Editor's note: Not every family's reaction to a child not serving a mission is the same, and LDS Living is not recommending there is only one way to address a child not serving a mission. The experiences highlighted in this article are varied, and we hope that they will give parents of a child who decides not to serve a mission insight on how to approach their child's decision.
Tyler* and his dad, Ron*, were sitting by the pool in their backyard when Ron asked the question Tyler had spent most of his life dreading: “Tyler, are you going to serve a mission?”
“I always had anxiety about serving a mission from when I was young,” Tyler shares. “And when [people] would ask me, ‘Oh, you’re going to go on a mission, huh?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I am, I guess.’ But, in the back of my mind, I never really was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to serve a mission.’”
But Tyler couldn’t bring himself to say those two words, “I am,” to his dad. So he told the truth.
“I said, ‘Well, Dad, probably not,’” Tyler remembers.
Like any concerned parent would, Ron immediately asked another question: “Why not?”
For the first time in 18 years, Tyler shared with his father the real reason he wasn't going to serve. It wasn't that Tyler was scared of the work. It wasn't that he didn’t have a testimony. It wasn't that he was going to attend college first. It wasn't that he was somehow unworthy or unready. No, Tyler shared the real reason he had prayed about and received the answer for.
“I said, ‘I just don’t feel the need to go.’”
Those words were the truth, but fear of others' reactions of shame and disappointment kept Tyler from saying them for so long. The fact is, however, Tyler is not alone. Many young Latter-day Saints have felt the same fear and have seen similar reactions to their own decisions not to missions. Here are a few insights from those who have been there.
Growing up, Andrew* and his family were very active in the Church. But when Andrew turned 17, he became annoyed when people would say to him, “When you go on a mission . . . ”
“I didn’t have a testimony of my own,” Andrew says. “Despite praying and reading scriptures, I didn’t know if the Church was true, and I didn’t like people planning out two years of my life for me. Nobody ever asked me what I wanted.”
Patrick Mason, Latter-day Saint scholar and author of Planted: Belief and Belonging in an Age of Doubt, agrees that there are cultural expectations within the Church that make going on a mission something of a milestone or rite of passage, so it's natural for family members and ward members to want young men and young women to serve. However, a mission is still a very personal and spiritual experience, and it's important that young men and women have testimonies before they leave.
"You don’t send them out unprepared," Mason says. "The testimony you get on a mission is different than anything else you will experience, but the Church itself has said that the mission is not the place where you begin to get a testimony of the Church. It’s not an appropriate place to expect kids to go if they don’t already have that testimony."
But Andrew hadn't shared with his parents that he did have a testimony yet. And as he neared the age of 19, the pressure mounted for him to serve a mission.
Andrew was the oldest in his family. He felt the expectation that he was supposed to set a good example for his siblings by going on a mission. His parents assumed he was going, and he didn’t know how to tell them he wasn’t. So he decided to find a way around the looming, crushing feeling of telling his parents he wasn't going to serve a mission.
A few months before his 19th birthday, Andrew joined the Army.
“My parents handled it pretty well,” Andrew says about his decision to join the Army instead of serving a mission. “Mostly they were just surprised that I had never expressed my feelings, but I [had been] too afraid of disappointing them.”
However, some members of Andrew's ward didn’t respond the same way his parents had.
“There was gossip that I didn’t serve a mission because I had committed some grievous sin, but that was not true,” Andrew says.
Mason agrees that the "grievous sin" assumption can be an especially harmful one for those who decide not to serve missions.
"We can’t assume everything is about worthiness," Mason says. "Just because they don’t go on a mission doesn’t mean they are doing something wrong. Sometimes these kids feel so pressured by the culture that they feel like they can’t talk to anybody about how they’re feeling."
And having to face the gossip and assumptions every week took a toll on Andrew. “It was hurtful to me and my family, and it didn’t make me want to ever come back to church," he says.
And unfortunately, for 10 years, Andrew didn’t. It wasn’t until his late 20s that he began attending church again. Eventually, Andrew overcame the lingering feelings of anger and shame the gossip had caused him and began to build his testimony and return to activity. Over time, Andrew met his wife and the two were sealed in the temple, now 28 years ago.
Looking back now as an active member of the Church, Andrew shares what his experience taught him about what parents can do to support young men and women who choose not to serve missions.
First, Andrew suggests that parents communicate with their children about the decision to serve a mission.
“Don’t assume anything,” Andrew says. “Ask them how they feel about serving a mission, and allow a safe space for them to express their concerns without disappointing everyone.” And if a parent is feeling disappointed with their child's decision not to serve a mission, he says to remember, “A lot of great people don’t serve missions and still are strong members of the Church.”
"Sometimes we fixate on a particular aspect of a person’s life, especially those things that are marked with achievement, like going on a mission or going to the temple or marrying in the temple," Mason says. "Even if we want to avoid the checkbox mentality there’s still a sense that these are the things that mark you as a good person, good Church member, etc. We have to resist the temptation to reduce people to those markers of achievement and to focus on all the wonderful things about that person, all the gifts they have, all the things that they can do. Rather than focusing on what they don’t do, instead focus on what they are doing and what they can do and their potential."
Katelyn* was a sophomore in college when President Thomas S. Monson made the historic announcement that the missionary age limits for men and women had changed.
“As a 19-year-old woman, I thought I had a couple more years to decide if a mission was the right path for me. But suddenly I was eligible to serve a mission right now,” Katelyn remembers.
Though Katelyn hesitated, wondering if a mission at 19 was the path she was supposed to take, her parents seemed to think this new age for missionaries meant Katelyn was supposed to serve right away. Katelyn remembers her parents accusing her of bringing shame to the family and of being ungrateful for the blessings the Lord had given her.
“When I still hesitated, they kicked me out of the house and refused to pay for any more college,” Katelyn says.
Faced with such an ultimatum, Katelyn didn’t know what else to do. She submitted her mission papers.
Katelyn says she doesn’t regret serving a mission, but she still resents "being bullied" into it. And while she didn’t leave her mission early, she has seen many others do so because they were pressured by their parents to serve.
This pressure that parents may place on their children to serve a mission, especially when applied in extreme ways, come from a sense of pride where a child's accomplishments reflect well on the parents.
To this, Mason says, "Cut it out. Stop exercising unrighteous dominion. That’s exactly what it is. We have scriptures about that Doctrine & Covenants 121. It’s not about you. Whether your kid goes on a mission or not, it’s not about you. All parents feel their kids are in many ways a reflection of themselves, but ultimately, it is not about you. It’s their decision, it’s their life, it’s their agency. We have a pretty powerful theology about this. Your kid’s merits are not about you, and any decisions you disagree with are not about you either, especially in adulthood. Your kid’s merits are not about you, and any decisions you disagree with are not about you either, especially in adulthood."
Katelyn hopes that other parents will take the time to listen and talk to their children about the decision to serve a mission instead of punishing them for making a decision that the parents don't agree with. She also hopes parents don't use the fact that their children served missions as a sort of trophy or source of pride.
“My advice to parents would be to love your children whether they serve a mission or not,” Katelyn says. “Don’t shame them if they don’t serve. Don’t pressure them into serving to preserve the family honor or to make yourselves look good to others.”
Mason suggests parents also rethink how they talk about their children serving missions.
"Instead of saying, 'All six of my kids went on missions'—that’s all about you, it’s a statement of pride and what you accomplished as a parent. I don’t think that’s a particularly righteous way to look at it. [What if] one of them didn’t go on a mission?"
And if a child doesn't serve a mission, "Don’t reduce them to what they didn’t do," Mason says. "Instead, find some other positive way to talk about them. When it comes up at church and it’s a natural thing to talk about, 'Yea, five went on missions and the other one is a teacher,' instead of expressing it in a tone of remorse or regret of what they didn’t do, think of the amazing things they are doing otherwise."
Ron, Tyler's dad, says that as he was growing up, there was an expectation for young men to serve missions, period. Like Andrew experienced, during Ron's growing up years, there was a harmful stigma of sin associated with young men who didn't serve, so, "Not going, it wasn't an option," Ron remembers.
However, while on his mission, Ron saw how difficult it could be for missionaries who didn't want to be on a mission but felt pressured to go anyway.
"Sometimes, it can be a good thing to serve a mission in a situation like that and sometimes it isn't," Ron shares. "It can be really hard on their companions, too, because they are serving with someone who doesn't want to be there."
As he thought about those missionaries while sitting by the pool next to his son that summer evening, Ron was proud of Tyler for having the courage to be honest in his decision not to serve a mission.
However, he also felt a little sad at his son's decision.
"I wasn't disappointed," Ron says. "Just sad . . . I want Tyler to serve a mission because I know it will make him a better person, but that has to be his choice."
Mason says this is quite a normal response for parents of children who don't go on missions.
"Those of us who have been on missions know for the most part how extraordinary they are, so there’s a natural—and I think healthy—regret when someone chooses not to have that kind of experience that was so powerful in shaping ourselves," he says. However, he adds, "We don’t need to beat up on parents or ward members who regret that other people don’t go on missions because they had such a great experience and want that experience for somebody else. It’s not an intrinsically evil thing to want someone to go on a mission."
Tyler's mom, Laura*, is also proud of her son's decision to be honest about not serving a mission. Knowing that the decision is a personal one, Laura had decided long before Tyler was old enough to serve that whether or not her children decided to serve missions, she would support them.
"I don’t feel devastated that he’s not going,” Laura says. “I’m proud of him for standing up and saying, ‘This isn’t for me.’”
But Ron and Laura also know that Tyler serving a mission now isn't an "all or nothing thing."
"One shoe size does not fit all," Ron says. "We all have to decide how we are going to live our lives, and no one's life is going to be the same."
Mason says that when a child decides not to serve, one of the most important things is to provide nurturing environments for their testimonies to grow.
"Maybe they go on a mission a few years later, maybe they don’t go at all, but we want them to be active members of the Church for the long haul and not to feel so alienated because they didn’t have this experience that they just quit altogether," Mason says.
For Tyler, the decision not to serve has been a difficult one, especially after seeing so many of his friends leave for missions. But he still feels confident that for him, serving a mission right now would not be the best option.
"And maybe that will change two years down the road or maybe I’ll go on a mission with my wife if we’re still active in the Church," Tyler says. "But for right now, this is my space."
Ron also remains hopeful that his son will serve a mission, whether or not it is a traditional, full-time mission.
"I don't know what the Lord has in store for my son," Ron says. "But I know that there is a time and season for everyone."
* Names changed
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