There was recently an interesting online discussion about the trickiness of valuing “agency” when we are also encouraged at Church to put the hand on the scale of the choices our kids make. For example, how often have you heard (and I swear this is a newer trend, not something that was said when I was growing up) that someone is proud that a newly baptized eight year old made the “choice” to be baptized. Did they, though?
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by the Amish. Amish children are taught in Amish schools, separate from public schools, only through 8th grade. They don’t drive or use electronics (except apparently some do use phones and computers in their businesses but keep all technology in the barn.) The Amish are anabaptists, meaning they are only baptized as adults, not as children. The choice to be baptized is a huge decision, far bigger than the choice someone makes in the LDS church, because if they do not choose to be baptized, they are shunned by their Amish family and must go live in the world, completely separate, for the rest of their lives. This is why they are encouraged to go out to experience the world as late teens in an event called Rumspringa, to help them make the right decision.
Contrast that with the life plan we set out for our LDS youth. We certainly don’t encourage them to have some kind of Mormon Rumspringa, a counter-proof experience that will either scare them back into the bosom of the community or conversely lure them into the clutches of worldliness and debauchery.
Instead, we have ways to put our hand on the scale of the “right” choices, the choice to stay in the Church. What is the role of seminary, BYU, missions, EFY / Trek, marrying and having children early, if not this? In fact, at each of these potential steps, youth leaders, Bishops and parents often push their offspring toward these next steps. High schoolers are often asked “Where are you going to college?” but the real question they are being asked is “Are you going to BYU?” A returned missionary is asked “Who are you dating? Anyone serious?” Young singles who are dating may be asked, “When are you two going to tie the knot?” Newly married couples may be asked “When are you going to have a baby? You don’t want to wait too long! I already had one or two by your age!” The cycle continues, on and on, with the assumption that progressing through each of these steps is always the “right” choice, and any deviation is like falling off of a cliff into the mists of darkness.
As LDS parents, if these steps worked for us, they couldn’t be all bad, right? It’s always easiest to see your child make choices that are tried and true, that already worked for you. When they make choices that are different or unfamiliar, that can feel scary and dangerous. We don’t know where those “other” choices might lead. We also tend to overlook the ways in which parental pressure can backfire. As comedian Todd Glass put it, “You wouldn’t let your parents choose your jeans. Why would you let them choose your religion?”
The most interesting thing about the online discussion was this notion that it’s suddenly become important to phrase these life milestones as “choices,” even when there is a lot of pressure and coercion involved. There aren’t many eight year olds who are really cognizant of what the Church is really all about. Those who attend the temple for the first time likewise aren’t briefed prior to the experience on the exact nature of what will follow. The social pressure to complete these ritualistic steps can be very strong in the moment. Refusal is tantamount to a full-scale rejection of one’s family.
Even non-ritualistic milestones within the Church community carry their own social pressures. Kids who don’t attend seminary or Church activities feel singled out as a “project” with friends or teachers approaching them out of love and concern to try to get them to conform with the social norm. Often, the pressure to serve a mission is so great for young men that they may leave the Church entirely rather than give up two years for something they aren’t sure about. Staying active in the Church after choosing not to go on a mission also usually leads to continued social pressure or negative assumptions if a young man persists in his decision not to go. I suspect this is one reason that the age was moved back from 19 to 18. It’s much harder to resist this pressure the younger you are. Failure to marry at a young age may result in similar social pressures and perceived judgements for a young woman.
As parents, whether in the Church or not, we all subject our children to pressures. Even defiant children crave parental approval deep down, and parents want to feel that they are helping their children, using the best tools available to them. We evaluate all of their choices according to our own values: educational, religious, political, employment opportunities, romantic interests, family planning, etc. Just because we have an opinion, doesn’t make it right. Just because they do something doesn’t mean they didn’t cave in to coercive pressures.
It’s difficult to recognize when we are being too coercive as parents vs. just encouraging them with what we believe to be good advice. After all, we have a lot of power as parents, but little control. Parents who try to exert control will ultimately lose the power they have in the lives of their children. We need to recognize when we are being coercive or controlling because we can see that our child believes they must comply to be loved, which is an impossible situation to put them in. The notion from the Old Testament that children must obey their parents or be stoned to death is, aside from a terrible law, a pretty good metaphor for bad parenting. Plus, if all of us are children obeying parents, it’s turtles all the way down. Who are we ultimately obeying here? Some long-dead millenia old ancestor who lived in a completely different world that no longer exists? That’s no way to live a life.
A woman becomes a responsible parent when she stops being an obedient daughter.Glennon Doyle, author
It’s actually quite a bit easier as children to recognize when we feel coerced, when we are being rejected along with our choices. This is partly the pain of growing up, of separating from our parents and becoming independent people in our own right, but it doesn’t have to follow that our hearts and spirits are broken in the process. That’s an option taken by insecure parents who haven’t learned what agency really is. It’s not congratulating someone for making a choice they’ve been pressured into.
Churches can also act as a coercive parent in the lives of congregants, particularly high demand religions. The role of the bishop often functions more as a coercive parent than as a pastoral assistant to the flock in Mormon congregations, more involved in assessing “worthiness” based on a prescribed set of beliefs and actions rather than listening and responding to individual needs. Instead, we could be more honest with Church members that whatever their choices are, there will be heartaches and blessings, adversity and joy, lessons to learn and respite. No choice is a panacea. There is no one plan that leads to happiness without regard to individual circumstances. The one who has to live with it is the only one equipped to make the choice. We need to get our hand off the scale and be more humble about our belief that we know what will be best for every human on the planet.
- When have you felt coerced as a child? How did you know you were being coerced?
- When have you been coercive as a parent? What do you do when your adult child makes a choice you don’t like?
- Have you felt coerced at Church? Why and when? What did you do?
- How do we avoid being coercive and respect choices that differ from our own?
 Rumspringa varies from sect to sect. It’s not always the reality show free-for-all we’ve been exposed to on TV. It is also the courting time, when teens as young as 14 for girls or 16 for boys are allowed to have some socialization with the opposite sex within the community. If they choose to marry outside the community, they are not baptized and they are shunned.