About three weeks ago, I was asked to prepare a talk about teaching children to understand, based on a conference address by Cheryl A. Esplin, Second Counselor of the General Primary Presidency. Sister Esplin taught:
Teaching our children to understand is more than just imparting information. It’s helping our children get the doctrine into their hearts in a way that it becomes part of their very being and is reflected in their attitudes and behavior throughout their lives. -Cheryl A. Esplin Reference 1
Sister Esplin spent a good portion of her talk discussing spontaneous teaching moments but also reminded us that:
Just as important are the teaching moments that come as we thoughtfully plan regular occasions such as family prayer, family scripture study, family home evening, and other family activities. -Cheryl A. Esplin Reference 1
With four very young, lively and unpredictable children, there is quite a bit of spontaneity in my life. And chaos. So it is ironic that I was asked to emphasize teaching children to understand through these non-spontaneous teaching tools like family home evening and family scripture study. (Other speakers covered other aspects of Esplin’s counsel.) I do try to implement these activities but my efforts are inconsistent. Sister Esplin was clear when she said:
Teaching for understanding takes determined and consistent effort. -Cheryl A. Esplin Reference 1
In the Book of Mormon, Alma encouraged those he taught to “…Awake and arouse your faculties, even to an experiment upon my words…” and assured them that if they did, they would be able to say that “…the word is good, for it beginneth to enlarge my soul; yea, it beginneth to enlighten my understanding…” Alma 32:27-28
So I took this invitation to speak as a challenge. I was given three weeks of warning so I had a little time to experiment on the words of Sister Esplin before I spoke about them. I set a goal to be consistent in implementing these family rituals for the three weeks leading up to my speaking assignment. What better way to be accountable for my goals than to report back to my whole ward on my progress? Here’s how it went:
Family Home Evening
The first family home evening we held after setting my goal was a Christmas nativity. My kids spent most of the time fighting over who should be the angel. Fortunately, in Luke we read that there was a multitude of the heavenly host. Unfortunately, my kids wanted to be angelic soloists, not a heavenly choir. At first glance, it appeared that this family home evening was not successful at promoting understanding. However, the next day, without any prompting, my children staged their own nativity without arguing. It appears that they were paying attention after all.
The next week, my husband told a story about charity. The kids sat around the table eating as they listened. This proved very effective. With their mouths full, they were quiet. I wondered if they were too busy eating to actually pay attention to the story but afterwards our oldest child gave an accurate synopsis. My husband asked our second child what the story had been about and he said, “Sharing.” Although this was a one-word answer, I was impressed. He had likened the story to his five-year-old self.
My kids love the Matt and Mandy videos on LDS.org, which are based on a series in Friend Magazine, adding some simple animation. We watched one of these for our next family home evening and had a nice talk about setting goals for the New Year. I told them about my goal to have more consistent family home evening.
Family Scripture Study
I was pleased with the results of consistent family home evening, but scripture study was not always so fruitful. My little kids didn’t seem to understand hardly anything we read to them, which is a problem if the whole point is not just teaching, but understanding. My family’s scripture study seemed to yield more understanding when we spent more time explaining concepts, defining words and asking questions.
At about the time I was asked to give this talk, Kmillecam wrote an excellent post about sexual abuse during childhood. The post made me think of my mom, who was sexually abused as a child and did not tell anyone about the abuse until after she had grown up. Because of this painful experience, my parents made special efforts to protect us from abuse. Abuse thrives in secrecy, so open communication is a valuable tool to prevent abuse.
When I was a child, the church encouraged fathers to hold regular one-on-one interviews with their children. My parents adapted the father-child interview idea and both my mom and my dad would have separate, regular private interviews with each child. My parents utilized this one-on-one time to talk to me about difficult issues like abuse. They also asked me about school, church, and my relationships with friends and family members.
These private interviews with my parents during my childhood were good experiences for me. They taught me to understand that I could talk to my parents about difficult issues and that my parents loved me enough to plan one-on-one time with me into their busy schedules. Yet, I realized that I had never formally held any such interview with my own children. I checked the most recent edition of the Family Guidebook at lds.org and found that the church now promotes parent-child interviews, not just father-child interviews. The guidance for such interviews is as follows:
The parent should express love for and confidence in the child, and the child should have an opportunity to express his or her feelings about any subject, problem, or experience. -Family Guidebook, (2006) Reference 2
During my three-week experiment, I held private interviews with my 5 and 7-year old children. I will not describe the exact content of the interviews, since by definition, a private interview is confidential, but I found that it was a good experience for us. The interviews gave me the opportunity to compliment each child in ways that I don’t always remember to do during the course of a busy day and gave us the chance to set goals and make plans together.
Recently, our stake president encouraged parents to ensure that our children understand that they can talk to parents about their sins and that parents will help them through the repentance process in the spirit of love, not punishment. I think that this is another way private interviews could be helpful, because they provide a safe place for confidential problem solving. Doctrinally, my children are too young to sin, but I did use part of the interview time to let them know that if they ever did something wrong, like taking something that wasn’t theirs or bullying another child, I wanted them to talk to me about it and I would help them to make things right.
The last family ritual I’ll mention is family activities. The Family Guidebook explains how regular family activities can create an atmosphere for teaching and understanding:
Parents should often plan times to have the entire family do things together. Picnics, camping, family projects, home and yard work, swimming, hiking, and wholesome movies and other entertainment are a few of the many activities that families can enjoy together. A family that enjoys activities together will feel greater love and harmony. Children will be more willing to listen to their parents and follow their advice when they feel close to them. Parents will be able to teach the gospel more effectively. -Family Guidebook, (2006) Reference 2
I love the arts and to share art with my children but that can be challenging because they are too young to sit quietly at full-length concerts or theater productions. However, we have found that there are many family-oriented events where they can get a little taste of the arts. In my experience, low cost and high tolerance for children are highly correlated; people are grouchy when a crying baby interrupts a performance they spent a lot of money to attend, but usually expect some background noise at a free concert in the park. During my three-week experiment, we took our children to an annual free Christmas sing-along where they got to hear a real live orchestra but where we were welcome to sing and eat donuts instead of just sitting quietly. We also attended the New Year’s Eve celebration downtown where children could be exposed to live music in very small doses intermingled with a large number of children’s activities. Other family activities we attended included extended family holiday parties, a visit to a dinosaur museum and bringing meals to some people in need.
I enjoyed my experiment and I believe that both my children and I are understanding more about the gospel through family rituals.
I close with a proverb:
Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom: and with all thy getting get understanding. Proverb 4:7