Cory Shirts works as a software engineer in the metro Detroit area. He served a mission to Frankfurt Germany, later studying at the University of Utah, graduating with a Bachelors degree in Computer Engineering and a Bachelors in German. A student of leadership, he loves to find and apply gospel truths to bless others, no matter where they are found. He and his wife have three children.
One of the wonders of General Conference is how one theme can stand out prominently to one person and to the next it can appear as a small footnote to their overall experience, if they even remember it at all.
Elder Uchtdorf’s address titled “Jesus Christ Is the Strength of Parents” was a resonating one for me. Being in the throes of parenting, while my wife and I homeschool our children, it feels cliché to even bring this up. However, the principles of leadership and ministering, along with most other parts of the gospel seem condensed into times of parenthood. Wherever you find yourself in life, I hope you can connect with these words.
Every Path Unique
It was never my intention to set out to be a part of homeschooling my kids. My experience growing up included absolutely no awareness of this lifestyle, and my overall experience with traditional schooling options was positive. Also, my personality disinclined any desires to buck any established system and pursue alternative options in life. Just like the electrons I work with in my embedded systems, I like to go with the flow. My wife simply promoted the idea, and after reading about homeschooling for myself, I wanted to be part of the adventure.
My intention is not to persuade about the virtues of choosing to homeschool, and I will resist the urge to vent about all the well-intentioned souls who seem to go out of their way to communicate that homeschooling is not a good option. One can learn quickly in our diverse world that each soul’s path of discipleship is unique, one gospel application that helps one family thrive might lead another to have frayed relationships.
My goal here is to proclaim some of the good news of parenthood, that opportunities abound to find joy. If parenthood is a condensed gospel experience, then homeschooling to me is like an essential oil, an even more intense, concentrated version. I would never claim to have it all figured out, and I seem to be learning the same lessons over and over. There are, however, some principles that have accompanied me during this time and served to enrich my family.
Growth Comes to Those Who Seek
As a youth, I frequently listened to a sister on my home teaching route who had some strong ideas about learning. She told proudly about her son who was self-taught in many areas and gainfully employed. She insisted that formal classroom environments were not essential for learning, and that independent learning is possible.
In my inexperience, I remember feeling threatened by this idea, for I was prospering academically in high school, and the thought of learning things on my own without the support of a teacher seemed scary. If I tried to learn on my own, I was sure to encounter frustration and failure. Two F’s among others that I was doing everything I could to avoid, so these feelings were to be avoided in favor the safety of what I knew. T
his mindset partially survived into my adulthood, despite an education that taught me the value of asking questions and seeking better understanding. I found myself at times feeling the need to wait for a class or training to be organized, or for some teacher to give me permission in order to learn something new. There were also times at church where I would sit passively, hoping that the Spirit would reveal to me some gospel truths that I had not even tried to study.
Homeschooling opened my eyes to the sense of hope that accompanies curiosity. All one needs to start learning is the curiosity to ask questions, and the courage to nourish that curiosity by seeking the answers. There is a power in asking questions. (Matthew 7:7-11, 2 Nephi 28:30)
Repetition Brings Strength
The cycle is continuous, we encounter situations in life that stretch us to the limits of our comfort zone, with the best of intentions we set out to get it right. Yet it doesn’t work out, the wrong words are spoken, someone gets hurt, or our abilities seem to be stagnant, and the frustration brings one to question why they even tried in the first place. Then there is the recovery time, one retreats and licks their wounds, working up the courage to try again.
One helpful thing about being in a homeschool family is the endless opportunity to try again and master what you are trying to learn. When the kids get a problem wrong on an assignment, it is not an imperfect grade on their record. My wife uses the errors as a focus area for the next attempt, and they try again until they have demonstrated mastery. It’s not about getting it perfect the first time, this includes second, third, fourth time, and beyond. It is just part of the process to try again.
This also applies to our relationships. As homeschoolers we are around each other most of the day, it is guaranteed that someone is going to lose the last thread of patience, get upset, feel forgotten, and even say or do something to hurt someone in some way. In those moments, it is so tempting to hide away in shame and avoid the situation. Yet there is true joy to be found in repentance, especially as we involve the Savior in helping to heal our relationships. In the long run, embracing the need to apologize and sincerely recommitting to do better is far less distressing than wallowing in shame or ignoring the problem. I’ve been on both ends, and the choice to embrace repentance always proves more fruitful.
Having the reflex of trying again can build resilience, lessening the time it takes to work up the courage to give it another go. It is an essential skill, not just for children. “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13) is not just something we say about our Savior to get through our day, but a rallying cry to exercise faith in Him.
Rules without Relationships Rarely Work
Perhaps all of us have had an experience in a setting where the rules were heavily emphasized, or the requirements of some program were to be followed strictly. The hope was that through helping others understand the rules, then working diligently to enforce them, we could ensure success for everyone. It is an emphasis on structure, which helps many to learn and thrive. It was the kind of structure that helped me thrive in school. I was able to see the structure as a means to achieve my goals. The rules were followed, even if they proved to be inconvenient.
We learn from experience that this approach doesn’t work for everyone. My wife and I at one time were encountering some difficulty in getting one of our kids to do schoolwork. Our methods of lecturing him about how he should follow the program and threatening him with consequences were met with an even more stubborn will. The same approach worked for our oldest child, who was not nearly as stubborn, and with whom we had a better relationship, was for some reason not working with him. It was a frustrating experience, especially for my wife, to feel like we needed to relearn some things we had presumed to be done with mastering.
There was no silver bullet, no quick transformation that helped the situation. My wife found that giving him more autonomy in how the work got done alleviated some of the conflict, but I realized that going forward I would need to focus more on being a better Dad to him. What this looked like was not a onetime heart to heart to encourage a better attitude, but a process of getting to know him.
Relationships vs Authority
As parents, church leaders, or managers in the workplace, people tend to depend too much on the virtue of the title to grant them a degree of authority. One hopes to use this authority to influence and make an impact, and with their new power to direct others, others will do it, right? Fortunately, having a title, and the opportunity to tell others what to do is only a small part of being a leader.
Adapting the words of King Benjamin in Mosiah 5:13,
“For how knoweth a leader the one whom he has not served, and who is a stranger unto him, and is far from the thoughts and intents of his heart?”
Doctrine and Covenants 121:37-44 teaches similarly about the need for those who lead. It is not optional, especially nowadays, to establish and maintain relationships of trust with those we lead. It may look different for everyone, but it does require our time to invest in these relationships.
The best way to describe what this looked like for me is to draw our minds to the commercials the Church put out where the invitation is to “Give your family everything, give them your time.”
Specifically, there is one where a dad and his kid are on their lawn staring up at the sky, conversing about something, pointing to clouds or planes, and just being together.
For investing in a relationship with my son, I found small deposits of time where we could talk about anything, play a video game together, or do something else we enjoyed. I was also curious and started asking him random questions about his interests, hoping to gain insight into who he was and how he ticked.
A Righteous Influence
This investment in a relationship has paid its dividends for my son, though small deposits still have to be made regularly. School is still one of his least favorite things most of the time, but the struggles to ask him to do the work we request of him have abated. There is a trust and a love there that give his parents a righteous influence into his life, leading him to do things which encourage growth.
Another dividend was him opening up to me about the struggles in his life. They seemed like normal struggles for a kid his age, but this was a golden opportunity for me to be there to encourage him through this time and be a cheerleader. This was evidence of trust, brought about by the willingness to be present in his life and just listen.
I witnessed similar things during my time serving as Elder’s Quorum President. There was a willingness of certain people to open up to me that I had not expected. It seemed to come with the willingness to ask questions and taking the time to listen.
During the height of covid restrictions, in our homeschooling bubble, it was more or less business as usual for our school. Yet, many parents at this time got an unexpected taste of compulsory homeschooling, many of them seemed overwhelmed. Generally, it seemed to be less a matter of finding the time in their schedules, but more of a question of how one passes on knowledge to those they are responsible for teaching.
Some advice I now realize I could have given was that investing in the foundation of a relationship can do more than all the experience of a skilled teacher. Having someone who cares about you and your journey is more motivating than someone who is only interested in enforcing rules or getting their job done. If a parent, leader, or teacher has that kind of relationship, it will help the learner perform better than the best schedules or set of rules ever could, even if the one who is trying to teach is learning the topic with the student or is not eloquent in their teaching.
Elder Uchtdorf’s message to parents was one of helping parents and leaders to keep their sights lifted up towards the Savior. There are experiences, including parenting, whose vicissitudes can lead our eyes away from Him, and we then forget our strength. I am grateful for messages like these, that invite us to reorient our eyes on Him, reminding us of the simple gospel principles that can renew that strength.