Orson Scott Card, Toddler Reverence, And Gender Sterotyping

Our Sacrament Meetings have been pretty noisy lately. With 42 babies under two in the ward, that’s to be expected. Our bishop has recently come into RS and EQ to talk about the noise level and how he wants people to start taking their children out more quickly. After he made this request, I actually thought things were getting better, but today the plot thickened.

This morning, our bishopric sent out a mass email to all its ward members entitled ” Tips on How We Can Help Keep Our Meetings Reverent.” The email linked to this Meridian article, written by Orsen Scott Card.


There are probably some very good tips in there. Maybe some of you with older children can weigh in on that. But…. wow. That’s some strict parenting. My little toddler is 14 months now, and those tips – nominally for toddlers – could not possibly work for him. No food or drink? No interaction (does that include eye contact?) with people on other benches? I don’t think so. But perhaps with two or three year olds these could work….?

In the article, the consequence of violating any of the rules is confinement. And this is the most questionable part for me. Card recommends that the FATHER take the child out and confine the child on his lap because

The fact is that children respond differently to fathers. I don’t know a mother who hasn’t had the frustrating experience of pleading, arguing, yelling, begging, threatening, even bribing to get a child to do something, only to have the father come in, speak once, and immediately get the obedience that the mother could not get no matter what she did.

The youngest infants respond differently to their father’s voice. They turn to their mother for comfort. What they crave from their father is judgment. They fear their father’s disapproval; they long for their father’s praise. This means that an ounce of discipline from the father can be more effective than pounds of it from the mother, though this varies from child to child. “

Whoa there! What just happened here? Does anyone know if there’s any recent research to support claims like this?

I’m uncomfortable by the way he’s playing into gender stereotypes. The picture he’s painting of the stern, no nonsense, dad and the frantic ineffective mom is pretty extreme. I also question the idea that infants invariably turn to their mothers for comfort and their dads for judgment. And of course, I have problems with the idea that just because I’m a woman my pounds of discipline are going to be negligible compared to Mike’s masculine ounce.

But I do freely admit that I my issues with Card’s family portrait are based more on principle than experience. I never had a dad growing up, and E’s too little to discipline yet…. So I’d love to know how you all feel about his reverence tips and about his stereotypical description of men and women as parents. Does this description ring true to you? How do the discipline dynamics work in your family?


Caroline has a PhD in religion and studies Mormon women.

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  1. jana says:

    Having the Father handle the discipline wouldn’t have worked in my family because my Dad had callings that kept him out of the pews every Sunday until practically the day he died.

    Really, I think the problem with noise in our ward is due more to the ridiculously large size of the ward and less about the babies’ misbehavior.

    My take on bishop’s recent pronouncement is a bit different. Here’s my blogpost about church reverence

  2. Mark IV says:


    I think OSC is pretty much OTL on this. In my family of origin, Dad was the pushover and Mom maintained order. The only sense in which I consider Card’s take to be valid is if the Dad isn’t around much, which is probably the case with many LDS. The child has heard Mom over and over and over and just ignored her, but Dad introduces a new voice of authority.

    Is it out of character for your bishop to endorse something like this? He must really be at his wit’s end . . .

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have mixed feelings about OSC’s essay, but I admit I do agree with some of his ideas about training children how to behave in church, based on my observations of different families’ approaches.

    I know a couple who, when their young children were fussy, would take them out to the foyer, but instead of putting them on the floor to play like everyone else did, they’d hold them in their arms positioned in such a way that they couldn’t really see anything interesting — ie, all they could see would be the cinderblock walls. The kids quickly learned that it was far more interesting to remain well-behaved in the chapel than to have to be taken outside. Inside the chapel, the rule was “bottom on the bench,” and the parents sat near the front so the kids couldn’t see other children who didn’t have this same rule. They admit it was extremely difficult in the short term, but it paid off in the long run.

  4. Mellifera says:

    OSC’s description is right on the nose for how my family worked. That was just Mom and Dad’s personalities.

    Dad liked to go a little overboard with the cis-boom-bah when it was time for us to behave, which in the long run probably undermined what Mom was trying to do with training us to be civilized rather than carry on like little monkeys until somebody yelled at us. But let us not forget that “firmness” and “cis-boom-bah” are two different things. (I like to think of firmness as “insistence instead of caving in,” not “yellin’.”)

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think the biggest problem I have with this is that it doesn’t take into account different temperaments and developmental abilities. My mom did this when I was a kid, when I was in my temper tantrum phase (which lasted several years, due to a divorce and a mentally ill mother). Instead of teaching me how to calm down (which honestly, I don’t think she has ever known how to do herself), this actually instigated further rage, and worked me up even more.

    I think any teaching of quietness in church has to be related to teaching self-soothing and, as mentioned earlier, respect.

  6. Geoff J says:

    Seems to me that there is always an implicit YMMV (your mileage may vary) caveat in these kinds of advice articles.

  7. Anonymous says:

    For what it’s worth, one recent study did note that fathers are less likely to externalize behaviour problems than women. (At least if I am reading it right.)

    The problem being that externalizing behaviour problems seems to cause the problems to perpetuate as the child does not acknowledge that they are the problem.

    fwiw- My wife really liked the OSC article and has been encouraging me to read it. I agree with Geoff and with OSC for that matter, that mileage may vary…

    Matt W.

  8. cew-smoke says:

    Well, I’m pretty sure every family is different. So, I can only speak for my little family. In our situation he is right. I have many times walked into a situation where my wife has said, “Use your stern voice on them, they aren’t listening to me.” I do so and perhaps because my voice is lower it sounds more ominous or authoritarian. I’m not sure, but my “stern” voice can often do what ten minutes of what my wife dishes out might not.

    My children do go to my wife for comfort more often than they do me. However, when it comes punishment time they seem to respond to me better than they do my wife. Read anything into that you want to, but I suspect it does have to do with a man’s voice being lower. I mean, c’mon, who’s voice is more intimidating James Earl Jones or your Mom’s? Darth Vader everytime baby!

    Plus, in many cases dads are not around as much as the moms and the truth of the matter is familiarity breeds contempt. Who’s scarier, your elementary school teacher you saw every day, or the principal? The principal is, because fear of the unknown is much more powerful. Just some thoughts, take ’em or leave ’em.

  9. sarah k. says:

    Wow. We had the reverence lesson on the 5th sunday a couple weeks ago, and someone read another comment about the father taking the kid out. I thought it was hogwash, just another 50’s gender stereotypical response. In my family growing up, it would have worked, if my dad had ever tried. We were terrified of him. He was silent but volatile. I’m thinking possible bipolar or manic depressive.

    But in my family, this would never work. Our kids have no such fear of their dad. They treat him with exactly the same disregard they treat me with. They are pretty young, and definitely testing their boundaries, but they do it with both of us. If anything, I would say they respond slightly better to me.

    But that whole ounce vs. pound thing, still hogwash. I thought OSC had more of a brain in him.

  10. sarah k. says:

    Do I get to amend that comment? I just did that thing where you assume someone is less intelligent just because they don’t agree with you. I’m sorry.

  11. madhousewife says:

    I think Mark IV is on to something re fathers being a “new voice of authority.” I think father scarcity is a large part of why father discipline tends to be more effective in many homes.

    (Does this mean that if Heavenly Mother suddenly appeared and called us all to repentance, we’d have peace on earth? 🙂 )

    I do believe that children respond differently to their fathers, however. I don’t believe it means that mothers have to be ineffective disciplinarians, but I for one have stopped feeling guilty (in the feminist sense) about using phrases such as “Do you want your father to handle this?”–because despite the fact that I am consistent and frankly more likely to follow through than my husband is, my kids still just have a greater fear of his wrath than mine. His threats are frequently more effective than my follow-throughs–annoying but nonetheless true. I’ve heard similar things from many other mothers (and it annoys them plenty, too).

    With that out of the way, I’m going to now say that I hate hate hate HATE that OSC article. I’d never read it before, but I’ve heard all the points a million times from Experienced Parents Who Know Best. It irritates me so much, I hardly know where to begin. I subscribed to this plan for civilizing children with my first child, and to a certain extent with my second, but by my third I had realized that it was all a ridiculous fantasy. Nearly every child will EVENTUALLY sit still in church, regardless of whether or not you hold them firmly on your lap in the foyer when they’re babies. They do it when they’re developmentally ready to do it–which is not to say that you let them run wild in the chapel until they suddenly decide at age 12 to be still, but only to say that you shouldn’t delude yourself into thinking that appropriate behavior in children is a result of Pavlovian conditioning.

    It IS necessary to remove a disruptive child from the chapel. But where parents get these children who stay in an adult’s firm but loving arms without screaming bloody murder and inflicting injury on themselves and others and generally being so loud and disruptive that they may as well be in the chapel as in the hall–I do not know. They must be of the same breed that sits in time out without being sat upon.

    Needless to say, I got my kids from a different place. Also, two of my children are autistic, and this business of holding them on your lap just doesn’t cut the proverbial mustard. Sorry to carry on so when this isn’t actually the topic of your post, but I take every opportunity I can to proclaim that there is nothing wrong with taking a young child for a walk around the building instead of holding him on your lap until he sees the error of his ways. I say this as the mother of three children who are now fully capable of sitting through a sacrament meeting without causing a scene and a fourth one who is very good so long as I don’t try to take away her goldfish.

  12. madhousewife says:

    I forgot that I also wanted to say that I’ve known several men serving in bishoprics who said they felt bad when they saw their wives struggling with the kids alone while they were stuck up there on the stand, and I wondered what law was keeping them up there. In my sister’s ward, when the bishop saw one of his kids acting up, he came down off the stand and handled the situation himself–every time. Really, what is going to happen if the bishop or one of his counselors has to leave his seat for a few minutes? That’s a pretty weak excuse, in my book.

    On the other hand, there are some callings which make it impossible for a father to be the Enforcer in sacrament meeting, including some stake callings and also ward organist. My husband has served as ward organist in several wards, leaving me with the squirrely kids, but I found that having another adult in the pew, male or female, tended to keep the kids in line. More to bolster Mark IV’s new-voice-of-authority theory.

  13. FoxyJ says:

    That wouldn’t work for me because my husband doesn’t attend church. I’d be out of luck if I expected him to take care of the kids 🙂 This is a hard issue, because the fact is that sometimes kids will make noise. Like others have pointed out, “reverent” behavior really depends on the age and temperament of the kid. Our ward is also very large and has a lot of small children. There’s a fair amount of noise each week. Sometimes I do wish people would remove their kids more quickly. I’m sure some people wish I would take mine out more often, but with two of them I have a hard time since it usually creates more disruption or leaves my four-year-old in the chapel by herself. My main objection to OSC’s article is the focus on “training” a child by “breaking their will”. I don’t like that sort of philosophy as a parent. I have done a similar thing with my kids, where I remove them to a quiet room and they have to sit on my lap. However, while there we talk quietly about reverence and how hard it is to behave in sacrament meeting.

  14. Sue says:

    Being a bishop, doesn’t automatically give you common sense, or good parenting skills. As for OSC – what a bunch of nonsense.

    My husband and I both discipline, we both can use THAT TONE, and our kids don’t listen to one of us more than the other. Sometimes they don’t listen to EITHER of us. My kids are just as rotten in church for my husband as they are for me.

    Whatever, Orson.

  15. Mellifera says:

    Reading the article, some more thoughts.

    -I think it’s important to notice that OSC went to great lengths to let us know that he’s speaking in generalities, not absolutes. Ie, he doesn’t say “Every time a mom tries to work with a child to behave she fails, only to have dad walk in and fix it right away.” He says he’s never met a mom who hasn’t had it happen, which is different.

    -As for the objection that Dad can’t do family discipline in church because he’s on the stand, OSC takes care of that one too. Sounds like a great idea- how badly does one really need to be sitting on the stand vs attending to the family?

    And now for the threadjack. Sorry, guys! You can ignore it, I promise. : )

    This method for teaching kids reverence bears a striking resemblance to a lot of animal teaching techniques; it’s horse-whispering for toddlers. Maybe it sounds weird, but the people/animal and people/very small children communication barriers are very similar.

    -Both have a pretty limited grasp of cause and effect.
    -Neither one of ’em speaks English, really. But they cue in very well to vocal tone and body language. They might not know what you’re saying, but they still know what you mean.
    -Punishment is counterproductive- it causes more anxiety and/or resentment, taking you farther from the desired effect. (Spanking a stallion for being naughty: not recommended! : )

    Again, cause-and-effect perception can be somewhat limited depending on age or species. However, training still works because it instills a sense of pattern. A “teachee” starts to expect that when I do X, Y happens. This association occurs, despite not understanding *why* Y comes after X, because of consistency. A nice side effect of the (loving) consistency is a sense of confidence and security: the universe is predictable after all. A horse that you’re inconsistent with simply will not trust you.

    My mom (not an animal trainer) maintains that professional animal trainers make great parents because they’ve trained themselves to not fall off the consistency log. You can’t afford to do that with a 150-lb calf that’s going to grow up into a 2,000-lb bull.

  16. Vada says:

    I think OSC is definitely gender stereotyping, and it will work differently in every family. In my family growing up it was more effective when my dad took us out, mostly because he was better able to stay calm while enforcing rules (maybe because he didn’t have to do it 24/7). In my family now there’s no way my husband could follow any of OSC’s advice. He’s way too much of a softy, and gives in to pretty much whatever our kids want. If disciplining is going to happen, I do it. (Which isn’t to say that he never takes the kids out of sacrament meeting.)

    Of course, while I’m the only adult in our family who could effectively follow OSC’s advice, I’m not going to do it. Sitting silently for even 75 minutes is just beyond the abilities of my 2.5yo autistic son and my 15mo son. We do try to teach them, and they’re improving, but it’s a slow process. A couple of weeks ago we managed to sit in the chapel for the first 45 minutes of sacrament meeting without having to leave once. It was amazing. But then when my 2.5yo took my hand and indicated he wanted me to go with him (this is how he communicates what he wants, since he doesn’t really talk), I simply got up and went out with him. I wanted to reward him for being so good for 45 minutes (usually we make it about 5 minutes before we have to go out), not punish him.

    I’m glad my bishop didn’t send out anything like this. He doesn’t know my child or what will and won’t work to teach him, and if he tried to tell me how to discipline my child he’d definitely be getting a piece of my mind. But then, this is a sensitive subject for me.

  17. ErinMadamLibrarian says:

    I do appreciate that he acknowledges that the father needs to be involved in the reverence process too. I’ve been in congregations where the moms get singled out over the reverence issue, and it always rubbed me the wrong way.

    However, his discipline dichotomy doesn’t fit my experience. In my family, the discipline roles shifted over time. When I was a kid, my dad was a big pushover, and my mom was the one that brought fear into our hearts. However, when we hit the teenage years, my dad was the enforcer, and we went to my mom for sympathy. And it wasn’t a rigid line, either – they both handled different situations differently and found a balance that worked for them.

  18. Anonymous says:

    This sounds like the type of person I wouldn’t associate with.

  19. Dora says:

    I don’t have children, but the idea that the father is so uninvolved with the day to day teaching and care of children is worrisome to me.

    For what it’s worth, OSC’s advice is straight out of Little Women … Meg and husband dealing with their obstreperous boy-child. Haven’t we come a little farther than that?

  20. a spectator says:

    I like the result of the OSC method, although I fear I do not have the reserves to do it (1 me verses 2 kiddies). It seems to be fine general advice, but nearly everyone on this thread has found some way to exempt themselves.

    Other peoples points about fathers vs. mothers have some merit; just think about it–kids hear so much from their mothers, they become easy to tune out, but dad catches their attention. Again, OSC got too general, but I would LOVE to have my husband take over the Sunday discipline.

    I sympathize with people who complain of loud Sacraments; I think it has to do with their tolerance level and a lot of that has to do with how old their own kids are or if they had kids. Our branch recently went through this same cycle and the 2 main complainents were 1 couple that had converted when their kids were all grown up and 1 lady whose kids are now angelic teenagers (seriously, they are great kids) but they were the rowdy toddlers of their generation, mom just doesn’t seem to remember it.

    Rather than get after the parents of young children (which, in my experience, is how this is handled), why not discuss how others can help? Ideas might range from sitting beside a family with little kids to lend a hand to taking babies out for Mom to not playing with the kids who turn around and smile at you to developing a greater Christ-like love and empathy for the struggles of others.

  21. Anonymous says:

    The thing that is surprising to me about so many responses to articles or posts on the Bloggernacle is that people tend to look at what they propose as absolutes. OSC said he was speaking in generalities, which is another way of saying stereotyping. I try to read for what will benefit me in some way rather than looking for what is useless.

    I feel the general concepts that OSC puts across – namely, “Don’t inadvertently reward your children for inappropriate behavior in Sacrament meeting” and “Don’t let the child play one parent against the other in the endeavor” – are valid. Of course, we have to personalize it for the child and the circumstances of each family.

    I think what OSC was also pointing out is that some parents have a WIDE range of opinion about the behavior of their own or other people’s children being inappropriate.

    mondo cool

  22. EmilyCC says:

    This article feels outdated and only applicable to a family where the dad goes to work and the mom stays home (which describes me and I still don’t think it entirely works).

    A spectator, I think you make an excellent point. Why not have more in the ward help out with rowdy children (especially when there are parents without their spouses in Sacrament meeting)?

    Sometimes, my kids respond to my threats. Sometimes, they respond to my husband’s. But, they’re always thrilled (and a little quieter) when someone near us decides to play, hold, entertain them.

  23. Anonymous says:

    I can’t help but wonder, if your bishop is so preoccupied with children’s behavior, how often does HE step off the stand and help out the struggling parents?

  24. Anonymous says:

    I can’t believe the bishop shared something from Meridian. They make Iron Rod Mormons look like raving liberals.

  25. cchrissyy says:

    that description is so stereotyped as to be unrecognizable in our family.

    i don’t mind articles or books written to the subset of personalities and family designs that do apply, but I mind tremendously when the stereotyped is generalized to all men, all women, or all 2-parent families. Neither OSC’s description of mother’s weak discipline or preferred comforter status, nor the father’s power have ANY resemblance to our household.
    and thank goodness!

  26. Heather O. says:

    We tried this when J was going through a particularly difficult time, and it sorta worked. But
    I felt sort of awful trying to instill all OSC’s rules, and so we worked out a gentler way. We still spent a lot time in the halls, which I think is inevitable with a small child who can not be expected to sit still for such a long time.

    J grew some, quieted some, and now we don’t have any problems. I learned that a 5 year old can sit still longer than a 3 year old, who manages still better than an 18 month old. Whaddya know….

  27. tracy m says:

    An email like that would make me not want to go to church. Since I have kids along the spectrum (just 6, just 4 and 18 mos) I can unequivocably say: Hogwash.

    As my kids got older, their behavior has improved. There is no way on this green earth a three year old can (or should) sit still for three hours. NO WAY.

    I don’t care how many OSC articled or issues of Meridian someone links me to. A big Bronx cheer for anyone who tries.

  28. Caroline says:

    Thanks for all of your comments, everyone. I’ve enjoyed hearing all of your takes on this.

  29. Ian says:

    One thing i’ve found when it comes to reading anything like this by OSC, is that he always sounds kind of pompous or self righteous. I think it stems from the fact that he’s an author, a well published one.

    In a way, it’s good for an author to have a big head. They need to beleive that what they have to say is important, or at least really good. That sort of drive helps them get their stuff published. If they were uncertain about their work, they they wouldn’t be so pushy (or whatever).

    I think with books and such, that attitude is fine, but sometimes with opinions, they sound self righteous. That’s how I see it anyway.

  30. Tanya Sue says:

    I never ceased to be amazed at the things that come from your ward and specifically your bishop.

    Personally, my father wasn’t around much so he didn’t do the disciplining so this model wouldn’t have worked.

    As a church we have much room for improvement if we want kids to be “reverent”. For example, many other churches have seperate services for those without kids, or a different area that doesn’t require people to even have to bring their kids out if they are loud.

    Finally, I would hope we have reached a time when parents are equal partners and one doesn’t do all of anything.

  31. FoxyJ says:

    I remember when I was little our church had a “cry room” with a window to the chapel where you could go with little kids but still be able to see what was going on. As a kid I thought it was cool. They don’t make those anymore, do they?

  32. cchrissyy says:

    when we were cathoi,c most churches had a cry room, with ltos of creative ways to make that layout work, some better than others, but always a place where you could still see the services through a window, hear them over speakers, and not have your kids bug the main congregation.

    in Mormon life, I’ve only seen one, it’s at the ward meeting chapel on the Oakland Temple grounds, and it’s not a particularly good cry room, as far as they go.

  33. Vicki says:

    Huh. I read this a few years ago and it bothered me then. I really disagree with using the term “discipline” as a synonym for “punishment”. Discipline really means teaching, and all of our interactions with our children teach them. I cringe when I hear people saying “my child is too young to discipline” or “we decided that in our family, the father will do the disciplining.”

    And Card’s description of the poor wheedling, whining, mother who can’t get results… couldn’t be more inaccurate in our family. My husband and I both occasionally call on each other when we are having trouble with the kids. And we’re both pretty good most of the time with staying out of the pleading/begging/arguing pattern.

    I don’t have a big problem with his suggestions but wouldn’t go about it exactly the same. It just doesn’t feel right to me to do the confining with your child only able to see your face. I like the general idea of not making the child’s visit to the foyer much fun, though.

  34. Anonymous says:

    I had a bishop once who counseled us from the pulpit to have the father take out noisy children. But, he gave a different reason. He said that the mothers needed the spirit of sacrament meeting more than the dads. It was more of a “Get off your duff dad and give your wife a break. Let her enjoy the meeting.” reason for why dads should take the kids out. And yes this bishop and his counselors would get off the stand and help with their kids if they were being really naughty and they could tell their wives were flustered. These men also allowed their young children to reverently walk up to the stand during the meeting and sit on their laps. It was never disruptive. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since, but they were a great bishopric!

  35. Johnna says:

    I read that OSC article years ago, he used to have a little ‘zine that came out in the 1990s. I adapted this technique for my own kids, and my own lower expectation of reverence from children, and it worked quite well. and I do mean adapted. One kid I never did that sit-in-my-lap-while-we’re-in-the-hall part. Since I was alone, for some years we had to all go out if one kid was disruptive. Now all my kids are in primary or older.

    The silly stuff about the nature of Moms vs. Dads I must have ignored–I don’t even remember that bit. My husband travels so much as to not be at sacrament meeting with me that often. It would be too weird, and oddly punitive, for him to take them out of the meeting on the odd week when he’s there, so I always did it.

    I do love OSC’s essay written in the same period, complaining about how basketball makes a very poor youth program.

  36. Melinda says:

    I really believe that the only thing to do is to tell us what is and is not allowed in sacrament meeting and let us decide how we are going to achieve that. Telling us how to parent is presumptuous and inefective. Is it really out of Little Women!? HA

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