As far as Mormon scriptures are concerned, children are holy, they are alive in Christ, and they need no repentance. If we are converted and become as little children, we might enter the Kingdom of God and be called the children of Christ. As far as some Mormon adults are concerned, however, children suffer from a fatal flaw: they sometimes act like children during sacrament meeting.
At least that’s what I heard the other day in a talk that recounted the speaker’s experience with a four-year-old relative. The scene opened with a meltdown over shoes. In response, silent prayers were spoken, faith was exercised, “and the child was healed and acted normally for the rest of the meeting.”
My eyebrow raised. Childlike behavior is a disability to be cured? Normal childlike behavior is silent attention to the proceedings of a meeting that, even on a good day, caters only to the adults and adolescents in the room?
After years of having sacrament meeting during the third hour, I am inclined to assure anyone who cares to inquire that normal children are not naturally reverent in the pedantic sacrament-meeting-talk-on-reverence sense, neither today nor in the olden days (see “The Story of Grandpa’s Sled and the Pig“). While some denominations spare the finger-wagging and leave the children outside with more age-appropriate activities, we bring the whole family to church, and although we allow only some of them to partake of the Lord’s Supper, we subject all of them to 40 minutes of preaching, much of which is focused on how we should behave during that interminable period and none of which is actually pitched to small children.
Why? Tradition, I suppose. Our Protestant forefathers led the way and we meekly follow. Socialization may be another reason–children grow up eventually, and the sooner the better, especially if the preschool application process is competitive. Whatever the reasons, the insistence on age-inappropriate reverence is probably unproductive. No doubt many children grow up just fine despite these well-intended efforts, and who knows, maybe learning to be unnaturally still in a meeting for adults does wonders for some kids. But others may be distracted from more important things if reverence gets out of hand.
Allow me to explain. Following the birth of my daughter, I devoured parenting how-to manuals and advice booklets by day. By night, I reclined among the smoldering ruins of well-laid plans. One day, I happened across Alfie Kohn’s book Unconditional Parenting, and the scales fell from my eyes:
Several years ago, while on a lecture trip, I was sitting in an airplane that had just landed and taxied to its gate. As soon as the ding! signaled that we were free to stand up and retrieve our carry-on bags, one of my fellow passengers leaned into the row ahead of us and congratulated the parents of a young boy sitting there. “He was so good during the flight!” my seatmate exclaimed.
Consider for a moment the key word in that sentence: Good is an adjective often laden with moral significance. It can be a synonym for ethical or honorable or compassionate. However, where children are concerned, the word is just as likely to mean nothing more than quiet–or, perhaps, not a pain in the butt to me. Overhearing that comment in the plane, I had a little ding! moment of my own. I realized that this is what many people in our society seem to want most from children: not that they are caring or creative or curious, but simply that they are well behaved. A “good” child–from infancy to adolescence–is one who isn’t too much trouble for us grown-ups.
Over the last couple of generations, the strategies for trying to produce that result may well have changed. Where kids were once routinely subject to harsh corporal punishment, they may now be sentenced to time-outs or, perhaps, offered rewards when they obey us. But don’t mistake new means for new ends. The goal continue to be control, even if we secure it with modern methods. This isn’t because we don’t care about our kids. It has more to do with being overwhelmed by the countless prosaic pressures of family life, where the need to get children into and out of the bed, bathtub, or car makes it hard to step back and evaluate what we’re doing.
One problem with just trying to get kids to do what we say is that this may conflict with other, more ambitious, goals we have for them. This afternoon, your primary concern for your son may be for him to stop raising a ruckus in the supermarket [….] But it’s worth digging deeper. In the workshops I conduct for parents, I like to start off by asking, “What are your long-term objectives for your children? […].” These parents said they wanted their children to be happy, balanced, independent, fulfilled, productive, self-reliant, responsible, functioning, kind, thoughtful, loving, inquisitive, and confident.
What’s interesting about that collection of adjectives–and what’s useful about the process of reflecting on the question in the first place–is that it challenges us to ask whether what we’re doing is consistent with what we really want. Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be?
At the time I was mired in the depths of seven sleepless months. It was hard to consider long-term objectives over short-term solutions. Yet when I read the passage above a light switched on, sleep training experiments (central feature: getting babies to sleep when it’s convenient for their parents) were immediately discontinued, and within weeks of putting the cart back behind the horse, sleep, sweet sleep, arrived (and remains) in abundance. I don’t know if the one had anything to do with the other, but I’ve found that asking the question “Are my everyday practices likely to help my children grow into the kind of people I’d like them to be?” is a useful way of maintaining perspective in the face of “the countless prosaic pressures of family life.”
Demanding that small children silently endure sacrament meeting is an exercise in forcing round pegs into square holes, in my view, and docility is not a quality I particularly want to instill in my daughter. Of course, I do what I can to minimize the disruption to others while seeing that my daughter’s emotional and physical needs are met in a meeting that was not designed with them in mind. But when she gets unruly, she has my sympathy and I don’t blame her because she isn’t the problem. I hope the balancing act pays off–that others get what they need out of sacrament meeting and that my daughter likewise has positive associations with the experience.
I do this because like most of you, I consider sacrament meeting attendance to be a means to a long-term end, not a short-term fix. But what if instead of trying to heal or discipline our children in the pursuit of reverence, we adapted our expectations to “the least of these my [children]”? Last year, an apostle asked us to “examine [our] feelings about, and [our] behavior on, the Sabbath day,” asking “is the Sabbath really a delight for you and for me?” For me, the answer to that question is incomplete without the input of children. Surely there’s a way to give children greater latitude to experience more of the Sabbath delight our leaders wish for us to reach for without the sky of discipline landing on our heads.