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September 6, 2012
In The Village
Plug and Play Children
by Orson Scott Card

It used to be that whenever you bought a new printer, modem, monitor, keyboard, mouse, scanner, or anything for your computer, you had to fuss with installing drivers — which were usually incompatible with your computer’s operating system. It was a nightmare.

So when Microsoft made all the manufacturers of peripherals design them to fit with their Plug-and-Play protocols, it saved us millions of man-hours. You take the thing out of the box, plug it into your computer, and voila: It runs.

Well, usually. Better than it used to. It’s an improvement. (And don’t write to me about Apple. This isn’t that kind of testimony meeting.)

The thing is, I keep hearing people talk as if the gospel were a series of peripherals that are supposed to work the same way.

Take the item out of the box, plug it into your children’s lives, and everything will work great and nothing will go wrong.

Here are some of the peripherals that people expect to be able to plug-and-play:

Family home evening
Family prayers
Church attendance
Father’s blessings at the start of every school year
Interviewing the kids
Home teaching — doing it
Home teaching — receiving it
Family council
Discipline (choose the method of the month)
Help with homework
Limited internet use
Limited cellphone use

Attach these to your children, and it’s guaranteed: Your kids will all be faithful Latter-day Saints and everything will go smoothly in their lives.

Wait. I was forgetting: In the premortal life we all chose not to put Microsoft — no, excuse me, I meant Lucifer — in charge of the moral universe.

Plug-and-Play was part of the other plan, the one we rejected.

And yet how many times have we heard versions of the following lament?

“We faithfully had/did {choose any or all Plug-and-Play peripherals} and yet our son/daughter:

flunked algebra
colored on the walls
left the Church
won’t speak to me
is dating a nonmember
spends too much time alone in the bedroom
spends too much time in the bedroom not alone
got a tattoo
never writes or calls
got a speeding ticket
got pregnant
hasn’t gotten pregnant
changed to a repulsive hair color
believes in evolution
saw an R-rated movie
said a bad word
didn’t get admitted to BYU
watches Big Love
is living with a boyfriend/girlfriend
ate the dessert I made for the party
yelled at me
said the same bad word again
refuses to go to EFY/Scout Camp/Girls’ Camp/Youth Conference
pierced an inappropriate body part
reads science fiction
missed curfew
got admitted to BYU-Idaho on the horrible winter-spring-summer schedule
got in a car accident
married that awful boy/girl that we don’t think is good enough
never made zone leader, let alone assistant-to-the-president
lost a scholarship
refuses to give a talk at church
got kicked out of nursery
doesn’t want to go on a mission
lies to us all the time
used drugs
carries a condom/birth control pills
calls his/her mother-in-law “Mom”
missed the family reunion
changed majors from pre-med to dance.’

I know this list isn’t complete. And some of the priorities are weirdly skewed; but then, everyone who makes one of these laments says it as if it were the worst problem in the world.

Some of them are pretty bad. Some of them aren’t even problems.

There are a lot of Mormon parents who believe that as long as they have attached all the Plug-and-Play peripherals into their children’s lives, everything should run according to the parents’ plan, and when it doesn’t they think they’ve been cheated.

Here’s the eternal law that parents should always keep in mind:

Your obedience does not limit your children’s moral agency in any way.

One child will embrace a peripheral and take it willingly into his life; another will regard it as a terrible burden and resent you for forcing it on her. The difference may be in the way you presented it; but most likely the difference is in the eternal intelligence that came with the child. The eternal, uncreated intelligence that is your child.

They get to make their own choices.

All you can do is offer teaching and experiences that will give them a chance to know, and choose, righteousness.

But sometimes they need to find their own path to righteousness. And sometimes what you call “righteousness” they call “horrible idea that has nothing to do with the gospel.” And sometimes they’re right and you’re wrong.

It’s possible to be a good Latter-day Saint and have such horrible stage fright that you never, ever give a talk. It’s possible to have no interest in EFY/Scout Camp/Girls’ Camp/Youth Conference and still grow up to love the gospel. It’s possible to go to college somewhere that isn’t BYU, or major in something without a clear career path, and still have a happy, productive life.

And even if the bad thing they’re doing really is bad, it’s between them and the Savior who atones for our sins. If you compel obedience, it isn’t obedience. If they need to repent, you can’t do it for them; they must walk that road without you.

As parents, we model ourselves on our Father in Heaven. He rears his children without the least degree of compulsion. He allows them to make mistakes. But he always holds the door open for them to return, and forgives them for all the neglect, disobedience, and disrespect that happened along the way.

If he, with perfect knowledge of what’s good and right, can be so forgiving and loving to his imperfect children, shouldn’t we, in our ignorance and with our many errors, also be willing to give our children the benefit of the doubt, and look at them with hope and tolerance, forgiveness and love?

By all means, plug-and-play all the peripherals that you believe will help. But in the long run, kids are their own quirky selves, and they’ll do what they want. The Church and the gospel didn’t fail you. Your kids didn’t fail you. They might have failed themselves — but in the long run that’s between them and God.

Just keep the door open and the light on. And forgive them for the pain they cause you; truly, they know not what they do.

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