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“I Don’t Tell My Child What to Believe”

December 31st, 2009 by Bruce Nielson

“I Don’t Tell My Child What to Believe” — Some thoughts on confusion between practice and belief in general.

I came across an interesting post where a mother describes how she doesn’t tell her daughter what she should believe.

If I had one weakness more obvious than the others (at least when it comes to trying to be involved with the bloggernacle) it’s that the only topics of interest to me are the ones that often are considered “off limits”. So I’m going to try to be as respectful of this post (which I really do believe is excellent) while pointing out the main point I can’t agree with.

Here is a quote from the article:

I told her [her daughter] that I don’t have all the answers and I know what it’s like to feel guilty about not being able to believe everything I was taught at church, and I want her to hear different points of view and be free to make up her own mind about what she believes
She thanked me. Not with a casual “Oh, thanks, Mom,” either, but enthusiastically, with sincere gratitude. Thank you for not telling me what to believe! It sounded like it was something she had already thought about. Something that was important to her.
Can that be? She’s eleven.

She continues later:

If I were a Calvinist I would think she was predestined to be a Universalist…

A salient point, though, is her criticism of Elder Christofferson encouraging parents to teach their children what they believe:

I told her that they said in General Conference that I shouldn’t let her make up her own mind about what to believe. She laughed.

Now I’m a Universalist myself. Granted, all Mormons are Universalists, but I more so than most. And personally, I think attending a seminar on religious exploration might be a very healthy thing. Futhermore, I have no criticism at all for this parent’s techniques.

But it just isn’t hard to see that this mother is strongly encouraging her daughter in what to believe… exactly how any good parent would — yes, including a believing LDS parent.

After all, is it really all that shocking that this daughter has wound up with exactly the same beliefs as her mother and that she is lavishing praise on her for it?

I, for one, am glad to see her imparting her moral and religious values to her child. And if practicing but not believing in the LDS Church is her chosen belief system, I just can’t see a problem with her teaching her child to believe the same way for the same reason I’d have no problem with Agellius (sorry to pick on you again) imparting Catholic beliefs to his Catholic children. If that includes teaching that certain teachings of the LDS Church aren’t true, that’s what I’d expect, nothing more or less. To me, this is just good parenting and I have no issue with this.

My Concern — Implication That She’s Different
But what I do have to take issue with is the accusation that her parenting approach is somehow different from that which every good parent does or somehow different from what Elder Christofferson advocated. Granted, he was advocating it from a believing Mormon point of view, but other than that, she is following his advice completely.

“I’m Not Like My Parents”
Now I do not know what this poster’s growing up experience was, nor how her parents handled teaching her. So I have nothing to say about that.

Instead, let’s talk about a common hypothetical scenario. Imagine a situation similar to this posters: a mother that was raised in a believing LDS home but stopped believing in much or all of it at some point.

It’s not hard to imagine that this might have led to arguments with parents, bad feelings, etc. And from there it’s not hard to imagine that such a hypothetical mother would want to “be different from her parents” by “not telling my children what to believe like my parents did to me.”

But this is a misunderstanding, after all, this hypothetical mother was not forced to believe as her parents did. After all, she doesn’t. Indeed, no parent can force a child to believe what they want them to believe. The real point of contention is actually how the mother’s parents handled her rejection of their cherished beliefs.

Confusion Between Practice and Belief
The question that feels worth exploring is not what is the best parenting technique (I actually think this mother is doing great and intend to follower her example of teaching my children what I believe and then letting them decide for themselves when they are adults!). To me, the question is “why does this mother think she’s doing something out of the ordinary when she’s really just doing the same thing every good parent does?”

I think the logic goes something like this:

Assertion 1: I was raised LDS (or fill in the blank religion. This really has nothing to do with being LDS or not.)

Assertion 2: I rejected many of the teachings of my church as a teen or adult. My parents didn’t like this. (Specifically, what was rejected were generally truth claims)

Assertion 3: I am not going to make the same mistake my parents made. Instead, I’m going to teach my children (who I’m still raising as practicing LDS or Catholic or whatever) that no religion has exclusive truth claims so that they can, later in life, choose whatever “path” fits for them best.

Logical Conclusion: Therefore, I’m being more open minded than my parents.

The problems with this logic are contained in assertion 3.

First, it confuses practice and belief. Taking your children to a Church (be it LDS or Catholic or anything) but teaching them at home that religious truth claims of organized religions aren’t true (or aren’t fully true) isn’t the same as raising your child to actually be a fully believing LDS or Catholic, etc. What you are really teaching them is to practice a religion while believing in none of the organized forms.

Consider, for example, if this mother stayed active LDS all her life, but her child became a Universalist Budahist that basically believed as she did (i.e. that no religion has exclusive truths from God) but practiced a different organized religion. Would we expect this mother to have any concerns with her child’s choice? Of course not. This would be a child that exactly mimicked what she had been taught growing up.

But let’s change the scenario:

The Real Test is Yet to Come
The real test will be if some day her daughter grows up and finds the Evangelical Jesus and decides that her mother taught her wrong. Or worse yet, tells her she’s going to hell if she doesn’t repent!

Will she then still be supportive of not telling her daughter what to believe? Or will she then find herself at odds with her child — perhaps even just like her own parents were if she had such a situation — constantly fighting her daughter and trying to reconvert her to the beliefs she taught her in her childhood?

Ah, now that’s the real test!

If this mother can still smile at her adult Evangelical child and see only the positives in her child’s religious choice, then and only then will she really believe in not telling her child what to believe. But that point of crisis has not yet arrived and hopefully never will. So as of yet, even she doesn’t know if she is really not telling her daughter what to believe.

Exclusive Truth Claims are Inevitable
A second misunderstand is that one can reject exclusive truth claims. Clearly this mother is teaching an exclusive truth claim to her children — that there are no true exclusive truth claims within organized religion.

This is a delicious recurive paradox that never ends, a real strange loop magnificient. It’s like saying “This statement is false.”

You will teach your children exclusive truth claims, because you have no choice but to do it.

What’s Wrong with Arguing with Your Child If You Think They are Wrong?
Another interesting question: Is there something wrong if this mother did choose to argue with her hypothetical adult Evangelical child? What is wrong with this?

If she sincerely believes her child is going down a wrong spiritual path, she probably should try to encourage her and, yes, reconvert her to what she feels is right.

Granted, this should be done in such a way as to not alienate the child in any way. But why would this be morally wrong?

(In say this, I’m not suggesting that not arguing with the child in this circumstance is wrong either. I suspect there is more than one morally correct answer here and it probably differs by child, parent, and circumstance.)

So in the end, we will teach our children what we believe, one way or the other. And our children, as adults, may or may not accept it. So it makes the most sense to teach them what we really believe with intention and purpose and put some gusto into it just like Elder Christofferson advocates. (As this posting mother seems to be doing!)

Comments (6)
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December 31st, 2009 17:57:12

Adam G.
January 3, 2010

Spot on.

January 3, 2010

Right. We cannot help teaching our children what we believe; they want to learn from us, and they will, one way or another.

In my experience, the statement “I will not teach my children what to believe” translates to “I believe I have nothing worthwhile to teach my children.” Which may well be true.

Bruce Nielson
January 3, 2010

Actually, Vader, in your case I’d prefer that you *not* teach your children what to believe. Let their Uncle Owen raise them instead.

January 3, 2010

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

Adam G.
January 4, 2010

What would a truly neutral parent’s teaching moments look like? “Rape: Pros and Cons”?

Bruce Nielson
January 4, 2010


I’m going to give you a serious answer to your question.

I think Elder Christofferson was talking to (or at least believed he was addressing) those that believed in a religion but weren’t interested in putting in effort with their children and were thus using the “I’m not telling my children what to believe” line as an excuse for poor parenting.

(Interestingly, this means he was talking about the opposite of the mother who is criticizing him. After all, taking your kids to a Religious Exploration retreat would seem to me to be highly involved with imparting your beliefs and values to your children.)

Therefore, in this context, a “neutral parent” is one that just doesn’t care what values they impart to their children because they don’t care about their own moral values. (Which they hold intellectually, but ignore in practice.) Hopefully this is a really small minority of parents, almost non-existent. But certainly such parents do exist, unfortunately.

This highlights what to me is a bigger problem: our apparently very human need to choose to misunderstand those we see as “different” from ourselves. Rather than seeing the similarities between Elder Christofferson’s view and her own (which are objectively almost total), she felt the need to try to outline how she was different and what he was doing was morally bad and what she was doing was morally good.

Makes me wonder how often I do this and just don’t realize I’m doing it.

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