How do children describe spiritual feelings? “Beautiful. You don’t feel like you have any worries” (Danny, age twelve).
“I feel like everything is right” (Sarah, age seven).
“I feel that I don’t want to do anything wrong. I just want to be good 100 percent of the time” (Blaine, age sixteen).
“It’s not just a feeling, it’s more like the love of Heavenly Father and Jesus, and you feel love for them and your family.” (Mitchell, age ten).
“I feel all washed again” (Julia, age nine).
Children may have spiritual feelings in abundance. These often show joyously in their faces. But unlike the children quoted above, some may never be taught to recognize that these feelings are spiritual and come from God. And even children who are taught the gospel by loving parents may not always understand or internalize these explanations of spiritual matters.
For example, after a campfire testimony meeting, fifteen-year-old Bonnie asked her friend Tania what it is like to feel the Spirit. Tania told her: “It’s hard to put into words, but it’s a kind of overflowing feeling inside of me. I am happy and I feel like crying all at once.”
Bonnie responded with surprise: “I have felt that way, but I didn’t know that was the Spirit.”
Generally speaking, no one is better able to help children recognize their spiritual feelings than parents, and no time is better for doing this than childhood. The Lord endows parents with a deep love for their little ones, a special capacity for discerning their needs and feelings, and the right to receive spiritual guidance in their behalf. Because children feel and respond with great sensitivity to their parents’ love, they are open to parental influence and eager to be taught.
Many teachers of foreign languages believe that children learn a language best in “immersion programs,” in which they are surrounded by other speakers of the language and called upon to speak it themselves. They learn not just to say words, but to speak fluently and even to think in the new language. The proper “immersion” setting for a spiritual education is in the home, where spiritual principles can form the basis for daily living. “And thou shalt teach [the Lord’s words] diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up” (Deut. 6:7).
In order to make our homes immersion settings for spiritual education, we as parents would be wise to start with ourselves. Some of us may have difficulty teaching about the Spirit because we find it hard to recognize our own spiritual feelings. We may mistakenly be looking for momentous manifestations, but spiritual experiences are more likely to come as a quiet assurance, a burning in the bosom (see D&C 9:8), or an impression that silently prompts us to act or holds us back from acting.
President Ezra Taft Benson has said: “We hear the words of the Lord most often by a feeling. If we are humble and sensitive, the Lord will prompt us most often through our feelings. That is why spiritual promptings move us on occasion to great joy, sometimes to tears” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, p. 77). Such a feeling may be compassion for someone in need, willingness to obey parents or leaders, a prompting to forgive, a desire to make things right when we have wronged someone, or a feeling of gratitude. These spiritual feelings grow clearer and more intense as we become increasingly true to the sense of right and wrong that the Lord has placed in our hearts (see Moro. 7:15–17). “When you do good,” President Benson once told the children of the Church, “you feel good, and that is the Holy Ghost speaking to you” (Ensign, May 1989, p. 82).
As we cultivate the Spirit in our own hearts, we become more able to teach, to reach other hearts by the Spirit (see 2 Ne. 33:1). On the other hand, if we lack the Spirit, our children may perceive insincerity, even though we say all the right words. We may come across as trying to force them into obedience, and they may resist us. One six-year-old, for example, caused a rumpus in a supermarket, demanding candy and pulling cans off a shelf when she didn’t get it. Instead of disciplining her more kindly, her exasperated mother gripped the little girl by the shoulders and harshly told her to sit down. “I’ll be sitting down on the outside,” her daughter responded, “but I’ll be standing up on the inside!”
When we teach through the Spirit—“and the Spirit shall be given unto you by the prayer of faith” (D&C 42:14)—there are a number of things we can do consciously to help our children learn to recognize, seek, and be guided by their own spiritual feelings.
Help them learn to pray. We need to start when they are very young, kneeling with them morning and night. In this setting, we can express love for each other and for Heavenly Father. By participating in this sacred experience over and over, children can form the habit of returning frequently to the reverence, love, security, and peace associated with prayer.
Personal prayer can become their private spiritual haven, but family prayer also provides important opportunities to experience spiritual feelings. Even tiny children are able to sense its reverential tones and worshipful peace. Of course, children can sometimes be disruptive and parents impatient, but the repeated experience of praying together can soften and strengthen everyone involved. One of our older children once said of a younger sister, “When I hear Jenny talk to Heavenly Father, I catch a glimpse of heaven.” We also have a son who, as a rambunctious three-year-old, was often subdued when he heard his name spoken in family prayer.
Keep the peace. A consistently serene atmosphere is essential in creating an immersion setting for teaching spiritual things. Because the Spirit speaks in “a still small voice” (1 Ne. 17:45), it is difficult to discern spiritual feelings amid commotion, especially contention. We parents need to start with ourselves in this matter; by repentance and faith, we should strive always to be peacemakers in our families. We should speak softly and respectfully, express love and appreciation, apologize and forgive readily, and be cheerful. Success in these efforts may not come quickly, but home is the perfect place for practicing a better way again and again. Success will come more easily if we rid our homes of worldly influences, including television programs, videos, music, and reading materials that offend the Lord’s Spirit.
Teach the gospel at their level. The doctrines of the kingdom, taught in their simplicity and purity, have an everlasting impact on children as the Spirit bears confirming witness. In some respects, our children are like investigators in the gospel, inquiring and learning. When they ask questions and express thoughts that seem only remotely connected to the subject during family home evening, we should take their comments seriously and encourage thinking on their part, even though taking time to handle their concerns may keep us from getting through the lesson just as we planned. Supporting them in this way teaches children to trust their own feelings.
Lead them in wholesome family activities. Carefully selected activities can remove the family from worldly influences into a circle of peace and loving mutual support. The sense of belonging to an eternal family, which is a spiritual feeling, will serve children as a divine reference point by which to measure other relationships. Gangs and other damaging groups would have far less appeal if youth were spiritually bonded to their families. One of our daughters has told us that the most meaningful times of her childhood and youth came “when the family was all together and no one was upset, and we sat around and talked and sang and felt the Spirit of the Lord. I was completely happy.”
Talk to them at every opportunity. Some of our favorite recollections are of heart-to-heart conversations when our children were anxious to delay bedtime. We listened, asking just enough questions to encourage a child to recount the joys and disappointments of the day. Never have we found better opportunities to initiate talk about feelings and to point out, in terms of the child’s daily experiences, how the Spirit may have been heeded or ignored. These opportunities for sharing spiritual feelings with a child can also be found during ordinary daily activities like working in the garden, cleaning up the dishes, and going on errands.
Listen for spiritual promptings. We can be alert for opportunities to help our children welcome the Spirit’s influence—opportunities for them to feel gratitude, to reflect on blessings, to receive inspiration. One mother shared a story that illustrates the way parents can give gentle guidance in situations like these.
After a school carnival, her younger sons, Richard and Joe, were excited that they each had won a 25-cent balsa wood airplane, and her oldest son, Sam, was elated at winning two of them. But as the boys climbed into bed, Richard accidentally knelt on his airplane and broke it into pieces. He seemed inconsolable. The mother suggested that Sam share one of his planes. “Mom,” he replied, “how could you ask me to do something so hard?” Gently, she reminded him of the gift of the Holy Ghost he had received after baptism. “Listen to your heart,” she added. “You will be able to decide what to do.”
A few minutes later, Richard wiped away his tears as he thanked Sam for the gift. And Sam wrote in his journal: “When I was getting the airplane for Rich, I felt a smile and a warm feeling in my heart. It was so warm I was about to burst. I could barely sleep that night ‘cause I felt that super amazing burst in my heart.” He told his mother that he knew the Holy Ghost had helped him make the decision.
Teaching about the Spirit seems particularly difficult when things are going badly at home. Our first impulse may be to take harsh measures with our children, perhaps to criticize, belittle, or condemn. At times like these, it is more important than ever to seek the Spirit and to restore peace by its influence and guidance. When we respond to disobedience, contention, or rebelliousness in this way, we invite healing through the Spirit and teach our families of the peace it brings.
“You can’t force your boys, nor your girls into heaven. You may force them to hell by using harsh means in the efforts to make them good, when you yourselves are not as good as you should be. … You can only correct your children by love, in kindness, by love unfeigned, and reason” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1971, p. 317). This may require listening to children’s complaints or frustrations patiently while we fight the urge to force them to behave correctly. It may mean confessing our shortcomings to them and asking their forgiveness. It may cause us to weep with them over whatever has gone wrong. It may require that we leave what we are doing, however important we may think it is, and attend to our children’s needs.
When we faithfully do this sacred work of teaching our children, we do not do it alone. “Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven” (Hymns, 1985, no. 27), and in no other endeavor do we need those blessings more than in nurturing our children’s spiritual sensitivity. The Lord has promised to help us (see D&C 45:57–58). The sacrifices we make, the tears we shed, and the prayers we offer are never wasted. The very fact that we try calls forth heavenly assistance.
“Wherefore, be not weary in well-doing, for ye are laying the foundation of a great work. And out of small things proceedeth that which is great” (D&C 64:33).
Family scripture study. Reading the scriptures helps instill a spiritual outlook on life. Family members can take turns reading aloud, trying to express their understanding of the verses clearly. Doing this will help children learn the language of scripture, and even those too young to understand all the words can experience the memorable tones and rhythms of the language.
Singing the songs of Zion together. The right kind of music can prompt deep emotion accompanied by the influence of the Spirit. Like the language of scripture, this music will remain in a child’s memory. A man in his twenties who had not been associated with the Church since Primary was surprised as he worked on his construction job one day to find a Primary song, simple and memorable, going through his mind. The Spirit he had felt in childhood when he had sung this song came over him, and he sought out the Church again.
Sharing testimonies, both in fast and testimony meeting and at home. After being confirmed, Kathy bore her testimony and found herself crying as she spoke. When she sat down next to her mother, with tears still flowing, she asked, “Why am I crying when I’m so happy?” Her mother explained that the Lord’s Spirit had touched her heart. If she had not borne her testimony that day, Kathy would not have enjoyed the experience or received her mother’s guidance.
Attending Church meetings. Susan recalls that once when she was a little girl she sat on the lap of a sister in the ward during a sacrament meeting while her mother took care of a new baby. This sister “encouraged me to focus on the speaker. I was listening intently and can still remember the feeling that came over me. I knew I was where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to be doing. This simple experience has never left me.” By attending church with our children and teaching them to listen, we provide an opportunity for them to be touched spiritually.
Using interviews appropriately. Duane, his wife, and children have a family goal of helping one another come unto Christ. To accomplish this, they have resolved to be happy, unselfish, spiritual, and hardworking. Every week, Duane meets with his children individually in a quiet place and asks them specific questions about how they have done with their goals. This leads to a lot of sharing and listening in which both father and children speak from the heart.
Keeping journals. Expressing our experiences in writing helps us recognize the Lord’s hand in our lives, if not at the moment we’re writing, perhaps later on in life when we read what we have written. Little children can draw pictures of their experiences, and a parent can record their explanations.
Children may find life stories of their parents and ancestors especially inspiring. Like the scriptures, these accounts can give them a true sense of who they are, and the Spirit can confirm their feelings. This spiritual self-understanding can help a maturing child stay on course through life’s storms.
Experiencing priesthood blessings. Children can feel the Spirit when receiving or witnessing blessings. Elizabeth clearly remembers the sweet calm that followed her father’s blessing when she was fearful on her very first day of school. Before a serious operation, three-year-old Brandon’s father and grandfather administered to him. Touched by the spirit of the blessing, he said afterward, “I know Jesus will help me.”