The 50-50-90 rule: Anytime you have a 50-50 chance of getting something right, there's a 90% probability you'll get it wrong.
Question #89428 posted on 04/24/2017 9:32 p.m.
Q:

Dear Parent Writers and Alumni of the 100 Hour Board,

(Or non-parents who have insights from other parents they want to share)

How do you teach your children that sinful behavior is bad without teaching them to be judgmental of people who sin? I feel like the concept of "love the sinner, hate the sin" is difficult enough for some adults to grasp, but that seems an especially subtle nuance for young children.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. Growing up, I was taught that smoking was bad because it was against the Word of Wisdom. However, in my child brain, "smoking is bad" equated to "people who smoke are bad people." Well into my teenage years, if I saw someone smoking, I automatically assumed they were bad people who probably did other bad things, too, like stealing or kidnapping or something. My parents never said anything that led me to think this way; it was just what made sense to me.

I want to make sure that I teach my children the difference between sins being bad and assuming people who sin being bad people. For instance, I don't want them condemning friends who have gay parents, but I also want to strongly impress upon them that we believe marriage is between a man and a woman. Any advice about how you or someone you know has gone about doing that?

~Trying not to inadvertently raise judgmental bigots

A:

Dear you, 

I kinda hate the phrase "Love the sinner, hate the sin." I understand its purpose, but I feel like people become hyper focused on how to "fix" the problem and therefore "fix" the person. 

Anyway, I think it's more important to focus on how everyone has similarities and differences and how that's a good thing. You're a person, they're a person, and we should just be kind to one another. It's okay to say, "We believe x,y, and z because reason." It's not okay to say "We believe this and everyone who doesn't is completely wrong/sinning/being bad/immoral/needs to be changed."

I don't have kids, but I have had two very different sets of students with contrasting demographics. Last year I was working in the ghetto of West Jordan. My kids came from broken and poor homes. Some of them didn't know where the next meal was coming from or would push wearing the same outfit 3 days in a row. This year, I work in Provo. Most of my kids are LDS and have a mom and dad at home with one or both of their parents having college degrees. Even though these tiny people, who have literally only been on the face of the planet for 6-7 years, come from vastly different backgrounds, I still deal with the same issues that stem from equating Church teachings to personal targeting. I have had to discuss why some people cover their shoulders and some don't, how some families have people who smoke and some don't, how some families have a mom and a dad and some don't. 

Basically, it's okay to express and teach that you have different values and viewpoints than other people. I actually think it's really important that you have that discussion with your children sooner rather than later. Just be honest, open, and kind. 

-Ms.O'Malley

A:

Dear Trying ~

Oy. Parenting, right? So hard. I thought the sleep deprivation of babyhood was hard. And it was! This is a different hard.

This is something I've thought a lot about. How do I teach my kids to be tolerant, loving, and kind, while still teaching them about values and standards? One conclusion I've drawn is that the more exposure you have to something deviant from the norm, the easier it is to be kind. Want to not be racist? Get to know well people of other races. Want to teach your kids to love people who don't live your religion? Become friends with people who don't live your religion. Is that hard in Utah? Absolutely. Is it possible? Absolutely. And, I'd say, critical. 

I have a friend in my neighborhood who is not LDS. Let's call her Purple. She is one of the most Christ-like people I know. She is amazing. I adore her. But she gets unintended discrimination from LDS neighbors.

Real story. Her next door neighbors had a yard sale because they were moving. She decided to piggyback on it and put a few things outside. Neighbors and yard salers came through, looking through their stuff. One lady, an LDS neighbor who didn't know Purple at all (because it's too easy to only get to know your neighbors that come to church), asked her what ward she was in. Purple replied, "Oh, I don't belong to your church. I go to a non-denominational church." The neighbor responded in a pitying voice, "Oh. And you seemed so nice." Purple went inside and cried. I'm sure the discrimination was unintentional, but that didn't make it hurt any less.

Another real story. Purple's next door neighbors, mentioned above, are the people who brought her into several women's groups in our neighborhood (Freezer meals, babysitting co-op, Joy School) and to play dates. I am embarrassed and saddened to realize that if it had not been for them, I would likely have never met Purple. These neighbors are true friends to Purple and her family. So when these neighbors' kids chastened Purple's husband for drinking coffee, they were able to have a real conversation about it, both as adults and with their kids. It taught their kids not to judge people on what they drink, and it gave the adults a chance to talk about religion and the Word of Wisdom. There were no tears or hard feelings in this case, but instead, it gave their friendship and respect for each other a chance to grow.

Last summer we took Purple and her family to a cabin in Idaho on vacation. We told our kids up front, "They will probably drink coffee, and we don't. That's ok. We believe that God told us not to drink coffee, but they go to a different church, and they don't believe God told us that. So they will drink it, and we won't, and that's ok." They did, indeed, drink coffee, and it was a non-issue that trip.

Fast forward to last night. They invited Dragon Baby to go to an activity at their church. We let her go. She came back with a Wendy's toy and drink. (I assume a kids' meal was consumed on the way back.) After a half an hour or so of them getting back, I got this text from Purple:

"I'm so sorry! I just took a sip of [daughter's] drink and I think it has tea in it. I just ordered peach mango fruitea I thought it was just juice blend! ??? [face palm emoji]"* So I googled that drink and sure enough, it has green tea in it. I responded simply, "It's ok. We'll just throw it out. Thanks for telling me!" I know it was an innocent mistake—she's not used to looking out for green tea in her drinks. I respect her for telling me when she noticed, instead of hoping it slipped under the rug. 

So I approached Dragon Baby and had this conversation:

Me: You know how [Purple's family] drinks things that we don't?
Dragon Baby: [nods]
Me: Like how they drink coffee and some teas that we don't drink?
Dragon Baby: Uh-huh.
Me, gesturing to her drink: Well, that drink has green tea in it.
Dragon Baby, looking at her drink: Oh.
Me: What do you think we should do with that drink?
Dragon Baby: [hands me her drink]

So I got up and threw out the drink, and praised her for not being upset that she couldn't drink it, and treating the whole situation with maturity.

Dragon Baby: But it was mango! 
Me: True, and I'll bet it was yummy, huh? Maybe we could get a mango smoothie sometime.
Dragon Baby: That would be good! [pause] Mommy, why do they drink Green Tea?
Me: Well, we believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet.
Dragon Baby: [nods]
Me: And we believe that God revealed to him the Word of Wisdom and asked us to not drink Green Tea.
Dragon Baby: Yeah.
Me: Well, they don't. They don't believe Joseph Smith was a prophet. They don't believe he restored the church to the earth. And so they don't believe in the Word of Wisdom.
Dragon Baby: But we do, don't we!
Me: Yup, sure do! But they don't. And that's their choice. We still love them. They're still good people. They just believe different things than we do.
Dragon Baby: [thinks about it a second, then nods decidedly.]

And that was it. It probably helps that we have had similar conversations about race (we are lucky enough to have a ward filled with many different races and ethnicities). We got her ears pierced at a tattoo parlor, and talked in advance about how the people there would probably look really different, and do things to their bodies that we don't think is a good thing to do. But that they would be very nice people, and that God loves them, and that just because they look different doesn't mean they're bad. She had a great experience with the people there. It was a good reminder for me, too.

It's common to have conversations with our kids that basically say, "We ___ and they ___ and that's ok. We still love them. They're still good people. They're just different from us." She will still carpool home from school with them. We will still do play dates. We will still invite them to do things with us. And my kids will learn from conversations that we believe different things, and from our actions that we still love them and think they are good people. It is not just a theoretical thing we are teaching them. It's real life.

So, in short, how do you teach your kids values, but not to associate bad things with bad people? Befriend those people. Show them by your own example that you love people that do things you don't agree with. Give your kids the chance to interact with them and see the positive qualities they possess.

Good luck! Parenting sure is tricky sometimes. Especially with these little nuances that seem to be everywhere.

~ Dragon Lady

*Edited for typos

A:

Dear TTNIRJB:

Your question reminded me of studies that attempted to measure generosity in children raised in religious and non-religious households. According to a write-up in Science magazine, it appears that the religiously-raised children were more likely "to judge someone’s misdeeds as wrong and punish the perpetrators." They also were less likely to share, at least in the semi-artificial environment of such a study.

I was intrigued by the hypothesis of Israeli psychologist Beit-Hallahmi: "He suspects the results are connected to the importance many religions place on an external authority and threats of divine punishment. Whereas children in religious households learn to act out of obedience to a watchful higher power, children raised in secular homes could be taught to follow moral rules just because it's 'the right thing to do,' he says. Then, 'when no one is watching, the kids from nonreligious families behave better.'"

I think it's possible to impart values, even LDS-friendly values, onto one's children with more focus on an internal locus of control rather than an external one. 

In the example of smoking, the health drawbacks of smoking are universally known and even supported by society. (I had to laugh at a scene in Girls where the character of Jessa cavalierly lights up at a bar and mutters about Bloomberg letting them, implying that moral policing of smoking isn't just a Utah or Mormon thing.) I know that the "because I said so" narrative of the Word of Wisdom is probably more prevalent, especially since Mormon moral foundations tend to be more conservative/authoritarian, but I feel like teaching a young child this principle through a lens of respecting their body is less likely to lead to the sorts of judgmental comments you mention. 

As for the issue of marriage, there are competing priorities here, as you acknowledge. Assuming you're in the United States/Canada, marriage equality is the law of the land. I think that with the near-certainty that your child will have friends whose parents are in same-sex marriages, erring on the side of "loving your neighbors" is a valid priority. The stigma against the LGBT community in the LDS world is acute—we get heartrending questions on this topic frequently—and I think it's worth thoughtfully discussing with your spouse how to respect the gay folks, married and otherwise, in your community and model that for your child. Since marriage is an adult decision and orientation isn't chosen, I would likely wait to impart my own views on this topic until my hypothetical child was older and could understand more nuanced situations.

---Portia 

A:

Dear Trying,

I grew up in Utah and feel like I was raised with similar biases, so I'm also trying to be careful about what I say to my kids. My four-year-old has just started asking questions along these lines, calling people "bad" if they do things we've told him are "bad." Obviously that's not true, so we've tried to explain that sometimes people make mistakes or even just decisions we don't agree with, but that doesn't make them a bad person. For example, he is not a bad person just because he's done something we've told him not to do.

A lot of it is explaining why we believe the things we believe or do the things we do instead of just saying, "Because I said so" or, "Because it's a commandment." We can explain that we don't smoke because smoking can make you sick, and Heavenly Father knows this, so he asked us not to do that. I realize that explanations like this aren't adequate for every point of doctrine, but it's a starting point.

Sometimes the only answer is, "I don't know why Heavenly Father has asked us to do this, but because we believe that he loves us, and we love him, we have to have faith and do it anyway. You can always study and pray about it and see if that helps you understand." Hopefully that's a conversation you don't have to have with your kids until they're a little older and they understand a little more. 

Also, I agree 100% with Dragon Lady that it's important to expose yourself and your kids to people who aren't like you so that you can learn to love and understand them. The worth of a soul is so much greater than ones' religious, political, moral, or any other beliefs. If your kids see that, especially through how you treat these people, they will probably figure all this out on their own.

--Maven

A:

Dear trying,

Not a parent here. I just wanted to say that my experience as a kid was very much like yours, and I spent a lot of my life feeling uncomfortable or judgmental around people who didn't think or act like me. But you and I are evidence that our thinking tends to mature as we get older, and that the nuances that are difficult for us as children become much easier to grasp as adults. Sure, I'm still judgey sometimes. But I've gotten loads better in recent years, and I've made a deliberate effort to learn how to interact with those who are different from me.

I'm not saying you shouldn't take the other writers' advice and do your best to raise kind, empathetic, understanding children. I'm just saying you may not need to worry about it as much as you think you do.

Yours, &c.

Heidi Book

A:

Dear everyone,

This question specifically asked about parenting and helping our own kids differentiate between outward, Mormon-specific behavior and a person's "goodness." And lots of great examples of how to specifically and regularly tell kids things like "Did you see that person doing _____? Remember, just because we don't do that in our family, that doesn't mean they are bad. If you ever have a question about that, you can ask us."

I'm the primary chorister in my ward (which is, frankly, the best), and I've been a primary teacher before. And, in primary lessons this sort of thing comes up all. the. time.

It's so easy to fixate on behavior, especially Word of Wisdom as an indicator of keeping commandments that so frequently, even in non-Word of Wisdom-specific lessons, smoking, drinking alcohol, are used as shorthand for "good" vs. "bad." Daniel and his friends not eating the king's food, Joseph Smith not drinking alcohol before his leg surgery (even though, you know, the Word of Wisdom didn't exist then) - we love these examples in teaching kids because we're confident they can pick up on the "right" answer. And it's not just Word of Wisdom either. In a friend's primary, they had a lesson on modesty and the primary presidency member had cut out pictures of women's outfits from different magazines. She would hold them up, ask the kids to shout out if they were good or bad, and then put the non-modest ones (sigh) into the garbage. I would hope, but do not expect, that this is an extreme bad example. I would request that, if you are ever in a position to talk to a group like that, just pick a different example of "bad" behavior (bullying, making fun of or excluding others, is an easy one).

- Rating Pending (who seconds Dragon Lady's suggestion that you have similar, frequent conversations with your kids about race/ethnic differences. Studies uniformly show that not talking about race, "not seeing race," or just trying to set an example yourself, isn't enough to help kids internalize why racial discrimination is wrong)