Last Sunday was Mother’s Day, which means that many (most?) American LDS women who attended Sacrament Meeting were told that they have a lot of innate qualities, such as being righteous, spiritual, pure, or nurturing.
Let us take as self-evident that, in reality, not all women are naturally pure or spiritual. Let us also posit that, even if the average woman is more nurturing or righteous than the average man (a hypothesis which remains to be proved), actual women surely exhibit a range of qualities such that some women are more nurturing and others are less so.
Are there any downsides, then, to telling women that they are naturally nurturing or spiritual or righteous? At best, what we’re saying is probably true of some women. At worst, we’re just encouraging other women to develop those qualities, right?
Carol S. Dweck is a professor of social psychology at Stanford University. In 2007, she published an article in Scientific American called “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids.” The premise of the article is that children who are praised for having an innate ability like intelligence or talent are actually being set up to be fearful of challenges and unable to handle failure, while children who are praised for hard work and effort in any situation go on to be more brave in the face of challenges.
She cites one experiment, in particular:
In 1972, when I taught a group of elementary and middle school children who displayed helpless behavior in school that a lack of effort (rather than lack of ability) led to their mistakes on math problems, the kids learned to keep trying when the problems got tough. They also solved many of the problems even in the face of difficulty. Another group of helpless children who were simply rewarded for their success on easy problems did not improve their ability to solve hard math problems. These experiments were an early indication that a focus on effort can help resolve helplessness and engender success.
If telling elementary school children that they are intrinsically smart can set them up to feel like failures when they inevitably encounter a challenging situation, aren’t we setting women up to feel like failures by constantly telling them that they’re superhumanly good?
Imagine a young woman who grows up hearing that she’s naturally nurturing and believes it, perhaps because she enjoys babysitting or playing with other people’s kids. How will she feel when she discovers that being a full time mom makes her feel stressed out and tired and cranky instead of patient and nurturing and happy?
Wouldn’t it be better to take a page out of Dr. Dweck’s book and teach women (and men!) that they can work to overcome their challenges instead of expecting women to be naturally perfect?
My Mother’s Day wish is that, next year, no LDS woman will be told that she is naturally spiritual or righteous or nurturing or pure. Instead, I hope that everyone in the congregation will be encouraged to “come unto Christ and be perfected in him,” taught that “his grace is sufficient for you, that by his grace ye may be perfect in Christ,” and reminded that “ye are sanctified in Christ by the grace of God, through the shedding of the blood of Christ, which is in the covenant of the Father unto the remission of your sins, that ye become holy, without spot.”