Gordon B. Hinckley, “Four Simple Things to Help Our Families and Our Nations,” Liahona, Jun 1996, 3
Adapted from an address given on 5 March 1994 to the Washington, D.C. chapter of the Brigham Young University Management Society.
I have a profound feeling of gratitude for life in this remarkable age. What great technical progress has been made—in communications, in travel, in medicine, in conveniences for home and work. I stand in respect, almost reverence, for the men and women of science who have made life better for each of us.
When I was born, the life expectancy in the United States was 50 years. Today, it is 75 years. Is it not a thing of wonder that 25 years have been added to the average life span during this time? The same is happening in other areas of the world. I was 30 years of age when penicillin was discovered, followed by a variety of other miracle drugs.
You are familiar with these things. I simply remind us of them as an expression of gratitude. We have achieved technical miracles, but tragically we are experiencing a moral and ethical disaster. May I take you who are older back in memory to the homes of your childhood. I think that in many cases there was prayer in those homes; families knelt together in the morning and invoked the watchful care of God. At night they joined again in prayer. Something wonderful came of this. It is difficult to describe, but it did something for children. The very act of expressing gratitude to God, our Eternal Father, brought with it a feeling of respect, reverence, and appreciation. The sick were remembered in those prayers, as were the poor and the needy. The leaders in government were remembered in those prayers. This cultivated a spirit of respect for those in public office. Where is that respect today?
There was no uncouth or profane language heard in those homes. Civility and altruism were also taught in those days. A man recently sent me a recording of a talk given some years ago by Abner Howell who lived in my neighborhood. Belonging to a minority race, he had worked hard to achieve an education. He served as sergeant at arms for the Utah State Legislature. In that talk he expressed appreciation for the time when he was a boy in school and my mother helped him with his work and defended him against those who were taunting him. We were taught in our home that all of the people of the earth are sons and daughters of God. The color of their skin may be different, but their hearts and emotions are the same.
I would also like to say that it was unthinkable for us to go to school in sloppy attire. The first pair of long trousers I wore was for graduation from junior high school. Prior to that, like my friends, I wore short pants and long, black cotton socks. But they were neat and they were tidy. The mending of socks was a great chore, but it was an important chore.
We attended the public schools. My elementary school was named after American statesman Alexander Hamilton. My junior high school was named for United States president Theodore Roosevelt. We learned about these men. On February 12 we had a holiday for President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. On February 22 we had another holiday to honor President George Washington. Just before these holidays we had school programs in which we learned about “Honest Abe” and the boy George who admitted to chopping down his father’s cherry tree. Maybe there was little historical substance to some of those stories, but there was something of substance that came into our lives. We developed an appreciation for the principle of honesty. Today we have Presidents’ Day in the United States, but for many it has become primarily a play day.
We were taught respect for girls. We played games with them in the neighborhood. We had parties in our homes with boys and girls. Even as we grew older and went on dates, there was a certain wholesomeness about it and respect for the girls with whom we associated. Yes, society has made a lot of technical progress since those days, but we have also lost a tremendous reservoir of values.
Today there are fancier cars, yet we worry about car jacking and drive-by shootings. We have television and cable and all of their related paraphernalia, where entertainment, coarse in its nature, profane and obscene in its language, is poured into our living rooms. We dare not walk the streets of many cities at night. Crime has been listed as the most serious problem of our day. Using the United States only as an example, it is estimated that there are six million serious crimes a year committed in the land. Per capita crime increased 371 percent between 1960 and 1992. That is only 32 years. There were 23,760 murders in 1992, almost half the number of Americans killed during the entire Vietnam War.
Children killing children has become one of the tragic elements of society. Murder is the second-highest cause of death among youth. More money is constantly sought to hire more policemen and to build more prisons. I do not doubt that they are necessary. But I am rather confident they would not substantially alter the picture, because that is not getting at the roots of the problem.
Of course, these concerns are not peculiar to the United States. The same problems are being felt across the world. Yes, we are the beneficiaries of a technological revolution. There has been more of scientific discovery during my lifetime than during all of the centuries that preceded it. But in so many other areas, we are slipping into the jungle in terms of real civilization—at least in larger urban areas.
Now, I know that societies have always had crime and that they always will have crime, some of it, of course. Societies have had and will have pornography, immorality, and other problems. But we cannot continue the trend that we are presently experiencing without some kind of catastrophe overtaking us. We have, for instance, always had illegitimate births in society, and we likely always will have them. But we cannot tolerate an increase in this ugly social phenomenon without paying a terrible price. All of society pays for situations where there are fatherless children.
I am more concerned about the moral deficit in our nations than I am about their budget deficits, though that, too, is a most serious matter. Do societies need more policemen? I do not dispute it. Do societies need more prisons? I suppose so. But what they need, above all else, is a strengthening of the homes of the people. Every child is a product of a home. Societies are having terrible youth problems, but I am convinced that they have a greater parent problem. I am grateful that we of the Church have for a long time taught and are teaching and spending a substantial part of our resources to fortify the homes of our people.
I am glad for the conveniences of the modern home, but I am distressed by what is going on in our homes. It was recently reported that there are 800,000 or more violent incidents within families each year in the United States alone. The terrible divorce rate says something about the stability of a society’s homes. A troubled home inevitably leads to a generation of troubled children.
What can be done? We cannot effect a turnaround in a day or a month or a year. But I am satisfied that with enough effort we can begin a turnaround within a generation and accomplish wonders within two generations. That is not very long in the history of man. There is nothing any of us can do that will have greater longtime benefit than to rekindle wherever possible the spirit of the kind of homes in which goodness can flourish.
When I was a boy, we lived in the city during the school term and lived on a farm in the summer. On that farm we had an apple orchard and a peach orchard and various other trees. When we were in our early teens, my brother and I were taught the art of pruning trees. Every Saturday in February and March while snow was still on the ground, we would go out to the farm. We attended demonstrations put on by the agricultural college. I think we learned something about pruning as it was taught in those days. We learned, for instance, that you could prune a peach tree in February and in large measure determine the kind of fruit you would pick in September. The idea was to prune in such a way that the developing fruit would be exposed to air and sunlight, uncrowded as it occupied its place on the branch of the tree.
The same principle applies to children. There is an old and true proverb which says, “As the twig is bent, so the tree is inclined.” May I repeat a story I have told in general conference. Not long after we were married, we built our first home. We had little money, and I did a lot of the work. The landscaping was entirely my responsibility. The first of many trees that I planted was a thornless honey locust, and I envisioned the day when its shade would assist in cooling the house in the summer. I put it in a place at the corner where the wind from the canyon to the east blew the hardest. I dug a hole, put in the bare root, put soil around it, poured on water, and largely forgot it. It was only a wisp of a tree, perhaps three-quarters of an inch in diameter. It was so supple that I could bend it with ease in any direction. I paid little attention to it as the years passed. Then one winter day when the tree was barren of leaves, I chanced to look out the window at it. I noted that it was leaning to the west, misshapen and out of balance. I could scarcely believe it. I went out and braced myself against it as if to push it upright. But the trunk was now nearly a foot in diameter. My strength was as nothing against it. I took from my toolshed a block and tackle, attaching one end to the tree and the other to a well-set post. I pulled the rope. The pulleys moved just a little, and the trunk of the tree trembled slightly. But that was all. It seemed to say to me, “You can’t straighten me. It’s too late. I’ve grown this way because of your neglect, and I will not bend.”
Finally in desperation I took my saw and cut off the great heavy branch on the west side. I stepped back and surveyed what I had done. I had cut off a major part of the tree, leaving a huge scar about eight inches across and only one small branch growing skyward.
More than half a century has passed since I planted that tree. My daughter and her family now live there. I recently looked again at the tree. It is large, its shape is better, and it is a great asset to the home. But how serious was the trauma of its youth and how painful the treatment I had used to straighten it. When the tree was first planted, a piece of string would have held it against the forces of the wind. I could have and should have supplied that string with ever so little effort, but I did not. And it bent to the forces that came against it.
Children are like trees. When they are young, their lives can be shaped and directed, usually with ever so little effort. Said the writer of Proverbs, “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6). That training finds its roots in the home. There will be little of help from other sources. Do not depend on government to help in this darkening situation. Barbara Bush, wife of former United States president George Bush, spoke wisely when in Wellesley, Massachusetts, in 1990 she addressed the Wellesley College graduating class and said, “Your success as a family, our success as society, depends not on what happens at the White House, but on what happens inside your house.”
Religion can help and will do wonders. Religion is the great conservator of values and teacher of standards. Its message on values has been consistent through the ages. From the days of Sinai to the present, the voice of the Lord has been an imperative voice concerning right and wrong. In modern revelation, that voice has declared, “I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth” (D&C 93:40).
What, you may ask, can be done? The observance of four simple things on the part of parents would in a generation or two turn our societies around in terms of their moral values.
They are simply these: Let parents and children (1) teach and learn goodness together, (2) work together, (3) read good books together, and (4) pray together.
To the parents of young families I suggest:
1. Teach your children goodness. Teach them civility toward others. We have witnessed a situation beyond understanding as Yugoslavia dismembered itself into hateful groups killing one another. There seemed to be no sense of mercy; the innocent were gunned down without consideration. Why all of this? I believe it comes of the fact that for generations in the homes of that area, hatred has been communicated, hatred for those of ethnic roots other than one’s own. The terrible situation in that area is the bitter fruit of seeds of hatred sown in the hearts of children by the previous generation.
There is no need in any land for conflict between diverse groups of any kind. Let there be taught in the homes of people that we are all children of God, our Eternal Father, and that as surely as there is fatherhood, there can and must be brotherhood. Let there be taught respect for womanhood and manhood. Let every husband speak with respect, kindness, and appreciation for his wife. Let every wife look for and speak of the virtues of her husband. President David O. McKay was wont to say that a man could do no greater thing for his children than to let them see that he loves their mother.
Is this old-fashioned? Of course it is. It is as old as truth itself. Quarreling families are only an expression of the sophistry of the devil.
Let parents teach their children the sanctity of sex, that the gift of creating life is sacred, that the impulses that burn within us can be and must be disciplined and restrained if there is to be happiness, peace, and goodness. Let there be instilled in the mind of every young man the great salient fact that every young woman is a daughter of our Eternal Father and that in offending her he not only demonstrates his own weakness but also offends his God. Let him understand that to sire a child brings a responsibility that will last as long as he lives.
Let the truth be taught by example and precept—that to steal is evil, that to cheat is wrong, that to lie is a reproach to anyone who indulges in it. If we are to put civility back into civilization, the process must begin in the home with parents, while children are very young. It will not happen otherwise.
2. Work together. I do not know how many generations or centuries ago someone first said, “An idle mind is the devil’s workshop.” Children need to work with their parents, to wash dishes with them, to mop floors with them, to mow lawns, to prune trees and shrubbery, to paint and fix up, to clean up, and to do a hundred other things in which they will learn that labor is the price of cleanliness, progress, and prosperity. There are too many youth who are growing up with the idea that the way to get something is to steal it.
Graffiti would soon disappear if those who spray it on had to clean it off. I still remember an experience during my first year in high school. I was eating lunch with some other boys. I peeled a banana and threw the peeling on the ground. Just at that moment the principal walked by. He asked me to pick up the banana peeling. I say he asked—there was a certain steely firmness in his voice. I got off the bench on which I was sitting and picked up the banana peeling. I put it in the trash can. There was other litter around the can. He told me that while I was picking up my own trash, I could pick up the trash of others. I did it. I have never thrown another banana peeling on the ground.
3. Read good books together. I regard television as perhaps the greatest tool yet created to teach and educate people in large numbers. But I decry the filth, the rot, the violence, and the profanity that spew from television screens into our homes. It is a sad commentary on our societies. The fact that the television set is on six or seven hours every day in many homes says something of tremendous importance. I feel sorry for those who are addicted to the tube. I believe it is an addiction. It becomes a habit as pernicious as many other bad habits. I feel sorry for parents who do not read to their young children. I feel sorry for children who do not learn the wonders to be found in good books, or how stimulating an experience it is to get into the mind of a great thinker as that person expresses himself or herself, with language cultivated and polished, concerning great and important issues.
I read once that Unites States president Thomas Jefferson grew up on the magnificent phrases of the King James Bible. As we continually study the scriptures, what an opportunity it is not only to walk with great people, even to walk with the Lord Himself, but also to read and savor the majestic language of the prophets of old as that language was translated into words and phrases that are beautiful and powerful and moving.
If we could follow a slogan that says, “Turn off the TV and open a good book,” we would do something of substance in strengthening another generation. Do not misunderstand: There are so very many things of value that come over television, but we must be selective and not be as dumb, driven slaves to the trash of many writers and producers.
Recently, a man sent me a book. He is a doctor of philosophy in a great university. He told me that reading that book had become a significant experience in his life. I read it. It is the story of a boy in Paris who, in an accident, was blinded at the age of eight. It is an account of how when darkness surrounded him, there came a new light into his life. When he was 16 or 17, the Germans conquered France and German soldiers marched into Paris. This blind boy, a brilliant student, organized a resistance group. He and his associates ran an operation for getting information and circularizing it with a little newspaper they printed on a duplicator. The effort grew until they were distributing more than 250,000 copies an issue. Then he was betrayed by a member of the group, arrested, and sent to Buchenwald. There in filth and despair he lived with similar victims. He could not see, but there was a light within him that rose above the tragedy of his circumstances. He survived as a leader among those in that foul camp. The little newspaper he started became a great newspaper. I read that book and was lifted and strengthened by the story of that remarkable young man. If you cannot find good heroes and heroines for your children on television, help your children find them in good books.
4. Finally, pray together. Is prayer such a difficult thing? Would it be so hard to encourage fathers and mothers to get on their knees with their little children and address the throne of Deity to express gratitude for blessings, to pray for those in distress as well as for themselves, and then to ask it in the name of the Savior and Redeemer of the world? How mighty a thing is prayer. Of that I can testify and to that you can testify. How tragic the loss for any family that fails to take advantage of this precious and simple practice.
These are vital issues concerning parents and children. Let us teach and learn goodness together, work together, read good books together, pray together. These things can be done notwithstanding the frenetic pressures of our lives. They can be done with children and particularly when children are small. Sometimes it may seem too late when they are in their teens. Yet, remember my thornless locust tree. Surgery and suffering brought about something beautiful, whose later life has provided welcome shade from the heat of the day.
I encourage you as one who has been ordained to the holy apostleship and to the calling I now hold. That sacred office is not given as a bestowal of honor. It is given with the responsibility to bless, encourage, strengthen, and build faith in things good and things divine. In the authority of that priesthood, my brethren and sisters, I bless you, that each of you, each of us, feeble as our efforts may seem to be, may become a factor for good in capturing the spirit of goodness in our homes and in recapturing it for our nations.