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Post-Mormon Mette: God As Parent

In my orthodox Mormon years, which were also the years I had five young children eight years apart, I was taught that God was the perfect parent and that I was to look up to the example of God, as displayed in scripture and in the history of the world, to see how to parent my own children. I would often find myself feeling guilty and ashamed of my own parenting because of this ideal. I would also find myself searching scripture for guidelines of good parenting. But when I look back on my parenting under the example of God, I think that I learned a lot of bad parenting habits. I suspect my children would agree.

One of my biggest parenting dilemmas came along when my second child was diagnosed as ADHD and ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) in first grade. She was, well, difficult would be glossing over the problems. She got lost in every store I took her to. She wandered off to play at abandoned homes. She lay down in the road on the way home from school because she thought someone would feel sorry for her and drive her home. She hit the other kids if she was bored, which was often. I used the same parenting strategy on her as I used on my other kids (good behavior=good treatment, bad behavior=punishment) and in short order, she had nothing in her room and was grounded all the time.

I thought my parenting was based on the God of the Bible. Here are the ten commandments. Follow them or you will face consequences. The rules are the same for everyone. No sin allowed. Those who want to go to heaven have to follow every rule, be completely perfect (albeit with Christ’s help). The Book of Mormon confirmed the idea that God passed out punishment to the wicked and rewards to the righteous. We talk about the “cycle of wickedness” in the Mormon scriptures, but I see now that it’s also a cycle of God’s wrath. You will prosper in the land if you are righteous. If you follow all the rules. Otherwise, there will be “consequences.”

That’s how I was parenting. And I suppose I was getting the same results that God got. When Mormons have children who stray away from the church or become “rebellious,” we often look to the scriptures for comfort. We remember that the prophet Lehi had Laman and Lemuel who rebelled against him, too. And it certainly wasn’t because he was unrighteous. God lost one third of the hosts of heaven according to Mormon doctrine, in the war in heaven in which Lucifer convinced so many others that he was right to suggest his own plan where people would be forced to choose the right. But God sent Jesus instead, to let us have a choice.

Really? A choice. Do we really have a choice? I could complain that most Mormon parents and the Mormon hierarchy as a whole operate almost completely on the basis of Satan’s plan, trying to force people to do what is right by any means (in particular, withholding information from them, but also through shame and fear). And despite the promise of free will in Mormonism, there’s an awful lot of head nodding when bad people get their “just deserts,” because “wickedness never was happiness.” God (and apparently other parents) are fully justified in punishing those who don’t knuckle down and follow His rules and admit He is always right.

It was after considerable therapy that my parenting changed to become more compassionate, more interested in my children’s point of view and in understanding them rather than dealing with crowd control issues and “fairness,” many of those problems went away. I stopped parenting on the model of the God of scripture. I stopped wanting to justify myself. I started wanting less to control my children and more to simply walk with them. And honestly, I found a new joy in parenting. Less justification. Less assurance that I was doing “the right thing.” But more real connection. More of my children talking to me without being worried about my judgment. So I gave up God as a role model for parenting. At least that God.

Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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