Last Christmas our family went to the assisted-living center where Grandma lives to play Christmas music with my husband's nephew and his little family. We'd had such a good time playing bluegrass-style Christmas music and entertaining the residents that lived there. After the music was finished we went back to her small apartment for a little visit. Little William who was 7 then, sat studying the little figures Grandma placed underneath her TV. William said to me, "Gina--look. This elf isn't even trying that hard." When he repeated to the others what he had told me, the room erupted in laughter. The child was 7 and he knew what "not even trying very hard" looked like. It looked like this elf.
Children might be small and young, but they want to learn and they want to be good at things. Most want to do their best and excel in their school work, music lessons, and sports activities. Most kids know that it takes work to be good at something, to learn the song on the piano and play for the recital, or to score well on the math test. Children want to be good and they crave boundaries and guidelines to help them succeed at being good. They naturally seek limits and desire approval for a job well done. Honest children don't want praise for something they don't deserve and they're happy to congratulate their buddies.
Somewhere along the way our society got lost on its quest to be good and succeed. Our society has decided that winning and losing isn't fair to the ones losing and waters down the success of the winner. Participation trophies are given out to everyone, even if nothing was done to earn it. If everyone gets a trophy, then how does a trophy at all even mean anything to anyone? It doesn't. Only one team should get the winning trophy and nobody should get a trophy if they didn't help the team to win. It's actually good because the winners offer inspiration to others. If someone wants to win a gold medal in the Olympics, they'd better not be racking up the participation trophies.
I teach Sunday School with my daughter. Our class is made up of 15 kids that are 14 to 15 years old. They're really good kids. They respect and like each other and I'm impressed with the way they really do seem to care about each other. But, they like to talk. A lot. Sometimes it's hard to get them to settle down to give the lesson. We've been offering to make homemade cinnamon rolls if they would earn them. We've only been teaching their class for last two months and we wanted to bring them a homemade treat before the year ended, but we asked that they earn it by showing respect and really participating in the lesson. Last week, one boy even put it in his Google Calendar on his phone that today would be "cinnamon rolls in Sunday School day." The problem is, they didn't earn them.
Today this same boy saw us before Sunday School started. "Did you bring the cinnamon rolls?" he wanted to know. "I'm not coming if you didn't," he threatened.
I said, "okay, here is something for you to think about and then when you find out whether or not we brought the cinnamon rolls, maybe you'll understand. Do you think I'm a capitalist or a socialist? And, are you a capitalist or a socialist?" The poor kid said, "I don't have a clue what those words even mean."
Sunday School time had come and the kids were coming into the classroom. They wanted to know if we had the goodies. So I asked them, "do you think I'm a capitalist or a socialist?" They were confused. I said, "socialists want things they didn't earn just because they want them and they make threats when they don't get their way. Capitalists know that you only get what you earn--nothing more and nothing less, but if you work hard, you can be as successful as you like." They had the answer. We had not brought the treats. "You didn't earn them," my daughter explained. She added, "they take pretty much the whole day to make, so why would I spend my entire Saturday making something you didn't earn? The good news is you have one more chance since next week is our last week together as a class. Be good today and we get cinnamon rolls next week." The class participated, they were quiet and respectful, and humble even. It worked. Lesson learned.
Children were and are important to Jesus. He called for children to come and be blessed by him. He told his disciples to "let the little children come unto me," even though He was exhausted and had been ministering all day. I've often wondered what He might have said to those children on those occasions. It couldn't have been blessings and prayers only. It had to also have been positive encouragement, too.
Encouragement is part of ministering. We wouldn't take dinner to a sick friend and tell them scary stories about other people with their illness. No. We would take the lovely, hot, made-with-love meal to our friend and offer encouragement and positive words, expressing our faith and offering to pray for them, telling them they're not in this alone and offering our support.
I think sometimes we miss the encouragement part of ministering, especially to children. How many parents pay for lavish vacations and high-tech gadgets, but don't have family home evening or family prayer? Mothers won't stop to listen to the stories their children tell after school, but they spend hours talking on the phone to their friends. They spend hours on the PTA project, but don't read scriptures with their children. Parents can be so caught up in their own lives and responsibilities that don't even notice when something isn't quite right with their kids.
I think when Jesus blessed the children that He also told them, "you can do it! I believe in you! Keep working hard! It's good to be smart!" Why wouldn't He tell them that? In Section 93 of the Doctrine and Covenants it reads: "The glory of God is intelligence, or, in other words, light and truth." It also says, "But I have commanded you to bring up your children in light and truth."
What does this mean for parents? What it means is that parenting is not for the lazy. It's hard work if it's done right---downright exhausting to be honest. It means staying up all night to answer a confused child's questions if that's what is required. It means putting spouse first and children second and friends and neighbors are way down on the list after parents and other family. It means being an example of working hard, having worthy expectations of children, showing an outpouring of love and respect, and doing everything in our power to help children become who their Heavenly Father wants them to be. Because they are not our children---they are His. We have a responsibility to God for what we do with His children.
Making it back to live with God and Jesus is not impossible to do. But it doesn't just happen. I promise you that on Judgement Day, we will all not be rewarded with Celestial Glory as a "participation trophy" and God is not going to let us all in to the highest kingdom because He "doesn't want to hurt our feelings." He is God. He has laws and commandments that must be kept. He requires us to be worthy to enter His presence. He demands that we are clean. He's realistic. He knows we're not perfect and that we'll mess up and that is why He blessed the world with the gift of His Son all those many years ago on Christmas Eve, so that we could have a way to be redeemed, a way to repent, a way to be forgiven.
If we don't want to get a big, sad, sorry surprise on Judgement Day because the cinnamon rolls aren't being passed out to everyone, then we'd better start learning some hard lessons now. We won't be able to abide a celestial law for eternity if we can't abide one now for a few hours. How can we be expected to even be comfortable in that setting if we're uncomfortable keeping the commandments now? William knew that the little green elf wasn't trying that hard and why? Because his parents are teaching him that he needs to work for and earn what he wants in life and that it is possible to set and achieve goals. And it's good to be smart. It's a righteous desire to want to be intelligent.
While we're at it, let me make one more suggestion. We should really get rid of the term "over-achiever." It demonizes achievement. When was achieving anything a bad thing? If you set a goal, work hard, and make your dream come true, how is that over achieving? It's ACHIEVING. I think the term came from jealous people who never achieve anything at all. They had to find a way to make themselves feel better about all of their participation trophies so they came up with a way to shed a negative light on the hard work and sacrifice some people make to work hard to achieve great things and make their dreams come true. Let's remember that God is not a mediocre god. He is a god of excellence. He glories in intelligence, excellence, and achievement. It's the way the Gospel is set up. To reward those who trust Him, His Son, and His Plan, and work really hard to follow Him. It is possible. Christ showed how it is to be done. God doesn't play tricks. If He says we can do something, we ought to believe Him. The cinnamon rolls taste a whole lot better when they're earned.