Fathers, mothers, teachers, leaders, and friends of children, we are all learning more about how to focus on children in our families and in the Church. My message is about the relationships all of us can build with children so they will listen and feel, hear and believe in what we teach them. They need us. And we need them.
Each of you listening to this message has opportunities to create healthy, happy relationships with children that will help draw them to their heavenly home.
Think about the relationship we have with our Heavenly Father and the Savior. I have heard Dr. Lynn Scoresby observe, “When we make mistakes, the Savior doesn’t say, ‘Go to your room.’ He says, ‘Come unto me.’”
That can be our example for our relationships with the children we know. We want to return to our Heavenly Father. We want to go home. The mission of the Savior is to take us home.
You all know about a special kind of bird called a homing pigeon. Their breeding and extensive training prepare them to return to their home, or their place of origin, regardless of where they may be taken anywhere in the world. Some driving force compels a homing pigeon to expend terrific energy and overcome distance, time, storms, hunger, and fatigue to come home.
How can we help our children feel that burning desire to return home to their Heavenly Father? How can we build the kind of relationship that is “Come unto me,” instead of “Go to your room”?
I like to think of strengthening relationships with children in our families and at church in four ways that might give us some ideas.
Although it is challenging to teach and nurture children, they bring with them joyous delight, spontaneous energy, uninhibited curiosity, and seemingly limitless faith. I often suggest to someone who is discouraged to “Find a child and play awhile. You’ll feel better.” And it really works!
The people I see who seem to have the best relationships with children are those who understand that children grow and develop. They treat children in ways that are appropriate for the child’s age. For example, three-year-olds wiggle and have an attention span of about five minutes, if we are lucky! So we don’t expect them to sit still very long. A five-year-old boy needs to use his muscles, so it shouldn’t surprise us when he uses his muscles to push someone. Ten-year-old girls cry. These are normal behaviors for children. While we need to help children learn to control behaviors that are not constructive, it is helpful to remember that those actions are not necessarily misbehavior. And when children do misbehave, they usually do so not because they intend to be naughty, but because they are being the best they can be for their age.
We need to discover who our children really are. We need to know what interests them, what worries them, and what they would do if they had their fondest dreams come true. Nearly always, their fondest dreams are wonderful. We can let children be their own selves and not expect them to be reproductions of their parents. Give them varied experiences so they can discover what interests them, and then encourage these interests and talents—even if they are not the same as yours. Embrace your child’s real self.
Sometimes we are so busy regulating children that we don’t take time to listen to them. If we would listen more, we could discover how to be successful with them. They are more likely to listen to us when they know they are listened to and understood. Listen with your heart, and listen for the unspoken message. When she says, “I hate you,” she probably means, “I don’t like the way I feel. I’m frustrated, and I don’t know how to fix it.” Listen while you are working and playing together. Children often will open their hearts and feelings at times when they are relaxed and feeling secure—like at bedtime, or when sitting on Mother’s lap, or when they are the last one in the classroom with their teacher.
Ask for their opinions, and then listen. I asked two children to make one rule for parents. One child said, “Moms should never yell.” That response told me that yelling was upsetting that child. A mother could learn from that kind of information. The other child said, “Dads should always tell the truth.” Her father is a tease. A four-year-old girl does not understand the subtleties of adult humor. If Dad teases, he makes her feel insecure because she doesn’t know whether her dad is telling her exactly the way it is. So when she says, “Dads should always tell the truth,” her father can learn from that information.
Mother and Dad, when a Primary teacher says, “Todd has been a problem in class,” instead of saying, “Todd, were you noisy in class today?” listen first to what Todd has to say about his experience in Primary. Not “Go to your room,” but “Come unto me.” “Tell me about Primary. What is your favorite part? What happened in your class today? If you could change Primary in any way, what would it be?” By communicating and really listening, you will learn more about Todd and why he acts the way he does. Then you can respond in a way that will help him. Many times it is only their lack of experience that causes children to make mistakes.
Whenever I ask children what they like most about their best friend, a favorite teacher, neighbor, or relative, they usually will say, “She’s so nice,” or “He’s nice to me.”
Elder Marion D. Hanks once told me about his three-year-old grandson who woke him up in the middle of the night by standing at the bedside until Grandfather sensed his presence. When Elder Hanks opened his eyes, it was obvious to Grandpa by the condition of the little boy’s pajamas that he had been sick.
Little Mark said, “Gwampa, I frowed up!”
Elder Hanks described how he got out of bed and began what is usually a rather unpleasant task. He gently took his grandson by the hand, put him in the shower with soap, and cleaned him up, all the time talking with calm, reassuring tones. Elder Hanks pulled the messy sheets off the bed. He found a sleeping bag, gave Mark a few hugs, and tucked him in for the night. He was all cleaned up and comforted. No recriminations, no scolding. Just kindness. The little boy looked up at his grandpa and said, “Gwampa, yoa da goodest! Yoa da gweatest man in da woold!”
Do you think Mark listened when Grandpa taught him the gospel?
Kindness to a child can be expressed in so many ways by anyone. You don’t have to be a child’s parent or teacher. You don’t have to add kindness to a list of things to do later. You can be kind to a child today with something as simple as a kind look or gentle touch. The tone of your voice can be kind, even when you’re correcting a child. And there are times when they do need correcting.
In general conference, Sister Virginia Pearce taught us to address the children in our wards by name (see Ensign, Nov. 1993, pp. 79–80). That’s easy. Sometimes we can do what the child wants to do. You can look into her eyes while she’s talking to you. You can take time for one child alone. You know if you’re with three children, the little one sits on your lap, the oldest one does all the talking, and the middle child just sort of blends in. Pay attention to the child who blends in. Notice a missing tooth or a skinned knee and ask about it. Wipe a tear. Hold a hand. It’s easy.
A little girl wrote a letter to her Heavenly Father. This is what she wrote:
“I don’t ever feel alone since I found out about you.
(Children’s Letters to God: The New Collection, comp. Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall, New York: Workman Publishing, 1991, n.p.)
When I read those words, my heart nearly burst with the desire that all children might be blessed with the feelings of safety and love that come from knowing about God.
Sharing your testimony gives a child the feeling that you care about her or him enough to share something dear to you. When you teach the principles of the gospel, you have given the child one of the greatest gifts you could give—standards to live by, or, in the words of Helaman, “a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall” (Hel. 5:12). This booklet is entitled For the Strength of Youth. I hope it is familiar to you. Because of the condition of today’s world, a condition we have seen dramatically illustrated and spoken of tonight, I believe that our young children, as well as our youth, need to know the standards contained in this booklet. They need at a very young age to understand standards of Latter-day Saint behavior. Standards and values give a child security. They strengthen a child’s identity as a child of God and kindle in the child’s heart hope—the beginning of a testimony.
Children are intelligent. They hunger for spiritual knowledge, and they can understand. A few years ago, our first granddaughter, Marie, who was not yet three, had attended the Primary nursery. I answered my phone one day to hear her excited little voice say, “Grandma G, I went to Primary!”
“What did you do?”
“We had a story.”
And then in three short, simple sentences, little 2 1/2-year-old Marie taught me a gospel lesson:
“A man couldn’t see. Jesus put mud on his eyes. When he washed it off, he could see!”
Her joy in this newly acquired knowledge was very evident. An excellent and trusted nursery leader had helped that little 2 1/2-year-old heart overflow with feelings of wonder and love for the Savior. A testimony developed early in life will help bring the children home.
I hope you can see that it really isn’t very hard to develop a relationship with a child. Anyone can do it! Just, one, understand them; two, listen to them; three, be kind to them; and four, and share the gospel with them. Four easy things to remember! You don’t have to do it perfectly every day. It does take some time and some patience and many prayers. Some days are really hard. But it’s worth it. Just trust God to help you. Trust the feelings and impressions that come to you and act on them, and you will bless the life of a child, and the child will bless yours.
I have great hope for our children. I see parents who work hard to earn a living and fulfill Church assignments faithfully, yet their prime goal is lovingly and patiently rearing their children. Church leaders who are dealing with the rapid expansion of the Church and with current and pressing issues are not being diverted from focusing on children.
As Primary president, I pay special tribute to you dedicated men and women who are Primary leaders and teachers. In my many years in the general Primary, I have seen literally thousands of children in Primaries worldwide and thousands of Primary leaders faithfully and lovingly teaching the children. I have hugged as many of you as I could get my arms around. I can’t hug you all, but I can thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please accept my deep gratitude for helping bring the gospel of peace to the children. In teaching children, you tread on holy ground, and we pray for you constantly. Yes, I have great faith that we members of the Church will not permit the needs of our children to be overshadowed by other urgent matters. The risks are simply too great.
Brothers and sisters, I pray that we can create the kinds of loving relationships with our children that will help them know how to return home and will instill within them a determination to do so—home to their families, home to the Church, and home to their Heavenly Father. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen.