How to Teach the Ten Commandments to Your Children


How to Teach the Ten Commandments to Your Children

“May you live to introduce him to study [the Torah], marriage, and good deeds” was once a common wish expressed by friends whenever a son was born to Jewish parents. In fact, the very essence of Judaism is found in the triad of God, Torah, and Israel.

The pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses, is called the Torah, the Hebrew word for “doctrine”; and as to its importance, the Talmud (a massive record of the intellectual, social, natural, and religious traditions of the Jews comprised of the oral and written laws from their early history) says that “a single day devoted to the Torah outweighs a thousand sacrifices.”

In our day, when he became president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a modern-day prophet, Harold B. Lee, said, “Obey the commandments.” But to obey, one must know. And to know, one must study. In the hectic world most of us know today, study time must often be stolen from the night, even as this article is being written during the predawn hours. Yet it is written in the Talmud: “Not only should a person not neglect study because of the pursuit of pleasures: he should not neglect it even for his occupation.”

Studying the scriptures is not just for the duration of a study group, a Sunday School course, or a year’s commitment. One studies the scriptures each day of his life until the end of his life. So pervasive should the habit of scriptural study be that it is taken for granted that parents are always engaged in it, in spite of occupation and worldly pleasures.

Recently we celebrated the fourteenth birthday of our only son. After the festivities of that day, the two of us shared a moment together after our prayers. I told him I remembered well his day of birth. He turned—eyes wide and blue and gazing steadily into mine—and said, “Mother told me I was born at two in the morning.” I said I recollected that and he laughed, “I bet I know what you were doing, Dad—reading!” And I suppose I was.

While this habit has not always endeared me to my family, it has made its impression. One spends spare time studying, and this is a very clear message in our home. However, in all honesty, the example of study has not always smitten the children with quite the impact we would like.

Yet the memories of childhood suffuse the very being of children, and as they mature, they find themselves repeating the examples of living experiences in their past. It is good that they grow up in a home where study is revered and where parents devote a significant amount of their valuable time to knowing what is expected of elders in Israel.

It is written in James 2:17, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” And knowledge without behavior appropriate to that which is comprehended is inert. It is also true that all of the study in the world and all of the examples of knowledge are as nothing before works performed that exemplify, even amplify, the study.

Children will only learn the Ten Commandments as they see their admonitions cast into affirmative acts of behavior by their parents. One definition of learning is changed behavior. Yet one must know before one can act. We might even go so far as to say that if our children know us only as students of the scriptures and not as those who work those scriptures into the very fabric of our lives, then we have only taught the futility of knowledge.

To know and to do that which is known is by far the most significant childhood experience parents can set before their children. “Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?” (James 2:21.)

There are two ways to teach children the commandments. They must know them intellectually and they must see them performed by their parents consciously, actively, repeatedly, and devotedly. It also helps if everyone in their community, their nation, and the world in which they live obeys the commandments. There are no gimmicks, no shortcuts, charts, cute cutouts, flannel sets, or media means that will translate the commandments into action. Use what you will to teach children what the commandments are, but use yourself and other significant adults as models.

Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me.

Where this commandment is displayed or how it is made known is each parent’s choice, but I will discuss the behavior that is most likely to impress the children with the idea that their parents believe and love this commandment.

It is significant to note the context in which the Ten Commandments were given. After the freeing of the people from Pharaoh, after the plagues, and after the passage through the Red Sea, the Lord said: “I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Ex. 20:2.) Thus, the Lord sought to remind the people of his deeds and kindnesses before he gave the commandments.

Within the context of the family there are numerous occasions for thankfulness—for the morning light, for the health and strength to work, for recovery from illness, for a missionary, for life itself—and these blessings, like the Lord’s reminder to his people brought out of Egypt, may serve to help children understand the motives for adult behavior. For example, we obey Heavenly Father’s commandments because of gratefulness for all he has created, for all he has done for his people.

In every prayer that children hear, there should be thankfulness expressed for God’s hand in all things, for evidences of his presence and influence. He is the God before whom man bows; to him we make acknowledgment and to none other. We live in a world dominated by the concept of “Lady Luck.” Our children too soon learn that much of their success is attributed to being lucky or to chance.

Parental references to whim and happenstance can easily be interpreted by children to mean that God plays second fiddle. For children to feel that God is the conductor, they need to hear their parents render unto him that which is his—the very breath of life, its essence, influence, and all-pervasiveness. Parents who themselves are filled with the consciousness of God’s hand in all things will transmit this feeling to their children.

I recollect an instance some months ago when, in a private moment with President Lee, I expressed some anxiety for his well-being. However, my anxiety was of a worldly nature. President Lee turned to me and said, “Elliott, I am in the care of the Lord, and thus I have no personal fears.” I left his office that afternoon as a child who had heard his father say that God lives and that no other power exists. The continual influence of parents’ convictions about God cannot help but hone the edge of belief of their children.

In this very material world where the acquisition of things assumes an importance that too often overshadows the pursuit of everything else, it is too easy for families to pursue other gods. The Lord has told us time and again that our eyes should be upon him and his commandments rather than on laying up treasures that will not rise up with us.

I often recall a talk I gave at the University West Stake conference a year before I became a member of the Church. It was a courageous stake president (Lemonte Peterson) who dared ask a nonmember to address his stake in the Assembly Hall on Temple Square. Yet, President Peterson was inspired, because that talk was a message to myself and it was well received. In it I suggested that the trouble with the Saints was not that they were a peculiar people, but that they were not peculiar enough!

Since then I have heard from many who were there that morning who were moved to reflect upon their lives when so severely admonished by a nonmember. And since then I have more than once had to remind myself of the importance of being peculiar as I have placed other gods before me.

Last June I attended the annual meeting of the American Orthopsychiatric Association in New York City, where I was responsible for a full-day symposium for professionals concerned with the rehabilitation of drug addicts. On the way to my meeting one morning, I eagerly opened a copy of the New York Times to see what was happening in the secular world. On the first page of the second section, spread over the complete top half, was an article about a peculiar people who still believe in the family and who set aside each Monday night to be together.

Since 1915 the holding of family home evening has been one of our commandments. But that special night passed relatively unobserved until just a few years ago when the First Presidency, seeing the steady erosion of the family in America, reemphasized that night. A peculiar people, Latter-day Saints do not worship the gods of greed and mammon and will stop everyday activities to concentrate on family.

Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep It Holy.

Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin in his book To Be a Jew (New York: Basic Books, 1972) calls the Sabbath day an “island in time.” This commandment is the only commandment among the ten that deals with a purely ritual observance. Thus the Lord must have loved it above all else. It is an island in time because it is a release from weekday concerns and routine pleasures. Among the Orthodox Jews it is called Shabbot Hamalkah, Sabbath Queen, because that day is, like a queen, the symbol of majesty, beauty, and grace.

However, to many, especially to children, it is seen as restrictive. To many children and adults, it is too austere. It cannot be lectured to the young. They need to have seen my grandmother as she labored all day in preparation for the Sabbath that started for us Friday evening at sunset.

Many Latter-day Saints became particularly conscious of this day as they saw the movie Fiddler on the Roof and observed the rituals of Sabbath observance there. Our children need to feel and observe the importance of the Sabbath such that the entire week winds down as mother prepares for the delight of the Sabbath. If an entire house girds itself for the arrival of Sunday with joy and thanksgiving, then the children, protest as they may, will feel their parents’ response to the opportunities of the day.

How do we really celebrate the Sabbath? For too many it is a day of meetings and little else. Were children to see their parents use that day to be especially mindful of the day-long opportunity to study the scriptures, they would realize that it is not becoming to do otherwise. The Sabbath is not only a day of rest; it is also a day of worship. It is the time set apart to memorialize the creation of the world and to remember the joy of freedom.

Wherever tyrants have sought dominion, they have outlawed the Sabbath. Thus it was in Pharaoh’s day and in Stalin’s time. Whosoever seeks to destroy a people takes their rituals of faith away. Even when we abrogate the Sabbath, as many do on vacation or when away from their home wards, we chip away at our family structure and teach the children that Sabbath observance is for when folks are watching.

When the Sabbath “captures” a family, there is no deviation from the law. Sabbath is Sabbath no matter where we are and no matter whom we are with. I fear that, as Lewis Munford wrote in The Conduct of Life (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951), “In our Western culture the day of rest has now become another day of busy work, filled with amusement and restless diversions not essentially different from the routine of the work week. … From the Sunday morning scramble through the metropolitan newspapers, to the … tedium of the motor car excursion, we continuously activate leisure time instead of letting all work and routine duties come serenely to a halt; we have too often only stopped our daily labors and have engaged in Sunday labors.”

Rabbi Donin offers some hints that, since we accept truth wherever it emanates, are apropos for Latter-day Saint families too. He asks what a family would do if an honored guest were coming to dinner. Everyone would be clean, dressed immaculately, with special attention not to newness but to propriety. Menus would not be like Wednesday’s, but special food would be extraordinary both in quality and in diversity. Our attitudes would be such that the entire household would be alert to the arrival of the guests. And so the Sabbath might well be a time of tranquil delight where reading and studying prevail; where parents deliberately discuss religion, ethics, and topics reserved especially for that day; and where leisurely Sabbath strolls, socializing with immediate neighbors, extra sleep, home games, and not homework are practiced.

At the conclusion of the Sabbath, mention at evening prayer of the delights and not the restrictions of the day will help children follow in the ways of their parents. Sabbath-reluctant parents will not impress their children when it comes to the children’s observance habits. The best admonition from parents, begun at about the age of three, is a mild reminder that “we don’t do such and such on the Sabbath.”

Total Sabbath observers rarely find that their children will not enjoy celebrating with them. Inconsistent observers usually find the most difficulty. The famous dictum, “The Sabbath was given over to man and not man to the Sabbath,” is not a convenient aphorism that permits us to be negligent about our Sabbath observance habits.

One final thought relative to the Sabbath as a day fully devoted to study, worship, and gathering: the word gathered as used in Exodus 35:1 [Ex. 35:1], “and Moses gathered all the congregation of children of Israel together,” is mentioned only once in the first five books of Moses and appears only prior to the paragraph dealing with the observance of the Sabbath. Jewish commentary upon this oddity says that it is as though God said to Moses, “Go down and gather together great assemblies on every Sabbath to teach the law in public.”

Thus the association of biblical study with the purpose of the Sabbath is clear. It is also the reason that at least for the next eight years all adult Latter-day Saints will be studying the scriptures in their Sunday Schools.

Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery

The violation of this commandment is among the gravest offenses against biblical law. It is a sin against our Father himself. Sexual promiscuity is all too common in the world today. Ideally this people, this peculiar people, should be unique because of their history of not committing sexual transgressions. But some among us have become “unpeculiar” and have too often modeled their lives after the worldly among whom they live.

In Leviticus 20:23 the Lord said: “And ye shall not walk in the manners of the nation, which I cast out before you: for they committed all these things, and therefore I abhorred them.” [Lev. 20:23] The immoral behavior that was common among the nations in whose midst the Israelites lived was specifically forbidden. Further, in Leviticus 20:26 the Lord said: “And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the Lord am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine.” [Lev. 20:26]

It is as clear today as it was in those days that those who love the Lord should consciously avoid any encouragement whatever of improper relationships between married persons. Among the ancient Hebrews, and even those who today are mocked by their own because of their strict adherence to Father’s commandments, it was customary that if a married man were to interview a woman, married or unwed, he would turn his back to her and thus carry on the conversation. What one does not see, one cannot covet.

The beginning of adultery is not in the adulterous act but in the preliminary “chance” meetings, in banter that borders on enticement, and in accepting opportunities for socialization that are imprudent, not because they are inherently sexual, but because the roots of licentiousness are fed long before the flower of adultery has blossomed.

But how does one teach children to obey this commandment? Surely, the first step in their learning is that they see in their home life happiness between mother and father. They ought to be growing up with the assurance that both of their parents observe the commandments. They need to grow up knowing that in the lives of their parents there is no interest and no activity of a sexual nature that is in any way considered other than between themselves.

I further believe that this is not a topic that parents should be silent about. Conversely, I do not suggest persistent harangues concerning the sexual behavior of married people. One night’s viewing of TV is enough to convince any skeptic that adulterous relations, while not especially condoned, are still treated with a great deal of hilarity.

There are many wonderful moments available to parents who are alert to opportunities to put illicit marital relationships in proper perspective. That is, firm disapproval needs to come from parents rather than laughing the seriousness away. Even some films rated PG frequently depict the sexual forays of men and women whose lives are sordid when compared with the exemplary principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Children catch their parents’ views of life as surely as they catch the measles. In the overtly tumultuous society in which we live, the instances of immoral adult behavior in the press and in our communities need to be identified and talked about rather than hidden under the table so that neighborhood and family rumors take the place of open discussion.

Values are caught, not so much taught. I am not recommending such discussion before children who are too young to comprehend these types of problems, because a danger in any human relations area that involves sexuality is that too much can be said that is beyond the needs and comprehension of the preschooler but appropriate for the junior high school-age child.

A child’s values develop gradually. One forthright discussion, one telling, is unlike an innoculation—there’s no guarantee of immunity against hearing more. Children complain about repetition as they learn in Primary and Sunday School, yet repetition of significant values is necessary.

As we mature, we place identical experiences into different contexts because of our experience. Thus, infidelity to a child five years of age may only mean that a neighbor child’s daddy has moved out of the house. At 11, it may mean that the lady up the street is never home when her husband arrives, and at 15 it means that sacred vows have been broken and a friend may tell of knowledge of sexual activity outside of her mother and father’s relationship.

Children need to know what values their parents cherish. Those who think they need only let their children develop and grow their own ideals have mistaken ideas about the role of parents. A well-known parent-educator in a nationally known parent training course has argued that parents need not form a united front or coalition. He has suggested that it is unfair for the child to face a mother and father who agree.

In the realm of this commandment, it is imperative that the children are absolutely certain that their parents share the same values. Differences here are not tolerable, and where parents do not share this value, dissolution of the marriage seems inevitable. Fond hopes that children will somehow get their values together on their own and with no models to emulate are just that—fond hopes doomed to failure.

None of the commandments will become real to children who never hear or see them in action. Children want to know and need to know where their parents stand on these fundamental values. If parents aren’t sure where their values are, how can they expect their children to be more conscious of commandments than they are?

A young lady of another church whom I met on a college campus in the Midwest lamented that even the highest spiritual leader of her church was confused in this day. “If he isn’t sure,” she cried, “how can I be?”

In matters of morality and obedience to God’s laws, the text of any general conference since the earliest days of the Church has been consistent. There are no world or local conditions that lessen the intent or express admonitions of the Ten Commandments. They were clear and succinct in Moses’ time and they are so today. There is no interpretation necessary, no disputation, no deviation acceptable.

There are things that must be obeyed; there are activities that must not be undertaken. There are no exceptions permissible. A hard line? For many in the world these commandments are onerous. The discipline and restraint of laws and the duties expected and imposed are seen by most men as too difficult—good for someone else. It is clear that 3200 years ago Moses, in his final message to the Israelites, understood that his people would want to be as other nations. It is not easy for anyone in this day to be removed from the secular, the vulgar, the profane. A life of sanctity led by one person, then by many, will eventually create a more sanctified society. Thus Moses said to the people:

“For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off.

“It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

“Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it?

“But the work is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

“See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil;

“In that I command thee this day to love the Lord thy God, to walk in his ways, and to keep his commandments and his statutes and his judgments, that thou mayest live and multiply: and the Lord thy God shall bless thee in the land whither thou goest to possess it.” (Deut. 30:11–16.)

How often have our leaders heard the lament of the Saints who wish not to remain peculiar but wish to escape the burden of being Latter-day Saints. How much easier it would have been for the Smith family to stay in Vermont, for the Saints to have built further in Nauvoo and have not packed up and left. Were it not for the section just quoted from Deuteronomy, how much more comfortable would our people be if they just didn’t tithe, just didn’t consecrate their time and talents to the kingdom.

Moses was telling his people this simple message: Righteousness is up to you! It can be done and we needn’t search for someone else to do it for us. Our children in this dispensation need to realize that though they may receive instructions from the church auxiliary and quorum leaders, no such organization or person can act righteously for them. They must do it for themselves. Through faith and will and given desire they can obey the commandments.

Dr. Landau serves on the Sunday School general board, where he is chairman of the Child Committee. He is a professor of education at the University of Utah. He has been a member of the Church since 1965, when he was converted from Judaism.