My Son Is Not Baptized And That Is Okay

My son isn't baptized. I'm okay with that and he hasn't missed out on any blessings.

My son's mother has refused to provide permission for his baptism, and I'm not only okay with that, I support her decision.

I wasn't okay with it at first. When his mother and I decided to separate, I knew it would become an issue, and I was troubled and confused with how to approach the topic with him and his mother. It would not be appropriate to represent her side without her personally contributing to this article. What I have felt is appropriate to share, I wrote in my blog post, "Because I loved her I left her."

However, there is some risk to not including details. Generally, when I share my experience with why I am okay with my son not being baptized, someone almost always dismisses my experiences because their divorce and ex were hostile and not agreeable in the least. My not sharing the details in all its messiness, pain, resentment, years of court and finical ruin is with purpose. The absence of my sharing isn't to be mistaken as an absence of those trials; rather, it’s an example of how I personally decided to model healthy behavior to my children.

Learning With Every Opportunity

Today, as my son and I drove home from church, he did what he does every Sunday afternoon drive home:  he was reviewing what he learned in Sunday School class. Today, after sharing the particular lesson, he also reflected on how it's sometimes difficult to hear the teachers get excited about his class graduating primary this year. They mentioned how the boys will be able to start passing the sacrament. He said, "I wanted to raise my hand and say, not everyone will get to pass the sacrament." But he didn't want to make anyone feel uncomfortable. We used the opportunity to revisit the meaning of baptism, priesthood and looking forward to when he turns 18 and can get baptized.

The conversations are always wonderful. Sometimes the conversations are started as a result feeling left out and sad, like today. Sometimes that feeling continues throughout the conversation, and sometimes he has a rekindled hope that his mother might provide her permission. What makes it a little more difficult too is his older brother is baptized. He is the only one in primary and in his current family dynamic who is not baptized. Whenever and however these conversations come up, we explore and validate his emotions and feelings without removing them. We also never frame the conversation in any way that suggests his mother is wrong or bad for her not providing the permission.

Praying Without Parenting

Over the years, we have prayed and fasted many times that his mother would be willing to change her decision. But this was not the prayer we should have been having. Although it’s appropriate on occasion to have faith that others will change their hearts, this was not the only prayer we should have been having. In a divorce especially, there is a huge problem with each separating spouse "parenting" the other. This is often done through divorce decrees, court, manipulation, threats, using children as "pawns," and "righteous indignation" (which is a form of spiritual abuse).

Not only as a divorced father, but as a therapist who routinely works with divorcing couples in the church, I've routinely seen good parents become so fixated on demanding their child's other parent accommodate religious activities that they become abusive. One parent had become convinced that her child would be denied all the blessings of the church if they couldn't get baptized. She spent years in therapy, court and tens of thousands of dollars attempting to get her child's father to grant permission for baptism. Her child during this period began to mirror their mother’s anxiety and fear of losing blessings. The child also started to view their father as an evil man who hated God.

Why is it spiritual abuse? When we place ourselves in a position of power to control, dictate or parent someone in a way that removes, blocks and prevents their choice, it's abusive. When religion is used as that vehicle of control, its religious/spiritual abuse. We don't get to parent, control or demand how our ex decides to parent. Their house, their rules. Our house, our rules.

Isn't it spiritual abuse to deny a child's baptism? No. It could be abuse if that parent is denying baptism out of a desire to hurt the child or the other parent. But this is problematic. Because we don't get to read people’s minds and hearts. But what if the ex SAYS they are doing it to get back at the other parent? Well, pay it no attention. Some people are more married divorced than when they were married.

Abuse is a serious accusation. I have no tolerance for abuse in any form, as a parent or therapist. If the child is in emotional, spiritual or physical danger, there is no gray area. What I have seen, however, is the word "abuse" used to describe a behavior one doesn't like or agree with in the other parent. Neglect is another word that is sometimes lightly used too. For example, the child's other parent is being "neglectful" by not agreeing to be consistent with church attendance or agreeing to let the child be baptized. Divorce is already difficult enough for us and our children. In most divorces, there are going to be clear differences in how each parent decides to parent or not parent. The best thing we can do is teach our children how to thrive in this environment.

Pray And Fast To Change Your Heart

Through our frequent prayers and fasting, it became clear my son was becoming overwhelmed, overwhelmed in not seeing his mom's "heart change," feeling like he was not having enough faith, feeling like he must continuously ask/pester her for permission and fear of getting her angry. Also, I was communicating a subtle and sometimes not so subtle message that his mom was wrong. Quietly, our prayers have never stopped for her to change her heart. But now we pray for a change of our own hearts. In this hyper-focus to change his mother’s heart, we were missing beautiful opportunities to learn and prepare for baptism — whenever that might happen.

When he would ask questions like, "Why won’t my mom let me get baptized?" instead of focusing on the differences in parenting, we would validate and explore how he could love and support his mother. We also explored how God will never deny him any blessings and that we should find ways to serve, and strengthen OUR OWN faith. This has radically and wonderfully changed the spirit of our conversations. Religion has not become a divide in my son and his mother’s life. Where pain could have thrived, beauty and love flourished. Neither I nor my son get to "tell" his mother how to parent. But we have taken the opportunity to learn our Father's will in our lives, in our current situation.

Changing Our Heart Will Increase Our Love For Others

Some parents decide to leave the church, and that's okay too. One of the most destructive things parents can do to their children is engage in "holy wars." Whether that's a parent who decides the LDS faith is bad and requests their name be removed from the records, or one whose religiosity changes over time, or a parent who insists on unwavering church attendance and service, there is a place for each of these parents in parenting well-adjusted and healthy children. But regardless of one's belief in God or the LDS church, what are we teaching our child if they can't love the parent who thinks differently? To a child, you have placed them in an impossible situation. You are communicating that if they stop believing as you do, they will experience the same rejection you are showing the other parent.

Sometimes the situation is reversed. Some parents who believe the church is hurting their child will go to the same lengths to prevent them from attending. But regardless of which parent it is, this divisiveness teaches children how to hate. Or at the very least, how to condition their love based on someone else’s belief system. Learning how to change our own heart restores confidence and expands our ability to love and value others.

No Blessing Is Ever Prevented Or Delayed

My son will not be passing the sacrament when he turns twelve. But that is not to be confused with a denying or preventing of his blessings. As sacred and symbolic as the sacrament is, the act of passing should never be confused as the blessing. My son knows and is intimately familiar with the covenants made in baptism and passing and taking the sacrament. He has been blessed with a spiritual growth, insight, maturity and faith that is far beyond what I had at his age. Sure, it’s difficult at times for him and I to know he's not going to be passing the sacrament or doing temple work with the other youth. But we use that as an opportunity to have our hearts changed and our faith strengthened.

I encourage those in similar situations to exemplify to their children who don't have permission to be baptized to find ways to love and grow, how to lovingly honor their other parent’s decision, how to expand one's faith beyond controlling others, and how to use faith to increase one's agency.

For those serving in callings over youth in similar circumstances, find ways to model the same love. Frame the conversation in ways the youth can participate versus focusing on what they can't do. There is never anything wrong with exploring or understanding a child's situation. But generally, do that with their parent. What I do recommend avoiding is asking "why" questions like, "Why do you think your mom won’t let you get baptized?" But rather, explore with the child what they are doing to grow in the gospel, and emphasize that our loving God will bless them fully in their desires.

I am so thankful for each of my son's teachers who have done exactly this. Their love and support has made this process easier to experience.

Daniel A. Burgess is the author of the forthcoming book on LDS Sexuality. The creator and Admin at the Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages" and content developer at its accompanying Blog, "Mormon Marriages."

“Don’t Touch” — Addressing Sexual Taboos in the LDS Faith Part 4

Previous Chapter: 3. Cultivating Versus Condemning

What Went Wrong?

The Depression, WWII and Kinsey.

The Church leadership noticeably changed their approach to sexuality in the ‘30s and ’40s, which was culturally reinforced in the ‘50s and ’60s.

In the 1942 April Conference, which was a time of great upheaval in the world with much uncertainty, the First Presidency, under the direction of President Heber J. Grant, issued a much needed message to the Saints. The First presidency message filled almost 10 pages and addressed a spectrum of topics including testimony and parenting during a time of medical and doctor shortages (they were being shipped off to help in the war). This was unusually detailed counsel, but understand that for the decades they were in it wasn’t surprising. This counsel included the following:

“We urge all parents to guard with zealous care the health of their children. Feed them simple, good, wholesome food that will nourish and make them strong. See that they are warmly clad. Keep them from exposure. Have them avoid unnecessary crowds in close, poorly ventilated, overheated rooms and halls. See that they have plenty of rest and sleep. Avoid late hours …”

Additional topics included: “Welfare Work,” “False Political Isms,” “Hate Must Be Abolished,” “Mission of the Church,” “Sending of Missionaries,” “Church and State,” “Church Membership and Army Service,” “God Is At The Helm,” “Righteous Suffer With Wicked” and a number of other topics addressing the needs and concerns of the time. However, it is the brief two-paragraph statement on sexual purity in which the First Presidency boldly declared, “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean.” This phrase was a pivotal change in how LDS addressed the topic of sexuality and desire. In its full context the message reads,

Message to the Youth to the youth of the Church we repeat all the foregoing advice, but above all we plead with you to live clean, for the unclean life leads only to suffering, misery, and woe physically, — and spiritually it is the path to destruction. How glorious and near to the angels is youth that is clean; this youth has joy unspeakable here and eternal happiness hereafter. Sexual purity is youth's most precious possession; it is the foundation of all righteousness. Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean. Times approach when we shall need all the health, strength, and spiritual power we can get to bear the afflictions that will come upon us.”[1]

Not necessarily with the intent of defending the word choice, but in its full context the statement (although still a bold declaration), “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” may feel a little less abrasive when you consider both the historical chaos and the First Presidency’s desire for the youth to experience “joy unspeakable here and eternal happiness hereafter.” Although this was a first presidency message, its wording and theme is very similar to President J. Reuben Clark’s Conference message a few years previous, wherein he spoke specifically about marital relationship issues of “promiscuous sexual relationships that ends in misery, disease, and shame …” In maybe a concern that parents were becoming neglectful in teaching the Law of Chastity, he reminds them to “teach the youth as the children of God, with spirits that are to live throughout eternity and tell them plainly and clearly that the laws of God, and of men also, demand that they live chaste … let us not make the mistake, any of us, of assuming that our children are beyond temptation and may not fall. This is a delusion and a snare that will bring us to the very depths.”

It would seem, from a historical reading, that parents were neglecting to teach healthy sexuality and its eternal significance during these stressful times.

He continues, “Please believe me when I say that chastity is worth more than life itself. This is the doctrine my parents taught me; it is truth. Better die chaste than live unchaste. The salvation of your very souls is concerned in this.”

If his parents did teach him this “doctrine,” it was not one that appears to be common in the culture of the early Latter-day Saints of the time. It’s entirely possible this was a religious concept believed by his parents who were raised in the “New Dunkers” or Church of God before converting. From an early Latter-day Saint “doctrinal” teaching, it doesn’t appear to be present, at least not publically.

There is a fascinating warning Pres. Clark later gives in his talk. In what may well have been insights into behaviors we now recognize as narcissistic and maybe further evidence of the emotional/spiritual climate of the time, he warns of the emotionally manipulative behaviors of individuals who use “love” to convince others to lose themselves, abandon their values. He cautions,

“I say that whenever a man or woman, young or old, demands as the price of his friendship that you give up the righteous standards of your life, or any of them, that man's friendship is not worth the price he asks. You may not trust that friendship; he will cast it off as he does his worn-out coat. Friendship is not now, and never was, the offspring of debauchery or unrighteousness.

“I ask you young women to believe me further when I say that any young man who demands your chastity as the price of his love, is spiritually unclean, and is offering something that is not worth the purchase price; his love will turn to ashes under your touch; it will lead you to misery and shame; and too often it will curse you with dread disease.”[2]

I share this quote not in an attempt to defend the word choice nor the use of fear as a motivator to follow God's commandment, but in light of President Clark’s conference message and the First Presidency message, it was a reminder to parents that they had neglected teaching youth to avoid those who don’t honor their values and also an admonition to hold on to hope in a time of war and uncertainty. I believe this is important to understand and why the idea of “better dead, clean, than alive unclean” became a part of Latter-day Saint culture.

I don’t believe it is better to be dead than unclean, but whether or not he meant it literally, it eventually became a literal belief and “doctrine.” As such, a critical gospel thought process needs to reconcile the apparent contradictions it presents. The first is that the statement “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” is ambiguous. What does it really mean? What specifically, or at what point, is the First Presidency referring to as unclean? Are they also suggesting that purity can’t be obtained again through the Atonement? Are they referring to only sexual intercourse outside of marriage? What about thoughts, desires, feelings, impulses, lusts? “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” seemed to negate the idea that the Atonement redeems.

Maybe this statement would make sense if what the First Presidency meant by “unclean” was in the act of completely denying the Atonement, the saving power of Christ. But even in this context, only those who have had a sure knowledge of Christ are capable of such a dire rejection. Those who “lose” their way from The Church still have the fullness of the gospel available to them through the infinite power of the Atonement. The Atonement also allows for those who have have lost their “purity” before marriage to become pure again. It would seem the idea “Better dead, clean, than alive, unclean” wasn’t so much a doctrine or absolute, but an emphasis on the need to be ever watchful.

In the following decades, we see this concept morph into beliefs that are not supported by scriptural teachings but merely by logical assumptions at best — and at worst reverting to archaic medical warnings. Where previously The Church’s stance on sexuality was in opposition to the 1920 medical findings that abstinence increased suicidal ideation (a stance which is further supported in current medical and emotional health), it had adopted the unsubstantiated ideas of self-harm and self-abuse. President Clark declared that those who engaged in masturbation were sinful and those — even in the medical and psychological field — who taught it where like "the teachers who prostitute the sex urge."[3]

Why the change in approach at this point?

1953: This change and urgency might have been compounded from publications of Dr. Alfred Kinsey (the father of the sexual revolution) on male and female sexual behavior — which sold like Harry Potter.

“President Ernest Wilkinson, alarmed at Alfred Kinsey’s reports on sexual behavior, appointed a faculty committee to determine if the school’s sex education provided a strong defense of chastity. When members of the sociology department learned that the committee had decided ‘who shall teach [sex education] and where,’ they registered ‘strenuous objection to administrative prurience in this regard.’ Wilkinson, however, knowing of ‘no more important need on our campus,’ pushed for a BYU-authored health textbook. One of the school’s faculty assigned to the project became skeptical that his treatment of sex could pass the scrutiny of both trustees and colleagues. Some university administrators agreed, and the project was abandoned. Instead, BYU officials arranged to have a national publisher remove objectionable material from a health text. When the publisher overlooked one offending page in 1967, BYU bookstore employees excised the page before placing the text on store shelves. Student reaction ranged from amusement to outrage. Studies undertaken since have found that many freshmen enter BYU misinformed about sex, and that student attitudes towards sex education become more disapproving following enrollment in the university’s required health classes.”[4]

President Wilkinson’s concerns were valid and spiritually guided. Kinsey wasn’t simply providing scientific findings but actively stripping morality and human emotions out of the research. It's appropriate for science to approach research objectively, however, Kinsey went above and beyond his role as a scientist. As much as he felt morality interfered with science and skewed what normal is, his disdain (a result of his father's abusive aversion methods) for a moral guideline highly influenced his approach, findings, and sample selections.

Scientifically and socially, his findings would be defined as the new “normal,” and his influence was far spread. Kinsey would become known as the “father” of the Sexual Revolution; he would usher in the massive social and cultural upheaval of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. As much as we needed improved science of sexuality, it could have been done with significantly more respect and dignity. Furthermore, many in the science field were questioning his “scientific methods.”

Supporters of Kinsey have claimed that even though he may have been disturbed and engaged in immoral behavior with his clients, his fundamental conclusions and his data still remain accurate. This too proves blatantly false. According to Dr. Reisman,

1. [Dr. Kinsey’s team] ‘forced’ subjects to give the desired answers to their sex questions, 2. Secretly trashed three quarters of their research data, and 3. Based their claims about normal males on a roughly 86 percent aberrant male population including 200 sexual psychopaths, 1,400 sex offenders and hundreds each of prisoners, male prostitutes, and promiscuous homosexuals. Moreover, so few normal women would talk to them that the Kinsey team labeled women who lived over a year with a man ‘married,’ reclassifying data on prostitutes and other unconventional women as “Susie Homemaker.”[1]

As a zoologist and with his rejection of morality, he viewed his subjects (including himself) as little more than “animals” and actively removed the human and emotional —let alone the spiritual element — from sexuality. His debasing of the sexual experience wasn’t just a normalizing of sexual behavior but was an attack on a moral center. It is true the Puritan era rejected scientific developments and forced a suppressive and “evil” ideology of sexuality; Kinsey on the other hand entirely rejected a human moral center. This rejection of morality did more harm in the study of sexuality than the Puritan ideology. His lack of ethical center tainted and skewed his research; he engaged in unethical and illegal methods, including sampling children and condoning pedophilia. The disturbing and unethical details of Kinsey’s behavior, much of which would not be revealed for a few decades, don’t need to be included here. But suffice it to say, although the full details of Kinsey’s behaviors were not known at the time, the leaders of the Church were justified in their concern for how he was influencing society and inevitably members in the faith. Kinsey was highly influential and convincing, removing ALL definitions of “right” and “wrong.” Moral guidance was needed. The Church’s response wasn’t unreasonable, like one can find in scripture when a people become so indulgent the Lord will sometimes take a hard line to refocus his followers. This example can be seen with the Children of Israel when the Law of Moses was established. However, like I will demonstrate with the sexual culture of our church, sometimes those laws and commandments grow into something they were never intended to become.

In the following decades of the sexual revolution, you will see a similar response, rigidity and clarity from the leaders. While there was a need for a strong and clear voice of morality, you will also see how this rigidity grew into the sexual shibboleths (Stephen Smoot provided an insightful writeup on shibboleths here) of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Instead of growing into a more healthy view of sexuality, tradition and cultural assumptions turned the moral guidelines into doctrinal absolutes.

Is it any wonder that the leadership increased focus on sexual issues intensified with previously unseen rigidity? As such, and in the desire to save souls, preventing Latter-day Saint moral decay with societal values, they attempted to reinforce the moral lines. Therefore, during this time the Brethren addressed masturbation as a gateway perversion that led to nothing good. Although not medically or religiously supported, masturbation seemed to become the new measure of sexual purity and a “preoccupation” that required complete abstinence. President Kimball published “Be Ye Clean,” which would later be included in his book “Faith Precedes a Miracle.” This became the first track that focused on the “reprehensible nature” of masturbation and thoughts of sex.[5]

General Conference has always served as a guidepost to current social issues. Therefore, in this decade, as in previous, increased attention was given to The Church as a whole regarding sexual issues. It makes absolute sense in context of the history. Society's increase of moral decay was met with an increased moral rigidity. Was it the best way? I can’t judge that. It's not my desire to judge their approach, but it is important to see these developments in the correct context to better understand the solution. Therefore, in this societal context, the conference messages, books and articles more frequently identified behaviors associated with sins “next to murder.” It was at this time that there was a clear Latter-day Saint cultural change in how sexual desire was taught. The idea that sexuality and desire were beautiful and to be mastered and cultivated in one's youth then became a message that thinking and acting on these desires was committing grievous sins; masturbation became a grievous sin.

1956: “Petting is indecent and sinful, and the person who attempts to pet with you is himself both indecent and sinful and is likewise lustful … Is that what you want? Will you not remember that in the category of crime, God says sex sin is next to murder?”[6]

1957: “To keep the Children of Israel from committing these sins, the Lord proceeds to name them and to prescribe penalties for their commission. I am going to name a few of them. First is incest. I am not enlarging on it. In the law incest included more than we now ascribe to it. It included marriage between people within prohibited relationships. The penalty for incest was death to both parties. Fornication, sometimes adultery and fornication are used interchangeably, but for most kinds of fornication the penalty was death. For adultery, it was death for both parties. For homosexuality, it was death to the male and the prescription or penalty for the female I do not know.”[7]

Four years later, Elder Bruce R. McConkie boldly and emphatically stated that masturbation was not only "condemned by divine edict," but was among the "chief means" the adversary is "leading souls to hell."[8] He also solidified the teachings of President Clark with the rebuke of medical, psychiatric and mental health workers who were teaching that masturbation is "not an evil," and stated the “guilt and shame” experienced by individuals was a result of disobedience. In a return to archaic medical beliefs, he said they were keeping Latter-day Saints from being clean and experiencing the blessings of the gospel, which would lead to "mental and spiritual peace" that helps one overcome mental disorders of masturbation.

“An individual may go to a psychiatrist for treatment because of a serious guilt complex and consequent mental disorder arising out of some form of sex immorality — masturbation, for instance. It is not uncommon for some psychiatrists in such situations to persuade the patient that masturbation itself is not an evil; that his trouble arises from the false teachings of the Church that such a practice is unclean; and that, therefore, by discarding the teaching of the Church, the guilt complex will cease and mental stability return. In this way iniquity is condoned, and many people are kept from complying with the law whereby they could become clean and spotless before the Lord—in the process of which they would gain the mental and spiritual peace that overcomes mental disorders.”[9]

The leadership, specifically Elder McConkie, did have a valid doctrinal concern in that psychotherapists prior to 1970 predominately held to Freudian anti-religious ideas: “Trouble arises from the false teachings of the Church.” In the psychodynamic models of the time, they were not equipped to address the various faith practices, rituals and beliefs. But it would have been poor and unethical therapy to clinically assert one's culture is “false.”

It is the responsibility of the practitioner to provide healthy mental/physical solutions that are both within good medical science and within the individual's faith rituals and culture. As such, I completely agree with Elder McConkie in that it was improper for psychologists to be so blatantly rejecting of one's faith and culture — even in those cases where one's faith and culture might be in conflict with current medical standards. To blatantly dismiss the culture of that individual could create additional mental health concerns. However, I see this as a separate issue. Elder McConkie refuted the validity of the scientific intervention while tying it to the treatment method. This would be similar to condemning doctors for prescribing medications because they may be addictive.

Next Chapter: 5. A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine and Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s

Table of Contents:
0. Introduction
1. Background — It Happened Again
2. Context is Important: A Brief History of Masturbation Beliefs Within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
3. Cultivating Versus Condemning
4. What Went Wrong?
5. A New Culture Is Born: “Doctrine and Addiction” And Returning To The 1700s
6. Purity, Modesty, And Moral Ambiguity
7. Solution: Real Self-Mastery Cultivating Sexuality

Additional Resources

Facebook Group "Improving Intimacy in Mormon Marriages"

Blog, "Mormon Marriages"

[1] First Presidency message, 112th Annual Conference April 1942 p. 89

[2] President Ruben J. Clark, In Conference Report, Oct. 1938, pp. 137–39.

[3] Clark, J. Reuben (Dec 1952). "Home and the Building of Home Life". Relief Society Magazine: 793

[4] Religion and Academics at Brigham Young University A Recent Historical Perspective Gary James Bergera “Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience” Edited by George D. Smith pg. 98-99

[5] Kimball, Spencer. "Be Ye Clean!: Five Steps to Repentance and Forgiveness". LDS Church

[6] Apostle Mark E. Petersen, General Conference, 3 October 1956

[7] Apostle J. Reuben Clark, Jr., Conference Address, April 8, 1957

[8] McConkie, Bruce R. (1958). Mormon Doctrine. Deseret Book. p. 708

[9] McConkie, Bruce R. (1958). Mormon Doctrine. Deseret Book. p. 610

A [Not So] Better Way To Say Sorry

“Now I rejoice, not that ye were made sorry, but that ye sorrowed to repentance: for ye were made sorry after a godly manner, that ye might receive damage by us in nothing.

For godly sorrow worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of: but the sorrow of the world worketh death.” (2 Cor. 7:9-10)

"Empathy is one of human beings’ highest qualities. Empathy is the root of most of the behaviour that we associate with “goodness.” It’s the root of compassion and altruism, self-sacrifice and charity. Conversely, a lack of empathy is the root of most destructive and violent behaviour — in fact, everything that we associate with “evil.” A lack of empathy with victims makes crime possible. A lack of empathy with other human groups makes warfare possible. A lack of empathy enables psychopaths to treat other human beings callously, as objects who have no value except as a means of satisfying their desires." —Steve Taylor Ph.D., "Out of the Darkness Understanding Empathy Shallow and Deep Empathy"

Empathy is a powerful tool for connecting with others and protecting ourselves from emotionally destructive people. Empathy is a difficult and ambiguous attribute to teach, especially to children. A good educator is skilled at taking the complex and simplifying it for their students. However, in the case of empathy and emotional connection, I am concerned the oversimplification has done more harm than good.

Aside from examples established by adults and peers, children are first taught how to empathize with others through apologies. The steps to apologies are intended to create an emotional awareness in the individual and those affected by their behavior. This should be a beautiful and essential part of a child's development. Parents, educators and psychologists have all come up with various steps to meaningfully outline an effective apology. There appears to be a variety of steps and approaches that become popular. Some try to simplify the steps to add new clarity or life to the process of empathy. But in the simplifying, I believe authors are unfortunately teaching something other than empathy, as in the following case.

On March 30, 2014, "joellen" published “A Better Way to Say Sorry.” This post quickly made its rounds on the bloggersphere. A year after it was published, it is still frequently making its appearance on Facebook and other social media. It’s a well-written post with an intriguing idea. I applaud joellen's insight regarding needing a better way to say sorry. This is a neglected concept that is very difficult to teach children. I also applaud the author for taking on this concept and sincerely trying to improve how we teach children to empathize.

I agree that the old way of demanding others to say sorry is wrong, and I deeply appreciate the author’s intent to foster greater personal responsibility. However, I believe and feel the four steps she outlines don't promote responsibility, but rather unhealthy communication, expectations and obligatory communication. I will give my take on her article.

Step one:

"I’m sorry for…: Be specific. Show the person you’re apologizing to that you really understand what they are upset about.

Wrong: I’m sorry for being mean.

Right: I’m sorry for saying that nobody wants to be your friend." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

This first step is critical, there is profound value in being specific with our words. This shows ownership and clarity. However, I would add to the step, "Learn to say sorry without saying the word sorry.”

This could be in words or deeds. It's not about the word "sorry." There is nothing wrong with the word sorry, but it easily becomes a trite phrase — a quick and repetitive way to acknowledge (or dismiss) your mistakes. It sometimes misses an opportunity to connect and learn from the experience. I believe this is what the author is trying to do in step two but misses the point.

Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles pointed out, “Pride prefers cheap repentance, paid for with shallow sorrow. Unsurprisingly, seekers after cheap repentance also search for superficial forgiveness instead of real reconciliation. Thus, real repentance goes far beyond simply saying, ‘I’m sorry.’” (“Repentance,” Ensign, Nov. 1991, 31)

Step two:

"This is wrong because…:

This might take some more thinking, but this is one of the most important parts. Until you understand why it was wrong or how it hurt someone’s feelings, it’s unlikely you will change. This is also important to show the person you hurt that you really understand how they feel. I can’t tell you how much of a difference this makes! Sometimes, people want to feel understood more than they want an apology. Sometimes just showing understanding– even without an apology– is enough to make them feel better!

Wrong: This is wrong because I got in trouble.

Right: This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and made you feel bad about yourself." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

The author is not teaching responsibility in this step. It communicating a very emotionally manipulative message, which makes the offender responsible for the other’s emotions. In the example, that was provided:

"Wrong: This is wrong because I got in trouble."

"Right: This is wrong because it hurt your feelings and made you feel bad about yourself."

On the surface, these seem to be two very different experiences. But they are essentially the same. Here's how they are the same: the "right" example is just an emotional version of the the "wrong" example.

In the "wrong" example, the offender is sorry because they were caught. In the "right" example, the offender is sorry because someone is visually, emotionally hurt about the incident. In a way, this a a form of being caught. If the offended never acknowledged there hurt, the offender might not have recognized their behavior was inappropriate. This approach bases awareness on another person's reaction to an event. Neither of these examples teach a child the internal values of integrity, empathy, self-awareness or the ability to know right from wrong. Rather, they identify whether or not their actions were hurtful by another’s response; in a way, this is an emotional form of being caught, which is a form of emotional manipulation.

The emotional manipulation comes at the moment we decide an apology is needed based on another’s emotional response — NOT on whether our words or actions were wrong. You might be thinking, “What's the difference?” or that it’s semantics, or “That's just silly, other people's emotions matter.” Absolutely, other people's emotions are valid and do matter. We should never desire to hurt or ignore someone. Even more so, we should learn how to empathize. But hurt feelings are not a reliable indicator that you did something wrong. It is equally important for the offended to practice empathy in difficult situations too.

Let's look at this example. After a long day at work, I am hungry, tired and discouraged about my day's performance. Unfortunately, two people on separate occasions interact with me during which I am short in my communication, distracted and maybe come across as rude. It's been a difficult day; it had nothing to do with these two individuals. However, one responds very hurt, angry and emotional that I would treat them in such a way. The other brushes it off and recognizes I was possibly having a bad day and this behavior is out of character for me and even finds a way to help.

But in step two, the author is suggesting we would only say sorry to the first person because they were hurt and emotional, but not the other. That is wrong and teaching an unhealthy lesson. It might be that the emotionally reactive and hurt individual is the one who needs to apologize for being self-centered and unaware of the other’s bad day and their needing some private time or words of encouragement. Step two ignored that completely.

Step three:

"In the future, I will…:Use positive language, and tell me what you WILL do, not what you won’t do.

Wrong: In the future, I will not say that.

Right: In the future, I will keep unkind words in my head.

Now let’s practice using positive language. It’s hard at first, but you’ll get better. Can anyone think of a positive way to change these incorrect statements?

Wrong: In the future, I won’t cut.

(Right: In the future, I will go to the back of the line.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t push.

(Right: In the future, I will keep my hands to myself.)

Wrong: In the future, I won’t take your eraser.

(Right: In the future, I will ask you if I can borrow your eraser.)" —A Better Way to Say Sorry

This is an entirely different process and should not be a part of the "sorry" process. Promising to never do something again is misguided. It’s setting the offender up for failure. It’s suggesting that a person can never have a bad day, and if they slip or repeat, there is shame, distrust and resentment. It continues a manipulative cycle. A current "sorry" should never be predicated on future promise! 

Step four: 

"Will you forgive me? This is important to try to restore your friendship. Now, there is no rule that the other person has to forgive you. Sometimes, they won’t. That’s their decision. Hopefully, you will all try to be the kind of friends who will forgive easily, but that’s not something you automatically get just because you apologized. But you should at least ask for it." —A Better Way to Say Sorry

We cannot "forgive" anyone. Neither should we ever base our sorry's effectiveness off of another's inability or ability to forgive. It's not their place. Only God can forgive. Although there is appropriateness in certain types of "righteous judgement," Elder Oaks clarifies this is only in cases of stewardship and is not to be guided by anger.

"Second, a righteous judgment will be guided by the Spirit of the Lord, not by anger, revenge, jealousy, or self-interest ...

Third, to be righteous, an intermediate judgment must be within our stewardship. We should not presume to exercise and act upon judgments that are outside our personal responsibilities." —Elder Dallin H. Oaks Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, “Judge Not”

The atonement and principles of repentance teach us that we don't say sorry to be forgiven. This is worldly sorrow. We are forgiven because we have a change of heart. Otherwise it's selfish: “I am feeling bad and want you to forgive me so I feel better” or "I want to you stop feeling bad so I am apologizing." It is not up to us how or if another will forgive, and we don’t repent or say sorry to be forgiven of that individual. It defeats the point and again sends a very wrong message to both the offender and offended. This is a form of worldly sorrow —an attempt to end another's pain so it doesn't hurt so much, or a means to meet an emotional criteria or demands of another to qualify as an apology.

“And it came to pass that when I, Mormon, saw their lamentation and their mourning and their sorrow before the Lord, my heart did begin to rejoice within me, knowing the mercies and the long-suffering of the Lord, therefore supposing that he would be merciful unto them that they would again become a righteous people.

But behold this my joy was vain, for their sorrowing was not unto repentance, because of the goodness of God; but it was rather the sorrowing of the damned, because the Lord would not always suffer them to take happiness in sin.

And they did not come unto Jesus with broken hearts and contrite spirits, but they did curse God, and wish to die. Nevertheless they would struggle with the sword for their lives.” (Mormon 2: 12-14)

What needs to happen is an internal recognition, a change of heart.

“Paul taught that ‘godly sorrow’ is required if true repentance is to take place (2 Corinthians 7:10). As you study 2 Corinthians 7, consider the following words of President Ezra Taft Benson: ‘It is not uncommon to find men and women in the world who feel remorse for the things they do wrong. Sometimes this is because their actions cause them or loved ones great sorrow and misery. Sometimes their sorrow is caused because they are caught and punished for their actions. Such worldly feelings do not constitute “godly sorrow.”’ (2 Corinthians 7:10)

Godly sorrow is a gift of the Spirit. It is a deep realization that our actions have offended our Father and our God. It is the sharp and keen awareness that our behavior caused the Savior, He who knew no sin, even the greatest of all, to endure agony and suffering. Our sins caused Him to bleed at every pore. This very real mental and spiritual anguish is what the scriptures refer to as having ‘a broken heart and contrite spirit’ (D&C 20:37). Such a spirit is the absolute prerequisite for true repentance” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, 72).

So, how do you teach personal responsibility and the "sorry" process. My suggestion is to approach it in an entirely different way. DO NOT focus on the person who offended or did the wrong. This is where it takes trust, creativity and self-worth. Focus on the individual who was hurt. Help them to articulate their experience, take responsibility for their emotional experience as opposed to expecting an apology, and learn how to not be defined by the poor actions/words of others to affect their self-worth.

My wife and I came up with many great examples of this — from 3-year-olds to adults. That would require greater detail. But in short, it was interesting as I read the post and I confirmed with my wife, I have never demanded or asked our children to say sorry; I never realized it till now. I think that whole approach, even this four-step approach is obligatory. But, again I think the focus or teaching moment needs to be on identifying self-worth and how to respond appropriately to those who do harm, not the other way around. This is KEY.

May I add, that whole experience at the end of the article with having a student come up with things they should be or can be sorry for was, I trust, in the best of intentions — but not healthy at all. I understand it was a "good" experience for the author and students. However, it's like this. My wife and I are very happy and loving with each other. We have not had an argument ever let alone a fight. I can sit with her and think of a hand full of things to apologize for, despite our great love and relationship together. This is how it might go:

"Honey, I woke up late and ran to the office and I know I told you I would do the trash and dishes before I left, I am sorry." She would look at me and say (because I know what she would say ). “Oh sweet heart, thank you it wasn't a big deal. I know you were busy.” This was a good experience. I was honest and it gave us a moment together a hug and kiss. Right?

There are a couple issues here, I can always think of something to apologize for. In the above example, as my wife pointed out, there was nothing to apologize for. It created a need that wasn't previously there. It actually replaced something more significant: trust. My wife trusted that I didn't intend to "fail." In fact, she didn't see it as a failure at all and needed NO apology. The other issue is it creates anxiety, wondering, looking and finding ways to apologize or room to always do better. It destroys trust and creates an expectation.

I trust that my wife will take responsibility for her emotions and experiences. If she feels my need to help around the house more, I trust she will loving discuss it with me. At the same time, she trusts that I will respond responsibly and understand her need, saying thank you for sharing and desiring to help. No apologies needed, just healthy, honest communication. It is better to teach self-worth, healing and trust then obligatory apologies.