Parenting as an ex-Mormon

Fifteen years ago, when my kids were ages 1 to 10, I spent a lot of time telling them what to do. On some level, this is the task of a parent. You can call it brainwashing if you like, but it’s also crowd control. There are some kinds of behavior you simply can’t ignore when there are toddlers all over the place, and pooing on the carpet is one of them. I was a very strict parent, to my surprise, because I thought I was going to be super liberal and would want to answer all my kids “Why” questions, and it turned out that wasn’t the way that it worked.

Some of how I’ve changed as a parent may simply be the result of my children getting older. But I think it’s more than that. I think that as I have gradually disengaged with orthodox Mormonism, I’ve also begun to see my job as a parent differently. I remember years ago hearing a mother talk to me about praying every night so that God would help her see what her children were meant to be as adults. And I thought this was a righteous thing. I imagined that my children were going to have a special calling from God, too.

But now I think that my job as a parent isn’t to ask God what my children are supposed to do — it’s to ask my children what they want to do. To wait until they want something, and then do everything in my power to give them the opportunity to do that.

Yes, that meant when my daughter wanted to become a pop singer, I took her to auditions for America’s Got Talent and American Idol. And when she changed her mind and wanted to go to Berklee College of Music, I (and my husband) restructured my house payments so I could help her with tuition, even though I’d once written a very strongly worded essay on-line about how parents should never pay for their kids’ tuition because it would teach the kids not to value their education, and besides they should all go to state colleges that were inexpensive and they could get scholarships to, anyway.

In my early years as a parent, I believed so strongly in making sure my kids did chores. Those were life skills. Everyone has to do chores. And yes, I still think chores are valuable. But though I might still assign them, I don’t monitor their completion or tie it to phone use, car use, or going on dates. These days, I just don’t think it’s worth ruining my relationship with my kids to nag them, especially when they’re teens and have multiple AP classes that really are the best thing they can possibly invest their time in, in terms of getting scholarships for tuition. I also really want my kids to have good social lives. I want them to enjoy high school and have good memories. I want them to learn how to have fun (a skill I’m still working at).

My old style of parenting was very much about consequences. I remember telling my daughter (who struggles with ADHD) that if she hit one of the other kids one more time, she would be banned from an overnight family activity that night. And when she hit one of the other kids in her compulsive way, she didn’t get to go to the activity. I stayed home with her, so I had to miss out on the fun, as well. But I congratulated myself on being a strong parent.

I look back on this now and wonder what I really taught my daughter. That making a mistake was unforgivable? That my rules were more important than my relationships?

I was a forbidding parent very much in the mold of the God that I had been taught in Mormonism. The God I believe in now isn’t like that. I’m pretty far from perfect still, but now that I find acceptance and forgiveness and unconditional love in my relationship with God, I feel I’m better able to offer that same relationship to my children. Or at least that’s my goal now, which is very different than my old orthodox Mormon goal of parenting. I’m not interested in getting family members to the celestial kingdom or in getting them to follow a specific set of rules about living. I’m just interested in being able to sit down with them whenever I can, eat good food, and talk about life. I want them to feel safe to be themselves, even if they make mistakes. And I hope that they will do the same for me.

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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