When Mormons are choosing how to raise their children so as to give them the best chance at growing up strong in their faith, they focus not just on teaching children what to believe, but also on teaching them what to do. The Bible tells us faith without works is dead, and Jesus taught, “”Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21, KJV of the Bible)
Mormon beliefs include a strong foundation in keeping God’s commandments, and this belief, that obeying the commandments is one way we demonstrate our love for God, affects the choices Mormons make in raising their children. A scholar has said of the Mormons:
LDS spirituality is highly relational and consciously active in nature. One LDS doctrine states that “men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will” (Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28), while The Book of Mormon teaches that “when you are in the service of your fellow beings you are only in the service of your God” (Mosiah 2:17). Observers of LDS life will likely notice less emphasis on contemplative spirituality than on what can be termed an engaged spirituality. Although LDS teachings are replete with commandments to worship God, study Scripture, ponder spiritual questions, and pray often, a central emphasis of these efforts is that the individual establish and maintain a close relationship with God so as to more actively serve Him and His children. In fact, the LDS term describing a member in good standing is “active” rather than devout or orthodox.” (Teaching Correct Principles: Promoting Spiritual Values in Latter-day Saint Young People David C. Dollahite and Loren D. Marks from a Forthcoming chapter: K. M. Yust, A. N. Johnson, S. Eisenberg Sasso, & E. C. Roehlkepartain (Eds.) Nurturing Childhood and Adolescent Spirituality: Perspectives from the World’s Religious Traditions. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.)
Mormons work to keep their children “anxiously engaged” in good works. One Mormon teenager, new to the religion, said, “Now I know why the Mormon kids don’t get into trouble. They don’t have time.”
By helping their children fill their lives with meaningful and gospel-centered activities, they leave less time for bored teens to get into trouble and also make the family group more central to the child’s identity than the peer group. This is not to say children and teens spend every moment at church or reading scriptures. Because Mormon beliefs state that “Wherefore, verily I say unto you that all things unto me are spiritual” (Doctrine and Covenants 29:34, in a revelation given through Joseph Smith.) children are taught that they must make all their choices worthwhile. They can’t turn their religion on and off, so they must live a Christ-like life while in school, playing baseball, or spending time with friends.
The Mormons do provide a good number of formal activities to keep their youth occupied with meaningful activities. The goals of these programs are to help them develop an interest in things that are worthwhile, so they will choose them when they have time to spare. They also help the youth learn how to take the theoretical Sunday lessons and apply them to everyday life.
For instance, children ages eight and older are involved in their first regular youth group. Boys participate in Cub Scouting where it’s approved for church use. Girls, and boys living in areas where the church chooses not to do Scouting, participate in Activity Days. They meet two to four times a month to spend a few hours learning new skills and doing service. They might learn to crochet, do simple cooking, manage money, or practice babysitting skills. They might make blankets for homeless children, clean up a park, or run a food drive. It’s hoped that some of these activities will appeal to the children, so that they continue to do them on their own.
Youth twelve and older participate in the youth programs. Boys center their activities around Boy Scouting in areas where it’s approved. Girls, and boys in non-Scouting areas, participate in the Personal Progress program, where they learn to set goals and carry them out, including a number of complex projects. The youth also serve in leadership positions, as they run their own programs with “shadow leadership” from adults. This means the adults monitor to be certain church guidelines are followed and plans are meaningful. They ask questions that guide the youth as they plan and evaluate the results. They provide leadership training, but they don’t actively control the program, leaving as much responsibility as possible in the hands of the youth. Leadership builds responsibility and provides active connection to the religious community.
High school students attend a religion class each weekday during the school year, either early in the morning or as part of a release-time program. They often meet on weekends for service projects and socials. All of this gives them regular contact with responsible adults and youth who share their values, while helping them to fill their time productively.
Within the home, parents establish religious rituals and traditions that also fill time meaningfully. Every Monday evening is set aside for Family Home Evening, in which the family gathers together, usually without outsiders, for religious study, games, and treats. Each morning and evening includes prayer as a family and each day also includes a scripture study and devotional. Informally, parents also help their children carry out service, emphasize the importance of a secular education, and teach their children how to plan and carry out their own religious studies, including personal prayer and scripture study.
They help their children develop hobbies and talents and teach them to actively choose how to spend their time, rather than wandering around doing whatever comes to mind. When time is planned, it is more likely to be spent wisely and with a purpose.
What application does this have for those parents who are not LDS, but who would like to also teach their children to fill their time meaningfully and in ways that strengthen their faith?
Parenting should always begin in the home. Parents of any faith can plan a family night that is focused on helping children learn and value their own beliefs. Each family can also spend a few minutes each day praying with their children and helping them to become familiar with the scriptures of their faith. Families should develop a tradition of service, from the informal and spontaneous service such as picking up an item someone has dropped, to the more formal service of skipping a meal out and donating the money saved to a food bank.
Formal religious activity can be very helpful in rearing righteous children. A teenager going through a bit of a rebellion might be more inclined to listen to another adult, carefully chosen, who reinforces the teachings of the home. The church leaders should never replace the parents or be the sole source of religious education, but they can serve as a support system. Many churches are open to the idea of a strong youth program if the volunteers are available to carry out the work. The Mormons make sure there are two leaders for each age group, for safety and to give the youth several adults to choose from when selecting role models or seeking advice. Most LDS teens have two youth leaders for their class, the other leaders in that program, a Sunday School teacher, and a seminary (the daily study program) teacher, plus their bishop, who is the equivalent of a pastor. This puts many faithful adults in their lives to model appropriate living. Leaders should be chosen carefully, and should be trained that they are not to be “buddies” but adults, and that they must live lives the youth can model.
By teaching our children and youth to engage in spiritual behavior as a natural part of life, we can help them consider spirituality as normal a part of each day. Religion that is only theoretical and which occupies only an hour or two a week can’t influence a young person’s lifestyle in the same way a religion they live every moment can. Engaged spirituality provides an extra measure of safety for parents who want their children to grow up holding on to their faith.