Supper scripture reading in our family must have started before my memory did. It just happened, as normal and regular as supper itself. My father would always finish eating first, pass out the copies of the Book of Mormon, and tell us which chapters we would read that evening. We took our turns seriously. One night when a non-Mormon boyfriend was having supper with us, I wondered what would happen. Simple. He got a book like the rest of us and read his verses when his turn came.
But it wasn’t so easy when it came to reading the scriptures with our children. My husband and I read the scriptures ourselves, but now that I was the mother, supper time didn’t seem like scripture time. Our little children may have been ready for scripture reading, but we, their parents, weren’t. We heard of families that read the scriptures in the morning before breakfast. But, for us, breakfast time was even less reverent than supper time.
When our oldest daughter Jennilyn turned eight, we presented her with a Book of Mormon. She said it was her favorite birthday present and kept it in the bookcase by her bed. I wanted her to read it and to love it, but how does a child read the Book of Mormon? How could I help her? For a week I pondered the problem without mentioning my concerns to my husband or my daughter. I didn’t want to begin and fail. It was too important for that. I prayed about it. Could I stay with a reading program?
Finally, I was ready. I told my daughter that I’d like to read the Book of Mormon with her. We would read every night, one chapter a night. We wouldn’t miss. She was excited. I was apprehensive but determined.
It was rough at first. She read five verses, and I read five, but somehow it seemed harder than I remembered. We finally hit on a pattern that suited us better. She read a verse, then I read a verse. It went more quickly, and she didn’t get as tired. Before long the scripture words became familiar to her and she could read faster. As the weeks passed the younger children would often gather around and listen to us read.
One night when I was particularly busy and tired, my husband offered to read with her. Soon he was reading with her as often as I did.
Then I began reading First Nephi with our six-year-old, Deborah. Her reading skills were so different from Jennilyn’s that they couldn’t read together. It took extra time to read with two children separately, but it paid off in how much they seemed to value the special time alone with my husband or myself.
Four-year-old John refused to be left out. He would look at a page and solemnly recite, “And it came to pass …” He was so eager for a chance to read the Book of Mormon that we devised a scripture time with him. I would read a phrase, and he would repeat the words after me. Two-year-old David could hardly talk, but he tried to repeat phrases after John that John was repeating after us. We found special scriptures for him to repeat.
The children all have scripture time with Daddy too now. It is not like the scripture reading that I had when I was a child, but it works for us. And they were ready for it when we were.
[illustration] Illustration by Parry Merkley
From the moment dinner is over until even the parents have gone to bed, family home evening at our house is magic—the high point of the week. Why? Because instead of just using the manual, we have gone far beyond, and used those Monday evenings as the focus of our family activities.
The first part of our family home evening is family council. We gather around the dinner table, with Daddy in charge, and we discuss family business. Even with our very young children this is a serious, productive meeting: it is at this time that we make any announcements of importance to the family and discuss and compliment any achievements made by the children during the week. As each child hears his own exploits retold to the family he glows with pride—and so, I might add, do his parents.
At family council we also discuss family plans, from long-range items like the trip we’re taking next August to short-range plans like household chores and a picnic on Saturday.
The second part of our family home evening is the lesson itself. We all gather together—even the babies—and have songs and prayers and a lesson in which all the children (who are at all able to) take part.
And the third part of family home evening begins when the children go to bed. Then my wife and I take an hour or longer before retiring to read, write letters, talk, do genealogy, and discuss family problems and plans that the children are still too young to take part in—in short, an adult time.
This three-part program lets us involve the children in the family affairs and decisions they are ready to have a voice in; gives the children a chance to “shine” as they teach the lesson, serve refreshments, lead the singing, and so forth; and then allows some time for adult discussion and activity, which my wife and I find we need as much as the children need their part of the program. And as our children grow older, we can picture a time when they, becoming more mature, are able to take part in the adult part of the evening as well.
Like everyone else, we’ve had our problems with squirmy children during good but long lessons. But finally we decided to “surrender” to the wigglers—after all, that constant motion is just the result of their desire to be active. So we made up a chart that is rotated each week, with six assignments related to family home evening: opening song, opening prayer, lesson, closing prayer, refreshments, and game or activity. As more children get old enough to take an active part, more assignments will be added to the chart so that everyone has an important part to play.
We have a special “performance spot” in our front room—the piano bench. Whoever stands there—to give the lesson, to pray, to lead the music—is in the limelight, with all eyes focused on him. The children love to be there, and yet because standing there is so important, they prepare carefully to be sure they will do a good job in their assignment.
And the preparations are veiled in secrecy. We love surprises in our family—and so even the song titles are known for the first time only when they are announced. Lessons are prepared behind closed doors. Desserts are made in a kitchen closed off from everyone else (except Mommy, who often helps), and then the refreshments are unveiled, to the delight of dessert-loving brothers and sisters, whose approbation is all the payment the refreshment-maker needs.
The opening song is often one that the child just learned in Primary or Junior Sunday School, so we sing it several times until everyone knows it. And even the littlest ones love to sing along.
We use the manual in the preparation of our lessons, because the ideas are so valuable. But we never read from the book. Instead preparation begins for one lesson as soon as the previous lesson has been given. We start working our children into giving lessons around the age of two, though this varies with the different children. At first Mommy or Daddy has to give a lot of help, but by the time the children are four years old they can present most lessons entirely alone.
Of course, at four—and at two—the children can’t read. So we parents read through the lesson carefully first, to see what concepts the children are likely to understand. We have learned to be careful not to underestimate their ability—they can often understand more than we give them credit for.
Then we tell all the stories to the child assigned to give the lesson. If there is anything that child would like the other children to help with, he discusses it with us; if we approve, assignments are made. Then we help the children collect their lesson aids.
We use simple picture language to write down lesson outlines for them. They use these as reminders when they are presenting the lesson. For instance, a G means that Glen will help. A question mark (?) means they are to ask a previously learned question. A small drawing of an open book means they are to tell a story. Cues can be more complex the older the child gets.
Naturally, this takes a great deal of time during the week—not so much in long blocks of time, but in short reminders and fifteen-minute sessions with various children. Yet that very preparation is part of what makes the children so excited about family home evening. Monday night never takes them unawares—they’ve been working hard to get ready for it all week!
And surprisingly, it takes only two or three times through a story for a child to memorize it—at least the gist of it. We were not prepared for our children’s quickness of mind! It takes some getting used to; but when we allow and help our children to stretch their minds this way, it’s amazing how much confidence they gain, how quickly they begin to seek other opportunities to learn.
And when the child giving the lesson is alone in front of the family, with only the lesson outline in hand, we have learned that it’s a good idea for Mommy and Daddy to hold back. If the lesson-giver forgets what a certain symbol means, we just encourage him or her to study it out until he remembers. We have found that if we are quick to jump in with reminders and helps, they begin to expect that help and ask for it even when they don’t really need it. But when they get used to relying on themselves, they discover that they really do have the ability to accomplish things alone!
That is, I think, the key to the success of our family home evenings with little children. We give as little help as possible, though we offer as much help as is needed. We believe that the most important thing is the process, not the result—so what if the child doesn’t give a lesson as polished as those given in Sunday School? What really matters is that the child have the experience of preparing a lesson and giving it. And then comes the surprise: it isn’t long before those lessons—and songs, and refreshments, and prayers, and games—are every bit as mature as those given by much older people.
That is the magic of our family home evenings: that the children take part and, taking part, love every minute of the proceedings.
And, perhaps just as important, my wife and I don’t have a family home evening just for the little ones. We, too, have needs that only a good family home evening can fulfill. And so our three-part family home evenings make Monday nights magic for all of us.