I was asked to substitute teach my nine-year-old daughter’s Primary class last Sunday. Coincidentally, my 9-year-old was also supposed to give a talk in Primary that day. Saturday evening, I remembered that I had still not prepared my lesson, which was supposed to be “Jesus Christ Used His Priesthood Power to Bless Others.” I had been putting it off, mainly because I am lazy, but also because I don’t like giving lessons on the priesthood, as it is a topic fraught with…problems, I guess–for me, not necessarily for anyone else. And probably especially not for children. I never worry about how the children are going to react to a particular lesson, at least not since I realized they forget everything that happened in class as soon as they leave the room. I only worry about my ability to not be completely uncomfortable for 45 minutes while I attempt to teach things I don’t understand or believe. That sounds a bit dramatic. It’s probably less provocative to say that I have a great deal of ambivalence about the priesthood. Anyway, that’s what was on my brain while I was procrastinating. Also procrastinating was my daughter, who does not like giving talks or preparing them. I don’t like giving talks or preparing them either, but what I like even less is helping children prepare talks.
The theme for April is “Jesus Christ restored the fulness of his gospel through Joseph Smith.” My daughter thought about this and remembered that she had just read an article in the Friend about the restoration of the priesthood. (Yes, my daughter does like to read the Friend. Mainly because it’s one of the few pieces of mail that comes to her. But don’t worry; the situation is under control.) She decided she could give her talk on that. “Great idea,” I said. “If you need any help ask Daddy.” Because I still needed to prepare my own lesson, you see.
While I was getting my daughter ready for bed, we started talking about how her brother, a newly-minted deacon, would be passing the sacrament for the first time the next day. I don’t remember how the conversation started. But at one point she said, “I’ll never get to pass the sacrament. Boys do everything. We do nothing.”
“Well, we don’t do nothing,” I said. “You can help in other ways.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Well, we all have jobs to do. You don’t have to have the priesthood to help at church.”
“But what will I do?”
“Well, I’ve had lots of different jobs at church. I’ve taught Primary, played piano, worked in the library–”
“But what will I do when I turn twelve?”
At this point I think I changed the subject. You see why I don’t like teaching lessons about the priesthood? This was a casual conversation in the privacy of my own home, with an audience of one, and I was dying. The thing you need to understand about my nine-year-old is that she’s entirely without guile. She’s not political, like her older sister (or her mother). It’s true that (also unlike her older sister) she never went through a princess phase and she’s still indifferent to the typical “girly” stuff. But it’s not because she’s a “tomboy”–a word I hate–or because she eschews “girly” things. She’s not “gender transgressive” or whatever. She just likes what she likes. When she was younger, she liked Thomas the Tank Engine and playing with cars. (Of course, when she played with cars, it meant the mommy and daddy cars would feed the baby cars breakfast and take them to the park, where they would swing on the swings, after which they would go home and have dinner, followed by a bath and a story and tucking in to bed–read into that what you will.) Now she likes Scooby-Doo and Spider-Man. Once she was playing football with her brothers and their friends and came inside crying because they wouldn’t let her be quarterback. “I want to be like Marcus Mariota,” she sniffled. “When I’m bigger.”
The other day she went to a birthday party, where they played a darts game and gave out prizes to the winners; the boys got a Spider-Man game and the girls got some kind of puzzle. I don’t know if Laura had been one of the winners or not, but she coveted that Spider-Man game. “I like puzzles, but I like Spider-Man better,” she said. “Why can’t boys and girls just get the same thing?”
When I talk to my older, more bitter and jaded daughter about gender issues in the church, I’m candid about my own feelings and opinions, but I try to put a positive spin on things and encourage her to take a charitable view of church leaders and other people who don’t share her concerns, if only to counteract her tendency to think the world sucks and she’s a victim. Contrary to what some readers of this blog have asserted, I have not “infected” my daughters with my feminism. Or if I have, it was genetic and not on purpose. With my older daughter, I’ve been honest and I’ve validated her feelings, but I’ve also done all I can to paint the church in a positive light, to the point where she thinks I have Stockholm Syndrome. With my younger daughter, I am afraid to acknowledge any gender inequity at church–not because I want to protect the church, but because I want to protect her. I don’t want her to have the same issues I have.
At church on Sunday, my son the newly-minted deacon was anxious about passing the sacrament for the first time. He has autism, and while he’s been looking forward to his new responsibilities, he’s also felt somewhat overwhelmed by them. The week before, his quorum took the last few minutes of class to do a dry-run of the sacrament-passing route for the benefit of him and the other two new deacons. (Personally, I’ve always thought passing the sacrament looked pretty complicated, but I admit I’ve never studied it carefully. How do they know where to go? One of the many mysteries of manliness!) He came home saying, “Passing the sacrament is hard.” We assured him that he’d do fine, and the other boys would help him. His older brother, now a teacher, agreed to pass the sacrament with him so he’d feel more comfortable.
I don’t want to say that I felt proud watching my two sons passing the sacrament, because “pride” does not adequately or accurately describe my feelings. What I felt was, I think, joy–joy that my son was experiencing another rite of passage and joy that my other son was helping him through it. I heard someone say once that when you’re younger, you cry over evil, but as you get older, you cry over goodness–because you understand how much less common it is. My sons’ participation in the priesthood is good. It makes me happy.
During Primary class the following hour, we talked about Jesus calming the storm, feeding the five thousand, healing people, and walking on the water. We talked about the priesthood being the same power that Jesus used to perform these miracles.
“But that doesn’t make sense,” one boy said. “The priesthood isn’t magic. It’s an opportunity–to help people.”
That sounded like an awfully PC answer that his parents probably taught him–and good for them. It certainly wasn’t false. “The priesthood isn’t magic,” I said, “but it is the power of God.” And I pointed out that he was absolutely right–the priesthood can only be used for things that are needful to serve others; you can’t baptize yourself or give yourself a blessing–that’s not how it works.
My plan was to cut out entirely the section of the lesson that talked about boys getting the priesthood when they turned twelve because I figured we’d have plenty to talk about besides that, but throughout the lesson, the girls kept reminding me that “we,” i.e. girls and women, don’t have the priesthood. Only boys and men have the priesthood. And then I ran out of material with fifteen minutes of class time to spare. So I thought, what the heck, and I said, “So only boys get the priesthood. Does that make them better or more important than girls or boys who don’t have the priesthood?”
And everyone said, “NOOOOOOOO!” because they’ve been taught well.
One boy said, “Girls can have babies.”
“Yes,” I said, “but so what?” Because I’m heartless and cruel. I pointed out that twelve-year-old girls don’t have babies (at least as far as these nine-year-olds are concerned), and neither do all women. They all recognized this was true.
“Some women don’t get married.”
“Some women can’t have babies.”
“Some women don’t want to.”
However, I pointed out, women who have callings in the church are set apart by their bishops (or stake presidents, in some cases) and given priesthood authority to act in those callings. (See Dallin H. Oaks, “The Keys and Authority of the Priesthood,” April 2014 General Conference.) I kept it as simple as possible because a) they’re children, and b) I don’t fully understand the whole keys-and-authority thing myself, but we talked about what callings their mothers had or have had and the Primary president and other female leaders, and I reiterated that in those callings, those women have priesthood authority to serve a priesthood function.
I believe their collective response was, “Huh.” And then they went to Sharing Time and, I’m sure, forgot all about it.
Afterward, I felt that I’d handled it fairly clumsily, as I do most things, but I felt good about it.
Today over lunch my husband told me that on Sunday my older son had been preparing the sacrament table by himself; my nine-year-old daughter decided to help him, and the bishop had to remind her–kindly–that that was her brother’s job. My husband said she had seemed a little embarrassed, and I felt sad again–but grateful that my husband had been there at the time to handle it better than I would have. It obviously didn’t devastate her. She gave her talk on the restoration of the priesthood, and she was poised and articulate. I had joy in her that day.