And Bless Homer

A couple of posts in the bloggernacle have got me thinking about children and Mormonism. Currently at Times and Seasons, Russell Arben Fox has a beautiful post about his niece, a stillborn child. A few months ago BCC’s own Kristine Haglund Harris posted the topic "On Spiritual Education" at the same blog.

My 2 ½ year old son Ethan insists on praying without any help these days. Last night, as he asked God to bless his brother Matthew, Mama, and Dada, he also threw in his toys and his pillow (after opening his eyes and seeing them). But it was when he asked God to bless Homer Simpson that gave me pause. (I’ll thank everyone in advance for sparing me the lecture on letting my two year old watch The Simpsons — I’ve heard it enough already.)

I’m not at all bothered that he prayed for Homer (given Homer’s track record, he could use all the help he can get). What does make me worry is how my son’s spiritual life will develop. Sure, he’s two — there’s plenty of time to grow. But as early as possible, I want religion and spirituality to have meaning for him. As Kristine discussed, I don’t think it’s particularly helpful to cram him with the information we think we know is true (which most likely came from our own parents cramming it into us) so he can regurgitate it throughout life and then repeat the cycle with his own children. In other words, I don’t want to tell him about God, Jesus, and the First Vision as if they’re just facts of life, the same way I’d tell him Independence Day is July 4th and George Washington was the first President of the United States. Sure, someday he’ll develop an emotional attachment to those religious “facts,” but will he do so because they’re true or will he do so because he’s conditioned to – the same way he’ll develop an emotional attachment to his Americanism.

To put it another way, am I conditioning my son to become a believing Mormon by running through the standard practices, and if so how is that any different than a Catholic parent conditioning their child to become a Catholic? Will the meaning his faith gives his life simply be a product of his environment and self-inducement, or can it come from something else? Lastly, do we trust our children enough to let them take their own faith journey, or is it something we feel we need to rescue them from if the path isn’t the one we think they ought to take?

Comments

  1. There would be a great hole in your son’s education if he didn’t watcg The Simpsons. Though I do have a friend who won’t let his kids watch the Itchy and Scratchy segments.

  2. I don’t want to tell him about God, Jesus, and the First Vision as if they’re just facts of life, the same way I’d tell him Independence Day is July 4th and George Washington was the first President of the United States.

    I must admit that you idea in the above quote is a foreign concept to me. One thing I love about blogging is the way it helps me understand other faithful saints better.

    The reason I do tell my son about God, Jesus, and the First Vision as if they’re just facts of life is because I have more evidence that they are facts than I do that, say, George Washington was the first President of the United States. What I mean is that I could easily be convinced through proper new documents and uncovered history that someone else was originally serving a President of the United States. We could have all been duped about that because of some big conspiracy or something. But I could not be convinced by new documents and uncovered conspiracies that the communication and revelation I have received directly from God was fabricated. God himself never told me who the real first American president was or when real date the Declaration was signed was, but He has personally told me about himself, his son, and Joseph Smith. I see the latter category as the real facts and the former as “facts”.

    So in answer to you later question about whether our conditioning of our children is any different than the conditioning children get while being raised in other religions, my answer is that the difference is in the amount of things God himself will personally verify through revelation when those children are prepared to ask and receive on the subject. God would certainly be willing to verify his existence to any who ask but he won’t confirm their false teachings. Being part of the restored church means we have the most truth available to us to teach as facts and the most truth for God to directly confirm to our children when they are prepared to receive their own revelation. (Luckily God won’t confirm any false assumptions we hold of our religion either.)

  3. john fowles says:

    John H., your post brought Chapter 22, “Teaching Children in the Nurture and Admonition of the Gospel,” in the Teachings of President Heber J. Grant manual to mind. You might consider reading it in your reflections on this issue.

    Here are a few excertps:

    We would look upon a farmer as a natural born idiot who would call upon everybody who passed his farm to throw in a few seeds of weeds, to do this for a period of twenty-one years, and then expect he could sow a crop of grain and expect to get a good harvest. . . .

    We receive a testimony of the Gospel by obeying the laws and ordinances therof; and our children will receive that knowledge exactly the same way; and if we do not teach them, and they do not walk in the straight and narrow path that leads to eternal life, they will never receive this knowledge. . . . We find that it is laid down to the Latter-day Saints, not as an entreaty, but as a law, that they should teach their children:

    And again, inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her Stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents;
    For this shall be a law unto the inhabitants of Zion, or in any of her Stakes which are organized;
    And their children shall be baptized for the remission of their sins when eight years old, and receive the laying on of the hands,
    And they shall teach also their children to pray and to walk uprightly before the Lord.

    (201-202, quoting D&C 65:25-28)

    And perhaps even more germane to your query:

    I have heard men and women say that they were going to let their sons and daughters grow to maturity before they sought to teach them the principles of the gospel, that they were not going to cram the gospel down them in their childhood, before they were able to comprehend it. When I hear men and women say this, I think they are lacking faith in the principles of the gospel and do not comprehend it as they should. The Lord has said it is our duty to teach our children in their youth, and I prefer to take His word for it rather than the words of those who are not obeying His commandments. It is folly to imagine that our children will grow up with a knowledge of the gospel without teaching. . . . (203-204)

    This is meant without judgment to you–I just thought you might be interested in what President Grant taught about this issue. As parents, you and your wife might be extremely confortable close to the edge of the mainstreams of the Church. But that might only be because of the strength of your testimonies in the first place, so that such questioning and targeted doubting don’t phase you or make any real impact in your personal belief in the existence of God. But it would be dangerous to skip the foundational, doctrinal teaching of your children and have them skip straight to the phase of Gospel exploration that you’re at now, because it skips the preliminary steps of teaching and testimony that would need to be pre-requisites for more mature gospel exploration later in life. The result, I would think, would more likely be children who think religion is not serious or knowable, and thus agnostic, than children who experience their own faith journey.

  4. OTOH, Heather Armstrong, writer on the Blog dooce.com, refers to church as “Joseph Smith Training Camp.”

    It makes perfect sense to teach your children what you believe. However, I do think it’s important to let children know that there are other points of view, so that they aren’t surprised by this as they get older. My DH knows all the same “facts” about church history and origins as I do, but doesn’t come to the same conclusions as I do AT ALL. I think this is at least partly because he synthesized all this information with his developing faith at a young age. He attended MHA meetings in his teens.

  5. I applaud you for letting your kids watch the Simpsons. Of course, now mine have moved on to Aqua Teen Hunger Force.

  6. Christian Y. Cardall says:

    John, I think the questions in your final paragraph are very important ones. In my case, the strength of my wife’s feelings decides them. In that connection, I also note that your very last question might be applied not only to children, but to spouses, friends, etc.

  7. HL Rogers says:

    Though I understand the concern that we not mindlessly indoctrinate our children as do many other religions without allowing them to gain testimonies through prayer and insightful pondering (after all one of the greatest facets of the Church is that of personal revelation). I also want to give my children a handicap (as in golf–give them the skills to be proficient on the course). I believe the gospel is true, very strongly, and want my children to benefit from the restored gospel as I have. This in my mind outweighs my concerns about gaining their own testimonies without too much prodding from me. I want Mormonism to be their bias. When they are older I will encourage them to sincerely look around, examine what is taught about God by other religions, while continuing their scripture study, prayers, church, etc. By that point though I want Mormonism to be the stronig bias, the ruler against which everything is closely measured. Does this mean some of what I do is indoctrination, probably. But I think that if I do not give my children the gospel, as a given (or told as simple facts like you say) I will be held accountable for not preparing them for the world ahead of them.

    From me I want my children to see the gospel in its srongest and best light. There will be an overabundance of sources where my children will see the ambiguities and the grays in the Church. I want my children to see it from me as black and white (at least when they are young) while also encouraging them to be analytical and to see the grays and complexities in other aspects of life around them so that when they are older and more mature in the gospel they will have the tools to look at the difficult issues in Mormonism and be prepared with all the tools, both spiritual and analytical, to resolve these issues and remain steadfast in the Church.

  8. Kristine says:

    It’s very unliberal of me, but I think the habit of faith has to be learned in childhood if it is to be learned–I suspect that parents who “let the children decide when they are older” mostly end up missing the time when deep belief is a live possibility. I don’t feel bad at all about teaching my children to be Mormons. That said, I think I teach them much more about practice than about doctrine, at least right now, though the balance is starting to shift with my oldest child, who is 8. Mormonism is what we *do*, more than what I teach them. I don’t try to bear my testimony every other minute, but I also don’t feel any need to present the picture book of The First Vision or the stories in the Book of Mormon as anything but “stories that really happened.” Issues of historicity, or the fact that theophanies were a commonplace occurrence are things they can learn about later (I won’t be hiding all my back issues of Dialogue when they get old enough to be interested). For now, my job is to help them develop the *capacity* for belief and faith and spiritual practice, even if as adults they may choose to modify the *content* of their faith somewhat. If young plants don’t develop deep roots, they can’t do it later and they’re never strong.

  9. “If young plants don’t develop deep roots, they can’t do it later and they’re never strong.”
    Do you really believe this? Are converts or those who come from inactive families stunted spiritually? I can’t agree with that. If you want to take the analogy further, I’d say my roots were stunted with over-watering.

  10. Granted, I have no children of my own, but have pondered the same query. Luckily, I am fortunate enough to have great examples in my parents and sisters and their interaction with their small children. I feel it important to include your children in what is most important to you, be a good example by living those principles in your life, but most importantly, teach them to have a personal relationship with thier Heavenly Father at a young age, and to have the ability to test the promises he has given us by learning the truth from him.

    My parents surronded themselves with good friends of other faiths (despite the large population of LDS people in our small Californian town). They even stood up at the pulpit of the notoriously anti-mormon born again christian church when requested to be god-parents of sorts to a friend’s newborn baby. If the pastor had known he had his arm around a mormon, all hell just may have broken loose. But they taught us to be tolerate and educated regarding different beliefs. I am grateful for that.

    It can be scary to see how children so trustingly lap up everything you feed. They are in fact, just children. I would rather they be accepting these good principles, then bad ones, or none at all.

    As a side note….my five year old neice is a riot, and my sister has learned to be careful about what she exposes her to. She was making up a song about Mount Sianai. What five year does that?

    (Maddie, while eating at Jack-in-the-Box with my Mom and sister, points to Jack on her cup with his outstreached arms) “Look Mom, it’s a Jesus Clown”

    (Upon talking to Maddie about her imaginary friend, Dada, dying unexpectedly)”Sarah, it’s okay, he’ll be resurrected just like Jesus”.

    (Sitting outside with my sister discussing how people have two legs and trees one. My sister points out a tree to Maddie that has a split trunk, and thus, two legs.) Maddie shakes her head and sighs, “Silly Jesus”.

  11. (“Silly Jesus, tricks are for kids…”)

    If you’re given a choice between a chocolate and a lemon pie, and you’ve only ever had chocolate, and you *love* chocolate…which one will you pick?

    What if your criteria for “good pie” is based on how “chocolatey” it is?

    In the same way, I think this is one of the issues of raising children in any sort of faith: how to balance “teaching” and “indoctorination”. The problem is, teaching children certain things not only effects thier knowledge, but the way that they approach learning/questioning. Specifically for LDS, teaching that one can pray and recieve an answer/feeling will color the questioning: it becomes the methodology of questioning. So, while I’m all for giving children a ruler by which to measure other faiths (as HL says), we should realize that we are also providing the rules of engagement.

    But I don’t see any way around this, as it is the responsibility of every parent to teach their children “right”.

  12. Thanks for all the great comments. I still see the same dilemma unfolding for me. This issue isn’t a problem for someone who believes Mormonism is the truth. But to stretch my American analogy further: Since I grew up in this country, I was always taught it is the greatest country in the world. We have the most freedoms and our founding is due to divine intervention (not just Mormons believe that one).

    Of course, now that I’m older I see my perspective as deeply flawed and even laughable. I’ve never lived in another country; my contact with people of other nations is extremely limited, bordering on non-existent; I have little to no idea how laws and “freedoms” interact in places like Great Britain, Sweden, Germany, etc. It truly is like Pris’s chocolate pie analogy. How can I be so confident that the U.S. is the greatest country in the world when only other Americans have been telling me how great it is?

    That said, I don’t have any problems raising my kids as Americans. I don’t have any intention to move anytime soon, and I really do love my country. So it goes with Mormonism. I want to raise my kids in the Church and will continue to do so. I love it and don’t really see there being any better place for them, at least at this point in their lives.

    I’m not even that worried about indoctrination – we’re fooling ourselves if we think that only happens at Church. All of life involves conditioning to see things a certain way. If my kid hears something stupid at Church, I can correct it.

    What I’m looking for is a way to teach my children to achieve a spirituality that has meaning beyond conditioning. For example, I have to chuckle when some people talk about the “peace” the Gospel brings. Hey, I’d be at peace too if I’d convinced myself I was right and it was everyone else who was going to hell or needed to change. But then there’s others for whom Mormonism brings genuine comfort amid life’s difficulties. One kind of peace seems like a self-induced way to feel good about oneself without needing to think or examine life deeper. The other strikes me as a way to have positive guidance in life. I don’t know if the distinction will make sense to anyone but me, but there you have it. The first I’d like to avoid, the second I’d like to help them understand. And that’s not to say some people only do one, others only do the second. All of us at times fool ourselves or use circular or bad logic to feel good. At other times, all of us are genuinely touched by the divine or see outside forces as a will for good in our lives.

  13. Bob Caswell says:

    “Hey, I’d be at peace too if I’d convinced myself I was right and it was everyone else who was going to hell or needed to change.”

    John H, I just have to point out that your comments are so fun to read! This made me laugh, as it’s brutally honest about one definition of “at peace”.

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