Someone once described parenting to me like blowing as hard as you can on a cannonball that has already launched in an effort to make it change course. Now that I am a mother, I can understand that comment much better. Despite our tireless efforts as parents (as in other aspects of life), so much seems out of our control. In many ways, that is an extraordinary and magical thing. Why should my child be just like me or my husband? If I only wanted to stare at a copy of myself, I would’ve looked in a mirror and not gone through the trouble of creating a new, precious, mysterious, sometimes overwhelming life all my child’s own.
Of course, there is still plenty we not only can do but must do for our children whom we chose to bring into the world. Becoming a parent or caregiver of any child comes with many responsibilities: emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual. I’m no expert on these subjects, but a conversation I had with a friend who is also a mother to young children prompted me to write specifically about our obligation to meet the spiritual needs of our children.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness, to provide for their physical and spiritual needs, to teach them to love and serve one another, to observe the commandments of God and to be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. Husbands and wives—mothers and fathers—will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” (Confession: this is one of the only parts of the document “The Family: A Proclamation to the World” that I find bearable. If it added “caregivers” to parents and said “they” instead of specifying “husbands and wives–mothers and fathers” this segment would be pretty near perfect to me.)
But what does it mean to rear children in righteousness, to provide for their spiritual needs, and to observe the commandments of God? Parents who are members of the Church are instructed to teach their children “to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old” (D&C 68:25) and “to teach their children to pray, and to walk uprightly before the Lord” (D&C 68:28). It specifically does not say that parents must force their children to repent or to have faith or to get baptized at age eight or to pray. The Scriptures only say that children should be taught these things by parents who have knowledge of the Gospel and its blessings. The plain and simple message as I understand it is that good parents should not withhold knowledge of good things, things that can prevent much unnecessary heartache and that can lead to many blessings.
I believe the language is intentionally broad because the specifics will look different for every family. It is often misinterpreted to say that parents are accountable for their children’s sins when in reality it is only saying parents must teach their children what is good and true. I did not grow up in the Church, but I turned out just fine without Gospel teachings guiding me through childhood and adolescence. There are plenty of experiences I could have avoided had I known about and kept commandments at the time and certain things I went through that would have been less painful had I had a more eternal perspective, but like the vast majority of the global population I grew into a perfectly normal human being without being raised in the Church.
Because my parents were open about religion and left me free to choose, I was able to discover the Church on my own and join of my own free will as an adult. I don’t believe my faith today would be nearly as strong if I had been pressured to embrace it before I was ready. I am grateful for my family’s acceptance of diverse beliefs and my parents’ example of loving each other even when you passionately disagree on something as central to identity and life as religion. All, including little children, have the God-given right to choose and change and recalibrate their spiritual path and identity.
Once children are taught, it is up to them whether they want to follow their parents’ and the Church’s teachings. That is my own approach as a mother and active member of the Church married to a non-member: it is my responsibility to teach what I know but to respect my child’s choice whatever that may be and even if it changes over time. Both my husband and I grew up in mixed-faith families, and it is not the horror some who cannot imagine difference on something so fundamental make it out to be.
The Plan of Salvation always preserves the agency of God’s children, so why would we expect it to be any different for our children on Earth? I will never forget what a friend of mine and mother to multiple children once said to me: “I hate it when people post on social media from their kid’s baptism saying they’re proud of them for choosing to be baptized at age eight. They’re eight! We all know it’s not really a choice.”
As a convert who did not grow up in the Church and who was pleased to find our doctrine of baptism emphasizes free choice instead of infant baptism without consent, I was shocked. Surely, this friend didn’t mean it! But when I pushed back, the friend confided in me that all her children, though not yet of age, would not be permitted a choice. She would ensure they got baptized regardless of whether they wanted to or not. In her mind, as a lifelong and traditional member of the Church, that’s what good and faithful mothers do. I can’t blame her for having this perception when Church leaders and others repeat over and over that “salvation is an individual matter; exaltation is a family matter.”
Plenty of environmental messages reinforce this belief even further. How many times do we see an obituary where the virtue of a deceased person – usually a woman – is trumpeted by the continuing Church activity of her descendants? For example: “As a testament to her extraordinary faith and commitment to teaching the Gospel in the home, all seven children and twenty grandchildren are active members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all the men have served full-time missions with honor.” It’s as if the personal religious choices of all of a woman’s family are solely a reflection of her own capacity as a mother and spiritual leader!
The corollary is that any chips or cracks in the veneer of family faithfulness to the Church are seen as a reflection on its matriarchs. That is simply too heavy a burden to place on one mortal woman, and it’s far beyond the obligations of parents simply to teach while respecting the agency of children as outlined in the Scriptures. I cannot count the number of times friends of mine who are mothers have expressed heartbreaking shame or guilt over the inactivity of children or other family members. It leads to greater suffering as many parents, caregivers, and others wrestle with the idea of a “Sad Heaven.”
Some lament that if only they had been more consistent with Family Home Evening or more focused during General Conference or more perfect of an example themselves then surely their children would have stayed active Church members. But no amount of perfection in Gospel living can erase children’s agency, nor should it. That would defy our Heavenly Parents’ plan for us and stifle our children’s own eternal progression. We cannot guarantee their spiritual growth for them, and suffocating them with lack of choice seems more likely to backfire and create trauma than encourage their spiritual self-reliance and well-being.
It’s up to parents to teach and children to decide. Isn’t that the model our own Heavenly Parents have provided for us? If They wouldn’t force our baptism or adherence to the Word of Wisdom or Temple attendance, then why would we be expected to force others? As Elder Holland put it, “be kind regarding human frailty…Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we.”
In our current culture, there are real social and spiritual consequences to deviations from the familial spiritual perfection considered by many essential for exaltation. And it’s completely valid to feel sad or disappointed in the spiritual path of our loved ones, especially if we believe they will miss out on joy or blessings or insight that they would otherwise have access to. But that doesn’t change the fact that it was never our choice to make. As a child of God, I appreciate the spiritual agency I’ve been given to do what I believe is good and true and right for me. And I hope my child feels the same.