Zelophehad’s Daughters

Are Children Products?

Posted by Kiskilili

Sometimes the way we talk about motherhood in the Church it sounds like we’re issuing directions for some very special full-time (and I mean full-time) employees at the pumpkin patch on how to raise gargantuan or unusually shaped pumpkins that will garner blue ribbons at the state fair. The only trouble is, the size and shape of a pumpkin isn’t entirely under the control of the greenhouse director. And if pumpkins are sometimes intractable, surely human children in all their splendor are only more complicated.

(Actually, I have no idea what I’m talking about. I’ve had only two abortive experiences with gardening: when I was about seven I tried in vain to grow some vegetables. I think, in my zeal, I overwatered them; to my disappointment, no green buds ever poked their heads out of the dirt. Several years later I thought it would be fun to grow some weeds. They died in short order. Apparently I’m incapable even of keeping weeds alive.)

(P.S. I have even less experience with mothering: as in, none. I shudder to think what someone who can’t keep a weed alive would inadvertantly do to a human child.)

Motherhood, we’re told, is fundamental to female identity. It entails raw power that compensates for any other perceived lack of opportunities or disenfanchisement. Although women may not contribute to church or society the way men do, we’re reminded, they can contribute in even more significant ways: through their children.

I wonder: is this really fair to mothers, to children, or even to fathers?

Children are born with certain personality tendencies. Central to the teaching of the Church is that they also have agency. Mothers can serve their children. They can provide a safe, clean environment in which children can thrive and create opportunities for growth. But ultimately, mothers don’t get to decide whether their children are the biggest and best pumpkins in the patch. The way we frame the discussion construes children as products and mothers as producers laboring to fashion them appropriately into contributing members of society.

Is it fair to ask women to make other people over whom they have power the raw materials for their creative and personal expression? Is it fair to ask children to bear the burden of satisfying mothers’ emotional and aspirational needs, of justifying their mothers’ sacrifices of self? Is it fair to fathers to be largely sidelined in our portrait of ideal parenthood?

I do think there’s reason to obligate mothers and fathers to nurture and love children and provide them with a healthy home environment, but I find the focus on mothers’ power to manufacture upstanding citizens thoroughly distasteful, as much as I hope children grow up to be upstanding citizens. The reason to love children is because people are valuable, and relationships with them are important, and they deserve our love even as they deserve acknowledgment of their agency.

59 Responses to “Are Children Products?”

  1. 1.

    Who said life was fair? Who said children are a creative expression and aspiration? Is that why God created us? Who said mothers sacrifice self in Motherhood? I believe you said children, people and relationships are valuable, so doesn’t that make motherhood valuable? I think this whole post is suffering from a certain lack of value for what it is mothers do.

    After all I could post about the same thing asking if it is fair to ask all men to take the priesthood upon them and honor it. Is if right to ask people to spend their time in church callings, perhaps sacrificing time from their career and/or family. Is it fair that God has aspiration for us and wants us to be like him? Is it fair that in the sweat of his face man has to work all his days?

    Yet it seems to me the obvious difference between the two is that you hold a high value on work, on societal esteem, on expression, and on aspiration but not on Motherhood. I guess the real question is does Motherhood have a value in and of itself, and where does that value belong?

  2. 2.

    Maybe I haven’t been clear. I’m not trying to argue that motherhood doesn’t have value. I’m trying to argue that its value lies in the inherent value of children as people, rather than raw materials.

    I’m guessing you’re asking rhetorical questions in your first paragraph? If not, I’ll consider finding examples, from blogs and the Church’s website, of the kind of attitude toward motherhood that I think construes children as products rather than people. But I admit I’m very reluctant to point fingers at any one individual, since I think this attitude is prevalent in a number of venues in and out of the Church.

    I’m not sure how to respond to your second paragraph since I haven’t figured out how it relates to my post. Could you elaborate a little bit on what you mean? I haven’t argued that the responsibilities of motherhood aren’t fair or aren’t important; I’m arguing that the work of motherhood is qualitatively different from the work of a sculptor specifically because children have agency.

  3. 3.

    Doc, as I read this, I don’t think Kiskilili’s questioning whether motherhood is valuable; she’s questioning some of the reasons frequently cited for why it’s valuable. Is it valuable because of some inherent value in relationships, or because of the products (the prize-winning pumpkins, as it were), that the mothering relationship is expected to produce?

  4. 4.

    I realized that I was misconstruing the question after thinking about it for a minute, my apologies.

    The truth is I can’t argue with your main point, except to say that I think the reason we sometimes characterize Motherhood this way is because we buy into the cultural thought that power and influence are what is important in life. I agree, people are what’s important. But imperfect an anology as it is, the Lord has referred to himself as a sculptor or Refiner, yet we all have agency. I don’t think being a good influence or providing a strong foundation for our children is necessarily unrighteous dominion. But even when our motivation is a little off, it seems to me much better than just not caring or having interest in what our children become..

  5. 5.


    I really grieve over the way my mother felt she had personally and tragically failed when I lost faith in Mormonism 2 years ago. She said, “From the time I was a little girl, all I wanted was to raise my children to learn to love Heavenly Father and the gospel.”

    When she said that, my heart sank. I felt like her project, her life’s ambition, a product, if you will–not a cherished daughter (30 yrs old, mind you) who has her own agency. She is still terribly distant, and feels so let down. She cannot seem to separate my choices from hers, because she feels she molded me. She taught me the truth according to everything the church said to do–and the church’s rhetoric about motherhood and its unseen, long-term end results almost always go like this:

    If you do A, at the end of a long path full of sacrifice and selflessness, B will result.

    A=the path: FHE, family scripture study and prayer, regular church attendance, SAHMothering, bearing your testimony often, provide examples and opportunities for service, etc.

    B=the product: a child who remains faithful and unquestioningly strong in the LDS faith

    What this formula fails to account for is the historical and doctrinal quagmires I cannot reconcile. Meanwhile, my poor mother grieves.

  6. 6.

    Kiskilili, I’ve wondered about these things as well when I hear women talk down about mothers who have worked outside the home. My own mother seemed somewhat astonished when she met a missionary who had been a nurse her whole life, and yet whose children were still active. She didn’t quite know how to fit that into her paradigm.

    Ashley, your comment verifies my suspicions. I haven’t told my mom about my loss of faith because I’m worried about just that happening. My mom’s patriarchal blessing promised her that if she would take us on her knee and teach us the gospel, we would never stray. Well, she certainly did that, but I’ve certainly strayed as well. To tie back into the original post, it seems my mom did consider me more a product to produce than an individual to know and respect.

    One last thing, my mom has also told me that I should have more than my two children because the church is running out of missionaries and so I need to help contribute to the cause.

  7. 7.

    I appreciate your follow-up comment, Doc! It appears we’re not so terribly far apart.

    Thanks for a great (and personal) illustration of why this type of thinking gets us into trouble, Ashely. Your situation doesn’t sound easy. When mothers feel ultimately responsible for their children’s behavior and decisions, when, as you say, they can’t separate their own decisions from those of their children, one unfortunate result is that children end up feeling guilty for not turning out the way their mothers were planning, like a cake that didn’t rise. This is one reason I think mothers need their own projects outside their children, because people often just don’t make good projects, and it’s unfair, if natural, to resent them when they don’t pay dividends on the investment we’ve put into them. This is why I think a relationship model is healthier.

    I remember when I was a teenager statements were made in our ward to the effect that if parents attended the temple regularly, their children would stay active and faithful. This is just an outrageous assertion. Sometimes I think we draw near unto agency with our lips, but our hearts are far from it.

  8. 8.

    Lessie, that’s funny about the working mother of active children! We don’t have a good paradigm for explaining that (even though you’d think our belief in agency would provide some clues!). Obviously there are some issues of control involved; I imagine it would be painful to accept that even if you do everything you can for your child they might go to hell. But sometimes I think we’re also just worried that if we don’t guarantee good mothering will result in the type of children we want, people will give up on mothering entirely because they won’t see the point (which is silly). (And then there’s the issue that we appeal to women’s power over children to compensate women for lack of insitutional power.)

    I can readily believe your mother’s patriarchal blessing says such a thing, but I’m just at an absolute loss to understand it! Maybe we need to form a club–Inexplicably Heretical Daughters of Righteous Mothers, or something. ;)

  9. 9.

    I’m kind of in the opposite situation. My mother had so many serious issues of her own to deal with, she felt like she failed us as a mother. Truthfully, I don’t think she expected we’d turn out as well as we have. I also don’t think my mother had or has a testimony in the way we think of most LDS mothers.
    Despite this, I was so into seminary and BYU, I probably should have been translated (heehee). Not so much now.
    But as mother, I realize now how freaking hard it is! Even if you don’t have baggage from abuse, neglect, mental illness, and other issues that my mom dealt with.
    Kids are a lot of work, and I know we should treat them as individuals and respect them, which will hopefully be easier when they’re older. Right now I try to enjoy them and not kill them: simultaneously. (btw, they’re ages 5,2, 3mo)
    But, it’s good to have a reminder that we’re all just people, a few years apart, they’re not some item to be assembled and submitted to society for approval.

  10. 10.

    this must be a timely topic for me. i clicked on your link, kiskilili, from fMh, and the first article to pop up was “children as products.” immediately i flashed back to a barely-remembered dream from last night. all i remember is hearing, from another room, a sugary-sweet voice saying, “children are our most precious natural resources,” and feeling something like a full-body revolt.

    after reading this post i immediately had something to say, but ashley said it for me, pretty much word-for-word. since leaving the church, my husband’s mother has grown progressively more distant. she seems so angry and hurt she can hardly stand to be in the same room with us. my husband is making a conscious effort to avoid complete estrangement by calling his parents every sunday, but what communication there is remains stunted and stiff. today i was railing about my in-laws’ treatment of my husband and upon reading this it occurs to me that this is possibly the most damaging effect of promoting perfect motherhood as the source of an assembly line of perfect children. when women are told, implicitly or explicitly, that their personal righteousness, example and actions as a mother will determine their children’s futures in the church (much less anywhere else), it certainly follows that when a child falls off the assembly line she’ll feel that she has nobody to blame but herself. and that is essentially exactly what she is told by the church. your post gives me a bit more compassion for my MIL, and that’s quite a feat, let me tell you.

    i don’t think your post is even remotely an indictment of motherhood. i think it’s an indictment of how this culture treats mothers.

  11. 11.

    On a related note, this rhetoric is often used with missionaries. Be righteous and you will have baptisms. I know in many cases mission presidents are moving away from this. It seems like a more healthy message would be to be the best missionary you can be so you will be best able to serve and help others.

  12. 12.

    This point was my complaint (posted on Main Street Plaza) about Beck’s talk: Children — not possessions, not position, not prestige — are our greatest status symbols.

  13. 13.

    I wonder: is this really fair to mothers, to children, or even to fathers?

    Even to fathers? What am I, chopped liver? :)

    I wonder what you mean by this statement:

    Is it fair to fathers to be largely sidelined in our portrait of ideal parenthood?

    Do you think there is no pressure on fathers to be good parents? Who is doing the sidelining in this passive sentence? Fathers themselves? The church? Mothers?

    I generally agree with your point about widening expectation for kids and respecting agency, etc. But this is not unique to the church in any way; spend some time in a high school counselor’s or principal’s office. Even the religious element is not unique to Mormons, as my friends raised in piously Jewish and Catholic homes would tell you.

  14. 14.

    I’m sorry, Norbert–what are fathers for again? :P

    I guess I’m thinking of specific instances in which mothers’ power over children and obligation to nurture them is emphasized to the absolute exclusion of fathers. “Motherhood is the highest and holiest calling” and “mothers have a bond with their children like no other” and “women don’t need the priesthood since they have motherhood,” that sort of thing. I’m sure there is pressure on fathers to be good parents, but I sometimes think our zeal and overawe at the brilliant all-consuming glory that is motherhood renders fatherhood entirely invisible (and I think that’s a terrible mistake). Sister Beck’s talk is an example of rhetoric about the importance of nurturing children that leaves fathers out of the picture completely, for whatever reason. Mothers are, in the words of the FamProc, “primarily responsible” for nurturing children. Unfortunately it’s not clear from such statements how much, if any, obligation fathers have to nurture children, only that they should apparently make sure they’re nurturing considerably less than their wives, since this activity is coded specifically as feminine and stands in opposition to the masculine duty of “presiding” (whatever that means). This is the sort of talk that I think is unfair to fatherhood, and unfair to children whose fathers are virtually absent.

    You’re right none of this is unique to Mormonism–thanks for pointing that it; in fact, it doesn’t even sit well with our doctrine of agency.

    I agree completely with your post, C.L. Hanson; thanks for providing a link. I’m not sure children are a good forum for women to showcase their talents. Minds of their own and all that.

    Beatrice, ack! Yet another instance of “free agency and how to enforce it.”

    Chandelle, I think you’re exactly right that when a child “falls off the assembly line,” as you so cleverly put it, mothers who were taught they had absolute power over their children’s activity level in the Church or personal righteousness or whatever else quite logically blame themselves. It seems like a terribly unhealthy dynamic all around.

    Thanks for sharing your experience with this, Jessawhy. It’s really interesting that we naturally look to the children’s behavior to judge the quality of women’s mothering. Of course mothers (and hopefully fathers!) surely have influence over their children in all sorts of ways, so it’s not completely ridiculous. At the same time, people’s personal choices can’t be controlled outside totalitarian systems. (As Norbert pointed out, none of this is unique to Mormonism; in fact aspects of it look suspiciously Freudian.)

  15. 15.

    Great post, K! I like the part about how the Church acknowledges the “raw power” women have over their children and within the home.

    This was certainly a centerpiece of Pres. Beck’s very controversial talk – here’s what she says:

    When mothers know who they are and who God is and have made covenants with Him, they will have great power and influence for good on their children.

    This language is a bait and switch (i think that’s the rhetorical device). If mothers are told they have “great” power over their children if they are righteous, why shouldn’t they blame themselves if their children don’t want to go on missions and get married in temple?

    Unfortunately for women, however, this “power” over children is largely illusory. You can give guilt trips, take away privileges, bear your testimony until you’re blue in the face, but children have a maddening way of doing what they want to do. And sometimes that includes leaving the Church.

    Furthermore, since we’re told women have so much power and influence in the home, people in the LDS community know exactly whom to blame when children “go astray”. Mothers.

  16. 16.

    Kiskilili, I love the post. Regarding the idea of power that mothers have over children — an idea that ECS just mentioned — I guess I’d say that mothers can indeed have tremendous objective power over their children, if they’re willing to be violent, withhold food, threaten, scream, curse, etc. But, for the kinds of parents I hope we would see as good, there really isn’t power, just influence…

    On a less important note, I’d point out that it’s actually surprisingly easy to control the exact size and shape that a pumpkin grows into. Just follow these instructions. (When reading, mentally replace “watermelon” with “pumpkin.”)

  17. 17.

    i’m sorry, but i hardly ever remember fathers being mentioned when i was a member. a prime example is the patronizing saccharine nature of mother’s day – an entire sacrament meeting centered around it – versus the dearth of acknowledgment for father’s day. another example might be the POTF: mothers are nurturers, fathers are providers, fall in line, people. fall in line.

  18. 18.

    Thoughtful as always, Kiskilili.

    There is another aspect in which the way we understand gender roles is unfair to mothers. The official instructions for a man are to provide for his family, and while that is indeed an important task and often a heavy burden, the message is explicit that it is OK to be average. Not every man is going to become president and CEO of GM, after all. In Gordon B. Hinckley’s talks in priesthood meeting, he would often emphasize the importance of being a good man, and that a father who has the love and respect of his wife and children is a success, no matter how humble their home or material circumstances. I think that is the correct message, and entirely how it should be.

    As you have shown, ror women, we measure their success by the success of their children, and it isn’t OK to be just average. Average kids get Cs in school, occasionally drop out of junior college, get caught shoplifting, and sometimes don’t serve missions. For a Mormon mother, that spells failure, and that fact accounts for a lot of the angst that we observe.

  19. 19.

    I love this. It totally fits with my recent experience. An older mom in my ward recently mentioned her “wayward child” in her SacMtg talk, and I know for a fact that he’s a fine, upstanding citizen, recently graduated from law school, and still lives with his parents. He just doesn’t go to church any more.

    And I occasionally see the mom of someone I knew growing up and have lost touch with. If I ask how he’s doing, her response only ever is that he still doesn’t go to church, and therefore is doing badly. He might be married with kids, working a regular job, and happy, or he might be drug-addicted, homeless, and in and out of jail–there’s no way to tell, because all she can focus on is his level of church activity (as if that’s ever going to change! this guy was already out for all intents and purposes in the eighth grade).

    And as the mom of 3, I am totally with you on the “kids as individuals” thing–we can certainly observe things in our children that have a clear antecedent in ourselves, but there is still much, much that is only their own.

  20. 20.

    Great post, Kiskilili!

    I remember when I was a teenager statements were made in our ward to the effect that if parents attended the temple regularly, their children would stay active and faithful. This is just an outrageous assertion. Sometimes I think we draw near unto agency with our lips, but our hearts are far from it.

    As you noted in this comment as well as in the original post, there’s lots of discussion of motherhood in the Church that clearly denies children’s agency. May I quote one of my least favorites?

    Orson F. Whitney (quoted here by President Faust):

    The Prophet Joseph Smith declared—and he never taught more comforting doctrine—that the eternal sealings of faithful parents and the divine promises made to them for valiant service in the Cause of Truth, would save not only themselves, but likewise their posterity. Though some of the sheep may wander, the eye of the Shepherd is upon them, and sooner or later they will feel the tentacles of Divine Providence reaching out after them and drawing them back to the fold. Either in this life or the life to come, they will return. They will have to pay their debt to justice; they will suffer for their sins; and may tread a thorny path; but if it leads them at last, like the penitent Prodigal, to a loving and forgiving father’s heart and home, the painful experience will not have been in vain. Pray for your careless and disobedient children; hold on to them with your faith. Hope on, trust on, till you see the salvation of God.

    Even setting aside that the “tentacles of Divine Providence” is such a horrible image–I don’t want God yanking me back with his tentacles; I’d like to hope he doesn’t have tentacles if I’m created in his image –his whole comment seems to boil down to “if you work and pray hard enough, your children’s agency is irrelevant.” Yetch!

    I suspect that this statement is the source of much teaching like the bit you heard in our ward growing up that temple attending parents could force their kids into activity.

    (Of course, on the bright side, I love that President Faust cited this statement at least in part to refute this interpretation. He did it very deviously: he introduced Elder Whitney’s statement by saying he agreed with it, but then followed it up by carefully reinterpreting it.)

  21. 21.

    Kiskilili, I may be just restating what you’ve already said, but don’t you think that much of this “mothers can create their kids as perfect products” rhetoric comes about to justify asking women to stay home with their kids? I know I’ve seen you (and perhaps Kaimi, and I’m sure others) discuss on the bloggernacle how we as a church often appear to start with a practice and then we work backwards to reason out what the purpose of that practice must be. And that’s where we so often get into trouble, like with denying blacks the priesthood, or denying women the priesthood, for that matter.

  22. 22.

    On a related note, this rhetoric is often used with missionaries. Be righteous and you will have baptisms.

    Beatrice, that’s a really interesting parallel. I recall being very frustrated as a missionary by this kind of exhortation for the same reason that mothers might be frustrated. You can’t take away other peoples’ agency.

    Somewhat tangentially, I think another problem with the motherhood and missionary rhetoric is that good parenting and righteous missionary work likely do have a positive effect on kids and potential converts, but that we way overstate it when we claim that it’s the kind of A -> B billiard ball causality that Ashley describes. Rather, good parenting (to continue with only one example) likely changes the probabilities of different kinds of outcomes for kids. But changing the probabilities is a whole heck of a lot different than changing some binary outcome from zero to one. And changing probabilities simply aren’t visible in a single person; they have to be observed in the aggregate of many people.

    Of course, this approach is frustrating, because parents can never know precisely what effects we’ve had on our kids. We can’t know whether we should blame ourselves or credit ourselves with a job well done. It’s also more complex to talk about–to teach or to learn–than is the simple A -> B model. (Certainly, I know getting my kids to do things based on probabilities isn’t always the easiest. “Why should I wear my seat belt?” “Because if we’re in an accident, it will keep you safer.” “What if we’re not in an accident?” “Well, then it probably won’t matter.”) So I suspect that’s why we resort to the overly simplistic “do the right as a mother and you can force your kids to be what you want” approach.

    Of course, I’m actually just guessing when I say that good parenting leads to better outcomes. Just as we can only see effects in probabilities by looking at groups of people, we can only tell whether this or that type of parenting really affects kids this way or that by looking at large groups of people. And controlling for lots of variables. And (ideally, from a causal inference perspective) randomly assigning kids to be raised by people not their parents. Since that’s usually not ethically doable (although adopted children approximate it) you could say that we don’t really know what kinds of parenting produce what kinds of kids.

  23. 23.

    When she said that, my heart sank. I felt like her project, her life’s ambition, a product, if you will–not a cherished daughter (30 yrs old, mind you) who has her own agency. She is still terribly distant, and feels so let down. She cannot seem to separate my choices from hers, because she feels she molded me. She taught me the truth according to everything the church said to do–and the church’s rhetoric about motherhood and its unseen, long-term end results almost always go like this:

    But since when do we have a right to define success for our parents. You’ve chosen an agenda for your life, she chose one for hers. Whether or not you decide to buy into her guilt trip is one thing, but don’t deny her the privilege of defining her own legacy, whether or not you like it.

  24. 24.

    He might be married with kids, working a regular job, and happy, or he might be drug-addicted, homeless, and in and out of jail–there’s no way to tell, because all she can focus on is his level of church activity…

    quite astute. that has certainly been our experience. last night i was railing about the unfairness of my in-law’s treatment of their son, my husband, and i said something along the lines of how i could never imagine estranging myself from my children for any reason. i try to imagine the worst things my children could do – killing somebody, selling their bodies, selling drugs, abusing their spouses – and i think that i would still be in their lives. i truly could never abandon my children under any circumstances. my husband looked me in the eye and said that if he had done any of those things – killed somebody, become an addict, abused his children – he would still be embraced by his parents. but leaving the church – that’s the one thing that is unforgivable, the “sin” that is worthy of hand-washing and dust-shaking. and that made my stomach heave.

  25. 25.

    RT (#16),
    I would like to point out that as per section 121, Righteous power, God’s power, IS influence. As the saying goes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. When we talk about our legacy being left through our children I don’t think we are talking coercion here. The problem is that agency, of course complicates things.

    I don’t see so much problem with Ziff’s quote, tentacled dragging imagery excepted, because what it seems to me to be saying is that we all have a spark of the divine within us. If we make “incorrect” choices, and people can and will certainly argue what these may be, we suffer. We experience the pain of separation from God.

    Parents are being promised that any seeds of truth and foundation they laid in the hearts of the children will in the end bear fruit. We will eventually like Alma the Younger, remember the key to happiness, even if it is only after intense pain and separation .

    Problems come when we think certain choices are a catch-all for the good ones. Is it golden rule, honest and upright character things or is it ordinances of salvation. On some occasions these two part ways. If I had to pick one over the other, I would take character. Of course, part of character is being able to love, forgive and cut each other slack.

    I do wonder about extreme cases like Laman and Lemuel, though. Were they just villified by Nephi who couldn’t see any good in them, or are they going to come around in the resurrection? God only knows.

    The key to all this is a correct interpretation of power and influence, which we don’t always get right. It seems to me we move through the faulty understanding to arrive at the better one. So in spite of heartbreak, the lower law still serves as a schoolmaster meeting us where we can comprehend it at the time.

  26. 26.

    Parents are being promised that any seeds of truth and foundation they laid in the hearts of the children will in the end bear fruit. We will eventually like Alma the Younger, remember the key to happiness, even if it is only after intense pain and separation .

    I don’t see how the guarantee that children will eventually return can be compatible with the idea that they actually have agency. If the children will of necessity eventually come over to the parents’ desired life for them, then where is the children’s agency? In deciding how long to hold out? This doesn’t sound like real agency to me. If children really have agency, they should have the power to get themselves damned in spite of having the most righteous parents.

  27. 27.

    Queuno, it’s true that mothers have the right, should they choose, to attach their identities to events outside their control and suffer crippling guilt when people fail to turn out the way the recipe promised they would, as it were. And if people genuinely enjoy suffering guilt over things they’re not responsible for, far be it from me to deny them their masochism. But I think it’s helpful to critique the assumptions and value systems that encourage mothers to believe their personal righteousness magically guarantees certain behavior and beliefs in their children, on the off chance not everyone enjoys wrongly seeing themselves as a failure when their obedience doesn’t force other people into a particular stance.

    It’s terrible to create a system in which we ask people to choose between their own integrity through acknowledgment of their beliefs and values, and pleasing their parents, thereby avoiding the spiraling cycle of mutual guilt associated with disappointing them.

    I agree with Ziff that the quote from Orson Whitney entails the overriding of individuals’ agency, which is supposedly sacrosanct. God is willing to let his children go to hell rather than force them to be righteous and live with him; why would he violate his commitment to this principle for the sake of righteous parents? Additionally, God appears in this quote to be choosing teacher’s pets. The children of loving parents will be forced through the regimen leading them eventually to involuntary salvation; the implication is that orphans, among others, have no such advantage–if they go astray they’ll simply be damned. Sometimes our God appears to love the people most who are already the most loved.

    Chandelle, that’s horrifying that your husbands’ parents have made estrangement from the Church the unpardonable sin. Again, if God is willing to lose his children in the interest of respecting their agency, I think the same ideal should be held up to earthly parents.

    Ziff, I think you’re right that constructing a rationale for stay-at-home mothering is part of the issue. But I also suspect on some level Church members recognize women’s power in the Church is limited, and we’re trying to find a way to balance the equation by pointing to equivalent amounts of power in the domestic sphere. Unlike Doc, I’m suspicious of aphorisms about the hand that rocks the cradle ruling the world. If other people are your means of contributing to society, you’re in trouble, because they may simply choose not to contribute in the ways you wish they would. It seems healthier all around to contribute to society yourself rather than thinking of your offspring as your highly groomed bequest to the planet. If you genuinely aspire to rule the world, it’s simply not practical to expect to accomplish it from the nursery–you have to get out.

    I really like your comment about probabilities and the difficulties of assessing influence and the lack of control groups, Ziff. Complicating the issue further, innumberable other factors come into play besides the mother’s parenting style and even heredity–children interact with all sorts of other people, sometimes regularly (such as siblings). It’s hard to believe any parenting style could guarantee any outcome without raising the child in absolute isolation so the mother has maximal control over the variables. Even then, what do you do when the kid turns 18, becomes a legal adult, ventures out into the world and starts questioning all the values you so carefully inculcated in them?

    Thanks for your interesting observations, Janeannechovy. It’s unfortunate that Church activity levels sometimes become our single and convenient yardstick for measuring the morality of others’ behavior, as well as their and their parents’ success generally.

    Mark, I think you’re right, though I hadn’t thought about it exactly that way. Maybe part of the problem is that women’s “calling” and “job” are one and the same: raising children. Everyone knows you’re supposed to magnify your calling, which means women are expected to give with unflagging zeal to what’s already a neverending task. On the other hand, while providing for the family can equally be considered a sacred obligation, maybe we’re at least just suspicious enough of making money for there to exist a psychological barrier against asking men to make as much money as they possibly can, to be the richest people on earth–the logical equivalent of women being the planet’s best homemakers? Camels going through needles’ eyes come to mind.

    RoastedTomatoes, but what if the pumpkin seeds don’t sprout to begin with, or shrivel up and die? Then they’ll never even have a chance to mature into a lovely pumpkin mold shaped like Elvis’s head or whatever. :P

    Thanks for your comment, ECS. Another factor we don’t usually take into account is that when mothers bear testimony till they’re blue in the face they may come across as overbearing, inspiring children to flee the Church rather than embrace it. Watching people whose religion involves turning blue can be more unnerving than edifying. As Leia put it so well, “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.”

  28. 28.

    Power to get yourself damned isn’t agency. It is limiting of agency. It is a trap. It is the entire point of the atonetment, to give a release from the trap. You are right, eventually we have to turn our hearts over to God. While bitterness and anger may throw us into the trap, The love of God draws us out. I really do believe that if you can experience that love of God early in life, the more likely you are to realize the way out. You are right, if this works no matter what then I suppose its not agency, except it just may be that when faced with the realization of things as they are, the choice is easy enough as to be no choice at all. The bitterness that would turn a person away from Christ is the real suppressor of agency. It seems to me you would really have to be in its grasp to refuse healing and reuniting with him. Will this work in 100% of cases, I don’t know. Probably not entirely. I do believe parents should never write their children off.

  29. 29.

    I should add that I fully agree parenting to produce “righteous” children can go horribly awry when it becomes about control and overbearing. This is the unrighteous dominion I was talking about. In that case, I believe it is the parent that will suffer and eventually see the light after much pain.

  30. 30.

    Have any of you read Spencer W. Kimball’s latest biography? There are some very painful chapters recounting Pres. Kimball’s earnest, but overreaching, efforts to re-activate his son Spencer, Jr.:

    Over the years Spencer’s repeated, anguished efforts to call his son to repentance only widened the gap between them. The son believed he should not be expected to profess faith and live his life in a way inconsistent with his convictions. The father kept hoping that perhaps one more appeal would make the difference. Even if it did not, he felt it his responsibility as a parent to make the effort.

  31. 31.

    ECS, yes, and the most poignant part was when SWK realized in later years that his efforts may have been counter-productive.

  32. 32.

    May answer is no.

    In October 1983 General Conference, Elder Howard W. Hunter gave an awesome talk entitled Parents’ Concern for Children. It talked about parents who make mistakes and children who make various choices.

    Here is a sample:

    There are numerous variables that determine the character and the personality of a child. It is probably true that parents are, in many or perhaps most cases, the greatest influence in shaping the life of a child, but sometimes there are other influences that also are very significant. No one knows the degree to which heredity influences lives, but certainly brothers and sisters, friends and teachers, neighbors and Scoutmasters have significant effects.

    We know, too, that the influences on a child are not restricted to heredity or to people; certainly, things in the physical surroundings will have their effect—such as the house and the playthings, the yard and the neighborhood. Playgrounds and basketballs, dresses and cars—or the lack of these—all have their influence on the child.

    ….Each of us is unique. Each child is unique. Just as each of us starts at a different point in the race of life, and just as each of us has different strengths and weaknesses and talents, so each child is blessed with his own special set of characteristics. We must not assume that the Lord will judge the success of one in precisely the same way as another. ….

    A successful parent is one who has loved, one who has sacrificed, and one who has cared for, taught, and ministered to the needs of a child. If you have done all of these and your child is still wayward or troublesome or worldly, it could well be that you are, nevertheless, a successful parent. Perhaps there are children who have come into the world that would challenge any set of parents under any set of circumstances. Likewise, perhaps there are others who would bless the lives of, and be a joy to, almost any father or mother.

    My concern today is that there are parents who may be pronouncing harsh judgments upon themselves and may be allowing these feelings to destroy their lives, when in fact they have done their best and should continue in faith. That all who are parents might find joy in their efforts with their children is my prayer, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

    His emphasis was on the efforts we make as parents (which we can control), not how the children turn out.

    As the mother of three young children at the time, that talk resonated with me. So I would say no, that children are not goods but parenting is a service.

  33. 33.

    Thanks for that quote. I’ve heard that passage before.
    I wonder about about these lines, though.

    If you have done all of these and your child is still wayward or troublesome or worldly, it could well be that you are, nevertheless, a successful parent. Perhaps there are children who have come into the world that would challenge any set of parents under any set of circumstances. Likewise, perhaps there are others who would bless the lives of, and be a joy to, almost any father or mother.

    Does being wayward, troublesome, or wordly mean that a child cannot also be a blessing and joy as well? Are these mutually exclusive? In my experience they are not.
    We’re all three-dimensional, and perhaps we need to acknowledge this in our children.
    That said, I don’t know that the children-as-products, mother’s-success-based-wholly-on-her-children’s-activity-in-the church rhetoric is as pervasive as some think. There are people who respect their children’s choices and are still happy for them, even if they are away from the church. (that they still hold hope they’ll return is another matter, though)

  34. 34.

    great topic. This is in some ways the age old “nature versus nurture” topic. I often think that our parenting experiences have more to do with giving US as parents the experience of parenting than they do with how our children ultimately turn out. The gospel teaches we are all children of God, lived for eons eternally prior to our earthlife, and will live again after this very brief period of mortality. I just don’t believe the ultimate power is given to us here in mortality to either cause our children to inherit eternal life, or to prevent them from inheriting it. We are all brothers and sisters (even to our children, parents, etc.) just moving together towards this great goal, and we may temporarily block or foster each other’s progress in the various roles we play with each other – but cannot ultimately determine what ultimately each person’s individual free agency and the atonement together decide. When I look at my experiences as a mother or daughter or child from this aspect, it is much less “angst” producing – I just try my best, turn the rest over to God, and realize that it is not ultimately up to me how my child “turns out”. What is up to me is that I put my best self into mothering – (or fathering) – so that I can learn what God would have me learn out of this experience. I should also put my best self into all the other roles I have the privilege of filling in life, whether as a wife or secretary or president or lawyer or teacher, etc.. Noone else will be the same kind of mother, wife, lawyer, etc. that I will be – and I will make lots of mistakes, but if I keep trying that is really all that matters.

  35. 35.

    Speaking as a mother whose daughter cancelled Christmas Eve because of something really foolish and unfeeling and apparently unfix-able on the said mother’s part; having a child reject the teachings of their youth brings about grief.

    This especially true when we believe families are forever. The loss is a great. I t makes one sad because the relationship will most likely never be the same. It hurts a lot.

    The sadness comes not so much from the disappointment of failure as it comes from the realization , there is a hole where once there warmth and sharing.

    The end of grief is acceptance.

    So, for those of you who have rejected what your mother thought she had firmly ingrained in you, be patient. She has lost something valuable. Time should make it possible to keep your relationship and make it sweet again. But then that’s up to the two of you.

    Ultimately every person must make the final choice of who and what they will be.

  36. 36.

    exactly, it is a choice. and if the mother makes a choice on her part that there will be no warmth and sharing because the child is no longer a mormon, what is the child to do? when warmth and sharing are being withheld only on one side, what is to be done? when a lack of forgiveness and acceptance perpetuates on one side, what is to be done? when one side is completely incapable of moving forward with the relationship (as my MIL seems loathe to do with her son, my husband), what is to be done?

    the hole in that relationship, where warmth and sharing used to be, comes NOT from the simple fact that my husband has left the church but because of his mother’s choice to stay stuck one that point and refuse to move forward with the relationship. the horrible mistake that my husband made was being honest and forthcoming with himself, others and god. he left the church, has not spoken ill of it even once, even when he “came out,” and has perpetually stuck by his family through some of the ugliest treatment i have ever seen. this gap, this hole, is because of his MOTHER’S choice, not his.

  37. 37.

    If anyone’s interested in more discussion of the Orson F. Whitney quote from #20, there was a post about it on Millennial Star a couple of months ago.

  38. 38.

    chandelle, I sounds like everyone is suffering. That is really tough. Hopefully time will take care of it. It is so sad when families are estranged until it is too late to reconcile.

    Good luck with whatever you decide to do.

  39. 39.

    oops I let the t out of It.

  40. 40.

    This discussion has been on mind so I am going to write this one more thing. I hope I can say it they way that it makes sense.

    As a parent it was my desire to let my children know that I loved them unconditionally. As they have grown into adulthood they continue to believe in the concept and expect the same unconditional love. On an intellectual and emotional level that would be ideal. The truth in practice is that as adults they make decisions that impact our lives in a different way and sometimes they make it extremely difficult to accept those decisions unconditionally. As a result a new contract has to be arrived at so that parents and adult children can be friends and the relationship can be kept intact with the expectation of unconditional love being a two way rather than a one way street.

    There are two books that I think are most worthwhile and that I would recommend:
    First, Nonviolent Communication by Marshal B. Rosenberg,
    Second, Thank You For Being Such a Pain by Mark Rosen.

    They helped me a lot in the middle of a crisis.

  41. 41.

    This reminds me of the Khalil Gibran poem, where he says, “Your children are not your children… They come through you, but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you. You may give them your love, but not their thoughts, for they have their own thoughts…”

    I’ve heard this poem enough for it to sound trite now, but I remember as a young mom, thinking that this was an important piece of wisdom. It relieved me of some of the pressure I was feeling, and reminded me that these spirits were on loan to me from God. They would work out their path with him. I was only here to be a blessing in their life. I was not their creator. I could let them be themselves, and that was o.k.

  42. 42.

    great thread, but a comment: the rhetoric applied to missionaries may be slightly more plausible. Missionaries wander around the streets all day hoping to bump into someone willing to listen to them. Its not inconceivable that god leads them to people who are ready to hear the gospel at a particular time. parents however don’t really have the benefit of such a large sample from which to choose, nor can they so easily sever ties with people who choose to exercise their agency by living moral non-mormon lives.

  43. 43.

    I love this whole discussion. I haven’t left the church, but my faith isn’t what it once was. Nevertheless, I have no wish to inform my mother in law. I know exactly the reaction I would get, and part of it would be “concern, prayer, and fasting.” Not that that’s bad in itself, but the concern would be for her poor son who married such a heretic. She’s already got one “wayward” son, a good person who doesn’t believe in the church. He’s suffered through a lot of her “concern” and I don’t want a turn.

  44. 44.

    You would still have to say that converts aren’t a product either. Missionary work that sets goals based on anothers’ agency is akin to priestcraft..

  45. 45.

    Wow, K., how did I miss this discussion? (I think it had to do with an evil confluence of faculty meetings, student discussions, and Real Life.) I like the post a lot, and the comments have been great.

    In some ways, we’re just perpetuating the gender disparities of old Israel’s tribal society (and just about every other primitive tribal culture), aren’t we?

    Look at the messages to men and women in the Old Testament. If you’re a man, you might grow up to be a king. And if you’re a woman — well, you might be the mother of a king. Men are praised for their accomplishments. Women are praised for the accomplishments of the men who they bear, or for the accomplishments of the men who marry the daughters they bear. It’s no wonder that for women in that culture, infertility was the ultimate curse. It literally meant removal of that woman’s purpose for existing.

    (One illustration: There’s a nice, sweet, well-meaning book called “Mothers of the Prophets.” It’s a nice volume with little anecdotes and stories about the prophets’ mothers. There’s no analogue that I’m aware of called “Fathers of the prophets.” For a woman, it’s a very good thing to be a mother of a prophet. For a man, it’s less of an honor to be the father of a prophet.)

    Interestingly, when we tie this to LDS theology, it gives God a distinctly feminine flavor, doesn’t it? Moses 1:39 is practically a blueprint for the stereotypical passive-aggressive, living-vicariously Mormon mom.

    And of course, this seems to be just a particularly heightened example of a broader social phenomenon that goes way beyond the church. In many walks of life, men are expected to blaze their own trails, while women are expected to be cheerleader moms for their trailblazing sons. This is not surprising, given the Judeo-Christian cultural roots of the country. And it’s far worse in some other cultures — look at some traditional Asian cultural aspects that relegate daughters to virtual non-existent status. (I was recently reading about old Korean cultural norms — in some parts of the country, daughters-in-law were expected to serve daily meals to their father-in-law, on their knees. Yikes!)

    It’s terrible to create a system in which we ask people to choose between their own integrity through acknowledgment of their beliefs and values, and pleasing their parents, thereby avoiding the spiraling cycle of mutual guilt associated with disappointing them.

    Damn straight about that one, sister.

  46. 46.

    Thanks for your comment, Kaimi. That reminds me that I was thinking of writing a follow-up post to this on the roles religion and family play in constructing identity and what to do when they conflict. Then I got confused about what to say anyway. Then I got busy. Then I got lazy and started procrastinating in even less productive ways than blogging. :)

  47. 47.

    The question that came up earlier in the discussion of whether we’re free to ultimately reject God, and whether some people will in fact end up making that decision, is one that really interests me. If God wills to save all, are mere humans going to be able to stand in his way? I would imagine that most Mormons, given our strong emphasis on the power of human agency, would say yes.

    But what particularly concerns me in the context of this discussion is the issue raised by Kiskilili in comment #37 of God playing favorites. I think if you’re going to assert that wayward children who were taught the gospel will eventually come back, the only consistent way to do it is to hold to a belief in universal salvation, that all of God’s children will eventually come back. After all, the same logic–that if you’re taught the truth early on, you’ll return to it–could be applied to all of us in light of the doctrine that we lived with God as premortal spirits (and presumably were taught correct principles in that realm).

    I’m skeptical of guarantees that everyone will make it, both because of the agency issue, and because I think life involves real uncertainty and risk. But I do like the notion that we should hope that everyone will. And I have to say that I’d prefer flat-out universalism to a set-up in which some people get guarantees based on the family into which they were born. Catholics talk about “the preferential option for the poor”–the idea that God has a particular concern for the oppressed and marginalized in society, a theme for which you can certainly find support in the Bible (and the Book of Mormon, I’d add). I hope that we don’t instead have some sort of “preferential option for children born into active LDS homes.” :)

  48. 48.

    [...] here is a topic that was discussed so articulately on Zelophehad’s Daughters called: Children as Products  It discusses the sometimes overwhelming feelings a mother can have in the church trying to raise [...]

  49. 49.

    I am an adoptive mother who waited 11 years for my child. I still only have one but still pray and dream of more children adding to our family. As an adoptive mother I don’t believe that I love my child any more than a biological mother but I do believe that I appreciate him more. And I think the idea that you have that mothers want their kids to be perfect products is that of someone without a child. The reason we work so hard to teach our child right and wrong and about Heavenly Father and Jesus and want him to make right choices is because we want him to be happy. Both here and in the eternity. And the only way he can be happy is by making right choices and choosing correct paths. As a parent, you want only the best for your child because the love that you have in your heart for that individual is so overwhelming that there are not words to describe. It is an intense feeling of love that is not topped by any other emotion I have ever felt. My need to protect and teach my son to find happiness is so deeply entrenched in everything I do. I hope that someday you can feel and understand this love.

  50. 50.

    Does “love” justify any behavior on the part of a parent? Does it justify any behavior on the part of God? Are parents always able to distinguish adequately between their own needs and those of their children?

    In my proud opinion: hell no. “Love” can easily be invoked as an excuse not to validate someone’s different perspective or choices.

    I think the idea you have that (a) all parents love their children and that (b) all parents want what makes their children happy (not what makes them happy themselves) might be narrowminded. I just hope that someday even you too can feel and understand what it means to be smothered or crushed by “love.”

  51. 51.

    i’m getting kiskilili’s name tattooed over my heart – just for that last comment!

  52. 52.

    I guess I look at this and see a few things.

    1. I agree with Doc about the concept of power and influence, and that sometimes we misunderstand what that means. I think it’s important doctrine to realize that God’s power is found and can be channeled in parenthood. D&C 121 teaches us what that should be about.

    2. I don’t think this misunderstanding is unique to motherhood. There are plenty of quotes that talk about how if we fail to fulfill our calling, we will be held responsible for those we might have been able to save. The linear thinking can come into missionary work, too, as has been mentioned. BUT…..

    3. I think there are also plenty of quotes and teachings that address people’s agency and, again, the fact that power and influence is not about control or not outcome focused alone, but is about love and leading and respect and prayer and trust in God and allowing space to make mistakes. And yet, that means, also, that parents sometimes need to be cut a little slack. We are all learning, all individuals in need of mercy and patience and respect!,

    Anyway, on that point, how many talks have included the “if your children have strayed…” kind of thoughts? What about respecting others’ agency in other contexts? I think we hear plenty of this.

    4. As such, I think it’s up to us to process how all of this fits together, and that makes revelation and familiarity with the big picture really important. If we limit our callings in the family or in the church to an assemblyline mentality, we have missed a significant part of the whole of the doctrine and the teachings about our roles, about agency, about the Atonement, about what power and influence really are. Our roles in any of these contexts aren’t about control, or gratifying our pride. I think a key to all of this is really understanding the Atonement.

    I understand why it’s thought that we see children as products, but I think that reflects a faulty view of what we are really taught in the whole. It’s also tricky to balance our part vs. God’s part vs. how agency plays into all of that. And we are here to learn these things by experience. NO talk could really help us figure out that balance. We have to live it to learn what it really is. And for each situation, that balance might look a little different.

    I think these tensions are simply part of mortality, and I think we need to be careful about laying blame simply on the church or the leaders for somehow creating these problems. I’m not saying every sentence they ever utter is flawless, but that’s part of the program, too…and yet, the overall wholeness in the message really is all there, imo.

  53. 53.

    One last thought — to those who feel their parents see them as products…might it be possible that they, too, need you to see them as individuals? Maybe they are doing their best. Even God Himself mourns over the choices of His children; try not to be so hard on your parents for not knowing how to handle their grief. We all need some space to figure things out. Parents are no exception.

    I’m not trying to justify any existence of a products (objects) mentality, but I’m not always so sure that we as children see our parents in true light, either, just as we may feel they don’t always see us as we hope to be seen. Sometimes we can objectify the choices our parents made just as much as they can do that to us.

  54. 54.

    53 I am in the bizarre position of agreeing with m&m on her last point. I hope my teenage son sees me with a more empathetic heart than he does now. Although I will say that even now, the more open I am with him about my mistakes and my motivations for those mistakes, the more understanding he is.
    On another note, I am genuinely, unsnarkily curious about the “not flawless” comment you made. My main point of contention with you, m&m, is that you seem to have made a pact that wherever the good name of the Gospel is being besmirched you will fly in, quote scripture and prove why it is never, ever, ever (ever.) the case that the Church has committed, contributed to or …something else that starts with a “c”…any flawed action, word or deed. Ever. This may be the wrong forum and you may not care if my eyes start rolling back in my head when I see your name, because I’m pretty sure I know what’s coming, but if I could just hear something that you acknowledged WAS flawed I think it would be harder for me to dismiss what you write.

  55. 55.


    Actually, I do care that your eyes not roll back in your head, and I do appreciate you asking an honest question. It’s a fair one, but may be better off line. email me at hotmail, mulling_and_musing — I’d actually like it if we could have a conversation about this so that perhaps we don’t have to have the kinds of run-ins we have had in the past. Thanks for giving me a chance to see into your head a little toward why I get on your nerves so much. :)

  56. 56.

    FWIW, if the discussion was about you and in my view was being unfair or misrepresenting something you said, which didn’t take into consideration your intent, your general nature, the big picture and the overall goodness of your parenting — in short, in my view, not giving you the benefit of the doubt and making you out to be a bad person when really you weren’t, my personality is such that I would come to your defense as well.

    I know sometimes I jump in too quickly, and I’m sorry for that. It’s sort of like someone coming in and unfairly attacking my best friend; sometimes I get a little defensive.

  57. 57.

    i’m sorry, but i hardly ever remember fathers being mentioned when i was a member

    I suspect if you were able to spend an ample amount of time observing the proceedings of various Melchizedek priesthood quorums, you would discover something quite different.

  58. 58.

    One more thing, cwc, another concern I have is that I believe people come to the internet to learn more about the Church; the ‘nacle conversations that express frustration or concern are not giving a complete (or, imo, fair) view of the Church or an accurate representations of the viewpoints of most of its members. I understand the need to discuss things and sort them out; still, I will often jump in to provide a different perspective and a little balance to the conversation.

  59. 59.

    [...] that could be a great discussion here is a topic that was discussed so articulately on Zelophehad’s Daughters called: Children as Products It discusses the sometimes overwhelming feelings a mother can have in the church trying to raise [...]

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