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Cover image via LDS.org.
If wrapping your brain and your family around this new initiative to teach in the home feels bumpy and loaded with trial and error, if you’ve thrown your hands up at least once and felt like a failure quite a few times, then bravo! I suspect you’re getting it exactly right. From talking to friends and family I get the sense that we’re all in a constant state of working and reworking, failing and trying again, and ironing out wrinkle after wrinkle. And this is just as it should be.
There are really only two ways to fail at this new initiative. The first is to give up; to just stop trying because it’s too much, because the first things you tried didn’t work the way you hoped, or maybe your efforts have been a big fat flop. Maybe your kids are rolling their eyes and don’t want to participate. Maybe you spent time and effort preparing and when the time came to teach, your kids were twisting themselves up on the couch with their bums in the air. Talking about sacred important things to children with short attention spans span can feel a little like casting pearls before swine.
The second way to fail is to do too much, too perfectly and too rigidly, to stick to your initial plan come hell or high water. Because our families and children are in a constant state of flux and progression and change, teaching in the home has to be a fluid endeavor. To be effective, it has to be worked and reworked. It has to be individualized to your family, often catered specifically to each child, even tailored to their current mood! When we try to execute perfectly, week after week trying to make the same things work for all children, all the time, when we try desperately to make our teachings feel all tied up and pretty, the end goal gets lost. This is messy business and when we get swallowed up in the process we can easily lose sight of what this is all really about.
And what it’s really about is conversion to Jesus Christ, for ourselves and for our children.
In the Old Testament, God guides his children by an outward law. And then, as the meridian of time approaches, things start to change. Towards the end of the Old Testament, the Lord tells Jeremiah that he intends, under the new covenant, to put (his) law in (our) inward parts, and write it in (our) hearts.
In 1st Corinthians chapter three, God tells us that He is less interested in the law being written in ink or on tablets of stone and more interested in it being written on the fleshy tables of our hearts. Isn’t this our greatest desire as parents…that our kids let God write his law right inside of their hearts? When the law is written in us everything flips and we are converted. Instead of being compelled or coerced into obedience by an outside force, we are propelled by our inner, most basic desires towards light, goodness and love. This is the kind of conversion that sticks with us.
Getting our families to a place where we can let God work on our hearts is a messy process and week to week it may look different. We’re trying to gird up our loins and stay focused on this goal, rather than be focused on finding a perfect and long lasting structure for teaching.
A few things we’re trying to keep in mind as we teach in our home:
- Keep it simple. There are loads of great ideas being generated all over social media and the Internet (including here!). I find myself having to resist the temptation to first go to these resources and get sucked into the quest for new and better ideas. In planning, I’m trying to spend more time on my knees than on the Internet. I’m trying to start by identifying questions that address my family’s current needs and then, with a prayer in my heart, reading through the assigned chapters. When I’ve taken this approach, powerful answers pop out of the lesson. I end up with at least half of the direction that I need for the week before turning to the manual.
- We’ve discovered the Come Follow Me manual to be very thoughtful and well laid out with simple ways to focus on powerful principles, so we go to that next.
- Often part of the direction God gives us is to search further, to research things, to augment our own understanding of the principles for the week (big shout out to the Proctors Come, Follow Me Podcasts). Often we find ideas in conference talks, good books, the Internet and from friends that act as inspiration to help us come up with our own answers.
- We’re trying to prayerfully watch for opportunities to weave these principles into our everyday lives. If I pray and watch for them, moments to teach, apply, and testify pop up all over the place. They don’t always happen when I plan or expect them to. Often it’s been at bedtime, taxiing kids around, or during dinner.
- Take time to be holy. When I can carve out time to connect with God individually, I find myself in a place where I know what questions I need to ask and can see my family and their needs and challenges more clearly. If we spend time with God, and ask him the right questions he will reveal to us what our children need and how to give it to them.
- The goal isn’t to teach the principles for the lesson to our children, but to use the principles to help us with the questions and challenges our families are facing.
- We’re trying to find ways to make the principles relevant in our children’s lives, we want them to learn to wield these principles as tools to help them solve their problems and find greater joy.
Matthew 5 and Luke 6 are packed with revolutionary, character shaping, life-altering doctrines. These are the doctrines every parent wants their children to feast on, to etch into their hearts, to fully embody. These are the principles that could change behaviors and alter the tone in our homes. What parent does not want their kids to embrace the beatitudes? Blessed (especially to a parent) are the peacemakers, the meek, the pure in heart. Who doesn’t want their children to stop worrying about the mote in their brother’s eye, to do good to and love their enemies? Don’t we all sometimes want to scream Christ’s warning of hell fire when our children are calling each other fools and hollering out Raca? These powerful teachings provide answers to nearly all of our family’s current problems.
As you read through these chapters you might have found yourself giddy, like I did, with the hope that your kids might actually internalize these principles and suddenly stop all of their destructive and annoying behaviors. I’m cautious though, because I’ve had this hope before and it often leads to weaponizing Christ’s teachings. It’s tempting to use the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount to inadvertently shame and chastise our kids for all that they’re getting wrong. The teachings are powerful, and ring so true to a rational mind that they seem like they’d be such effective tools to whip our kids into shape. But, of course this is not Christ’s way.
Anytime we try to apply the principles of the gospel to someone else they tend to lose their magic. Of course we should teach gospel principles to our children, but we can only apply them to ourselves. I have a hunch that we’ll be more effective with these teachings if we can show our kids how incredible they are, teach them with love and the spirit and then demonstrate the ways we are trying to apply them in our own lives. I love the saying, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, ‘preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words’. Who we are speaks more loudly than what we say.
So, to avoid weaponizing these teachings I’m hoping to hand a lot of this week over to my kids. I’m hoping to encourage them to go to the Lord with their weaknesses and concerns, to read these powerful worlds and let the spirit whisper in their ears which ones God wants them to focus on.
On your own or with your spouse read through Matt 5 and Luke 6 while prayerfully considering questions such as: What are our children struggling with this week? What bad habits do we need to change ourselves? What thought or behavior patterns are damaging to our mental health? What are the principles in these chapters that speak to us? What is their relevance to our teenagers lives? How can we model using these principles? How can they help convert us to Christ?
For the Whole Family:
It has worked well for us to choose one or two important truths to post somewhere where we can all see and be reminded of them throughout the week. There are so many great nuggets of wisdom and guidance in these two chapters.
We’ve also been trying to encourage each child to pick one phrase, a little mantra, that speaks to them or to something they’re struggling and repeat it to themselves throughout the week. This is hit or miss, but when it works, it has been a powerful way for them to change thought patterns and alter behavior. We’ve been encouraging them to write up the phrase they have chosen and post it on the back of their doors so that they can be reminded to use it in their thoughts. For the younger kids we have been writing up a list of possible mantras for them to pick from. We’ve found these mantras to be most effective when we’ve followed up on them midweek and asked our children to tell us about times when their mantra has helped them through something difficult.
Here are some mantra/family focus ideas from Matthew 5; Luke 6 (there are so many, and it’s pretty fun to go through and find them, a great activity for older kids):
- Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you.
- Do good, and lend, hoping for nothing again; and your reward shall be great.
- Give and it shall be given unto you.
- Cast out first the beam from thine own eye.
- When the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon the house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock.
- Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.
- Ye are the salt of the earth
- Ye are the light of the world
- [All of the beatitudes]
- Agree with thine adversary quickly
- Whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also
- Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain
- He maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good
Help through stories, books and media:
- Consider finding (or asking your children to find) stories from the media to illustrate how people are putting into action these revolutionary doctrines of Christ. Where do you see people going contrary to the tendencies of the natural man? What examples can you find of peacemakers, turning the other cheek, being the salt of the earth, walking the extra mile, loving enemies, removing beams from their own eyes, being lights in the world. What examples can you find of people who are seeking to punish their enemies, looking to correct others, demanding a tooth for a tooth, putting lights under a bushel, loosing their savor?
- Read picture books or short stories that illustrate what it looks like to follow these teachings. Examples of characters applying these principles are everywhere in good literature whether it’s religious in nature or not. Likely you can find them in many of your family’s favorite books and stories and even movies. Maybe challenge your children to find these examples in books they’ve read or movies they’ve watched.
- Watch bible video of the Sermon on the Mount and ask children to notice when they feel the spirit. Discuss afterwards which parts of Christ’s sermon spoke to them.
Hands on learning (for all ages, but especially for younger children):
If you have small children, I’m sure you’ve discovered that their attention span is about as many minutes as their age. A friend recently told me that in her home full of young children she’s working to first feel an emotional connection with her children through playing, wrestling, hugging, laughing, listening. And only then, when they’re brains are primed for learning is she trying to hit the principle home with a short and powerful message.
We’ve found that best way to really help younger children internalize new information is through hands-on activities. Their brains are wired to learn through doing and experimenting and through using all of their senses. There’s something about making things physical and tangible that seems to sink ideas into kids’ understanding, especially young kids.
- Acting things out has always been a big hit in our family when trying to conceptualize gospel stories and principles. Consider acting out Christ’s doctrines from the Sermon on the Mount in a series of little skits where the children role play both the old way of doing things and Christ’s new way. Maybe walking the second mile, or giving up your coat or turning the other cheek. Hand this over to your kids and see what kind of skits they come up with.
- Do an art project that helps conceptualize these principles. Kids could draw cartoons depicting people following or not following Christ’s counsel.
- Maybe have a pre-teen child read through these teachings and then you (or an older child) could interview him/her as if on a talk show, exploring how these new revolutionary ideas might work in real life.
- Explore what it feels like to have the blind leading the blind by blindfolding everyone and trying to navigate your way through your living room or backyard. Discuss what it might look like today to have the blind lead the blind. Who are you following? Are they seeing clearly?
- Talk about what it means to be a light in the world. Supervise your children while they light a candle and place it under a large glass or bowl. What happens to the light? Can you see it? Does it go out? What happens if you put it on a candlestick? How can we let our lights shine? Give them a challenge to shine their lights and report back.
- Experiment with what food tastes like with and without salt. I’m thinking of making one of our family’s favorite meals without any salt and, after they realized it, discussing what it means to be the salt of the earth and how we can lose or keep our savor.
For older children and teenagers:
We’re really hoping that as we get better at this, our older children will read these scriptures on their own during the week. Our eldest, Hazel, has been really committed since that first lesson in youth Sunday School about individuals being in charge of their own learning. If we ask her to bring her scriptures to our family study she huffs about how she is responsible and we should NOT be reminding her. Some kids (particularly pre-teens) may light up when they realize that you really will hand them the responsibility for their own learning and testimony building. The more ownership some kids feel the more seriously they step up.
We’re trying to model good things and to talk about the experiences and insights we’re having while studying on our own. But most of all we’re trying to remember that we are dealing with growing and developing brains mixed in with lots of hormones and roller coaster emotions. We’re trying to cut our kids a lot of slack as they try on different behaviors and figure out through trial and error how God will speak to them and what feels right to their souls.
We’ve tried to reserve one dinner time during the week where we can really delve into some deep discussions about the weeks’ principles. We’ve had some lively (and some resistant) discussions, trying to link the week’s principles to current events and tricky modern day problems. The goal here is to really get older kids thinking deeply about how these principles are relevant in the real world. We’ve found these to be best received if we pick just one or two ideas, ask a few questions to get things started and then let the discussion take on a life of its own. It often feels the most productive when it veers from what we had initially planned and the kids take it to where they need it to go. Here are some ideas for dinner discussion questions for this week:
- What does it really mean to love your enemies? How can we love others who have wronged us? Consider this quote: Be kind. Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about (John Watson). How does this way of thinking help you to love your enemies? What does it teach you about the beam in your own eye and the mote in your brothers’? Have you experienced loving your enemies? How does it feel? How does it change you?
- Watch this short video on happiness and discuss how Christ’s teachings help us to live happy. What does the world, or, more accurately, the ‘natural man’ tell us about happiness? What does Christ tell us? Where do you see people looking for happiness? Are they finding it? Who is happier, the rich or poor? The peacemakers or those out there trying to win their wars? Are those who turn cheeks and walk extra miles and give up their cloaks happy? Are those who are persecuted happy? What do you think Christ’s definition of happiness is? It seems obvious that happiness isn’t found through hate, or judging others or through laziness or selfishness. Why are we inclined towards these behaviors? Do Christ’s teachings fall in line with today’s research on happiness?
- Discuss the wise and foolish men and their choices of how and where to build their houses. What can we learn from this? What does it look like to build on a sandy shore? What does it look like to build on a rock? What are the winds and waves in your lives that may beat down your house? Can you see examples of people around you who are building their houses on the sand or on a rock?
- What did Christ mean when he asked us to be perfect? Does He really expect perfection from us? If perfection is impossible, what did He really mean? Research shows that there is great power in a growth mindset and the word “yet.” Social scientist are busy studying the rise in depression among teenagers and some have linked it to our fear of failure to be perfect and our feelings of shame. Why is failure important? What part does it have in God’s plan? Did God intend for us to always succeed and have everything to work out nicely? Whose plan does that sound like? Can it be dangerous to seek for ‘perfection?’ How can we ensure that in our quest to be good disciples we don’t start feeling the shame? Where does Jesus Christ and His atonement fit into our quest for perfection?
- In Luke 6 we hear about when Christ confounded the Pharisees by healing on the sabbath day (which was forbidden). What did it mean that Christ broke the Law of Moses? Why did he do it? Do you see our culture today fighting this battle between the Law of Moses and the Law of Christ? The Iron Rod and the Liahona? Debate which is more important. How do we decide when something is black and white and when there are more areas of gray? How does Christ teach us to navigate through grey areas?
We’re trying to challenge our children to be doers of the word each week, to put the principles we’re talking about into action and then to report back to us. Maybe we’ll bring back the simple awards my parents printed out for us to put on our bedroom doors if we completed a family challenge. Here are some things we’re considering challenging our children to do for this week:
- Light the world. Be a light to someone this week by helping them through a dark situation.
- Love an enemy. Love and be kind to someone when you are really angry with them. Pray for someone who you are mad at or don’t like.
- Walk an extra mile. Do more than is expected of you to help someone.
- Be a peacemaker. Give in to someone even when you really want to keep fighting to show you’re right. Be the first to say you’re sorry.
- Memorize the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-10) We’re thinking of offering a serious reward for completing this one. How amazing would it be to have those words written inside of you for the rest of your life.
- Be a fisher of men. Pray for the chance to share a little part of your testimony with someone this week.
- Make a list of all of the things Christ asks us to do and be in these two chapters. Prayerfully pick two that you feel prompted to work on and make a few measurable goals for the week that will help you better live those two principles.
After reading all of these thoughts and ideas you may feel a bit overwhelmed (like I am writing them!). If you are, shut down the computer, turn off your phone and tune into God. When we turn to Him with questions and desires to help our children come closer to Christ, He will guide us. He will whisper in our ears what we need to focus on. He will help us to simplify, adjust our methods and course correct. He will lead us to be open and honest with our kids about our own efforts and failings. He will open our eyes to see opportunities to love and teach. It won’t always look pretty or perfectly tied up. Sometimes it will feel like we aren’t getting anywhere and lots of times it might feel like we are casting our pearls before swine. But all of this is ok. This is real life, the messy life Christ fought for us to have. We only fail when we give up or don’t look to up.