Sometimes I think we Mormons aren’t aware of how differently we think from other groups. This can lead to communication problems with “outsiders,” but it can also keep us talking only to ourselves and ingrain ideas in our collective mindset that go unchallenged. When ideas aren’t challenged, they can become distorted and wind up doing us harm. Take for instance, our mindset about boys and, in particular, the Boy Scouts, the sacred cow of Mormon youth programs.
At the outset, please understand I’m a fan of scouting. I have two sons; my oldest, an adult now, is an Eagle Scout. My younger son’s leaders are all-around great guys who strive to make the program meaningful. But Mormons do view scouting differently than non-LDS people. To mainstream Americans, Boy Scouts is a classic organization that brings boys together to learn a few things and have some camping adventures. If a kid makes Eagle, he’s got something great to put on a resume or college application. In Mormon culture, however, Boy Scouts has become a measure of a boy’s religious commitment and faith. This approach to scouting stems from thought patterns that I find dangerous to boys.
In “The Girls are Fine,” an LDS mother of several daughters (no sons) explains she received a letter from her stake presidency requesting families consider “the value of a boy” and make large donations to Friends of Scouting. Irked, she wrote back, asking why similar donations aren’t requested to support programs for girls. In summarizing her stake president’s response, she spotlighted the problematic Mormon mindset about boys that compels me to approach this topic:
The response talked about how the girls seem to be doing fine, and that we already have programs in place for them. The goal is to create enough worthy priesthood holders to match the number of great women. The letter also asked if I did not want worthy priesthood holders for my daughters to marry.
These lines are enough to make the blood of any feminist boil on behalf of daughters everywhere, but notice how his sentiment also demeans boys. Mormons begin their consideration of men from a negative vantage: Girls are fine, but boys need to be made worthy. The result of this perspective is that we overlook girls and clamp down on boys by promoting compliance to the heavily structured, temporal activities in order to upgrade boys from their natural state of “unworthiness” to “worthiness.” This toxic message of inferiority seeps into the souls of our boys.
The same day “The Girls are Fine” published, my 13 year old son, an avid fisherman, spent his Wednesday activity casting a fishing line onto the concrete parking lot of our stake center. This is a valid activity to fulfill a merit badge requirement. At the activity’s close, however, my son didn’t feel any closer to God, or more valiant in his priesthood, or more worthy to marry someone’s daughter. Instead, he felt more inclined to resist participation because he doesn’t understand what parking lot fishing, or any aspect of the merit badge hunt, has to do with “church stuff.”
According to the aforementioned stake president’s perspective, I should encourage his participation because scouting will shape him into a “worthy priesthood holder.” But he’s already that. He just doesn’t want to cast onto concrete. At 13, he feels he’s outgrown Scouts. That doesn’t mean he is outgrowing God, or that he is disrespectful of authority (priesthood or otherwise). Yet, if he opts out of scouting, he’ll risk being labeled “less active”and spark the concern of the “active.” That concern often feels like an expectation of spiritual failure, all because he’s not interested in scouting. It’s a rational response for a young man to reject a church that he perceives teaches merit badges on a sash are reflective of a testimony in the heart. The problematic thinking, then, creates the very problem it intends to address.
The attitude that boys are naturally spiritually inferior to girls (or men to women) is offensive. My sons, like my daughter, began life as wonderful humans who craved meaningful, spiritually-fulfilling activities. A few weeks back, my starting-life-as-less-than-worthy son helped pack boxes for a Meals on Wheels service project. He came home flying. Happy. Church wasn’t a waste of his time that night. The needs of his soul were met by meeting the needs of others. The link between God and service was something he naturally felt and enjoyed. That these opportunities won’t present themselves every Wednesday is a fact of life youth accept.
What my son doesn’t need to accept, however, is any judgement that he is spiritually flawed or less committed to God because he doesn’t enjoy scouting, or that his lack of interest/participation predicts his failure as a spouse or an adult priesthood holder. I’ve no issue with the Church partnering with Boy Scouts, but I reject the tandem ways Mormons, as a cultural body, accept the premise that boys are less “worthy” than girls and then offer as remedy for their alleged spiritual inferiority a strong dose of structured, temporal activities. Yes, faith is the undercurrent of scouting, but faith is also the undercurrent of a Mormon boy’s life without scouting. In the eyes of many boys, scouting adds nothing to their lives but a series of hoops they resent.
I believe in our boys–in their fundamental goodness–and I don’t believe yoking them to false measures of faith is a cure to some presumed, inherent spiritual weakness. In fact, it seems such artificial measures are more likely to create spiritual weakness than destroy it. Where we expect spiritual weakness, we will find it; where we seek spiritual strength, we will also find it.
When I ask LDS moms to describe their sons, they use words like sweet, tender, giving, kind, funny, and smart–the same words they use to describe their daughters. If we want to encourage these traits–along with strength, courage, perseverance, commitment, and responsibility–we must adopt a positive pattern of thinking about our children, regardless of gender.
My son understands that, when he casts into a parking lot, he’s not going to catch a fish because fish don’t swim in concrete. Likewise, spirituality isn’t in the concrete, but in the Living Water. We can’t judge who my son is, or who he will become, by what he failed to catch under the lights in a parking lot, but rather by his desire to catch something at all. Likewise, our boys shouldn’t be judged by their compliance to a program that, at best, might run parallel to their relationship with their Heavenly Father, but cannot possibly equal the real thing.
Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men. Mark 1:17