For just over a year now, I have been my ward’s primary pianist. It’s nice in that I get to spend time with my sons (all primary age). It’s also nice being able to avoid some of the tension headaches that tend to result from prolonged exposure to GD lessons and discussions. Retreat from the frequently agonizing realm of anachronism, cheap proof-textery, and the curious combination of wild speculation with monotonous, pre-packaged answers into the realm of the simple, pure, undiluted basics of the Gospel, formatted for children. Or so I imagined…
Actually, it is indeed, for the most part, a nice respite. Children are taught simple principles in simple language, encouraged to develop an independent interest in learning the gospel, instructed on the value of service and kindness, and reminded of the kinds of things that they can and should do to help their families be strong. Occasionally, however, there are problems. And those problems, from my perspective (not just sitting at the piano but as a father with children in the room), when they do come up, frustrate me in ways and to degrees with which even the lamest GD lesson can scarcely compete.
Case in point: 6 months ago I watched a Primary Presidency member give a lesson on family responsibilities and gender roles. Complete with church-provided visual aids. She put up pictures of a dad, a mom, and some kids. Then the primary kids took turns choosing from a bunch of “duties” written on laminated cards. When they drew a “duty” they had to walk up to the board and put it under the proper person. At the end of the lesson the kids had words like “help with chores”, “share”, “be helpful”, “cooperate,” underneath their pictures. Dad had everything from “preside” to “teach the gospel” to “family home evening” to “work” to “provide” on his list. Mom had (hand to God, without the least exaggeration!) exactly one card under her: “have babies.” Now, I don’t know if the lesson was incomplete at that point, if the PP member giving the lesson simply ran out of time, but I left primary that day so infuriated that I believe I experienced partial paralysis.
Fast forward to yesterday. As many of you no doubt already know, yesterday was to be the first of two lessons devoted to family responsibilities. My 7-year-old son was asked to give a talk. It was a short, 2 paragraph little sermon. The first paragraph focused on parental responsibilities toward children: they provide for them, teach them, help them learn to make right choices, love them, protect them, have fun with them. The second paragraph focused on the responsibilities of his audience — i.e. kids. Kids need to obey their parents, cooperate, treat each other kindly, share, learn, do their homework and chores, and be happy. He closed with his testimony that when we do our responsibilities, Heavenly Father blesses our families and we are happy. It was quite a nice little talk, especially since my wife and I made him fill in a lot of the substance (what parents and kids are supposed to do) on his own.
Then came the sharing time lesson.
The Primary Presidency member who gave the lesson is married with no kids and works full time. She got up and wrote the word “Nurterer” on the board and asked the kids what their moms do for them. She wrote down all the things they said (sometimes consolidating their ideas with fancier words, sometimes writing exactly what they said). The list included the following (I wrote it down):
nurse (as in medical)
give us clothes
give us food
give us stuff
help us to ride a bike and drive a car
While she was writing all the “give us…” examples, she wrote the letters “prov–” and then said out loud, “actually we can’t write ‘provide’ because the dad is supposed to be the provider.” After which she chalked in “give us stuff.” Hilarious. 5 or 6 times during the lesson, one of the kids raised a hand and said “my dad does that.” Finally, she silenced such comments with “I know your dads can do these things, but it’s your mom’s job.” Okay.
On the one hand, it’s good that the list included so much stuff — including stuff that traditionally is construed as male responsibility (teaching, giving stuff, healing; cf the lesson from 6 months ago). On the other hand, watching us try desperately to cling to the language of imagined essential differences between mothering and fathering is absurd and embarrassing. We have an entire lesson on a word that literally has no meaning. It’s as if she began with the word “woman” on the board and then wrote important characteristics: eyes, skin, brain, hair, a spirit, feet, clothes, faith, love, knowledge, testimony, patience, teeth, abilities, etc. — you get the point. We’re literally spending two full weeks to say what we could say in 30 seconds: “Parents do important things for our families. They do x, y, and z and lots of wonderful things. A lot of the time, when circumstances allow, dad will work outside of the home while mom stays home and takes care of the kids. Sometimes it’s different. We should all be grateful for our families and all try to fulfill our responsibilities to make our families strong.” Basically, what my son said in his talk, followed by the obligatory reminder that, typically, traditionally, other things being equal, it’s the father who works while the mother takes care of the kids at home.
Note, I am not advocating that we abandon teaching the ideal. Just that we acknowledge that our model of the ideal is a contradictory mess of present reality and an absurd, imagined past. Next week, no doubt, we will make a similar list. Similar, in that it will include all the same words. Not similar, in that they will all be under the word “Provider.” Oh, and we’ll add the word “work” to the list, specifying that we mean “work for money.”
We’re telling our kids, “you must listen to us and never, never, no never forget! You are a natural nurturer and you are a natural provider.”
“Well,” they rightly ask, “what does that mean?”
“It means — and again, we can’t stress how critical it is that you learn and accept this because the strength of the family and of society depends on it — it means that you will both focus on getting an education and finding a suitable spouse, you will start a family with said spouse in which you will both be equally charged to love and care for and teach and instruct and protect and help and heal and your children and look after your home, in a perfectly equal partnership. Oh, and if you happen to have the luxury of only having one parent working outside the home to make money, that will more likely than not be the man, since he’s the natural Provider!”
For what it’s worth, FHE at our house tonight will involve my wife and I talking to our kids (with as little contradiction and convolution as we can manage) about the individual responsibilities we all have to support our family and keep it strong. Hopefully, choosing not to tell my sons that they are eternally predisposed to hunt giraffes, plot spreadsheets, manage financial capital, and preside over wives will not jeopardize the strength of their future families.