Inside One Mormon Family: Raising Faithful Children

A couple of recent articles have Mormons thinking about best practices in teaching our children church history and doctrine, and in particular whether we should deliberately acquaint them with the most challenging issues in Mormon experience—issues like historical polygamy, for instance, that are largely absent from official church discourse. Like other observers, I would welcome a more open approach from the Church itself, and that may be coming. But in my experience there's a lot more to a successful inoculation than the institutional pedagogy children encounter at church. Everyday family life fosters or hinders a child's spiritual growth than any Sunday manual ever could.

When it comes to family environment, I won the lottery. My parents are ordinary humans with ordinarily imperfect kids, but they created a family environment that equipped us extraordinarily well to meet faith challenges without fear, betrayal, or emotional crisis. Certainly I hold myself up as no paragon of faith or spirituality. But my own challenges with belief have brought me relatively little personal upheaval and no rupture of my relationships. Whether or not my parents' approach was typical, or whether it would work for everybody, who can say? Nevertheless, and on the strength of personal anecdote alone, here's what worked in our home.

1) Teach your children to read critically. Reading with my parents was the defining experience of my childhood. They read to us and with us all the time: stories every night before bed, scripture every evening at dinner, Sherlock Holmes stories on long Sunday afternoons, anything and everything on the endless road trips to Utah. Every chapter was a covert lesson in critical reading. To read critically doesn't have to mean negativelyor skeptically, of course; my parents approached scripture with love and respect. But they showed us how to read a text as more than just words on a page: look for connections, make inferences, recognize different points of view, point out interesting contradictions, begin to historicize, suggest several different interpretations. A child can't find real value in scripture until she can ask real questions of it.

2) Buy books, lots and lots of books, for them to read. My parents' personal library is legendary. They bought the best books in every category: Mormon studies, including critical and outsider treatments, and religious studies generally, of course, but far beyond that. Science, history, mathematics. Politics, biography, memoir. Literary criticism, social science. Philosophy and poetry. And shelves and shelves of children's fiction. There was a bookshelf in every room, but the bulk of the collection was shelved topically in the family room where we spent much of our time. The titles and subtitles lining the wood-paneled walls were an education in themselves, and their image still wallpapers the back of my eyelids. I've pulled only a fraction of those books off the shelf, but their presence in the home, their constant accessibility, and the silent conversation among those thousands of spines worked on us day and night. A library of books in the home builds a library of ideas in a child's mind, ideas that can make sense of challenges when they come. Kindle can't do that, folks.

3) Take responsibility for your own children's spiritual formation. We attended church faithfully every week, but my parents did not rely on the ward to manage our spiritual education. Never directly undermining what was taught on Sunday, my parents personally introduced us to Mormon history, scripture, cosmology, sociology, and culture. They did this in family home evenings, in regular scripture study sessions, in Sunday family devotionals, and in special summertime seminars for the teenagers in the house my mother called "School of the Prophets." They gave us free access to their complete collection of Dialogue and BYU Studies—and they read the journals themselves. They did not parade us past every bit of challenging history or cultural gripe they may have harbored, but they gave us the tools to cope with them when we encountered them on our own.

4) Serve faithfully but not zealously in the church. My parents always served reliably in their callings; my mother in particular has given untold thousands of hours of invaluable volunteer service to the Church in her capacity as seminary and institute teacher. But there was no desperation or rigidity in their service, and no resentment. They gave the service that flowed naturally from their personal investment in the ward and its members.

5) Live rigorously; think freely. We were not always perfect in our personal and family observances, but my parents tried hard to implement as much of the full program as they could in our home. They did this partly for obedience's sake, but also so that we could experience the trust and mutuality of full fellowship with the Saints. Their willing (but never rigid) compliance with the community's behavioral expectations earned them the confidence and loyalty of the ward. With these relationships in place, their occasionally unorthodox thinking was generally tolerated, often welcomed, rarely censured.