Thursday, February 5, 2009

Eight is not enough

I suppose I'm musing on the mormon thing this week - not sure why. Maybe I'm just trying to get into chanson's "Sunday in Outer Blogness" feature.

One of the things that non Mormons might not realize is that Mormon children get baptized at 8. I don't know who came up with that age. Growing up, I thought it was awfully convenient that seven or eight was the same age for Roman Catholics.

I had NO idea what I was getting into at the age of eight. I got baptized because it was expected. All the other kids in my church class got baptized after they turned eight. My parents and extended family were looking forward to my baptism, it was an "event". Somewhere I have a photo of my Dad and me standing outside the church, I got a brand new dress just for the occasion. My uncle and aunt came just for the baptism. It was a big deal.

Let me state again - I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea that it would be possible to say no. I had no idea that I might grow up and NOT be mormon. It was inconceivable. I could read but I was in third grade. I was a Republican, because my parents were republicans. I hadn't read the Book of Mormon (I had tried)- my exposure was through a story picture book (complete with swords and horses).

For this post, I was trying to think of all the things I didn't know about at 8. And I'm having a hard time defending how any eight year old can make a lifetime commitment to a religion - or can make any lifetime commitments period. I am skeptical of any sixteen year old making lifetime commitments - and a sixteen year old is in high school, can sometimes drive and work outside the home. I couldn't make my own food.

These things are traditions, rites of passage. I don't want to sell eight year olds short. I'm amazed at how much my three and a half year olds know and comprehend. I understand that parents take their religion and religious tradition very seriously. They want their children to take an interest and personal ownership in religious faith and spirituality.

But eight is very young. Children are far from independent. I was still actively trying to please my parents at that age. I wanted them to be proud of me. I didn't think rationally about what *I* wanted or where life would take me. When I resigned from the mormon church (officially) some years ago and had my name removed, that's one of the things that was a part of the form letter sent back to me. That whatever eternal protection the baptism had for me had been removed. It seemed so strange to me - because my original decision to be baptized hadn't been my decision.

If religions continue to baptize children at 8, for tradition - I can't argue with that. But at least stop pretending that the decision is a lifetime commitment or that it has eternal consequences. I don't know how to get around that - to honor people who made that commitment at eight and have kept it. Who remember that day (when they were eight and baptized into their church) and still treasure it. That's fine.

It just seems to me there is so much more to church and religious faith and membership. Whatever that is, eight is much too young to fully understand the consequences of one's actions.


Anonymous said...

I had a similar experience in a different denomination. One thing I've thought a great deal about in recent years is the difference between baptism and christening. Most churches seem to do either/or, but from what I can see, they're quite different. Christening often involves assurance from the family that the child will be raised "in the church," though I strongly prefer the versions that are more like blessing ceremonies in which the focus is on the community that is blessing and welcoming the child. A friend of mine had a ceremony like this recently, in which the community included friends and family from multiple different traditions and faiths, all agreeing to come together to be supportive of the child. That was a great ceremony. My family's church definitely preferred baptism, since in theory, it's the child who makes the decision and the commitment. But I agree with you; how prepared is a child of 8 to do that? We need rites of passage, to be sure, but perhaps we should ask our kids to make a commitment to cultivating a spiritual life, or living consciously, or some contributing to the communities that support them, rather than professing lifelong belief at age 8.

Rebecca said...

Oh god, baptism. Everyone told me how spiritual it would be, and I REALLY tried to feel it, but I was just terrified. I remember my bishop's interview, when I agreed to the commitment and said that I understood what it entailed (I was 8. Of course I didn't understand). I was so nervous I would have agreed to anything. I also remember thinking that I was going to have to try really hard to be perfect, since after I was baptized I'd (briefly) be perfect, and if I sinned I might not go to Heaven. I yelled at my brother shortly after I was baptized, and the terror of Hell for that sin, now that I was accountable, struck me to the core.

Sigh. If my eight-year-old self could see me now she'd freak. :)

Unknown said...

Growing up in a Catholic family, everyone was baptised when they were only a few months old. Apparently we had some say in whether we participated in further sacrements. Realistically it was like you said, you would do anything to please your family and are unaware that you have a choice in accepting a religion.
My children have also been baptised but it was more of a 'keep the extended family happy' and 'keep options open' decision (apparently some private schools around here give preferential acceptance to children who are baptised.) I hope to let my kids make their own choices about religion and right now I have found that my kids can't even be bribed to attend church with grand parents!

Freckle Face Girl said...

I think it is because at age 8 very few kids have any inkling of being rebellious. Some might be at 9 or 10. Most are during their teen years. I think it is a well thought out strategy for the CHURCH to choose that age.

Aerin said...

Thanks Kathryn. I like the idea of ceremonies welcoming a child into the family.

Rebecca - I too remember being asked if I understood what I was getting into, and of course I said yes. The "sin" thing was also very difficult for me at 8 - I was terrified that arguing with my siblings would send me to hell (seriously).

Thanks relish - I think there are many families with this strategy - keeping the extended family happy. I really like the idea of children being able to make their own decisions about this kind of thing (attending church regularly) at a certain age - with a healthy dose of skepticism.

FFG - too true!

Craig said...

No, no 8-year-old can possibly be expected to know what s/he is getting themselves into. It's like asking an 8-year-old to sign a mortgage. It's beyond ridiculous to pretend that an 8-year-old has any real understanding about what joining any religion means.

Just reading this blog and the (mostly mothers') comments about their childrens' upcoming baptisms, it was utterly clear that they just totally assumed that their child would choose to be baptised, that they would be ready the day they turned 8, etc. - which means that the child isn't choosing anything. The parents are. They've raised that child (presumably) with only the notion that their religion is correct, that EVERYONE gets baptised, that it's just something you do. At 8, I had no concept of other religions, of atheism, no comprehension that I could ever choose to not get baptised, to not be in the same religion as my parents. It's just ludicrous. They talk about the children's "testimonies" as if they had any choice as to what they believe at 8 when their only input is Mormon propaganda (doctrine).

And the expectation that is put on a child that they must feel "spiritual" and have some defining experience while/after being baptised makes me livid.

Jennifer said...

I had a friend who just had her 8 year old DD baptised. New dress, extended family all visiting, a CAKE for goodness sakes. And not a birthday cake but a "Happy Baptism" cake.

I was 10 when I was baptised and the only reason why I was baptised was because everyone else was and it shocked people who found out. Awesome, huh?

Aerin said...

Thanks Jennifer. For me, it's not the celebration that I have an issue with. I think it's great whenever an extended family celebrates a child. It's more (for me) the suggestion that it's a life time decision, or that I should be accountable for choices I made at that age. I do agree that some of the baptism cards, etc. seem a little odd - but on the other hand, lots of cards/marketed stuff seem odd to me.