There was an interesting article in Mormon Times about the best places to raise an LDS family. Their top 10 picks included places with similar values and lifestyles. The entire list started with 4 Utah cites (in this order): Provo-Orem, St. George, Logan, and Ogden-Clearfield. The non-Utah cities listed (in this order) were: State College PA, Idaho Falls ID, Corvallis OR, Bend OR, Ames IA, Ithaca NY, Iowa City IA, Boise ID, Lynchburg VA, and Harrisonburg VA.
While I’m sure many of these are fine choices, the underlying premise seems faulty. If anything, families (and children especially) stand to gain more from exposure to diversity of thought and experience than they do from being surrounded by like-minded people. Here are some of the benefits to living in areas of the world where Mormons are in the minority and where Mormon values are not necessarily the norm:
- Responsibility. I grew up mostly in a growing but still somewhat small branch in rural PA. At age 13, I was the Sunday School teacher of my own peer class most weeks due to the shortage of substitutes. At age 15, I sometimes substituted as ward chorister in Sacrament Meeting. And of course, I was always either the president or first counselor of my YW classes (since we never had even enough girls to fill all the callings). These types of leadership experiences and teaching opportunities gave me confidence and skill I would never have achieved in a ward where less was required of me.
- Testimony. When you are the only Mormon in your high school, you are forced to examine your commitment to the church in a much more direct way. You will be asked to explain why you are Mormon (especially after the local churches all get together for a community showing of the Godmakers), basic beliefs, and to articulate where you stand on it. Kids outside the Mormon Corridor are going to be confronted with their own beliefs in a way that encourages them to gain their own individual testimony, whereas in more “Mormon” areas, a teen will not be challenged in the same ways by peers about their strange beliefs.
- Being Unique. Teens want two things: 1) to fit in, and 2) to stand out. While children may have a tendency to conform to peer norms at times, they also want to be viewed as unique. For teens to distinguish themselves in an LDS community usually involves some form of rebellion, for example, a breaking with the church standards. But teens who are surrounded by non-LDS values are already unique. Studies show that teens who make chastity pledges who are surrounded by other teens who make chastity pledges are more likely to become promiscuous than teens who commit to chastity who are unique among their peers for doing so.
- Missionary Focus. Families living in Utah are generally not as pressured to share the gospel as in outlying areas. Even if a family is not inclined to start a gospel discussion, merely attending church will put people in your path who are investigators or less-actives in need of friendship. Your kids will grow up comfortable with making others comfortable at church.
- Open-mindedness. There’s nothing like being exposed to different values to give you perspective on what really matters most. Questioning your assumptions, learning to love people different from yourself, and finding common ground are all things that lead to much better social skills and more thoughtful perspective on your faith.
- Cultural Diversity. LDS kids who grow up in Utah really only have exposure to Utah culture (right wing politics, green jello, being scandalized by alcohol or tobacco, funeral potatoes, etc.). Similarly, kids who grew up in rural PA really only had exposure to PA culture (tandy cakes, Amish horse & buggies on the road, going to a dairy for ice cream, eating chicken corn soup bought at a firehall, etc.). But LDS kids raised outside of Utah are exposed to at least 2 cultures: the local culture, and the “Mormon” culture that creeps in through visiting missionaries, relocated members, etc.
So, which environment do you think has the most benefits for families? Or does it matter? Do other factors weigh more heavily for you? And, where are you raising your kids (if you have kids)?