Teaching Values—A Mother’s Commission


Mother. The title is deceptively simple. For, as those of us who hold it know, the responsibilities it carries are many and varied—nurse, home economist, teacher, and psychologist, to name a few. The approaches we take to child-raising are as diverse as our own personalities. But one common question concerns us all: How can we help our children hold fast to their faith when a faithless world continually tempts and tries them?

A very interesting movie called The Chosen, based on a novel of the same name by Chaim Potok, addresses this concern. Although Potok is not a Latter-day Saint, and though his novel deals with another religious culture, Potok has a powerful message for Latter-day Saints—in fact, for all who teach and influence children.

He tells the story of two teenaged Jewish boys growing up in New York City in the closing years of World War II. Both boys are orthodox Jews, carefully taught in the traditions of their people. But in many regards, their backgrounds are very different.

One of the boys, Reuven Malter, grows up in a rather liberal environment, studying the Talmud, but also playing jazz piano. His father is a brilliant man, whose life’s work has become the fight for an independent Jewish homeland. His friend, Danny Saunders, belongs to a very conservative, Hassidic, sect. Danny’s upbringing has included not only rigorous religious scholarship, but also a strict code of behavior and special dress—earlocks, beard, and caftan. Moreover, as the oldest son of the tzaddik, or holy leader, of his Hassidic sect, Danny is expected to inherit his father’s position. But Danny has become fascinated by the study of psychology. Eventually, he chooses a life for himself outside the bounds of the role his family’s tradition dictates.

In a very touching scene, Danny’s father grants his son permission to seek a career in the world, then asks if he will continue to keep the commandments. Danny answers that he will; it is only the external things—the earlocks, beard, and caftan—that he must leave behind. Rebbe Saunders then expresses his hope that he has given to the world a righteous man, for, he observes, “The world needs a righteous man.”

When author Chaim Potok lectured at BYU last year, he explained that his novels are about “core-to-core culture confrontation.” Each culture, he said, has at its core a distinguishing set of ideas about the nature of reality. These core concepts and values guide people in interpreting their daily experiences and in making ethical choices. Children acquire this core set of beliefs from the teachings and persuasive examples of their parents and other adults. The confrontation comes when they encounter in the world other persuasive cultures with different core beliefs.

The children in Potok’s novels grow up in the culture of orthodox Judaism, with its abiding beliefs in God, law, and tradition. The specific cultural challenges they meet vary. In one novel, it is Freudian psychology; in another, it is Western art; in still another, it is a new way of viewing the scriptures. But all of these challenges, says Potok, are part of a larger tradition—Western secular humanism—a culture that surrounds us all.

One of the problems with this cultural tradition is the belief that man is the measure of all things. Western secular humanism in effect discounts the divine and emphasizes sensory evidence when seeking truth. Humanists often ignore faith and belief in God, and a few modern humanists are even seeking to replace religion with their own secular creeds.

But this secular undertow need not undermine religious commitment. It becomes a serious problem only when we fail to educate our children thoroughly in the core values of the gospel. If a child absorbs the peripheral elements of our culture without experiencing and recognizing the influence of the Spirit in his life, he may be “steamrolled” when he encounters a vigorous culture such as Western secular humanism.

In his lectures at BYU, Potok urged us to instill a solid core of religious values in our children. Then, when our children go into the world, they will more likely be able to accept the truly good contributions of the Western tradition without compromising the core values of the gospel.

I think our primary role as parents is to transmit our core values and beliefs to our children. The scriptures say this rather clearly: “Inasmuch as parents have children in Zion, or in any of her stakes which are organized, that teach them not to understand the doctrine of repentance, faith in Christ the Son of the living God, and of baptism and the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of the hands, when eight years old, the sin be upon the heads of the parents.” (D&C 68:25.)

We need to make sure our children know, as Potok’s characters find out, that there are some things they cannot be and still be strong in the faith. We have a fine statement of this point from the movie Fiddler on the Roof, when Tevye struggles to accept his daughter’s denial of the faith. Considering both sides of the question, he finally concludes, “On the other hand … There is no other hand. If I bend that far, I will break.” When can we bend, and when can we not? Which aspects of our belief are absolutely beyond compromise?

In a beautifully succinct statement, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., spelled out our core beliefs:

“[There are] two prime things which may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded:

“First: that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Creator of the world, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Atoner for Adam’s transgression; that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died, that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being, a perfect Being, the first Fruits of the Resurrection; that He later ascended to the Father, and that because of His death and by and through His resurrection every man born into the world will be likewise literally resurrected. … These positive facts, and all other facts necessarily implied therein, must all be honestly believed, in full faith, by every member of the Church.

“The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is: That the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others; that the Gospel and the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God were in truth and fact restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the Primitive Church; that the Lord again set up His Church, through the agency of Joseph Smith; that the Book of Mormon is just what it professes to be; that to the Prophet came numerous revelations for the guidance, upbuilding, organization and encouragement of the Church and its members; that the Prophet’s successors, likewise called of God, have received revelations as the needs of the Church have required, and that they will continue to receive revelations as the Church and its members, living the truth they already have, shall stand in need of more; that this is in truth the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and that its foundation beliefs are the laws and principles laid down in the Articles of Faith. These facts also, and each of them, together with all things necessarily implied therein or flowing therefrom, must stand, unchanged, unmodified, without dilution, excuse, apology, or avoidance; they may not be explained away or submerged. Without these two great beliefs the Church would cease to be the Church.” (“The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” Address to Church educators, Aspen Grove, 8 Aug. 1938, p. 3.)

How do we make sure that our children will internalize the core values of the gospel of Jesus Christ? Parents can never internalize values for their children. But I think we can help by making sure that we understand those values thoroughly ourselves and make them a part of our own lives. When our teaching is honest, it has a good chance of being effective.

As we look at ourselves, then, what should our primary concerns be? They are not the ones we often hear today: Should I be jogging five miles a day? Am I a perfect housekeeper? Should I have a career? Am I really fulfilled? These concerns are clearly secondary. Our primary concerns must be these: Do I know that Jesus is the Christ, the literal Son of God? Do I believe and follow the words of the living prophets? How do I respond to the challenges of daily life? Am I usually trying to please the Lord, other people, or myself?

We also need to understand the nature of the trials of faith we and our children will meet, and prepare to meet them. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz identifies three kinds of experiences that often prompt people to abandon their core beliefs: when reason proves inadequate to explain experience, when a person’s powers of endurance fail, and when his value system does not provide the moral insight he needs. Geertz says that these three experiences—bafflement, suffering, and ethical paradox—if they are intense enough or last long enough, will challenge a person’s view that life can be understood. These are challenges, he says, “with which any religion … which hopes to persist must attempt somehow to cope.” (See “Religion As a Cultural System,” in Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Michael Banton, London: Tavistock, 1966, p. 14.)

We can be prepared to cope with such difficult challenges. Do we know how? Do our children? We can be prepared for the intensity of life’s challenges, only by studying and exercising our faith. In the words of Elder Neal A. Maxwell, “Those who refuse to eat their spiritual spinach will come off second when they wrestle with the world.” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 68.)

Referring to the new editions of scriptures, Elder Boyd K. Packer described the strength that will come to a generation of gospel scholars: “With the passing of years, these scriptures will produce successive generations of faithful Christians who know the Lord Jesus Christ and are disposed to obey His will.

“The older generation has been raised without them, but there is another generation growing up. The revelations will be opened to them as to no other in the history of the world. … They will develop a gospel scholarship beyond that which their forebears could achieve. They will have the testimony that Jesus is the Christ and be competent to proclaim Him and to defend Him.” (Ensign, Nov. 1982, p. 53.)

When our children are prepared by faith and gospel study, we need not isolate them from the world out of fear. Indeed, when we are confident of our own core beliefs, no human theory will upset us. I share the Lord’s optimistic outlook when he encourages us to study “things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; things which are at home, things which are abroad; the wars and the perplexities of the nations, and the judgments which are on the land; and a knowledge also of countries and of kingdoms.” (D&C 88:79.)

The Lord tells us in the next verses why he wants us to learn these things.

“That ye may be prepared in all things when I shall send you again to magnify the calling whereunto I have called you, and the mission with which I have commissioned you.

“Behold I sent you out to testify and warn the people, and it becometh every man who hath been warned to warn his neighbor.” (D&C 88:80–81.)

Certainly we can be better missionaries to the world if we understand something of what the world’s citizens believe, and why. But our children will also be better citizens, more compassionate neighbors, and eventually wiser parents themselves if they use all the resources of knowledge available to them.

I think we mothers must encourage our children to take their opportunities for education—secular, as well as spiritual—very seriously. I think we need to encourage our young women especially to do well in their school work, to learn all they can about the arts and sciences, as well as to acquire homemaking skills. I think they should learn to think and analyze. They should be able to articulate a position and defend it rationally.

But what do we do when there is a conflict, real or apparent, between our secular and our religious learning? How can we protect our children against doctrines that would lead them the wrong way or literature that would twist or pervert? One way is by the powerful example of our own faith.

My husband made this observation: “The child’s belief and understanding of the divine is shaped in his early years, especially as he observes how the divine shapes the important actions of his parents. The farm boy who sees his father dedicate the fields to God every spring has no doubt whence come the rains. But when his father talks about God only on Sunday, as it were, and then conducts his life’s business as if Chance ruled the universe, the child may very well learn to farm like an atheist.” (Noel B. Reynolds, “Cultural Diversity in the Universal Church,” in Mormonism: a Faith for All Cultures, ed. F. LaMond Tullis, Provo: Brigham Young University Press, 1978, p. 20.)

In other words, when we show our children a consistent example of wholehearted faith, they will likely follow that example. Even if they temporarily experiment with another set of values, or are momentarily distracted by an exciting theory, they will usually return to the sound teachings of their parents.

We must also realize that we can never warn our children against every specific evil they may encounter in this life, nor should we try. What we can do is help them become familiar with the Holy Spirit themselves. Then they will have a voice of warning or counsel, a bad feeling or a good feeling, whenever they need it. If they keep the commandments and learn to hear the voice of the Spirit, they can weather any storm.

Women today face a particular conflict with regard to the importance of motherhood. The culture of the world defines worth in terms of dollars and cents, in terms of power and visibility. It is comforting to hear a prophet reaffirm that parenthood is a most valuable responsibility. It is, in fact, a core value of the gospel.

President Spencer W. Kimball has said, “No matter what the differences of circumstances you observe in the lives of women about you, it is important for … Latter-day Saint women to understand that the Lord holds motherhood and mothers sacred and in the highest esteem. He has entrusted to his daughters the great responsibility of bearing and nurturing children.

“This is the great, irreplaceable work of women.” (Ensign, Nov. 1978, p. 105.)

What do we say to our children if by our words or actions we express the idea that the only place we can get fulfillment, the only place we can be happy, is out of the house? As we raise our children, we ought to teach them by our example that we find ultimate worth in being with them, teaching them, and nurturing them.

I sometimes hear young people being warned to do everything that is fun or exciting now, because once they get married the fun will essentially be over. Now, I’m a firm believer in getting your feet on the ground and growing up before marriage. But the fun I had before marriage doesn’t compare with the joy I’ve had in marriage and motherhood. Our children need to see that there will be special joys associated with each stage of their lives.

Rebbe Saunders was right. The world needs righteous men. As mothers in Zion and daughters of God, we play a vital role in helping our children become righteous men and women who love the Lord and delight to serve him. This work requires our best thinking, our firmest commitment. Surely God will strengthen and help us, for it is his work we are about.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Larry Winborg

Sydney S. Reynolds, mother of eleven, is the Young Women’s president in her Orem, Utah, ward.