The first thing you might notice about a Mormon sacrament meeting is the noise.
In almost every Mormon congregation (besides college wards and nursing home wards) there will be a moderate-to-loud roar of children. Children crying, children asking, children chewing, children humming, children making car noises, or if you were near my pew today, children burping.
But now imagine you are a four-year-old boy.
You have to sit still for an hour and ten minutes. You are scrunched between three sisters, a mom and a baby while you listen to people give sermons using words which you don’t understand. You are told you are not to make noise unless you are singing hymns from a hymnbook that you can’t yet read. And when you feel the urge to kick or run or jump or yell your mother hands you crayons and expects you to draw. For my 4-year-old who can’t even stand to wear shoes on his feet, I would have better luck making him eat the crayons than use them.
There are strategies I’ve used over the years. I’ve brought food, bottles, blankets, books, notebooks, markers, pens, magnets, toy cars, silly putty, flannel toys and truckfulls of Cheerios. I’ve drawn things for him, read things to him, explained things to him, colored pictures of him, spelled words for him, folded origami for him, created pipe cleaner animals for him.
But there comes a time when the child can no longer stand the monotony of the meeting, and no pipe cleaner animal or origami creation or cheerio will suffice. If he does not get to beat his chest and howl or toss his shoe three pews back he will explode. And since you are not allowed to howl or throw your shoes at church, that is exactly what he does.
When this happens he must be taken out.
They say the most effective way to correct an unruly child at church is to take him to an empty classroom where there are no treats, no snacks, no toys to play with and they can sit there and calm down. The theory here is that he will see that it is more “fun” to come back to the pew than be in a toyless, sugarless room.
Once I took my misbehaving 4-year-old into a deserted room to let his temper tantrum run its course. He yelled and screamed and pounded the wall. I told him we would stay in there until he calmed down. My plan backfired on me, though, when a man who was teaching a class on the other side of the wall my son was pounding on opened the door and asked if everything was alright. We had to leave, of course and go some place else. But the other classrooms were full and it was raining icicles outside. So we went back to the pew. Child 10 points, Mom 0.
Another time I took him to a deserted room and turned off the lights, hoping that a toyless, sugarless, lightless room would do the trick. I didn’t leave him in there alone, of course. I stood next to the door, frightening the next three adults who unsuspectingly opened the door to see my face staring at them from the darkness.
And then there was the time that he was being good. I remember it very clearly: he was sitting with his hands folded, swinging his feet and making soft buzzing sounds with his lips. Ahhhh . . . I thought . . . this is great. This is nice. He is calm and quiet. And just as I was basking in those thoughts the woman in front of me turns around and asks, “Do you want me to take your son out?”
After which I promptly burst into tears and had to walk around the parking lot by myself for 15 minutes.
Why do we do this? Why do we put ourselves and our children through this mutual torture session? Why? Is anybody getting anything out of this? Is it worth it?!
Yes, yes, yes!!!!
We Mormons are pretty over the top when it comes to teaching our kids about religion. We bring them to three hours of meetings on Sunday. We give them another devotional on Monday night. We read scriptures as a family every day. Teenage boys pass the sacrament and hold the priesthood. Teenage girls can preach from the pulpit. Children of every age take the sacrament (our communion). Youth give lessons, participate in leadership meetings and sing in choir (the choir pianist just got his driver’s license last year!). At 6:00 am every weekday morning they take seminary classes where they memorize scriptures from the New Testament, Old Testament and Book of Mormon. They are expected to dress modestly, act modestly, they have a pamphlet of standards they carry around with them. They don’t have sex. Once a month they fast. They go on missions.
Who does this anymore?
I’ve heard some people say we brainwash our kids into believing the doctrines of our church. But that is not brainwashing. I’ll tell you what brainwashing is, but we have to switch into a darker gear.
The Dark Side of Teaching Children
Recently I read an article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Child Soldiers Who Escaped Islamic State. In it they interviewed children that escaped Islamic State military training camps where children as young as 8 regularly witness beheadings. Where children are gathered, school-field trip style, and given candy as they watch executions. There are many more graphic details that I can’t go into on this blog because my children read it. But suffice it to say that Islamic State knows how to do a few things really well. And one of them is to raise a generation of devout believers.
In his book Acts of Faith Eboo Patel wrote:
“Many mainstream religious institutions ignore young people or, worse, think their role should be limited to designing the annual T-shirt. By contrast, religious extremists build their institutions around the desire of young people to have a clear identity and make a powerful impact.”
Are we Christians doing our part provide today’s youth with “a clear identity to make a powerful impact”? Americans in particular have set aside many rituals that once gave children purpose and destiny: prayer, baptism, repentance, chastity. So how do we expect children to make good decisions when they have no moral foundation? Many parents seem to have no problem releasing their children into an immoral world without giving them a spiritual direction. Instead we arm our kids with phones so that they can get answers to their problems from Google instead of God.
I even have Mormon friends who do not want to “indoctrinate” their own children with Mormon beliefs so that they can be “open-minded” and make decisions for themselves. This is crazy! Children come to earth with minds like open buckets. If parents do not fill that bucket someone else will.
But how do you know what you are filling their bucket with Truth?
I don’t know if I’m filling my kids with Truth or not, but the gospel of Jesus Christ is the Truest thing I have found, since it has already brought a lot of happiness to my own life. My aim is to give them the hope that there is so much more to this sad, earth; that there is a greater Plan, a greater Designer and greater Hope, and that death is not the end, but just graduation. I am teaching them that no matter what horrible mistake they make they have a Savior who has died for them and will forgive them if they repent. I teach them to not forget they are children of God, and not to forget that everyone else is, too. I can’t prove to them that God exists, but no one can prove that He doesn’t.
“We talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins.” We unapologetically flood our children with this knowledge.
We can’t be ambivalent about our children’s spiritual education when there are people on the other side of the world teaching their children there is value and honor in intimidation and killing. We must match their increasing darkness with our increasing light.
Children need a moral education that goes beyond teaching them to recycle, wash their hands, play by the rules, and don’t do things that will get them in jail. They need to have a spiritual identity. And with that spiritual identity will come an inner voice that will guide them to make choices consistent with their beliefs.
Humans are born hungry to believe in something. If we neglect our children spiritually they will find other places to fill that void. Science can prove a lot, but one thing that science will never be able to tell is us what happens to us after we die. Only faith can claim that prize. And why not choose a faith that in the process will make you into the best possible person you can be?
Last Sunday I watched my son, now 5, get ready for church without prodding and without complaint. He sat in the pew reverently and thoughtfully, cradling scriptures he brought himself. This lasted for a record 20 minutes before he finally stood on the pew and tried to swipe the scriptures from the girl in front of him. Hopefully this trend can keep improving, and by the time he is a young adult he will have the power and knowledge to make an impact on the world because he will have a gained personal testimony. He will choose light instead of darkness, he will choose to spread the Good News instead of spreading hatred, and he will choose to ignite hope instead of instilling fear . . . or worse, indifference.