October Visiting Teaching Message: If We Do Not Doubt
Hi, Exponent readers. I’m Heather from Doves and Serpents. I’m a professor and a mom of three kids (ages 8, 11, and 14) who often drive me to the brink of insanity despite being genuinely great kids. The cool kids at Doves and Serpents are nice enough to let me write a column about family and gender every Wednesday (Knit Together).
I’m a professor of secondary education, which means I teach students who are training to become middle and high school teachers. I usually teach classes on classroom management, assessment, diversity, learning theory, you get the picture. This semester, however, I agreed to teach what’s called SFA 101, a one-credit course on study skills (note taking, study strategies, communicating with your professors, time management, etc.). I am really enjoying it so far, but boy, are these freshmen different than the juniors and seniors I usually teach. Many are living on their own for the first time and are struggling with balancing their newfound freedom and their responsibilities as students. They are like kids in a candy store.
As I was doing some planning for next week, I came across a booklet that focuses on how to be successful in college. The chapter called “Taking Pride in Doubt” caught my attention. Here’s a re-cap of the advice in this chapter:
- Cultivate a doubting attitude.
- View doubt as an essential ingredient for excellence in college.
- “Truth” keeps changing. It is easier to embrace doubt if we stop demanding certainty.
- Treat answers as beginnings rather than endings.
- Use the library to challenge your most certain beliefs.
- Take pride in doubt.
This advice might seem like no-big-deal, except I’m a Mormon . . . and “doubt” has taken on a nasty connotation in Mormon culture. Doubt is something to be avoided at all costs. It’s roundly maligned as being, gasp—not faith promoting.
We hear of the perils of doubt everywhere we turn. We sing anthems about not doubting. We teach our kids not to doubt.Our books of scripture chide us for doubting. Heck, even Trey Parker and Matt Stone take a dig at Mormons’ attitude towards doubting in the Book of Mormon Musical song “I Believe”.
You cannot just believe partway
You have to believe in it all
My problem was doubting the Lord’s will
Instead of standing tall
I can’t allow myself to have any doubt
It’s time to set my worries free
Time to show the world what Elder Price is about
And share the power inside of me.
And now, in the October Visiting Teaching message, we’re reminded—once again—that Doubt is not a nice guy. And even better—Julie Beck (not my favorite, I’ll confess here readily) has managed to link doubting (or, more importantly, not doubting, to motherhood. Let’s start with the good stuff.
I like the part where Beck says that “when we know who we are, we . . . will have great influence for good.” When I teach this lesson to the sisters I visit, this will likely be the only part I talk about.
I like that Beck said that we (meaning Mormon women) “excel at upholding, nurturing, and protecting children and youth” because usually “protecting” is reserved for men. And that’s just silly, because everyone knows that moms protect their kids from all sorts of dangers—real and imagined.
I don’t love the idea that we should teach our children to keep our covenants “with precision.” What does it mean to keep a covenant “with precision”? It sounds like a description of a dance team or a marching band. That doesn’t sound like life to me. Not only that—who defines “precision”? What does it mean to dress modestly, to study the scriptures, or to honor the Sabbath “with precision”?
I don’t love the way Beck links children’s willingness and success in obeying the commandments “with precision” to their moms’ faithfulness: “Our children will know and be able to say, “We do not doubt our mothers knew it” (Alma 56:48).” In my world, kids make their own choices largely independent of what their moms do or fail to do. I recently heard a Mormon mom in Sunday School comment that her kids were all going to “turn out” because she and her husband are so diligent in keeping the commandments. I kept my mouth shut, but I wanted to raise my hand and comment that our kids aren’t cookies. They don’t “turn out” or not depending on the kind of cookie sheet we use, how long we leave them in the oven, or whether we use real butter or Country Crock. They’re people.
I don’t love the scripture Beck cites wherein God told the stripling warriors that he would deliver them if they did not doubt (Alma 56:47). Does that imply that all soldiers that die in battle would have been saved if their belief had been a bit stronger? Or if their mothers had been a bit more faithful?
But mostly, I don’t love the denigration of doubt. I doubt a lot of things—big things. But that doesn’t make me a bad parent. I’m pretty honest with my kids about my doubts. When they ask me a question, I’ll say something like, “Hmm, good question. I don’t know what I think about that” or “Well, I used to think this and now I think this.” Then I try to always follow up with, “What do you think?” I used to worry about not providing them definitive answers. Now I just hope that when they look back on their childhood, they’ll appreciate my honesty.
So I’m going to encourage my kids—my biological kids and my new freshmen kids—to cultivate a doubting attitude. I want them to be intellectually curious. I want them to experience the exhilaration of wrestling intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually with difficult issues. I want them to confront questions that they can’t answer—and I want them to learn how to live with that. Doubt isn’t such a bad guy. . . once you get to know him.