"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
May 1, 2014
My Laurel Has a Mean Mom
by Cyndie Swindlehurst


I am the Laurel advisor in my ward. One of my Laurels has a mother who is very demanding. She compares my Laurel to other, prettier, more popular girls, and tells her she should try to be more like them.

This mother seems incapable of appreciating her smart, thoughtful, kind and sincere daughter. She even buys her too-small clothes to “motivate” her to lose weight. She says that if her daughter loses a dress size in two weeks, she can have the new clothes as a reward. That’s not healthy! This girl is not even overweight!

This poor young woman seems so deflated all the time, and it kills me. I have always thought my calling involved supporting what my girls’ parents do at home, but I don’t want any part of this mother’s approach to parenting.

What can I do?


You are not the only youth leader who wishes she could change the home life of someone in her class. It is difficult to watch a young person struggle to get along in a bad home situation or with a parent who seems unreasonable or cruel. It is also difficult when you know that correct doctrine is not taught or supported — or even that it is openly contradicted — in the home.

However, no matter how much you dislike what you see happening in the home or between this girl and her mother, you cannot fix it. You cannot change family dynamics. You cannot change parenting style. You cannot change the mother’s attitude towards popularity and slenderness. You cannot compel the mother to adopt different priorities or a different opinion of her daughter.

Your calling is to help your Laurel keep the commandments, strengthen her faith and prepare for the temple, no matter what her family situation. Handbook 2, section 10.1.

You have no stewardship over this mother and no jurisdiction to approach her about her parenting. Even if you had an excellent relationship with this mother, you would have to think long and hard about interfering in her family.

Any interference would almost certainly cause further problems between you and the mother, between the mother and daughter, and between you and the daughter (who might feel betrayed).

Your job is to support this family in the good things they do — and they must have their good points — not to criticize their defects. See Handbook 2, section 10.2. But that does not mean you have to openly agree with their priorities or defend their behavior.

So when the daughter describes the mother’s upsetting behavior, you can look surprised, dismayed, alarmed or sympathetic. You can pleasantly disagree with the mother or say you see things differently. You can empathize. But you cannot tell this girl that her mother is mean, shallow, materialistic, crazy or overly demanding.

Why? Because nothing good can come of it.

First, you would be setting a bad example by insulting another ward member. Second, you could offend the daughter’s sense of family loyalty and destroy her trust in you. Third, knowing your low opinion of her mother might make the girl feel even worse. Fourth, a good relationship between you and this girl cannot be built on the foundation of mutual dislike of her mother.

If this daughter decides her mother is mean or crazy, let her get there on her own; she should not look back in ten years and think that you are the one who convinced her that her mom was nuts.

Also, whatever you say will probably be repeated (in a nastier tone of voice) to this girl’s mother — either to insult the mother or to try and bond with the mother by insulting you — and the issue will then become you and your meddling, and not the problems between the mother and daughter.

So if you have anything negative to say about this mother or her parenting, take it to the Young Women president or the Bishop. Not to anyone else. But realize that they can’t make this mother do anything, either.

You should also remember that there is always another side to every story. This mother’s behavior may not be as bad as you think. Mothers, after all, are responsible to help their children get along socially and to be physically healthy. It is possible that this mother’s suggestions to her daughter were well founded and tactfully made.

For example, if your Laurel mopes around the house complaining that she has no friends and moaning that she wants to lose 15 pounds, her mother might reasonably have suggested that she be more friendly, like Betsy, or play tennis, like Tess. The smaller-clothes-as-motivation might have been your Laurel’s own idea, or it might be what her mother does when she wants to slim down.

(I actually know women who buy too-small clothes as “motivation.” I’ve never seen it work, though. I think tight clothes make a person feel worse, and therefore more likely to seek consolation in donuts.)

It is also possible that this girl is inventing or exaggerating a conflict with her mother because it garners sympathy and attention with you and her classmates. She would not be the first person to try and make friends by creating a conflict for everyone to discuss and worry about.

But even if this mother is as difficult as you think she is, there is nothing you can do to change this young woman’s situation. You can’t change her family or her mother. What you can do is work to strengthen her faith and knowledge, to support her as she works through her problems, and to encourage her as she makes goals for her life.

First, you can teach true doctrine. Exposure to true doctrine cuts through confusion and wrong ideas. If you feel your Laurel is being exposed to wrong ideas about what makes her worthwhile and which personal qualities are commendable, you should counter them with true doctrine.

Your goal is to give this Laurel — all your Laurels — the information she needs to correctly evaluate situations and make wise choices. The frequent study of true doctrine will put her in the proper frame of mind to think about her situation accurately, and to see her mother’s demands for what they are. It will also give her the wisdom to know how to respond to her mother.

Remember that this is not something you can do for this Laurel. Only she can decide what to do.

Second, you can fortify this Laurel with love and acceptance. Your love and acceptance will not overcome any discouragement she feels for not measuring up to her mother’s expectations. But it will strengthen her and create an atmosphere in which you can successfully teach, support and encourage her.

Third, you can set a good example for your Laurels. You are not their friend. You are their teacher. You are an example of how a member of the Relief Society behaves. They are always watching you and learning from you, whether or not you are speaking to them or know they are watching.

So treat people with love and compassion. Be patient and kind. Treat regular and friendless people as well as you treat pretty and popular people. Do not make negative comments about your or anyone else’s physical appearance, even if that person is a stranger or famous.

Make goals for yourself that are not based on your physical appearance and encourage your Laurels to do the same. Make sure that most of your compliments to them are based on their positive characteristics, not on their looks. And when you compliment this Laurel, also mention the compliment to her mother, so the mother will know the nice things that you notice and appreciate about her daughter.

And approach your own problems by asking what you can do to improve your situation, instead of blaming others for imposing them on you.

Finally, if your Laurel is in actual, physical danger, speak up immediately. If her mother gives her a two-week supply of ephedra, Ex-Lax and Diet Coke so she can lose weight before prom, for example, you absolutely must intervene.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!

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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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