Twice during the last week I’ve been asked the same question by successful, highly educated people who are at this moment peering with trepidation through the fog around the edges Mormonism toward the unknown (for them) beyond. That question is whether I could provide them with a list of the pros and cons with respect to removing children of various ages from Mormonism, and attempting to raise them in an on Mormon environment. I have been asked something similar more times than I can count, and until now have not felt motivated to attempt to systematically compile a response. I invite anyone who wishes to do so to help me with that. If you don’t want to read further, just note your ideas with regard to the pros and cons below.
As some of you know, I am a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd. See James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds” for more in that regard. One of the best ways to access the wisdom of the crowd with regard to the topic I described above is to, simply, find a knowledgeable crowd and ask for help. That is what I’m doing here. I am also going to post this message in a few other places, including one where I know many faithful Mormons will see it. It is important that we consider the broadest perspective possible, and it would be foolish to attempt to address this question without inviting the more thoughtful of those who have the strongest possible incentive to disagree with us to have their say.
I believe that there are two basic categories into which this question should be broken – pre-teenagers, and teenagers or older. In a nutshell, it is my view that Mormonism and other similar organizations don’t do much harm with regard to young children. In fact, I think that kind of secure, loving environment Mormonism tries to create is close to what small children need. However, as children begin to question, and therefore attempt to develop their critical thinking skills, social attitudes that discourage questioning or suppress information begin to cause damage. Santa Claus is the example most of us use. When children are old enough to seriously question whether Santa is real, it is counterproductive in a variety of ways to do anything other than assist the child to figure out reality. The same thing applies with regard to the Easter Bunny, God, and the myth our heroes (including people like Barry Bonds, Bill Clinton or Albert Einstein) never do anything wrong. So, while Mormonism is far less than ideal for small children, it is not toxic.
The damage caused by the Mormon and other similar institutions becomes severe when children reach their teens. This is because many of our most important neural networks, and therefore long-term behavioural patterns, are formed as our brains are bombarded by hormones, and therefore loosened up for extraordinary growth during the age between puberty and 17 or 18 years. Research indicates (I am going from memory here, so don’t hang me if I get the percentages a little wrong) that the way children develop into adults is influenced first of all by genetics (roughly 50%); second by teenage peer group (something like 25%); third by sibling influences, including birth order (something like 10%); and fourth by parental and other influences. There are not many percentage points left by the time we get down to direct parental influence.
This means that, generally speaking, the most significant influence parents can have (after contributing their genes) on their children will be to help to determine their teenage peer group. That means that the choice as to where we live, the schools our children attend, where (or if) they go to church, the extracurricular activities in which our children engage, etc., are the big choices we make. What we believe, how we communicate our beliefs to our children, and even how we behave, have relatively minor influences in the big scheme of things. I am not, of course, talking about extreme abusive or that kind of thing. I’m talking about the ordinary family in which parents make the usual effort to do the right thing for their children.
I should also say, as I said to each of the two individuals who recently contacted me, that I don’t believe it is justifiable for any person to tell anyone else what they should do with their life. Our natures and circumstances are too complex for that. It is helpful, however, to share the most accurate information we can about how social influences tend to work, and on that basis construct general rules. We each are then in a position to judge, as best we can, how those general rules apply in our situations. This is how I wish I was treated while coming to maturity, and so this is how I tried to treat other people.
My basic position with regard to younger children is that attending church and otherwise being involved with Mormonism is not a bad thing. There are no doubt better environments that could be found, but if all of my children were eight years of age or younger, I would not feel pressure from that point of view to immediately exit Mormonism. Once the oldest child is past eight, I would begin to feel pressure. And once that child is approaching the Mormon youth system, I would feel a lot of pressure.
Having said that, I know a number of families who for various reasons have chosen to remain connected to Mormonism in the long-term while one or both of the parents no longer believed Mormonism’s truth claims. In some of those cases, some of the children turned out spectacularly well. In others, the results from my perspective were disastrous. I likewise know many families who have completely left Mormonism. In many cases, their children have turned out fabulously. In some others, the results have been disappointing.
On balance, based on my observations and not on empirical research (I don’t believe there has been any done in this regard), the probability of our children turning out to be the kind of strong, independent, self-actualizing people we would like them to be is better if they are raised by confident parents living outside the confines of Mormonism, than within it.
With that overlong intro behind me, the remainder of my comments are addressed toward the pros and cons of remaining within Mormonism from the perspective of parents trying to raise teenage children. Again, I invite comments both with regard to the content of each of my bullet points below, and by way of adding additional bullet points.
Pros (put as a Mormon would, with room for a critique to come later in square brackets):
1. Mormonism creates a safe environment for our children, and so protects them against dangers related to things like sexually transmitted diseases, the psychological trauma of premature sexual activity, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. [ ]
2. Mormonism emphasizes simple, strong moral values. This is more likely to produce well adjusted, happy children and adults than the chaotic environment outside of Mormonism. [ ]
3. Mormonism emphasizes commitment to family and community, and provides a good foundation for a stable, traditional family life. [ ]
4. Mormonism emphasizes education and achievement. [ ]
5. Mormonism encourages the traditional role of father and mother, and as a result creates greater opportunity for mothers in particular to spend time with their children, and for fathers to provide the kind of guidance that produces well-adjusted children. [ ]
6. Mormonism encourages an international point of view as a result of how many missionaries serve outside of North America, and return to become integrated within the Mormon community. [ ]
7. It is difficult to find any community that offers as many high-quality programs for families and young people as Mormonism does. It is a great one-stop shop. [ ]
1. Mormons are taught to think magically. This results from the Mormon belief system, and it’s literal understanding of the Biblical miracles, that angels etc. appeared to Joseph Smith and other prominent figures in Mormon history, and that worst of all, that God actually communicates in understandable terms to each human being so as to help them make important decisions. One of the most important, and dysfunctional, Mormon ideas in this regard is that we can “know” by way of what we feel. This form of knowing overrides knowledge based on empirical evidence and rational thought. A host of bad decision-making habits arise from what I just described. Many of these slop over into business and non-religious life issues. However, Mormons are at their worst when making decisions with regard to their religion, and aspects of their family life related to their religion. It is emotional knowing that, for example, leads people to dedicate unreasonably large amounts of time and money to Mormonism. It causes young peopleto marry in many cases when they should not. It causes young married couples to have more children than they are able to financially and emotionally support. The morality from an environmental perspective of having large families does not even hit the radar screen.
2. As noted above, peer group influence is second only genetics in terms of how our children turn out. This will trump, in many if not most cases, parental teaching. The Mormon Church invests heavily in its youth programs for this reason. Mormonism is, in this sense, a huge extended family that has as one of its objectives to reduce the influence of parents who are not fully faithful to the Mormon way.
3. Mormons are raised in a simplistic environment where too many decisions are made for them. This causes them to not develop the instincts required to successfully operate in the complex social and other environments of the “real world”. This is one of the explanations for the way in which fraud artists take advantage of more people per capita in Utah than any other State. In this way, and in many others, mainstream Mormonism is a watered-down version of the FLDS. Being raised Mormon systematically weakens individuals so that they will be less inclined to attempt to leave the Mormon community. This effect is stronger with regard to girls than boys, since boys must be prepared to earn a living.
4. Young Mormons are encouraged to marry far too early, and to make that decision on the basis of the “spirit”. This is usually done after a boy has been away for two years on his mission during precisely that period of time when most males are more sexually active than at any other time. They are then told that they cannot have sex until they get married. The girls, on the other hand, are told to save themselves for those wonderful returned missionaries. It is no surprise that the returned missionary almost immediately feels “inspired” to marry one of the first girls to whom he becomes emotionally attached. The source of this inspiration is clear, and it has nothing to do with God. Many poor matches are made as a result.
5. Young Mormons are made to feel guilty about their bodies, their sexuality, and many other healthy and natural aspects of being human. “The natural man is an enemy of God”. The guilt and shame this produces creates self-esteem issues, increases the probability of depression, and in a variety of other ways is dysfunctional.
6. Pity the young Mormon who is genetically oriented toward same-sex attraction. The Mormon shoe pinches particularly hard for this kind of person. They will be taught to hate themselves, in a particularly perverse, passive aggressive kind of way. That is, while being told how much they are loved and should love themselves, they are in fact taught that some of their deepest instincts are evil. This breeds self hate. I’m not aware of statistics having been gathered with regard to this point, but I would be astonished if the suicide rate in the Mormon gay community was not orders of magnitude above that of the general community. This has been shown to be the case with Orthodox Jews, and I believe evangelical Christians of certain kinds. It is surely also the case with regard to Mormons.
7. Our personality types determine to a large extent the environments in which we will feel most comfortable, and are most likely to thrive. Some people need a lot of structure in their lives. They will probably gravitate toward a system similar to Mormonism. However, many such systems will not encourage magical thinking and the kind of dogmatism that marks Mormonism and other similar literalist religions. So, the people who need structure can do better than Mormonism. Mormonism is particularly unhealthy for other personality types who do better in environments that encourage exploration and individuality. Consider, for example, the case of a girl who is highly exploration oriented and not inclined toward the domestic life offered by the wife and mother role. How is that kind of person likely to get along within Mormonism?
8. While this is somewhat repetitive of the point immediately above, I note that young Mormons are presented with a range of career and lifestyle options that is unrealistically narrow. For example, the percentage of intelligent young Mormon males who aspire toward earning a lot of income as a result of careers in business or the professions is extraordinarily high. This is the result in large measure of the expectations within the Mormon community. To be successful by Mormon standards, you will have a large family and a wife who stays home and raises your children. This requires a single breadwinner to earn a lot of money. Making fundamental career and lifestyle choices on this basis is nonsensical in our circumstances of abundance. As indicated above, different personality types need different kinds of environments. I think it is far better to give our children the opportunity to experience as many different environments as possible, and to encourage them to gravitate toward the people and environments withwhich they naturally resonate. Mormonism’s narrowness is in part responsible for the high rates of depression in Utah.
9. Mormons tend to have an undue deference to authority. This is largely the result of the way in which they are taught to subject themselves to personal interviews, and the authority of various family and religious community figures. This probably accounts in large measure for the sky-high rates of financial fraud in Utah, and the way in which Mormons routinely taken advantage of by multilevel marketing organizations. That is, Mormons are made manipulable by their religious beliefs so that they will be better Mormon worker bees, and once that is discovered by other people, they will take advantage as well. This also is part of the being-raised-in-a-too-simple-environment problem.
10. Mormons tend to have poorly formed personal boundaries. This is, again, largely the result of the way in which they are taught to subject themselves to personal interviews, and the authority of various parties. Being obedient is close to equated with being good within Mormonism. This means that Mormons are inclined to be too involved in others people lives (too nosey) and accept other people nosing into their business too easily. This is a form of emasculation that is common in close-knit community groups, like the traditional Hindus. It causes a variety of problems, including the extensive use of passive aggressive behavior to control other people. This happens because overt control tools don’t work. So, rather than (or after) screaming at you to repent, loved ones usually express their sadness, distress etc. at your unfaithful behaviour, and in other ways indicate that real intimacy with them is conditional on Mormon belief and behavior. It is particularly ironic that are Mormons pride themselves on having intimate family relationships. The requirement that everyone obey the same rules and behave in the same way seems to create intimacy of a sort. However, just like strong fences make good neighbours, strong personal boundaries facilitate intimacy. For example, the fact that Mormon parents think that it is their duty to keep track of how faithful their children are to Mormon standards, and gently (or not) call their children and grandchildren to repentance as required, means that as soon as children or grandchildren begin to colour outside the Mormon lines, they will feel the need to keep this behavior secret from their parents and grandparents. This destroys intimacy, and at its worst, encourages deceit. See my comments below with regard to weaken the moral fibre in this regard.
11. Mormons, ironically, tend to have weaker than average moral fibre. Mormons fare poorly in various kinds of honesty tests. Utah, for example, has more tax evaders than any other State. This is in part due to the fact that Mormons are put so frequently in positions where they are under a lot of pressure to promise things that they know they have virtually no chance of doing. (“Do you masturbate?”; “Will you get your Home Teaching done this month?”) This has a corrosive effect on morality. Having to teach kids to in effect pretend to believe so as to avoid conflict at church would make this problem worse. And if you don’t teach them this, some will do it anyway because no one likes to be out of step with their peer group.