Teaching Vocabulary and Teaching Moments
By John A. Tvedtnes

When I was a young deacon, our bishop would gather all of the priests, teachers, and deacons together on the third Sunday of each month to give what came to be known as his “chastity talk.” Afterward, all the deacons would gather in a huddle, whereupon someone always asked, “Has anyone figured out what ‘chastity’ means?”

At one of these monthly meetings, Bishop Terry finally said something that we understood: “Remember, boys, chastity is your responsibility. After all, the girl can’t force sex on you.” You should have seen the eyes light up on the deacons’ row!  Chastity was obviously the opposite of having sex – abstaining from it.

Years later, as I read the scriptures aloud to my wife and children, my then-six-year-old son interrupted and asked about one of the words I had just read: “What’s a harlot?”

We tried the word prostitute, plus other euphemisms for the same thing, and all of them resulted in the same blank stare from my son.

Finally, in desperation, my wife said, “A prostitute is a woman who goes to bed with a man for money.”

Again those wide-open bright eyes. “Oh, you mean a hooker?” He knew that term, but the others went over his head.

Explaining sexual matters to young children is not easy. They don’t know all of the vocabulary and the explanation wouldn’t make sense to the younger ones. Parents continually try to find ways to teach the subject before their children pick it up in school. One of the more frequent parental question concerns what one should teach children of different ages. In my opinion, if the child is old enough to ask the question, he or she deserves an answer. But we must be sure that we understand the question.

The story is told of a little girl who asked her mother, “Where do I come from?” The mother went into a discussion of reproductive biology, but the daughter interrupted her. “Oh, I know all that,” she said, “I just want to know where I come from.  My friend Jane comes from Philadelphia.”

I think we often use terms that are not fully understood by children. Maybe part of family home evening lessons and scriptural reading should include questions about the meaning of some of the difficult words. The apostle Paul cautioned, “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Corinthians 14:8). But it’s not just children.

While I was serving a mission in Geneva, Switzerland, a recent Italian convert showed up drunk one evening at mutual, which then included teens and adults. I was one of two missionaries who whisked him outside, along with the Sunday school president, and drove around while asking him about why he got drunk and why he would come to a church affair in that condition. The Sunday school president and I knew some Italian, so we did the questioning while the other missionary drove the car. Our Italian brother explained that he had attended the birthday party of a friend and had consumed champagne.

We asked, “Didn’t the missionaries teach you that we don’t drink alcohol?”  “No,” he replied, “they just told me that wine (Italian vino) was forbidden. But I didn’t drink wine; I had champagne.” He evidently didn’t know that champagne is a wine. It became a teaching moment for us and we were able to clarify the Word of Wisdom for this brother, who renounced all alcoholic beverages.

An elderly sister in the same branch had also misunderstood the Word of Wisdom as taught by the missionaries. One day, after church meetings, she invited four missionaries (myself included) to come to her apartment for dessert. She served us a nice fruit cocktail in a rather pungent sauce. As soon as I tasted it, I knew it was fermented. I thought that perhaps she had just kept it unrefrigerated for a time but, just in case, I asked her if she had put alcohol in with the fruit. She readily acknowledged that this was the case. I reminded her of the Church’s teachings about alcohol and learned that she just thought we were forbidden to drink it, not to avoid it completely. To her, drinking an alcoholic beverage out of a glass was not the same thing as sipping it from a spoonful of fruit pieces. Again, this was a teaching moment that helped us clarify a point our sister had misunderstood when first taught by the missionaries.

Teaching moments come in all shapes and sizes, and missionaries, parents, and church leaders need to watch for such opportunities. During the 8+ years we lived in Israel, my young children often played “church,” which is roughly the same as the more common “house.” Usually, they would set up a blackboard with chalk and one would teach the others, scriptures in hand, while his or her siblings sat reverently on chairs. As their father, I was delighted to see that they considered church attendance and scriptures to be important. I often eavesdropped on the lessons and was impressed with how seriously they took spiritual matters.

One day, however, I had to intervene. Two of my sons were breaking bread into little pieces on a plate and were prepared to kneel down to bless the sacrament. I interrupted and gave an impromptu lesson on the necessity of priesthood authority to perform sacred ordinances. I couldn’t have asked for a better teaching opportunity!

Just a warning to those who haven’t already discovered it for themselves: Children think in very logical terms. Their reasoning is not always accurate, but that’s because they often don’t have all the facts. But the logic behind their questions and some of their declarations is, to me at least, marvelous to behold. We can help them by supplying the missing data that will enable them to progress in learning. I have also learned to never underestimate a child’s ability to learn and reason. My mother also realized this. When I was four years old, she taught me to read and write, and when I was five she taught me to cook and embroider. As I grew older, she encouraged me to pick up other skills that she did not possess, such as typing.

Most of the time, of course, children learn from our examples. The parent who asks the child to answer the door or phone and say that he or she isn’t home is really teaching the child to lie. Lying is an acquired skill; no one is born with it. Though my mother was not a member of the restored Church, I learned a great deal from her example. When I was four years old, our house, located in a railroad town, was often frequented by soldiers returning after the victory over Germany and Japan. Unable to find employment, they rode the rails and tried to get odd jobs to survive. When one of these travelers would come to our house, my mother would offer to provide a meal if he would mow the lawn or weed the garden. While the man performed his task, my mother would prepare an egg sandwich and bring it to the front porch with a glass of milk and a quarter. At the time, we were very poor and usually ate rather sparse meals, but my needy mother took pity on people in need and helped them. My own sense of compassion comes mostly from her example and I shall be eternally grateful for it.

To sum up: As we teach others, and especially children, we need to be careful to use vocabulary that is both accurate and easily understood, and we need to watch for special teaching opportunities. Equally important, we must remember that example is a far better teacher than words.