About 10 minutes after my first positive pregnancy test, I was at the bookstore, perusing the shelves of parenting titles, a pastime I’ve continued with some regularity for nearly a decade now. One of my favorite of these books is called 10 Principles of Spiritual Parenting.It’s a little too New Age-y for me; I can’t quite bring myself to do guided meditations with my children. But what I really like in the book is the perspective that spirituality is innately present in children, and that it is something to be cultivated, rather than instilled.
In Primary and in much of the Mormon approach to teaching children, I find a different underlying assumption–that children need to be taught what to believe and how to be spiritual. While we pay lip service to the idea that children have access to the light of Christ and spiritual gifts (unfortunately, this often comes in the form of sentimental imaginings about what infants would tell us, if only they could speak), most of our time and energy in Primary is devoted to getting children to be quiet and listen to us, so we can teach them. And our teaching is directed almost entirely to the children’s *intellect*; we talk and talk and talk at them, and we believe that they are understanding spiritual concepts if they can talk about them. We love to watch them perform in Primary programs, which often consist of them repeating words they can barely understand, reading parts their parents and teachers wrote for them. Even the beloved anthem of Mormon childhood, “I am a Child of God,” is completely beyond the understanding of most of the children who sing it. (I can’t be the only person who ever thought the words were “Teach me all that I’m a stew” or “And so my knees are great.”) It’s a great song to learn, but I think it’s hard to truly appreciate the doctrine it teaches until well after Primary graduation. Much of the Primary curriculum is driven by an adult agenda, carefully mapped out on floor-to-ceiling green chalkboards in a room of the Church Office Building. The overriding concern in this agenda is to make sure all the important doctrines are “covered” in Primary–a noble goal, but one that fails to adequately respect the natural curve of children’s development.
There is almost no room in our approach for quiet, unarticulated wonder or gratitude. We are always in such a hurry to attach words–our words–to our children’s feelings. The result, too often, is the ghastly spectacle of the 5-year-old bearing “his” testimony with his mother whispering in his ear: “I love my mom and dad; I know the Church is true; I know that Gordon B. Hinckley is a prophet; inthenameofJesusChristamen.” Cute, maybe; good practice, possibly. But really, really unlikely to reflect the authentic spiritual feelings of the child. Worst of all, I think that teaching children to parrot adult understandings, praising them for singing and saying the words we most want to hear, can sometimes deaden their capacity for genuine spiritual experience–if we teach them too soon to think and talk in adult terms about what they sense and feel, they will more and more have only those experiences we have told them are acceptable. The Spirit that “blows where it listeth” may be harder for them to sense, when they become teenagers, and we think we have finally crammed enough information into them, and we turn them loose to “gain their own testimony.”
Of course, there is a delicate balance to be achieved–if we don’t teach our children anything, they have no framework in which to understand their deepest spiritual experiences. I wouldn’t turn a kid of mine loose to express herself on the violin without plenty of instruction in basic technique and some hours logged practicing scales. But I think in some ways we do things exactly backwards in our teaching of children. We’d be better off to tell the younger children more stories from the scriptures, without always telling them in explicit terms what the moral of the story is; we should sing more songs about flowers and Jesus and fewer about pre-mortal existence and the Atonement. Then when they’re teenagers, they would have more spiritual experiences to which they’d just need to attach words and concepts, rather than having to try so hard to produce the kinds of spiritual experiences we’ve taught them they’re supposed to have.