FAQ: RAISING CHILDREN AS MORMONS
"I don't really agree with all the doctrine of the Mormon church, but they certainly have the right idea about raising children. Mormon kids are clean, honest, obedient, respectful, and they don't get mixed up with alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex. What could be a better way to raise kids?"
This comment is frequently made by Mormons who have come to have personal doubts about the truth of Mormon doctrine, but who are hesitant to separate themselves from the church "for the sake of the children." Non-Mormons frequently make this comment when they consider joining the Mormon church. Is this comment justified?
Mormonism does indeed emphasize the raising of children and teenagers according to very strict standards. Both in doctrine and in practice, it recommends or requires:
At first glance this program might look attractive, especially to parents who may feel relatively helpless in the face of the negative influences which make our modern society such a dangerous and tempting place for young people. However, as implemented by the Mormon church, their program can be just as harmful, or more harmful, than some of the evils from which parents want to protect their children. This article summarizes some of the possible negative effects of bringing up children as Mormons.
Perfection through Obedience
Mormons are taught that their happiness in this life and their salvation in the next life depend upon their strict obedience to the commandments of God. These commandments are found in the Mormon scriptures (Bible, Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price) and in the words of the modern prophets and leaders of the church, ranging from what is published in church periodicals, to what is preached in the semi-annual General Conferences, to what the local priesthood authorities say to church members in sermons, in classes or in private interviews and counseling sessions.
Obedience is an important concept in Mormonism. Obedience to the teachings and commands of church is one of the solemn oaths that a good Mormon takes during the sacred endowment ceremony in the temple, but the emphasis on obedience begins in kindergarten-age "Primary Association" classes and in Sunday School. Although in theory Mormons are told that they should not obey any leader blindly, in practice no good Mormon would question what he was told by someone in authority over him in the church. If you think that something is incorrect about what you have been told, you are urged to pray and study and examine yourself, but you are also supposed to keep in mind that God would not permit anyone in authority in the church to lead any member astray. Mormon Prophet Wilford Woodruff stated, when he was president of the church:
The Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray. It is not in the programme. It is not in the mind of God. If I were to attempt that, the Lord would remove me out of my place, and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty. - from an 1890 sermon, in Doctrine and Covenants, Official Declaration 1.One of the songs taught to young children is Follow the Prophet!, with nine verses, and the refrain, repeated after each verse, is:
(The "prophet," of course, refers to whoever is the current president of the Mormon church.)Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Don't go astray!
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
Follow the prophet,
He knows the way.
The emphasis on obedience to the prophet appears in this outline for a children's program to be presented in church before the entire congregation:
Theme: "Follow The Prophet"One negative result of this kind of training is that it tends to prevent the development of self-reliance. Trying to solve your own life problems, using your own resources, is unnecessary; just ask the bishop and do what he tells you to do (which will probably be to pray and read the scriptures).
(Each item is presented with short speeches by the children, illustrated with posters and songs.)
- What is a prophet? - Song: "We Listen To A Prophet's Voice"
- Heavenly Father prepared the current prophet to be the prophet today - Song: 'Keep The Commandments"
- Heavenly Father teaches us through our prophet at general conference. - Song: "Called to Serve"
- We are blessed when we follow the prophet
- The TRUE church was restored through the prophet Joseph Smith - Song: "The Sacred Grove"
- Prophets prophesy of things to come - Song: "Follow the Prophet"
- We have learned the names of all 15 of the latter day prophets in order! - Song: "Latter-day Prophets"
Mormon children are taught that they must obey all the commandments. They are taught that it may sometimes be difficult, but this life is a testing place. Temptations must be overcome, and a good Mormon will be able to overcome them. If you obey priesthood authority, attend church, study the scriptures, pay a full ten percent tithing, avoid people and places where you might find temptation, then you will be able to keep all the commandments. If you are not able to keep all the commandments, then it is because you have failed to protect yourself from temptation. You have done something wrong. You have allowed yourself to have a sinful thought. You have not prayed enough. You have not read the scriptures enough. You must repent and hope that you will not sin again.
In other words, if you are not perfect, it is your own fault. You are not trying hard enough.
Of course, it is impossible for anyone to be perfect. Adults, through experience, usually have come to realize that perfection is an impossible ideal. But children are still idealists, and setting them such an unrealistic goal is a certain prescription for trouble. Guilt and self-doubt are inevitable. Or self-deception and rationalization. Or a feeling of alienation from a God who demands perfection.
One former Mormon recalled being baptized as a Mormon child at the age of eight: "For weeks I was terrified that I would sin and Satan would get his grip on me again."
Another former Mormon recalled:
I, too, was baptized at age eight. Did I want to? Did I understand what the choice was? Did I know anything except my desperate fantasy that the Holy Ghost was supposed to descend from heaven on the morning I was confirmed and sit on my shoulder and whisper all the 'right' answers to me for the rest of my life? Not likely. But I too, was bitterly disappointed when a few days after my baptism I'd 'sinned' and was once again wretched and stained and in need of God's forgiveness or else I would never see the rest of my family again in the eternities.
The feelings of guilt, of being overpowered by "evil spirits" or "Satan" can be devastating for a child or teenager. One angry former Mormon missionary expressed it:
I had never heard much about evil spirits--until I started taking seminary in 9th grade. Seminary is where they started drilling this idea into our impressionable heads. It continued through all four years of seminary. It was at this time, as I lay in my bed at night in my room in the basement, trying to keep my hand off the monkey (but failing most of the time), that I started to worry about evil spirits. I was convinced that, sooner or later, I would get a visit by an evil spirit. I even practiced what I was going to say to make it go away.Moral (Sexual) Purity
I now see this for what it was / is.... a tool for manipulating young minds.
Interestingly (or perhaps not), the evil spirit nonsense intensifies when one goes to the MTC for mission training. The instructors had all kinds of stories about missionaries who didn't follow all the goddamn mission rules and who were then possessed by evil spirits. Guess what? I never saw an evil spirit--not even during the time of my mission when I almost came home. It is nothing but manipulation of young minds.
Sexuality is, of course, a fertile field for seeds of guilt and despair to grow into serious emotional problems. Mormon children are taught that any form of masturbation makes them "unworthy." A young Mormon who wants to go on a mission is told that he cannot go if he ever masturbates. For a young person who has homosexual leanings, Mormonism is pure hell. Young Mormons are taught that they would be better off dead than to have committed a sexual sin, or, in the case of a girl, even to have been raped. A rape victim (says Spencer W. Kimball in his book Miracle of Forgiveness - which has also been dubbed "It's A Miracle If You're Ever Forgiven!") is not as guilty of sin as if she had willingly participated in sex, but she is still burdened with the guilt of being considered now "unchaste":
Once given or taken, [chastity] can never be regained. ... If [a rape victim] has not cooperated and contributed to the foul deed, she is of course in a more favorable position. There is no condemnation where there is no voluntary participation. It is better to die in defending one's virtue than to live having lost it without a struggle. (p. 196)
Death is better than losing one's chastity in a rape?
It has been suggested that this draconian doctrine may be a reason for the high teen-age suicide rate in Utah, so high that the governor proposed a special commission to study it (see "Seminar Strives to Reach Suicidal Teens [in Utah]", Salt Lake Tribune, Nov 6, 1998).
Mormons subtly (and probably unintentionally) teach children to lie.
Mormons, including children, are interviewed by the bishop as to their "worthiness" for every step of their progress in the church, starting at the age of eight, when preparing for baptism into the church. In these interviews the Mormon child is faced with the choice of telling the truth "Yes, Bishop, I masturbate once in a while" and thus being declared unworthy for the next advancement, or of lying to the bishop. Many children thus learn to lie: "No, bishop, I do not masturbate." This is not a lesson, I think, that children should learn: you get punished (or at least scolded) for telling the truth, you get advancement (and praise for your "righteous obedience to the commandments") for lying.
Jarom Smith, a former Mormon who was raised in the church, made this comment (used with permission):
And I was one of the dumb-asses that told the truth...As soon as they are able to talk, Mormon children are urged to "bear their testimony" in testimony meeting. They are usually just mouthing the words put into their ears by a parent: "I know that Joseph Smiff was a pwoffut and the Book Mommum is twoo. Nameofjesuschristamen!" They know nothing of the sort. But they are praised for saying something they do not even understand. They are being encouraged to lie. (This kind of repetition of meaningless mantras is, of course, one of the techniques in brainwashing.)
If I had to put it in one word, I would say that my integrity led me out of the LDS organization. There were so many times that I could have lied my way through a priesthood interview or given people the answer that I knew they wanted to hear, but my internal moral compass wouldn't allow me to do so. The ironic thing, and the thing that caused me to start to question the LDS church, was that instead of being rewarded (or at least commended) for my honesty I was punished. Meanwhile, I saw others lie their way through the organization with impunity. This taught me two things: A) the leaders had no "spirit of discernment" and B) the organization valued lip-service over honesty.
After figuring out that the LDS church was a fraud, I was still encouraged by family/friends to retain my membership in the church, even though I no longer believed. I guess they saw it as a less drastic step than full resignation. Perhaps some of them thought that at some point in the future I would "see the light" and return to full fellowship. What they didn't understand is that they were asking me to lie -- AGAIN!! -- by professing to have a belief in an organization/theology in which I clearly had none.
It still astonishes me how rampant lying is in the Mormon church, at the most subtle levels. Mormons teach their children to lie when they teach them to bear their testimony. It just snowballs from there....
Education and Knowledge
A favorite Mormon scripture (Doctrine and Covenants 93:36) is: "The glory of God is intelligence, or in other words, light and truth.". Mormons put this idea into practice by emphasizing the importance of education, both individually and as an organization. The church has an extensive system of schools, teaching both religious and secular subjects, up through the university and college levels. Young Mormons, especially men, are encouraged to advance their educations as far as possible (young women get more pressure to marry and bear children).
However, Mormons are definitely not encouraged to apply the same rigorous analytical skills they acquired in becoming doctors, lawyers, accountants, physicists, geologists, etc., to the teachings or the history of their own church. To question is to indicate doubt, and to doubt is the first step to apostasy. Thus, to avoid possible apostasy, one should not question. In fact, one Mormon leader proclaimed that "scholars" were among the "evils" threatening the church's existence and the faith of its members (Apostle Boyd K. Packer's address to the All-Church Coordinating Council). As a result, Mormon scholars who publish material critical of the church or too revealing of its history often face excommunication.
One Mormon father reported:
A few years ago, one of the bishop's counselors approached me, concerned with the questions my son was asking in primary. I was told to keep him within the guidelines of the church manuals.In other words, intellectual curiosity in a child is to be kept within manageable bounds.
Belonging and Being "Special"
Every child needs - and deserves - self-esteem and approval. Mormonism provides this by assuring the child that Mormons are special: God selected them, because they were so good in the "pre-existence" (the spirit world where we all lived - according to Mormonism - before being allowed to come to Earth to inhabit a body), to be born and to live as the best possible kind of human being: a Mormon.
Mormons are proud of being different (read: "better") than other human beings who have not been blessed with the Mormon gospel. Mormons used to say proudly, "We are a 'peculiar' people!" In the world, but not of the world.
One non-believing Mormon explained that the reason he is staying in the church is for the sake of his children. He explained how his membership in the church allowed him to feel "special". when he studied at a very prestigious university and, realizing that he was a minnow swimming there in shark infested waters, it helped him to believe that he was better than other people. He wants that for his kids.
A sense of community, a supportive group, social relationships - all are important. But those can be found elsewhere than in a Mormon ward. Unless you are in a very small town, there should be other groups besides Mormons that could provide some sense of community involvement. My own community is essentially rural, and we are impressed with what a fine group of kids we have here that are involved in agriculture. Farm kids are hard-working, honest, cheerful, self-reliant... and religion has very little to do with it. Cities will offer even more opportunities.
Outward signs of belonging, and therefore of "righteousness" are thus very important to Mormons. Boys must wear a white shirt to church. Girls must wear modest dresses (no slacks) to church. Boys are not allowed to have body piercings; girls are allowed one earring per ear. There are many don'ts: don't play games on Sunday; don't play games using face cards; don't watch "R"-rated movies; don't date until you are at least sixteen; don't read anything that might not be uplifting; don't associate with people who might tempt you to break any commandment.
But it is easy to allow the outward appearances to become the only important thing. As one former Mormon commented:
Mormonism puts such a premium on outward appearance (the temple recommend process being one example: attend church, pay tithing, say the right thing) that some people see the outward appearance as evidence of their spirituality: i.e., if your geography is right (your rear end is in the pew three hours a week) you are a spiritual person. This is of course nonsense.Some of these "don't"s may be appropriate, but they tend to emphasize outward behavior rather than true inner goodness.
One exmormon mother summed up the problem like this:
I saw mormonism condemning my little children for riding bicycles on Sunday, for singing irreverent songs about God to the tune of Louie Louie. For wearing shorts to church. For exploring their own bodies. Mormonism was training my children to obey, to conform, and to fear.
Life is too short to live that way. I am a believer in the unseen, the mystical and the magical -- but also in joy. Any god that I follow will laugh, and will hope that I fly kites and attend birthday parties on Sunday. Any god that I follow will like irreverent songs and irreverent children. Any God that I follow will accept me the way I am.
Another former Mormon said:
I feel it is right for me and my family to leave the church. I asked my daughter, who is almost eight, why she wanted to be baptized, and she said because she has to or heavenly father won't love her. That just broke my heart. Then she told me if she doesn't go to church she will go to hell. I now am seeing the narrow-minded black-and-white judgemental thinking I had in my head.
Perhaps the most damaging result of such strict rules of outward behavior as indication of "righteousness" is that Mormons often develop a sense of being an elite, and thus tend to look down on non-Mormons, especially non-Mormons of other races than white. Although the church officially lifted its ban against any black person holding the Mormon priesthood or participating in Mormon temple rituals (including marriage for eternity) in 1978, its scriptures (especially the Book of Mormon) still contain many passages in which a dark skin is said to be a curse placed by God on the unrighteous.
It is not uncommon for Mormon parents to discourage or even forbid their children from forming friendships with non-Mormons. Part of the reason is that they fear their Mormon children will pick up bad habits, such as swearing or masturbating. They also do not want their children to be exposed to other lifestyles, where the parents perhaps smoke, or drink coffee, or picnic on Sundays, or have crucifixes on the wall of their living room. The ultimate fear, of course, is that a friendship with a non-Mormon of the opposite sex might develop into a romantic involvement and a marriage outside the church - the ultimate tragedy in the eyes of Mormon parents (see below: Choosing What To Do In Life). Thus the Mormon child's world is often very narrow, limited to the safe uniformity of Mormons.
One Mormon child's comment is especially poignant: one Sunday morning the family was getting into the car to drive to the three hour Mormon church services. They were dressed in their Sunday best, carrying their scriptures and their lesson materials. The neighbors (non-Mormon) were also getting into their car, but they were in beach clothes, carrying balls, beach toys, and picnic baskets, and were laughing. The Mormon boy saw them, and, like a good Mormon boy, commented, "They're not really happy, are they, Dad?"
And if some members of the Mormon family are inactive, or have actually left the church, the children will probably see that those less-than-perfect family members are not fully accepted any longer in the family. This tends to teach children that the church is more important than the family.
One non-Mormon grandmother wrote:
What would my Mormon relatives think if I told their children that the reason they were Mormons was because of satan? But they do the reverse: My four-year-old Mormon granddaughter (who I think the sun rises and sets on) told me the reason I did not belong to their church was because satan wouldn't let me. To me, that is evil. But that's what she has been taught in Mormon sunday school.
It is especially sad and ironic when a non-believing parent allows the children to be raised as Mormons, thinking that it will help them to be better human beings, and they later come to see the parent (a non-believer) either as someone to be pitied, to be converted, or to be avoided as a tool of Satan. The non-believing parent's ultimate pay-back will be when the Mormon child marries in the temple, and the parent is not allowed to be present (the parent is "unworthy" to enter the temple).
Choosing What To Do In Life
In some respects, Mormonism limits individual choice in what a young Mormon does with life. Since every young man is pressured into spending two years on a mission for the church (financed by himself or his family) when he is about nineteen, Mormon boys who choose not to do so are often seen as second-rate Mormons, especially by marriageable Mormon women, who generally insist on a returned missionary as a husband. Serving such a mission begins with several weeks of intense indoctrination (some would say "brainwashing") at the Missionary Training Center (the MTC). Two years later the returning missionary is urged to marry as soon as he can find a good Mormon girl, and then to begin raising a family. And this is the ultimate goal prescribed for all young Mormons: marry a good Mormon and raise a Mormon family. Those who hesitate or procrastinate are urged to pray until God tells them to do so.
The reason that a Mormon is expected to marry only another Mormon is because of the Mormon doctrine that only those who have been married ("sealed") in the Mormon temple will attain the highest level of heaven. And only "worthy" Mormons, of course, can enter the temple for this ritual. Other Mormons (unmarried, or married to non-Mormons) will be eternally stuck at lower levels. (Non-Mormons, of course, will be at even lower levels.) Thus, one's eternal destiny is at stake in getting married. There is no other acceptable matrimonial option for Mormons, only marriage to another Mormon.
The result is many hasty marriages, often after only very brief courtships (a few weeks or months). Remember that these are young, healthy people in their early twenties, who have never been allowed any release at all for their sexuality. Such marriages have all the disadvantages, all the potential for disappointment and disillusionment, that so often follow major life decisions that are hastily made.
For Mormon women, not only are they expected to marry, they are also expected to have children, and not just one or two, but as many as possible, since it is only by having children that bodies can be provided for the spirits in the "Spirit World" (the "pre-existence") who are desperately waiting to come to Earth.
It makes no difference that a young woman may not feel the desire to have children, that she might prefer to become a doctor, a lawyer, an opera singer, a politician. The church tells her emphatically that it is her mission in life to be a mother, and that the greatest blessing for a women (even greater than holding the priesthood - which is forbidden to women anyway) is to raise children.
Mormon children are also trained to emphasize the difference between men and women. Only men (generally all men, including boys age twelve and up) hold the priesthood in the church, and thus only men are in positions of authority. Even where women act as leaders in the women's organization (the "Relief Society"), they are supervised by men. Women are trained to serve and obey their husbands (or fathers, if unmarried).
It is hardly surprising, then, that many Mormon women (as well as men) suffer terribly from depression. Utah residents are among the highest users of anti-depressant medication in the United States, as documented in a CBS news story June 3, 2002,"Unhappy In Utah" and in the article "Mormon Women, Prozac, and Therapy" by Dr. Kent Ponder. The frequency of child abuse and spousal abuse in Utah is also extremely high.
Developing a Moral System
In the wake of all the school shootings recently, many people have called for a return to more vigorous religious training for children. But it is interesting that the issue of Newsweek Magazine that dealt with school shootings (the issue of March 13, 2000), also had a cover story: "How Kids Learn Right From Wrong" (pp 30-33). It was based on interviews with psychologists, summarizing the voluminous research in this area, and it appeared to be an up-to-date and authoritative overview. And there was no mention of religion or church!
The fact is that true morality is the ability to make judgments about right and wrong, not on the ability to follow a set of cut-and-dried rules without thinking. Sadly, too much of what passes for morality is merely a limited, black-or-white, unthinking knee-jerk reaction to complex moral issues. Mormonism encourages that kind of either-or approach to questions of right and wrong.
Children need to be guided to actually think about why things are right or wrong, rather than simply to know that something is a "sin" or forbidden by the church. Children also need good moral models, not just arbitrary rules. It is primarily parents that must provide those models, in themselves and in those whom they encourage their children to admire. Religion is not necessary for that.
For more comments on developing morality without religion, click here.
Mormonism, in fact, sometimes provides children with authority figures who are not the best models of kindness, forgiveness, humility, generosity, and honesty. Many former Mormons began to doubt the truth of Mormonism when they saw the un-Christlike behavior of those in authority over them in the Mormon church.
And sometimes the overly strict prohibitions backfire, by making what is forbidden even more attractive. For example, children who grow up among adults who use alcohol moderately, without making a fuss over it, tend to follow that example. Children who have grown up seeing alcohol (or coffee or sex) only as something extremely tempting (though evil) are probably more likely to abuse it, because they have never learned to use it in moderation.
Perhaps the best summary would be these words, from a former Mormon:
Yes, Mormon kids are perhaps less likely than others to get involved with liquor, smoking, drugs, promiscuous sex. But many non-Mormon parents have managed to raise good kids without having to pay the Mormon price. [emphasis added]Mormonism cannot offer any guarantee that children who are raised as Mormons will be happier, better adjusted adults. In fact, thousands of people who were raised as Mormons by "good" Mormon families have testified that their Mormon upbringing is a major source of their emotional and social problems later in life.
Perhaps sometimes the children know best - one doubting Mormon mother finally found the courage to tell her Mormon parents that she no longer believed. She wrote:
After I had the conversation with my mom, my 17 year old daughter said "Thanks for doing this for me, Mom". When I asked what she was thanking me for, she said it was for being the one to break the bad cycle, and for teaching her to think for herself. That made up for any amount of crap I'll have to take from my parents!
Another former Mormon mother wrote:
Someone remarked to me that even though Mormonism was not true, that it probably helped me to be a better mother. Actually, it didn't. I tried to mold my son into an impossible ideal. He wasn't good enough for me the way he was. He needed to be better for me so that I wouldn't feel guilty about not being a good mother. No, I didn't become a better mother.