each chapter, it became clearer that these books did, indeed, hold the answers we had been praying for all these years. They taught me how to be a good leader in my home, how to communicate effectively with my kids, how to discipline with love and common sense, how to create a marriage-centered family, and how to raise responsible, respectful, resourceful kids who could tackle the rigors of life. For the first time in years, I saw the light of hope and started to believe I could be successful at this parenting gig.
Around that same time, I began to observe several young adults who struggled to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. In many cases, they played hours of video games each day but had a hard time holding steady jobs. They lacked work ethic and retreated in the face of hardship. They had not developed a foundation of basic life skills, which led to poor decision-making. And, often times, well-meaning and loving parents rescued them from the consequences of their choices, which inevitably led to more of the same. Soon enough, both parties were trapped in a hamster wheel of blurry boundaries, enabling, manipulation, guilt, and frustration, from which it was difficult to escape.
After watching those situations unfold from afar, I desperately wanted my kids to walk a path of self-sufficiency. I loved them fiercely, but I did not want them to be forever dependent on me. I wanted them to feel confident in themselves and their abilities to navigate the ups and downs of life. I wanted to give them wings to fly and the skills to make that possible, and I made an internal commitment to do whatever it took to get them to that point.
Armed with a new parenting paradigm and the fruits of our observation, Greg and I decided to create a child-rearing plan that extended beyond the realm of daily survival. We discussed the future and pictured the adults we wanted our kids to become and, from there, came up with a vision to guide our daily decisions, lest we get lost in daily battles and struggles. After some deliberation, we agreed that we wanted to raise responsible, respectful, resilient, hard-working, independent, faithful, kind young adults who loved God and others. And then, we set out to make our vision into reality.
That was a turning point in our family. Instead of flying by the seat of our pants, we now had a goal. Knowing we could not reach our goal by allowing our kids to walk all over us, we established boundaries. Because we had a vision of where we were going, it was easier to lead well and stand firm in the face of pushback. Over time, we started to see improvement in our kids’ behavior. In addition to improved behavior, the kids, with our help, began to develop skills which boosted their competence and confidence. We finally saw a sliver of light at the end of a long tunnel, and our parental confidence increased.
15 years of ups and downs on the roller coaster of parenthood have passed since then, leaving behind a trail of learning and growth too deep and wide to quantify. Difficult stages that threatened to break us eventually melted into sweet seasons of understanding and joy. It has been a steep and rocky journey, but, somehow, we are still standing. Still learning. Still pressing forward in this vital work of raising and rearing a chosen generation.
We are now beginning to see the fruits of our labors as we send our young adults into the world. Two have left home, with three following closely on their heels. While imperfect, they have developed into top-notch humans who do their best, get up when they fall, and keep walking when the path takes an uphill turn. They love God, they love people, and they are learning what it means to face the world with confidence and faith. Watching and participating in their evolution over the years has been one of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of my life.
While we are not finished raising our children just yet, the past 21 years of parenthood have convinced me that the generation of young people who are growing up at this time are the cream of the crop. They came to earth armed with raw strength and determination but, in order to accomplish their foreordained missions, they need to develop the skillset necessary to thrive in the face of opposition and stand firmly among the faithful. Faith alone, though a vital piece of the equation, will not be enough. And you and me, as parents in these latter days, are the ones whom the Lord has charged with the responsibility of teaching, training, and preparing our kids for the battles they will face, both now and in the future. If we focus solely on faith but fail to teach them how to navigate the battlefield, follow their commanders, communicate with their fellow soldiers, persist in the face of hardship, or wield a sword, they will be vulnerable to the enemy’s attacks.
As a mother who has been through the parenting gauntlet, I have learned a thing or two in the fire of difficult experience. I have studied and observed what is happening on a societal level in the parenting community. I have heard the blaring cultural messages that loving parents do whatever they can to ease their children’s frustration and make them happy. And, through observation, I have seen the end result of all this parental doing, fixing, managing, and trying to make kids happy at all costs, which falls short of the internal commitment I made to raise kids who are prepared to face the world.
While I believe in the youth of today with my whole heart, I sometimes see them struggle to step up to the plate of responsibility. I see them internalize failure and shy away from hard things instead of facing them with confidence. I see them crumble under the weight of stress. Many of them lack integral life skills they need to navigate the difficulties of life – skills that our culture is not doing a great job of teaching. Not only that, but there are many current parenting trends that, when followed, make it difficult to fully prepare our kids to thrive when they leave our homes. Consequently, I have chosen to walk a different path – one that I want to share with you.
I believe it is time for us, as parents, to awake, arise, and take our rightful place as the leaders of the most stalwart generation of young people the world has ever known. It is time to see them as who they really are – warriors for the cause of truth – and let them know, through word and action, that we believe in their goodness and their abilities. It is time to step back far enough to catch a glimpse of the big picture and how the adversary is working to undermine us as parents, giving him greater access to our children. It is time to have confidence in ourselves and our charge to prepare our kids both temporally and spiritually to accomplish their divinely-appointed missions.
Our parental responsibility cannot be understated, and there is much at stake. But I am confident we can succeed. Our kids can succeed. And the Lord is counting on us both.