Teaching the Words of Life to Our Children

During the three years my husband was a branch president at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, he would tell his missionaries, “If you don’t think about your experiences, the scriptures will be dead to you; if you don’t think about the scriptures, your experiences will be shallow.”

These words have stuck in my mind. The object of scripture study isn’t just to be able to give the right answers in Sunday School class or to give scholarly talks in sacrament meeting. The object of scripture study is to live better—to see more clearly and respond more deeply.

I believe that a person who has absorbed the scriptures will speak scripturally. I don’t mean that he will pontificate with “thee’s and “thou’s”; but when, for example, a prodigal returns home, he will say something in the spirit of “Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him.”

How can the scriptures become integral to our language and our lives? Though it is never too late to begin studying and pondering the scriptures, we do best to begin by absorbing the language of the scriptures as children. The language of scripture is foreign to many, perhaps most, of us. But children can learn it as they do their mother tongue—by hearing it daily. My husband and I feel the responsibility to teach the scriptures from the scriptures to our children so that the language of the scriptures becomes natural to them. Here are some things we are doing to that end; others might prefer a different approach.

  1. 1.

    Most evenings after dinner (after, so our children aren’t thinking too much about eating) but before dessert (so they aren’t anxious to leave the table), we read something from the scriptures—a story, a prayer, something with a natural beginning and end. We may take turns choosing the passage of scripture we want to hear.

    Our children choose some passages over and over again, but repetition is how the language sinks in. Some of our children’s favorites, with the names we use, are: A Time for Everything (Eccl. 3:1–8); David and Goliath (1 Sam. 17:40–51); The Boy Who Ran Away (Luke 15:11–32); The Sheep and the Goats (Matt. 25:31–46); Samuel the Boy Prophet (1 Sam. 3:1–18); Jesus and the Children (3 Ne. 17:21–25); King Benjamin (Mosiah 4:11–15); King Herod (Matt. 2:1–18); Psalm 23 [Ps. 23]; Psalm 100 [Ps. 100]; and The Millennium (Isa. 11:1–9).

    When our turns come, my husband and I sometimes introduce new passages. Some passages catch on; some don’t. Once when I was worried about hypocrisy and pharisaism in our home, I chose on three successive turns Matthew 23, [Matt. 23] Jesus’ scathing denunciation of the scribes and the Pharisees. It made an impression on the children. Now hypocrite is a part of their vocabulary. More often than not, it is applied to someone other than themselves; but I have seen them behaving better.

  2. 2.

    Each Sunday, we have scripture study (at which time we may also sing hymns, read selections to each other from our journals, or listen to Dad read a story from a good book or Church magazine). During scripture study, the children each pick a passage of scripture (most often one they have heard at the dinner table) which they will read aloud by themselves during the coming week. They read the same passage until they can read it more or less fluently, with understanding. Then the children read aloud to the family the passage they worked on the previous week. If a child is not yet able to read, but can talk, he “reads” his passage by repeating it, phrase by phrase, as an older child or parent reads it.

    Those of our children who are just learning to read choose short passages. As they get older, the passages get longer, and they may choose successive chapters in certain books of scripture. When our daughter Hannah was nine, for example, she went through the book of Ruth, a chapter at a time.

  3. 3.

    At family home evening on Monday, my husband or I may select a passage of scripture, often one the family has already heard or read, and go over it with the children. We ask them what the words mean, helping them look up words they don’t know in a dictionary or a modern translation of the Bible; we ask them what is happening and why, and what it means in their lives.

  4. 4.

    With our older children (ages 10 and 12), we are experimenting with worksheets for them to do on Sundays and during school vacations and holidays. These are to help them learn to study the scriptures on their own.

Here, for example, are some questions we asked Hannah, together with her answers, on the second chapter of Ruth:

What is a reaper (Ruth 2:3)? What does “glean” mean (Ruth 2:2)? Look in the dictionary. A reaper is a person who gathers a harvest. Glean means to gather (grain) after the reapers or regular gatherers.

What does “her hap was” mean (Ruth 2:3)? Look in the Jerusalem Bible. And it chanced.

Verse 17 says Ruth gleaned about “an ephah of barley.” How much is an ephah? Look in the Bible Dictionary. About eight gallons.

Why was Boaz kind to Ruth? Read verses 11 and 12. Because Ruth had come away from her gods and her land to stay with Naomi and take care of her.

There are times for telling stories from the scriptures in our own words; there are times for teaching doctrines and moral principles we have found in the scriptures. But surely we would be delinquent as parents if we failed to teach our children to immerse themselves in the actual words of the scriptures, to drink deeply from their living water. There is something to be gained from reading and trying to understand the scriptures themselves that cannot be gained in any other way.

When parents are less than enthusiastic about teaching directly from the scriptures, it is usually because they haven’t themselves come to terms with the scriptures. I have seen this particularly with the Old Testament. I have picked up more than one hint from mothers that they think some of the stories in the Old Testament are a bit too “violent” or “graphic.” Should we be teaching these scriptures to our children?

The question has prompted me to think more seriously about the responses we make to the existence of sin. There is a trend in our society—perhaps a reaction against the materialism, the greed, the violence, the sexual perversions that surround us—to deny evil. It is at the heart of a lot of pop psychology today. I think of cliches like “feelings aren’t wrong,” “everyone’s basically good—they just get frustrated.” Hand in hand with this trend is a tradition in our society that says we must be nice—not necessarily good, but nice. A nice person pretends that evil is not there.

To entertain such attitudes is to ignore the reality of sin and the need to overcome it. The Lord intended that we be “wise as serpents”; he intended that we leave the garden. As parents, we do our children a great disservice if we do not teach them both the reality of good and the reality of evil. And it is there for us, the way the Lord wants us to teach it, in the scriptures—particularly in the stories of the Old Testament.

This does not mean that these stories are easy to handle, particularly for young people. But the study and discussion that follow reading those stories can be most enlightening. During one family home evening, for example, my husband was reading the story of Saul’s disobedience to the Lord, who had commanded him through the prophet Samuel to utterly destroy the Amalekites. (See 1 Sam. 15.) When we came to the part where the Lord says, “Slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass” (1 Sam. 15:3), my seven-year-old daughter waxed indignant and in disbelief cried out, “You mean Heavenly Father told them to kill babies?” I could see that in her mind that put Heavenly Father in a category with King Herod. I replied, “The people were very wicked, Alisia.”

“But not the babies,” she replied.

“No,” I said, “but who would take care of the babies if the big people were dead?”

She thought for a moment and then triumphantly announced, “The Israelites could take care of them.”

I didn’t have an answer. My husband suggested, “Maybe when the children grew up they would be angry with the Israelites and would try to get back at them.” There the conversation ended, somewhat unsatisfactorily, I thought. But the topic came up again later, and this time my husband and I had studied Deuteronomy 25:17–19 [Deut. 25:17–19], Exodus 20:4–6 [Ex. 20:4–6], and some commentaries by the Brethren. As a result, we were able to lead Alisia to an answer that satisfied her.

I believe we do wrong to simply push aside questions like this, asked with childish simplicity and directness. If we do, we are undermining at least two of the major purposes of reading the scriptures—the development of moral sensitivity and the development of the determined patience needed to seek understanding. Alisia’s question is not easy to answer; one question about accountability leads to another. I believe of such questions, as Joseph Smith said, “time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out.”

I remember at one time being greatly troubled over the story of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac. I couldn’t understand the Lord’s giving such a commandment. What I came to understand after some time and experience and thought was that Abraham was not troubled. What might have been for me a great moral struggle was for him an act of faith. There was no doubt in his mind that what the Lord commanded was right. That understanding freed me. All along I had been afraid that an Abrahamic test meant being asked to do something I felt to be somehow wrong. I came to understand that it meant being asked to love God more than any other. The Lord, I saw, might ask me to sacrifice a great deal, he might ask me to lay my time, talents, even my heart on the altar—as he did Abraham—but he would never ask me to do something I couldn’t come to see was right.

The story of Abraham and Isaac gives us a deeper understanding of righteousness. Abraham, desiring “to be a greater follower of righteousness,” followed a living God, not an abstract moral code. We ourselves must never think that we can fully understand right and wrong independent of the Lord. We can never lay it out once and for all as a set of do’s and don’ts; the Spirit must always be there. Righteousness isn’t just a matter of paying tithing or attending meetings; it is a matter of living our life moment by moment as it ought to be lived, of thinking what we ought to think at all times. Then we will respond as we ought to respond in all situations.

I believe the scriptures can help us to better understand right and wrong on a moment-to-moment basis. For one thing, they provide examples of life so lived and thus allow us to prepare ourselves by exercising our moral judgment as we read about situations not unlike those in which we often find ourselves. We can be grateful for the points in the scriptures where we must exercise moral judgment, because it is at those points that we may learn and grow, if we ponder, study, and pray.

The story of Saul and the Amalekites will come up again. Someone will choose it at the dinner table. We as parents hope that it, and many others like it, will come up again and again in the hearts of our children, as the words of life came to the heart of Enos: “The words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.

“And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul.” (Enos 1:3–4.)

Sandra Bradford Packard, a homemaker, teaches Primary in the Provo (Utah) Twenty-first Ward.