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When Mormon teens doubt

"It seems unreasonable to expect children growing up in the Internet age to have no doubts about Mormonism," says Mette Harrison. But what should we tell them?

Mette Ivie Harrison
Mette Ivie Harrison

Mette Ivie Harrison

A guest post by Mette Harrison

My youngest son found a chance recently to have a private conversation with me about my views on same-sex marriage. Like many in his generation, he cannot understand why the Mormon church sees same-sex marriage differently than heterosexual marriage. But he didn’t know how to talk about this question to any of his current church leaders and he feared that if he did, he would be talked down to or worse—seen as a less devout member.

I loved the chance to talk to him honestly about doubts, as I have with all of my older children. It seems unreasonable to expect children growing up in the Internet age to have no doubts about Mormonism, and as a parent, I feel like one of my main jobs is to make sure they are comfortable talking to me about those doubts rather than trying to hide them and pretend they don’t have any.

I don’t want to have children who accept everything that comes from the leadership of the church with unquestioning obedience. But then again, I don’t think of parenting as an outcome-based project. I think of it as an ongoing relationship that needs to be renegotiated at times. I also don’t think of my children’s activity in the church as a commentary on my parenting or my own personal devotion. It is their own choice and reflects only their own personality and character.

Figuring out how to manage my own doubts was only one part of the process of learning how to talk to my children about their owns. I have also had to realize that there are plenty of other paths to follow when it comes to dealing with religious doubt, and I can be helpful to my children by offering them some varieties to choose from in the future. I may point to various family members or ward friends who have different stances when it comes to doubt, to show that there are ways to remain active and engaged with the church on a variety of levels, and to talk about what happens if they should choose to exit the church.

Talking calmly and lovingly through this can help children feel less frightened about having doubts and the consequences of dealing with them. I want to make sure that there is never any emotional threat in my manner, no mocking at the choices others make, and no sense of superiority about myself. And of course, always a sense of overwhelming love and respect for them. It is a gift as a parent when a child confides to you about doubts. It means they trust you implicitly, though it is also a request for some guidance.

So, after talking honestly about why it is good to raise thoughtful questions, I lay out the following possibilities for dealing with doubt on a long-term basis and give some examples of those I think represent these categories:

  1. The devout doubter who asks incisive, thoughtful questions, expressing doubts occasionally, but only on particulars, never doubting the church as a whole.
  2. The beginning doubter, who has begun to see holes in the fabric of the church, but isn’t sure what to make of it and is still gathering information in faith.
  3. The full doubter, who doubts everything, but with a sense of compassion and understanding, accepting that church leaders are as likely to make mistakes as anyone else.
  4. The stunned and angry doubter, who for a long period was oblivious to any doubts or questions, and then suddenly seemed to fall into them to the point of drowning—but is angry at anyone trying to help.
  5. The stand-up comic doubter who may seem more interested in poking fun or making trouble than in real questions, but ultimately is truly at a crossroads and needs understanding (and it’s not only teens who fall into this category).
  6. The depressive doubter, who feels as if every doubt is a sign of sin and is not sure there is a place for them in the church.
  7. The agnostic doubter, who questions even the existence of God.
  8. The atheist, who has given up even doubting God and moved to full disbelief.

Any one of these patterns of doubt is an honest reaction and we can move from one path to another without being accused of falseness. If we can allow our children to see the choices without prejudging them, we will safeguard our relationships with them in the future. .

Sometimes parents panic if our children express doubts about the church. We worry that this means that they are rejecting us and our way of life. We horribilize the future, imagining all the things we will have to give up if our child doesn’t follow the same path that we do with regard to doubts.

But the relationship you share with your child will not be over if they choose to deal with doubt differently than you have. Most of parenting is about throwing out your ideas about what is supposed to happen and embracing what is happening instead. This isn’t any different.

Other guest posts by Mette Harrison:

Mette Harrison is the author of the acclaimed mystery novels The Bishop’s Wife and His Right Hand, as well as many other books. She is a nationally ranked triathlete who lives in Utah.

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