How We Started Family Scripture Study (And Stopped Feeling Guilty)


I’ll have to admit it. That scripture where James exhorts us to “be doers of the word, and not hearers only” was making me squirm (James 1:22). I knew that it applied to many areas of gospel living, but I found especially pointed any associations made with family scripture study. And James, in exhorting us that “hearers only” were “deceiving your ownselves” had put his finger squarely on the process I’d been following. Knowing that our family should study the scriptures but doing nothing about it made me feel guilty; the guilt made me rationalize. And that was leading to the ugly result James describes:

“For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass:

“For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (James 1:23–24). I knew that repeated experiences of hearing the word but doing nothing would eventually change me until I could look at myself in a mirror and forget the kind of person I used to be—and that years of paying my tithing, living the Word of Wisdom, doing my home teaching, and working hard at being bishop wouldn’t erase the fact that we hadn’t had family scripture study.

Two things finally brought me to the decision: one was a speaker who talked about how difficult it had been for him to start family scripture study; I then realized that he’d still beat me by five years. The other motivation was that I desperately wanted my children to have the benefits of regular scripture reading so our Heavenly Father could bless them. I was willing to do for them what I wasn’t willing to do for myself.

So I took the first step. It’s taken a lot of spiritual sweat, mental struggle, and numerous failures, but family scripture study has finally become an institution in our home. Each family needs to work out its own best solution, but here’s what worked for us.

1. We decided. I explained my decision to the family and told them I was so determined that I would start even if I had to do it alone. Surprisingly, once I told my family and our Heavenly Father about the decision, it became much easier to go ahead. Some who have feared their shaky resolution have asked a home teacher or friend to check on them daily until the habit solidifies.

2. We decided on a time. For us, early morning worked best, even though for two years we had been afraid to ask the children to meet my early schedule. When we finally decided to do it, we asked our children to help us decide when. At that time we had only three children old enough to participate, ages seven, four, and three, and they chose to go to bed early enough so they could get up early with us to read. In the summer, this meant going to bed earlier, sometimes when friends were still playing. We altered our evening routine for the whole family and darkened their rooms, but the changes were well worth it. We learned, gratefully, that if the readings were enjoyable and the children really wanted to be with us, we could make the sacrifice.

3. We worked hard to make the sessions happy times. Realistically, we knew we couldn’t expect small children to always be cheerful about getting up that early to read. We handled this in a couple of ways. First, my wife and I get up early enough to shower, dress, and pray, then help the children do their own chores, get dressed, and clean their bedrooms. Some of them are old enough to do it alone, but the harmony that comes when we help is really worth it. It also shows that we aren’t asking the children to do what we aren’t willing to do.

4. We try to involve everyone. Part of this is just the physical arrangement. I generally sit on the floor in front of the couch with a child on each side of me and two perched on the couch behind me. The other two cuddle close to my wife. That way everyone can see the pictures and follow the words, and the physical closeness seems to create spiritual closeness as well.

We have prayer either before or after our readings so that our children will grow up associating the two.

We recognized that there would be discipline problems and tried not to be discouraged when they inevitably materialized. Our enthusiasm played a big role. Many of our sessions would have failed had I not called out “marching orders,” started a race downstairs, or carried someone piggyback, just to get things started.

We decided that attendance should be a privilege and have never dragged an unwilling youngster into the group if a little tickling or hugging didn’t change his mood. Instead, we’ve concentrated on making the sessions so good that they’ll want to be there. Sometimes, when dissension has arisen during our reading, we get back on the track by talking about why Satan doesn’t want us to study the scriptures and have prayer immediately. At other times, we’ve simply sent the disruptive one away for a while.

5. We try to be creative during the session. We’ve always felt that ten minutes with the Spirit is better than thirty without it. Here are some of the ways we try to keep the sessions flexible and interesting:

—We concentrate on storytelling. It’s the best way to teach young children and relate the scriptures to their own experiences.

—We use retold scripture stories so that even the beginning readers can follow along. By mixing storytelling and reading, we can tell most of the story and then have an older child read the heart of the matter.

—We use pictures as often as possible, both from illustrated children’s stories of the scriptures and from our own family library. Many times the little ones can tell a story from the picture.

—We start with the most interesting stories and more understandable doctrinal passages—Lehi leaving Jerusalem rather than the parable of the tame and wild olive trees. We know that over the years we’ll be able to cover everything several times, each time in greater detail.

—We have the children tell the stories that they’re familiar with. It began as a way of involving them but it’s turned out to be excellent preparation for talks in church and family home evening.

—We make it fun by singing relevant songs, by using filmstrips from the ward library, and by role playing the story we did the day before.

—We relate the stories and messages to our children by asking them questions like: Why do you think our Heavenly Father wanted this story in the book? Have you ever had this happen to you? What would you do if something like this happened to you? How do you think they felt when this happened? How would you feel?

Sometimes we relate personal experiences that link us with the scriptures to solve their everyday problems.

6. We follow up outside the sessions. A popular game in the car or after family home evening or at the dinner table is “Guess Who I Am.”

One person will describe a situation or story as a clue to a religious person. The winner gets to describe the next story. Even for minor scriptural figures the competition is keen!

Another game, ideal for Sunday afternoon, is “Look Up.” My wife or I give them a scriptural reference to one of their favorite stories to look up and it’s a race to see who can find it first. Then we take turns either reading the scripture or retelling the story.

We let the children see us reading the scriptures at other times. Some of my most exciting experiences have been when I invited a passing child to cuddle up and read with me. When I’ve seen one of our children reading the scriptures or looking at the pictures, if I can, I’ve dropped everything to ask if I could join in.

Our own personal study and prayer have been vital. I listen to the scriptures driving to and from work and pray often about how to teach my children effectively. I may have begun this experience motivated by guilt and determination, but now I hope my actions communicate how deeply I love being with my family in a spiritual activity. My wife and I both take opportunities to bear our testimonies about specific things, to let the family know how much we love the Savior and want to do his will.

In family prayers, we frequently feel prompted to thank the Lord for our scripture study program. We look for growth in our children because of these sessions and praise them for specific things that please us.

As a husband and wife, we select spiritual goals for our family periodically, write them down, and put them in a place where we’ll see them often. It helps us structure questions and emphasize certain points as we go through the scriptures, and also helps us evaluate how well we’re teaching.

And are the results worth it? Let me share with you two special experiences, experiences that in themselves made all of our trouble worth it. During Easter week, we reviewed important points of the Savior’s mission, going over the major events a number of times to be sure they were clear.

Our three-year-old was in the room but not sitting with us and I assumed he wasn’t paying attention. However, when we sat down to write in his journal on Sunday, he said, “Jesus died on the cross, huh, daddy?”

Mildly surprised, I assured him, “That’s right, Ryan.”

“He came alive again, huh, daddy?”

I answered that that was right, and then asked Ryan if he was going to die and Ryan replied, “Yes, an’ I’m gonna come alive again.”

“What does Jesus want you to do, son?”

“Keep the commandments,” he replied confidently.

When I asked him what a commandment was, he was stumped; but I was impressed that he had absorbed so much just by being in the same room.

During our Wednesday morning session, I was reading of the Savior’s ordeal in the Garden of Gethsemane and suddenly felt such an outpouring of the Spirit that my eyes filled with tears and I had to stop reading. In an effort to regain my composure, I asked our nine-year-old daughter beside me a question. When she did not answer, I turned to see her eyes also full of tears. I then asked our six-year-old daughter behind me the same question. She too was silent. I turned to see her also overcome with emotion.

It was a precious moment of sharing the same feeling, but I felt prompted to talk about it. I asked them why they were crying and they said they didn’t know.

“Are you sad?”

“No.”

“Do you feel good?”

“Yes, we just feel happy.”

We spent the next ten minutes discussing how our Heavenly Father lets you know that something is true. Three weeks earlier, I had floundered through a discussion with my six-year-old on how she could tell if she had a testimony. I hadn’t been able to describe the feelings you have when the Holy Ghost touches your heart. By sharing and identifying this precious moment all of us were sharing, I knew that I was helping the Lord show her what it felt like.

And James, who had given uncompromising warning that I was deceiving myself, had also, I found, predicted these kinds of experiences: “He being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed” (James 1:25). He was right.

[photo] Photography by Jed A. Clark

Brent D. Cooper, an engineer and father of seven children, serves with the New York—New Jersey Region welfare program.