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Why the advice about children from this Church leader in the 1970s is still relevant today

Before I start writing about LaVern Watts Parmley, who served 39 years in the Church’s Primary organization, I want to set the stage for some perspective.

When I sat down to talk with Sister Parmley in 1973, she had been the Primary general president for 22 years. I wrote my article about her on a typewriter. There were no computers in the Deseret News building, nor in Sister Parmley’s office. Neither of us had heard the words “internet” or “cellphone.” We knew nothing about “dot com” and if you had told us there was an app for just about everything we wanted to know about anything, we would have looked at you in puzzlement. The only games we knew about were the type taking place on playgrounds, ball fields or courts, or around boards in family living rooms. In other words, we existed in a time when we answered a ringing telephone and hung up when the conversation ended, and when “memory” was something we dredged up through brainpower. I could go on, but I think I’ve set the stage for what I want to say.

Looking back, I see that some of the things Sister Parmley said in 1973 apply just as much, if not more so, today.

LaVern Watts Parmley was a woman long in service of the Church, especially in serving children. Called to the Primary general board in 1941, she soon became second counselor to the organization’s president, Sister May Green Hinckley. She was called to serve as first counselor to Adele C. Howells in 1943, an office she held until she became Primary general president in 1951. She continued in that calling until she was released in 1974, at age 74.

During our interview, she talked about children and some of her concerns for them.

Sister LaVern Parmley during the general Primary conference in April 1959.
Sister LaVern Parmley during the general Primary conference in April 1959. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

“Children face more challenges, temptations and pressures today than they ever have before,” she said. “There is so much competition, even among small children. As a result of this competition, they feel they must excel.”

Remember, she said this in 1973.

She said she believed the competitiveness children felt was instigated by parents. “Some parents feel the lives of their children need to be ‘programmed.’ They fill every minute of the child’s day with something for the child to do. There are ball teams, dance classes, piano lessons. Children are involved with so many things they don’t have time to play like they used to.

“I feel that children today need more free time, but they also need guidance and direction. They need time to be children and playmates — not each other’s rivals.”

She made those comments before children knew anything about video games or social media and the bullying that accompanies it, raging nearly 24/7.

She emphasized that children need to feel secure, accepted and important when they are very young.

“There is a lot of emphasis these days on the needs of teenagers; parents are worried about reaching their teenagers, but the small children need parents to listen to them, too. Some parents feel that young children don’t have problems, but they do — they have many problems,” Sister Parmley said.

She referred to a survey conducted by a national women’s magazine. Children were asked what kind of parents they would like to have, if they could pick their parents. “Do you know what many of the children said they wanted their parents to be like?” she asked. She then said, “They didn’t say they wished their parents could afford nice homes, or they wanted their parents to buy things for them. The children said they wanted their parents to do things with them. Things like playing ball, with the mother pitching and the father catching, are important to children.”

In more recent times, a teacher asked children to write about the things their parents did that they liked. Year after year, the children wrote about playing outside, talking one on one, reading bedtime stories and weekends together.

Sister Parmley said the family home evening program could not be overemphasized. “This could be a way to let children in the family know that they are important. They could really talk about their problems and their feelings.”

Sister Parmley was associated with children in a responsible position all her life — even when she was a young girl. “I was raised with eight brothers. I was the next oldest in a family of 11 children; I didn’t get a sister until I was 16. I had a great responsibility, being next to the oldest, and the only girl for so long. We lived on a farm, and we worked in the beets during summer. I took over some of the direction in the home, helping mother.”

She had her first teaching job in the Church when she was 14 and was hired as a school teacher when she was 18. She taught until she married Thomas J. Parmley in 1923. He became a noted professor of physics at the University of Utah.

Sister LaVern Parmley served as Primary general president from 1951 to 1974.
Sister LaVern Parmley served as Primary general president from 1951 to 1974. Photo: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

They had two sons and a daughter, and she said that during their children’s growing-up years, their backyard often looked like a neighborhood playground. “All our children were very active. We had basketball hoops and volleyball nets set up, and our home was always filled with our children’s friends.” She and her husband often joined in a game of basketball or volleyball, adding to some excitement and delight of the youngsters.

Sister Parmley had many responsibilities besides those that came with being Primary general president. She received numerous honors and awards.

“I think my greatest joy has come from my association with the Primary Children’s Hospital,” she said. Her travels to many countries gave her great joy to see children who had returned from the Primary Children’s Hospital. “I’ve seen former patients, in their home countries, happy and dancing when they couldn’t walk before. I’ve seen their grateful parents and grandparents.”

Sister Parmley learned early in her life that little acts of kindness say a lot and go a long way. Even though busy with the responsibilities and travels, she found time to bake cookies and dozens of loaves of banana and apple bread to give to appreciative friends and neighbors. Almost daily, she wrote notes to various friends and acquaintances to let them know she was thinking of them.

A lot has changed since my interview with Sister Parmley in 1973, but some things, remarkably, are the same or very similar. I keep thinking of a saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” The wisdom she shared about children has, I think, endured the test of time and is worth reviewing.

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