An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Archive for February, 2010

Home Teaching–You Gotta Love It

Mormon authorities heralded home teaching as an inspired replacement for ward teaching almost 50 years ago. At first, home teachers were a husband-wife team. George and I developed  a good friendship with the young couple who visited us with their babies and invited us to their home. We kept in touch with the McLeans for several years after moving from that ward.

Within a year or two after the home teaching program was implemented, wives were no longer assigned as home teaching companions. The new program began to resemble the old ward teaching program. As an adolescent, I had hated ward teachers. My grandmother stayed with my brothers and me in the evenings while our dad worked, and we would beg her to say we weren’t home when the doorbell rang the last night of the month. She agreed to once, but was mortified by our not-very-muffled laughter from the bathroom where we’d locked ourselves. From then on I had to sit and endure Brother Watchful’s questions about whether or not I was being a good girl. Couldn’t he see that I was too homely a junior high kid to have any choice about the matter?

Since reaching adulthood, I have never locked myself in the bathroom nor crawled out of the living room to avoid our home teachers. Mostly I have enjoyed their visits. I’ll always be grateful to Brother Donne who was YM president as well as our home teacher. Brother Donne stopped by one afternoon bringing a church publication about depressed youth. He was concerned about suicidal comments our son, Techie, had made. George and I pooh-poohed the comments Brother Donne repeated. Techie was just kidding. But when I read the pamphlet, I recognized the symptoms of suicidal depression and we got help for Techie.

A memorable home-teaching experience occurred when my dad was living with us. Dad loved our home teachers, especially Brother Seenyle who was his age, and we enjoyed Brother Gabby who was our age. Usually they visited us first and stayed an hour. One day, we were last on their round. As Brother Gabby chatted away, Brother Seenyle appeared restless, and finally asked Dad where our rest room was. Dad took our home teacher to the bathroom and I noticed a large puddle on our leather sofa. I didn’t want to embarrass Brother Seenyle, so when he returned from the bathroom, I jumped to my feet, thanked a puzzled Brother Gabby for coming, and walked to the door. Maybe I shouldn’t have hid the accident from Brother Gabby. It might have been a blessing for more visitees than ourselves if the incident had been reported and Brother Seenyle released from his home teacher calling with a vote of gratitude.

Our current home teachers only visit once every few months. I understand. Both have demanding jobs and heavy family and church responsibilities. And they realize their visits aren’t likely to improve our attendance. But I’m glad to see them doing yard work and driving an elderly neighbor they are not assigned to visit. That is probably the effect church leaders hoped to accomplish when they announced the concept of home teaching.

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Follow My Lead

“Dad dances like Bill Cosby. My mom dances like Winnie the Pooh,” our daughter, Lolly, informed her high school friends. I’d have choked her if she hadn’t been right. George has rhythm and can really move his feet. I can clap in time to a brisk rendition of “Stars and Stripes Forever,” but dance rhythms are too complex for me to get the message from my ears all the way down to my feet while the music’s still playing.

Nevertheless, George and I decided to liven up January this year by signing up for a ballroom dance class. I expected George to excel, but no. He’s an individualist on the dance floor rather than a leader—and my rhythmic limitations require a strong leader to push me around the dance floor in time to the music.

People often use the leader/follower dance pattern as an analogy for marriage. So long as the husband leads and the wife follows, a marriage flows with grace and harmony. Now, I don’t know any professional dancing couples, but I doubt those who stay married carry the leader/follower pattern into everyday life.

Lolly actually married a former member of the BYU ballroom dance team, but she refuses to dance with him because he won’t let her lead. Fortunately, they don’t try to extend the leader/follower pattern in their day-to-day living.

Back in the ERA era, we had a bishop who preached, “The husband is the head of the family. It’s not a question of who is more qualified; it’s a question of following God’s counsel.” Obviously, our good bishop interpreted the “shall” in Genesis 3:16 to mean “should.” Another, older meaning of “shall” is “will.” I suspect the phrase, “thy husband shall rule over thee” is predictive rather than prescriptive.  

Our ward was full of couples where the wife had more common sense than her husband. Young wives agonized over their husbands’ decisions to buy newer, faster cars rather than save for a house down payment. One distressed sister asked me, during a visiting teaching visit, if she had to accompany her husband to the X-rated films with graphic sex scenes that he enjoyed. I quoted Brigham Young’s advice, “No woman has to follow her husband to hell,” and escaped before she could ask my advice should her husband expect her to perform the erotica he enjoyed viewing. A visiting teacher’s responsibility only goes so far.

But back to dancing. George and I have never figured out who leads, either on the dance floor or in our marriage. He does his Bill Cosby glide, while I bobble like a stuffed bear. We never really know where we’re going. We’ll never impress a judge, but at least we’re on our feet.

Husbands and Wives Are Equal, but the Husband Is More Equal

I thought “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” was trite when I first heard it 25 years ago. Doesn’t everybody know families are important and that parents should love each other and their children? A friend, N Sue Layted, suggested that the Proclamation was aimed at non-members who don’t have our family values. I suggested that N Sue make some non-LDS friends.

A closer reading of the Proclamation troubled me. Husbands and wife are equals, but the husband presides. How is that equal? The bishop presides over the ward. His counselors help but are not equal to him in authority. The Relief Society president presides over the Relief Society. Her counselors are not equal to her. How are husbands and wives equal if one presides over the other? A line from Orwell’s Animal Farm comes to mind: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” If LDS culture interprets the phrase “presides over” to mean choosing who says the family prayer, it’s still inequality. But if the dictionary definition, “to exercise guidance, direction, or control,” or “to occupy the place of authority” is meant, Pandora’s box is opened no matter how frequently prophets urge men to use “love and righteousness” in exercising their leadership.

The rigid role definitions in the Proclamation are also problematic. Traditional SAHM roles aren’t workable for every family. Is it beneficial to families for the church to convey the impression that, except for “disability, death, or other circumstances,” there is only one way to raise healthy, well-adjusted children? Some fathers are more nurturing than some mothers.  It makes sense for the more nurturing parent, regardless of gender, to assume the larger role of care giving. And many women are more capable of earning a living than their husbands. Parents should feel free to divide the providing and nurturing roles in whatever way works best for their family.

The Proclamation has been revised without fanfare over the years. Gone is the controversial statement that all men should marry.  Literalist Mormons were extending that commandment to gay men—not a happy thought for a woman who might end up partnered with one.  

I suggest the next time the Proclamation is revised the phrase, “fathers are to preside over their families” should be replaced by, “parents should stick together to keep the kids from running the show.”

Text Me Your Testimony

At a stake conference held in a college fieldhouse, the lights dimmed for the video presentation and scores of little blue lights glowed from the seats across from my section. I’d seen good Mormons—mostly male—using iPods, iPhones, Game Boys, and, less recently, Time Magazines and Harbor Freight Tool Catalogs to get through church meetings. Still, the darkened fieldhouse and stadium seating revealed a surprisingly high percentage of people tuned elsewhere during a meeting.

Is this a phenomenon of Mormon culture? Although iPhones are everywhere, I have not noticed parishioners sneaking peaks at semi-covered Blackberries when I visit other churches. Possibly that’s because meetings at other churches don’t run for three hours. It’s also possible that their meetings are more interesting—or maybe other denominations exert less pressure for members to attend every meeting every Sunday

For decades Mormon parents have brought toys and snacks to occupy children during Sacrament Meeting. Web-enabled devices might be a logical extension of this tradition to teens and adults. As availability of web-based media increases, speakers and class instructors will find themselves more frequently directing comments to the tops of heads bowed over illuminated screens. The solution, of course, is for the instructors to text their remarks and questions to class members who could text back answers. No more agonizing waits for hands to raise. E-connected classes would still be held in ward meetinghouses, of course, to provide fellowshipping and to be sure everyone is plugged in.

Now, if we could just make it acceptable for adults to bring snacks more sustaining than breath mints to get us through the 3-hour block!

Parenting for Dummies

My parents were relatively permissive. I never had a spanking although my mother used guilt masterfully. My brother received corporal punishment once. Doogie smart-mouthed a neighbor and sassed and swore at our mother for chastising him. Dad, who normally left discipline to Mom, got involved at that point. 

Our parents believed it was easier to do a chore themselves than to get us to help, which was true, of course. Aunt Prudence criticized our upbringing. Auntie raised our cousins with strict obedience to the Mormon values of work, thrift and church attendance. On Saturday mornings, Doogie hung around throwing rocks in the vacant lot waiting for our cousin, Beaver, to finish mopping the kitchen floor or some other chore before he could play. I read hundreds of Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys mysteries while cousin Buffy practiced the piano.

My brothers and I were lazy, useless kids. I did no homework until 9th grade when teachers began posting our grades and my pride kicked in. Oddly enough, my brothers and I, like our more disciplined cousins, grew up to be hard-working, responsible adults—although I do wish I’d learned to play the piano. We and our cousins turned out like our parents. Apparently their examples were more important than their parenting styles

I wish I’d realized this 30 years earlier. I’d have had a lot less angst raising my children. All those guilt-inducing Relief Society lessons—some of which I taught—about the wickedness of the world and Satan lurking to pounce on untaught, undisciplined children. Instead of just doing what comes naturally, I tried for perfection. Maybe it was self-criticism that kept me from emulating my parents. Anyway, I tried to be a strict, in-control parent, but that’s not my nature.  I could do it some of the time, but not always, so I wasn’t consistent. Besides inconsistency, my discipline methods lacked dignity. Chasing kids around the house while brandishing a wooden spoon is not quite the “Divine Calling of Motherhood “ image presented in RS lessons.

For some reason, I never thought of more civilized methods of discipline, like Time Out. When I could no longer catch the kids for a smack on the bottom, I switched to psychological warfare. I stopped quarrels with a pretend phone call to Dr. Smart, the child psychologist I kept on retainer in a kitchen cupboard. I staged loud conversations telling the good doctor that my children were driving me crazy. The kids watched, a mixture of fear and awe on their little faces, as I listened to the doctor’s advice. “Yes. What a good idea! I’ll try that.” By the time I hung up the imaginary phone, quarrels were forgotten as the kids bonded together in concern for their mother’s sanity.

Our kids would have had easier lives if they’d been blessed with smarter parents, but they’d have missed some interesting developmental adventures along the way. Children with normal parents do not attempt careers as stand-up comics or try to obtain an LDS temple recommend by adhering to every item on the checklist except belief in Joseph’s Smith’s divine calling and the literal translation of the Gold Plates.

Each of our kids acquired some of our best traits—as well as some of our negatives. Maybe instead of working so hard on our kids, we should have been working on ourselves.

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