Sunday Talk: Teaching in the Home

Another month, another talk. This month’s topic was Elder Devin G. Durrant’s talk “Teaching in the Home.” Here’s the full text of what I said to the Belfast Branch yesterday in church.

When I hear the phrase “teaching in the home,” my first instinct is to think of the times I’ve purposefully taught my kids something one on one. Whether it’s discussing their homework habits or discussing the gospel during Family Home Evening. I’d call this the “Leave It to Beaver” approach, but something tells me that reference won’t work for nearly as many people as I’d like. Instead, let’s just say it’s the traditional method. Parents have the knowledge, and the kids all gather round to figure things out in an easy to understand format.

As an adult, I’m sure that’s how many of us wish it would happen. Some of us might even fool ourselves into believing it actually works like that. And many times, I think it does. I’ve helped my son through several of his math classes that way, and it’s how I spent time helping my daughter bolster her reading skills. But when I think back on my time growing up and what I learned from my parents, I can only come up with a handful of times where it was me sitting there with them purposefully instructing me in some area.

It’s not that we didn’t have those opportunities. I remember having Family Home Evening sporadically. Often it was on Sundays, since our family schedule was too chaotic to reliably have Monday evenings free. We’d have a lesson on some gospel aspect, but I remember almost none of those occasions. Sorry Mom and Dad.

In his talk this past general conference, Brother Devin G. Durrant, First Counselor in the General Sunday School Presidency, titled his remarks,“Teaching in the Home: A Joyful and Sacred Responsibility.” The moment he identified his topic, I had a fair idea of what areas he would touch on. Family Home Evening. Scripture Study. Family Prayer. And indeed he addressed each in turn, starting by saying “Let’s begin with family home evening, which was a high priority in the faith-filled home where I was raised. I don’t remember specific lessons taught at family home evening, but I do remember that we never missed a week. I knew what was important to my parents.”

My children won’t be able to say we never missed a week of Family Home Evening, but I hope they’ll be able to confidently state they knew what was important to my wife and me. President Hinckley counseled, “If you have any doubt about the virtue of family home evening, try it. Gather your children about you, teach them, bear testimony to them, read the scriptures together and have a good time together.”

That’s great advice. Advice I’m doing well in some areas and where I could improve in others. Sometimes I feel like my talks are intended mainly to help others, but now and then it feels like I’m working through them primarily to help myself, this time in particular. I can’t say my family has been following the conventional mode of Gospel teaching in the home. Instead, we’ve stutter stepped through a lot of false starts and short lived efforts. As I wrote this talk, I wanted to explore that more fully. Why have I never fully embraced the “read scriptures and pray every day as a family” program of the church?

Some of it might come from the way I was raised. We learn by example, and while I was born in the church and raised by righteous parents, scripture study and family prayer weren’t the cornerstones of our upbringing. Instead, the lessons I really remember are the ones that were immediately applicable. Things taught in the moment.

This makes sense to me, speaking as a college librarian. I’m often asked to teach students how to use the library to find research materials. From experience, the times when the students have actual projects they’re working on are much better environments for learning than the times when I’m just teaching them so they know how to do it at some point in the future.

When I was growing up, driving was the same way. I never really paid any attention to how I got where I was going. I was too busy burying my nose in a book or a Gameboy game to really bother with simple things like directions. This has come back to bite me later in life. Even though I lived there for five years of school and multiple summers and vacations thereafter, I’m still notoriously bad at finding my way around my hometown in Pennsylvania. This doesn’t matter as much now that we have Google Maps, but prior to the advent of the GPS, Denisa and I were traveling home from Europe one year. Our plane had been delayed, and we arrived at Newark airport around ten at night. A taxi service picked us up at the airport to take us to my parent’s house, where the plan was to visit for a few more days.

The one trick? Our driver, a very nice man from Haiti, assumed I knew where I was going. The hour and a half drive took more like three as I squinted at the street signs and did my best to try to remember which of them led home. It was a long evening. One I obviously still remember. And it illustrates the difference between being taught something ahead of time and learning it right when you need it. I’d been told how to get home in advance, but I’d never really had to do it in practice. Not from Newark Airport, at least. Unfortunately, since I was jet-lagged and exhausted, I still don’t really know how to make that trip. Think of how much better it would have gone if I’d paid attention to how to get home ahead of time.

Of course, the trick is that often we don’t know what we need to know before we need to know it. Just ask the students who sit through my library lectures. I know for a fact they’ll all need to know the things I’m teaching them, but they are far from convinced, and so they sit there, slumped over in their chairs and wishing I’d stop talking as soon as possible, no matter how much I try to spice up the lesson.

So to best be able to teach our children, it helps to know what we want to teach, and then look for areas to teach those principles in a way that’s immediately useful. At a time when they can understand why what we’re saying will help them here and now. To succeed in that, I’ve found it mostly comes down to making time for your children when they need it. Helping them with homework when they’re struggling. Listening to their worries after school and actually paying attention to any subtext that might be there without brushing it off.

Then again, we don’t always teach for the here and now. Sometimes we’re prepping our children for things that won’t come up for years to come. There are ways to handle that as well, though often that means using the saying “repetition is the mother of all learning” as our guiding light.

“Plow the ground all the way to the fence.” I heard that phrase so. Many. times growing up. It seemed like every job was simply an excuse for my dad to sit me down after I was finished with it and show me all the places I hadn’t done everything I was supposed to do. This was in Eastern Pennsylvania, and one of my least favorite chores was yard work. Especially raking. Some of this might have to do with the fact that I once raked up a live three foot long snake, and nothing quite erases the shock and terror you feel when you’re out grudgingly raking up leaves and you send a huge snake hurtling through the air straight to your face.

But again, this was Eastern Pennsylvania, and our property was covered with oak trees. They’re beautiful things, but they put out more leaves than they have any right to, and I still swear to this day that when the time comes to drop those leaves, they multiply somehow on the way down. The constant wind on our property didn’t make matters any easier. You could go around and clear off every single one of those leaves, and five minutes later there’d be a whole army back to replace them.

And yet I was still told to “plow the ground all the way to the fence.” Dad had grown up on a farm. The phrase comes from the tendency of some people to turn a plow early, skipping the parts right by the fence, which are often the hardest to get to. When you’re trying to get as much of a crop as possible and every bit counts, skipping the parts by the fence shouldn’t be an option, but people still do it, because it’s hard. Dad wanted me to complete a job I started.

If you were to ask my wife today about whether or not that lesson stuck with me, I tend to think she’d say I still don’t quite understand the definition of a “clean room.” Then again, if you were to ask my children, I think they’d say that, while they prefer my definition to my wife’s, they still think I’m expecting too much. Let’s be honest, though. If my dad had been focused on training me to become the neatest person in the world and a first class leaf raker, he failed quite spectacularly. But it wasn’t really about raking leaves.

I’m a very goal-oriented person these days. I write fantasy novels in my spare time. I’ve published three of them, have a fourth coming out next year, and I’m currently working on the first draft of my eighteenth book. That’s not something I could have done if I hadn’t learned how to plow the ground all the way to the fence. Starting a novel is a fairly simple process, but when you get about a third of the way into it, that lovely beginning that seemed so easy at first suddenly becomes much more difficult. It’s very tempting to abandon that project to jump over to a different one that is far more appealing. That’s when you need to tuck your head down and keep plowing. Likewise, I followed that advice as I finished my undergraduate degree and went on to finish two additional graduate programs. I’ve learned that if I want to get something done, I can do it with hard work and persistence.

But we never had a “hard work and persistence” Family Home Evening. It was more of a Family Home Life lesson. Lessons in that vein aren’t taught in an afternoon. They’re taught over time, through example. I might have first encountered them while raking leaves, but they were confirmed and reinforced as I watched my teacher practice what he preached as he worked long hours day after day to make sure jobs were completed.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson counseled: “We have many avenues for teaching the … rising generation, and we should devote our best thinking and effort to taking full advantage of them. Above all, we must continue to encourage and help parents be better and more consistent teachers … especially by example.”

I’ve heard some in the church wonder how we can keep the rising generation close to the Gospel. There seems to have been quite a few areas where the church has been buffeted lately from outside influences, from the question of gay marriage to women’s rights and beyond. The way some in the church have responded to those influences has left some of the younger members confused and bewildered. I have sat in meetings and read articles that debate why this is happening and what can be done to stop it. Often the proposed solutions involve new programs strengthening existing ones.

In the end, I believe the best solution is to be found in the same source the Church has emphasized for so long: the family. In a family, parents can teach children how to be compassionate followers of Jesus Christ, first with each other, and then with others. I actually think sometimes it’s much more difficult to be understanding, patient, and kind to our immediate family members, compared to people we see less frequently. It’s easier to snap at people who are stuck with us whether they like it or not. Easier for the natural man to rear his ugly head. For the Id to reign supreme. If you can learn how to be respectful to your family, you’re a long way down the road to being respectful to others.

In an ideal situation, all the Gospel principles are taught in a family environment. Children learn about love, mercy, paying tithing, praying for guidance, the Word of Wisdom, healthy living, fasting, and more as they watch their parents apply all those principles day in and day out. They learn how to balance being in the world but not of it, and how to put the theory of the Gospel to work every day.

At the same time, I recognize that this ideal family environment doesn’t exist for all members. In my mind, many of the church auxiliaries (Primary, Young Mens, or Young Womens, for example) exist to help bolster members in these more tenuous environments. Those groups play important functions in the lives of many, but it’s important to remember they are a means to an end, and not the end in and of itself.

What does this mean? It means having a successful Young Men’s program doesn’t mean our Young Men will succeed. Having a thriving Primary with tons of activities doesn’t always equate to children growing up strong in the Gospel. I think each of us knows these things in theory, but when it’s our calling and our responsibility, we sometimes become so laser focused on succeeding and magnifying things that we lose sight of why we’re doing what we’re doing.

I’m reminded of an art project I saw during my freshman year at BYU. I came across one of my friends in the lobby of the Morris Center, standing by a photocopy machine, with sheets of paper scattered around her. The sheets were covered in nonsensical pictures. Giant blurry things that didn’t look like anything at all other than perhaps ink blots.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“Art,” she said, as if it were obvious. And when I asked for clarification, she explained that she’d started with a picture from a book, and she was copying it a hundred times on as big of a magnification as the copier would allow, logging the results in order. I studied them, interested. She probably could have stopped after five or six times, honestly. At that point, the picture had already lost all meaning. Everything from then on was just copying abstractions, turning them into slightly different abstractions.

Do our callings ever become like that? Do we ever focus so hard on doing the best for ourselves that we lose track of why we’re supposed to be doing the job in the first place? Remember, brothers and sisters, that there’s a limit to effective magnification. Bigger is certainly not always better, and sometimes restraint is the best choice you can make. Plow the ground all the way to the fence, but stop plowing before you kill your horse.

What does this mean in practice? It means that sometimes we need to let other families’ agency take precedence over our desire to have a successful calling or program. Again I turn to an example I encountered growing up. My family lived about a half hour away from the ward building. Both my parents worked, and my older brother and I both had jobs as well. That was in addition to marching band, jazz band, dixie band, drama, county band, district band, and the school newspaper, to say nothing of our social lives. Navigating our schedule was a trip into dangerous waters.

That did not deter my ward leaders from trying to remind us often how important it was for us to attend our weekly youth meetings. If I could have gotten frequent flyer miles for all the guilt trips I was sent on growing up over the years over that one topic, I’d have racked up quite the stash. My family and I had looked at what we could do and what we couldn’t. We’d come to a decision, and that decision was hardly ever respected. Perhaps I wasn’t privy to all the discussions and facets of that pressure, but I know it has affected my views of Scouting and the youth program of the church to this day.

Those members might have felt they were magnifying their callings, .I’m sure they were acting out of concern and love for me and my siblings. But those magnification settings had been set far too high. They hurt much more than they helped.

I compare that to another teacher I had growing up. Same ward. He was my teachers advisor, as I recall. He taught us every week. They were mostly interesting lessons. He didn’t do really anything outside of class for us, though he took an interest in our lives and what we were doing. He also remembered my birthday one year, making the big trek out to our house to deliver me a birthday present. He didn’t need to do that. It was a simple, kind gesture, and I still remember it all these years later. It made me feel noticed and loved. The magnification there was just right for me.

What’s the right amount for every situation? That’s going to depend on the specifics. Magnification is a lot like eyeglass prescriptions in that way. Each person needs individual attention, or it doesn’t work nearly as well. Thankfully, we have the Spirit to help us navigate through that minefield. That, and open, honest communication with all the parties involved will do wonders. It shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea, but simply asking what someone prefers or how they can be helped is often the best first step to providing that tailor made magnification.

But what does all of this have to do with my original topic? In case you’ve forgotten what it is, I started off on a discussion of effective teaching in the home, and now I’ve somehow wandered into a tangent on how to magnify your church calling.

Except it’s not a tangent. Not really. Because the same tailor made approach also applies to parenting, something I’m reminded of on almost a daily basis as my wife and I do our best to raise our kids. The approach that worked wonders with one of them falls flat on its face with another. Teaching and parenting require individual attention. Sometimes it feels to me as if each child is his or her own airplane, and to figure out how to get that airplane to fly, you need to learn a whole new control scheme.

If there is one piece of advice that’s held true for each of my children (beyond following spiritual promptings), it’s the importance of keeping an open, honest flow of communication present. Of putting relationships before lessons. It’s impossible to teach someone who won’t listen, and it’s hard to listen to someone who does nothing but nag. And so I’ve learned to do different things with different kids, depending on what they prefer.

Then again, this doesn’t have to be that complex, either. We can always improve our performance, even on the basic, simple answers. And when I take a look at how I’m doing on those basics, I can get depressed quite quickly.

My family holds Family Home Evening most weeks. We almost always do “Family Business,” where we break down the week for each family member, making sure we’re all on the same page about our schedules and what we have going on. We sometimes have a lesson. We sometimes discuss items that are coming up in our family that need better attention or need to be changed. This has included things like chores, behavior, and bedtimes. We occasionally have treats or activities.

Family prayer is another area where we often fall short. We pray together over meals and at Family Home Evening, but that’s about it. We don’t measure up on scripture study, either. I’ve come up with some scripture study programs and challenges over the years, but they never seem to stick.

So basically, I feel like I’m doing a decent job at teaching by example, and failing to one degree or another in each of the other major teaching areas Brother Durrant touches on in his talk. It’s tempting to throw my hands up in despair and just stop trying. I can’t match up to even the basic ideals. Why bother anymore?

We must remember that perfection is a process. We grow line upon line, as guided by the Spirit. If I want to improve the teaching we’re doing in the home, I can pray to Heavenly Father and ask for guidance and assistance. I know that guidance will come. Sometimes it comes by soft promptings to choose one path over another. Sometimes it comes by being assigned to speak on a subject in Sacrament Meeting. But it always comes if we will listen.

My wife and I have already had a few discussions on how we can improve. Revitalize Family Home Evening. Restart family scripture study. Reinforce family prayer. A big key to success in enduring to the end is always continuing to pick yourself up and try again, confident that next time you’ll do better.

I’m not sure which of these efforts will work better this time, or if any of them will. What I do know is that as we pray and ask God for guidance and help, we will be successful. This is something that became very apparent on my mission. It didn’t take long for me to realize there were many more talented people out there who could be sharing the Gospel every day. People with life experiences and knowledge to answer any question with doctrine. But they weren’t the people out there each day. I was. As I turned to God and asked Him to help me accomplish the task in front of me, I was able to do so much more than I could have on my own.

That promise and that aid doesn’t stop in the mission field. It’s there waiting for us every day, and all we have to do is ask for it, and then make sure we listen to find out what’s next for us to do. I always try to keep in mind that as we strive to do our best, God makes up the difference between what we can do and what’s necessary.

I’ve already said I want to do better with scripture study and family prayer, but I don’t feel too bad about the fact that I haven’t been doing them better until now. Why not? Because I know I’ve been praying and asking God for help and guidance as I’ve raised my children, and the answers I’ve received and followed have not been to stress scripture study and family prayer more. Instead, they’ve been smaller things. Reading with my daughter every night to bolster her confidence. Helping my son with his algebra homework, no matter how tired I am.

I’ve been following the Spirit, and that sometimes leads us to answers that aren’t the cookie cutter Sunday School ones. Not that those aren’t important. They are. But the biggest guiding principle should always be the Spirit. Teaching children can be one of the toughest jobs we get in life, but we don’t have to do it alone. I bear testimony of this in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.

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