Lehi and friend, on set
The LDS Sunday School curriculum for this year is the Book of Mormon. I will post short notes and commentary focusing on the scriptural text for the week, along with references to useful study aids. A particularly nice reference for the general reader is Studies in Scripture: The Book of Mormon, published by Deseret Book, which features bite-size essays by BYU religion faculty covering the entire Book of Mormon in sequential order. For example, the essay on 1 Nephi 1-7, "Answering the Lord's Call" by D. Kelly Ogden, gives some real nice geographical context and commentary in only 14 very readable pages.
So what about Lehi as a father? Even allowing that Laman and Lemuel were not model children, Lehi struggled. First, he played favorites, a real no-no for parents. When he was relating his version of the vision of the Tree of Life, he said, I have reason to rejoice in the Lord because of Nephi and also of Sam, but his comments to the older boys were Laman and Lemuel, I fear exceedingly because of you (1 Nephi 8:3-4). Telling a kid he's going to fail can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Second, he couldn't give a straight compliment to Laman or Lemuel. O that thou mightest be like unto this valley, firm and steadfast, and immovable in keeping the commandments of the Lord! (2 Nephi 2:9). In other words, too bad you're not as firm and steadfast as this valley, Lemuel. He says this right after Lemuel, along with the rest of the family, abandoned all his earthly possessions to follow his father into the wilderness (the ubiquitous Book of Mormon term for anything outside the city line; it's used over 200 times). If he'd gotten something besides backhanded compliments maybe he'd have grumbled less; ditto for Laman.
Seems like Lehi often fell into the "yes, but" trap. Yes it's nice you followed me into the desert, but you're still not steadfast enough to get my approval. Yes it's nice you're going back to risk your life in fetching the brass plates from mean Uncle Laban, but can't you be happier about it? Yes it's nice you got the top score of 95 on your math test, but I can't believe you missed problem 7! Nothing is ever good enough for "yes, but" parents. As a soccer coach, I saw a parent yell at his kid who just scored a goal. You see, the kid kicked it into the right side of the goal when there was actually more net on the left side. In the Church, this approach to managing members goes under the logo "lengthen your stride." Yes, it's nice you contributed five thousand dollars and ten hours a week to the Church last year, but there's so much more you can do if you really put your shoulder to the wheel. Nothing is ever good enough for these people.
Third, Lehi failed to correct Nephi's self-flattery and hubris, which left him without an effective moral compass when he needed it most. From an early age, of course, Nephi was convinced he was better than his brothers. He is convinced he will be a ruler and a teacher over his brethren, whereas they will be cut off from God's presence and smitten with a sore curse (1 Nephi 2:20-24). Instead of toning down Nephi's rhetoric, Lehi encouraged it by making Nephi his favorite son. Later, like Lord Jim hanging over the railing before abandoning his ship, Nephi faced a defining moment and failed--he chose to murder the helpless Laban and leave his bloody, naked corpse in the street rather than follow the utterly simple injunction Thou shalt not kill. If God had wanted Laban dead He would have smitten him Himself, and Nephi would have stumbled upon a dead Laban rather than a drunken one. For the gripping account of this episode, a model example of rationalization and of the dangers of thinking every whisper in your ear is God talking to you, see 1 Nephi 4:7-20.
Concluding, let's not forget that Nephi showed himself an obedient son, inclined to follow his father's counsel regardless of the consequences, and that Laman and Lemuel (like many teenagers) were headed for a "rebellious phase." But Lehi's approach to parenting (as shown by the text) helped none of his sons overcome their flaws. It's not like this is armchair criticism--all parents face similar challenges and must learn by experience. But I disagree with the common practice of holding up Lehi as some kind of model parent or ideal father. We can learn from his mistakes by encouraging rather than berating spirited and even rebellious kids, and by reminding gifted kids or those "favored of the Lord" that they, too, are subject to moral requirements or commandments, just like everyone else.