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Ideas about bringing children to church

August 6, 2009

In light of that 7-year-old who disliked going to his church (which, although I don’t think any names were mentioned, I think everyone’s inferred that it was a Mormon ward) so much that he took a joy-ride back home, I’ve been thinking about church attendance for children. And Dave has too, apparently.

Church attendance for children isn’t a new issue, and this isn’t the first or last time it’s been discussed. And even though I’m not a parent (and I don’t pretend to be qualified to give parental advice), I can give advice as a child and perhaps a “devil’s advocate” view. (OK, don’t click out of the site — I’m not a devil worshipper!)

It seems to me that Mormons have this wonderful doctrinal idea that they are failing to utilize, or which they are utilizing incorrectly: free will and moral agency. The church’s doctrine, at least on paper, cherishes the ability for humans to act for themselves, and it bristles at anything which limits that agency (even if the limiting factor is that everyone will always do good — as Satan’s plan was).

So, it seems to me that this kind of idea should be central to the discussion. Children should be allowed to exercise free will.

This is a bit tricky though, and even I recognize things get hairy QUICKLY. Because parents have to be parents. They have to lay down laws for their own house. So if kids do anything, they’ll grow up into some sorry, undisciplined adults.

Of course, Mormonism anticipates this. With moral agency, it’s clear that your will isn’t in a vacuum…rather, actions are tied to real consequences. (And I think most would agree with this, member or not. What they might disagree with are if these consequences are “moral” ones, or if the church describes the consequences correctly, or even if consequences are universa and objective.) So, obviously, you are free to choose to, say, do drugs, but you might want to rethink, because a possible consequence is addiction, which will generally limit your free will (not good).

Here’s where I think some parents, with good intentions, go wrong. So, they take the idea of consequences for actions (a solid idea indeed), and they start implementing their own consequences. If kids don’t go to church, then that’s fine…as long as they are willing to accept consequences such as lost privileges, no dessert, no allowance, etc.,

OK, OK, this is basic behavioral reinforcement theory…so how might it go wrong?

Well, it can easily backfire. It can muddle real consequences and get one to focus on the wrong thing. Or it can cause general resentment (even while the person is compliant) or rebelliousness.

When kids feel they have to go to church, because if they don’t (which it is surely a choice open to them), they will be punished, think about all this is saying? They aren’t going to church because they want to, first of all…and they may end up simply growing to resent it more (and their parents). They may become cynical of free will itself (what a conundrum if all options but one will net me punishment!) And they miss the consequences of church. Whatever church could have been about, now their associated consequence is, “Avoided punishment.” Of course, when they leave home and mom and dad aren’t their to dispense punishment, all of a sudden, they have no reason to go! Do people wonder why many kids try all sorts of things in college?

Really, I don’t think the goal should be to “instill a life-long habit of church activity” (although I understand how church culture and the words of leaders can get that goal). Rather, I think the goal should be cultivating happy, healthy, productive people. And if church fits into that (whether it’s once a month, every week, or never), then great! If not, then I’d rather someone be happy, healthy, and productive — however they do it — than trudge to church because of a habit or tradition that they may not understand, enjoy, or even scrutinize.

I think members should have more faith in their own church. They should have faith that the church has observed value. With this faith, one shouldn’t need to carrot-and-stick someone into going to church, and one shouldn’t need to “instill a habit.” Rather, with this faith, then anyone with eyes to see value and ears to hear value would seek it.

I think what members sometimes fear (even if they will never consciously admit because iti’s kinda blasphemous) is that the church might not have value, or rather, it might not have value for all. Or rather, the value is not very noticeable (still small voice, etc.,). So, how can someone with this fear who wants their kid to stay in the church (rather than wanting their kid to find value, wherever it is) just “trust”? Perhaps they can’t. And this is why they try to instill habits, traditions, artificial consequences.

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7 Comments
  1. FireTag permalink

    Rules of parenting:

    You WILL affect your children even when you try not to do so; you might as well give it your best conscious shot (i.e., whether you think it’s better to bring them to church or keep them away, don’t think you’re leaving it up to them!)

    Kids come with their own wiring and you can’t open up the box. Inputs often produce totally unexpected outputs — like when at age 40 you stare in the mirror one day and realize with shock you just unconsciously used one of your father’s gestures while shaving.

    Other people have remote controls too and their signal is often stronger than yours. Your battery will run out before the remotes do.

    You WILL care anyway.

  2. Most wise words

  3. My parents allowed me to choose church attendance for myself without artificial consequences as soon as I was legally able to stay home by myself (e.g. 12). For a while I chose to stay home, but I eventually came to value church for myself and rarely missed church during the twenty years until I left the church.

    “You WILL affect your children even when you try not to do so; you might as well give it your best conscious shot (i.e., whether you think it’s better to bring them to church or keep them away, don’t think you’re leaving it up to them!)”

    True, we will influence our children whether we mean to or not, but it’s a false dichotomy to imagine that we must either abandon our children at birth to make their own way in the world (not possible of course), or we must inevitably try to force our children to believe as we do. (Is that really what you meant?) Dale McGowan says it best.

  4. FireTag permalink

    Jonathon:

    I don’t think we’re that far apart. I’m saying if I believe I should NOT force my children to attend a church I believe in strongly, I’m still acting on my belief that non-indoctrination is best for them. So, it’s in that sense that I’m “taking my best shot.”

    If I believed that my kid was going to hell for not becoming involved in my church 24/7, I might decide differently. I would hope in either case I had the child’s welfare in mind.

    In fact, I might be devious enough to NOT require church attendence in the hope that doing so might more effectively ensure later involvement after I no longer had an “enforcement” option. And I would be sure my kid heard the “bad news” she wasn’t getting in Sunday school BEFORE I was no longer around to help her deal with it.

  5. I’m sure our thoughts don’t differ too much. What you’re saying sounds tautological. Of course the best practice for parents involves doing what you think is best. I think everyone can agree to that. The question then becomes whether we should take an authoritarian approach or a more libertarian approach to matters of belief.

    In the Mormon narrative about the preexistence, God comes down firmly on the libertarian side of the question. It seems, however, that some Mormon parents ignore this parenting paragon.

  6. FireTag permalink

    My wife and I worked very hard to make the church experience a fun time for our daughter while conveying that relationship to God was very serious to us. I don’t know how many tents Lehi put up in the wilderness, but I can sure tell you he put up a lot of them in our living room between the recliner and the couch.

    It produced a child with very unusual beliefs, but she was ordained a High Priest at an age so young she had to be “carded” when she went to her quorum meeting at World Conference.

  7. It produced a child with very unusual beliefs, but she was ordained a High Priest at an age so young she had to be “carded” when she went to her quorum meeting at World Conference.

    …so many questions arise from just one sentence…

    i really should do more research on the CofChrist, lol

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