Sheri Lynn’s plaintive comment has me thinking about the difficulties of teaching Primary with today’s stimulus-saturated kids. I haven’t spent a lot of time teaching Primary, but I did recently spend a couple of years as Primary Music Leader, so I have some idea of what challenges teachers face. I’m afraid I’m likely to be long on analysis of the problem and short on solutions, so please use the comments for discussing practical approaches that you know work.
It seems to me that Primary teachers face a perfect storm: kids who are used to being entertained every minute of every day, a schedule that’s virtually impossible for kids (especially the little ones) to physically manage, subject matter that is crucially important but often quite abstract and not always riveting, manuals and inservice programs that are frequently inadequate for people who aren’t naturally “good with children,” and being just one of the many concerns of bishoprics with much too long a list of urgent things to attend to.
Some of these factors can be mitigated by good communications with the bishopric, a presidency that works hard at inservice training, and thinking hard about how to ease the physical difficulty of kids being contained and expected to be still and quiet for three hours (snacks, plenty of movement in singing time, etc.). The one difficulty I see as virtually impossible to address within the confines and structure of Primary is the hyperactive, visual-stimuli-addicted nature of kids raised on TV, computers, and video games. There’s no way Primary can compete with the nonstop, mechanically-driven activity of TV. Even the beloved Sesame Street runs in very, very short segments, so that kids get accustomed to constant change, constant entertainment. Kids, especially middle- and upper-class American kids, have constant opportunities and excitement–sports, music lessons, family trips to interesting and educational places are the rule more than the exception for many Mormon families. Kids are sophisticated, a little jaded, and the simple kinds of lessons and entertainment that sharing and singing time provide just can’t seem very cool.
Already in 1976, the indomitable LaVerne Parmley (Primary General President from 1951-1974) noted that it was harder to teach children raised with such wide and varied opportunities for entertainment and excitement:
I think all children have certain characteristics and growth patterns. I think the children then [in her early days of working in Primary–ca. 1930] were a little easier to discipline because they didn’t have the television. They didn’t have cars, they didn’t have all the experiences that children are having now and couldn’t do as many things.
I had to walk to high school every day, and it was a mile and a half . . . and now I don’t think there are any children that walk that far. Buses take them or their parents drive them. Till I was married I had only been to Idaho once. I had only been out of Salt Lake City once. And now when I see the children . . . . My own grandchildren have been to New York, they have been all over. . . . I think children have had a much wider experience. We didn’t have television. Just think what children see now–all the world events, all the big athletic events, and they see things all over the world that we never dreamed of. I think children are a little more independent now because of the experience they’ve had. As I say, I really think they were easier to discipline in school and in Primary.
Things have only gotten dramatically worse since then. Dramatically better, too–of course it’s great for kids to have wider experience of the world and more sense of the scope of things as they think about what the gospel can mean. But what a challenge for Primary teachers–smart, sophisticated kids, too old in many ways for the sweet little Primary songs and activities, but more desperately in need of solid gospel understanding than ever! I don’t think Primary can or should compete by trying to entertain children; indeed, it can serve a vital function by carving out a space that is quieter, slower-paced than the TV-school-basketball-music less0ns-dance-soccer-computer games-TV weekdays our kids live through nowadays. And yet, we have to get their attention long enough to show them why they need this space, need what they can learn in it.
How do you do it? How do you grab their attention without the crazy amount of visual and kinetic stimulus they’re used to? How do you convince them that some of this “boring” stuff is more exciting than anything else they can know or do? How do you survive past the opening prayer without that tranquilizer gun Sheri Lynn mentioned?!