We’re delighted to have another installment of our occasional series of guest posts from members of the Dialogue Editorial Board. This one is from Katie Blakesley, an historian (MA, U of U), guest blogger at JI, author of the definitive treatment of the history of “modesty” and women’s dress in the Church, and mother of two adorable kids living in the DC area.
Last Sunday, at 6:20 pm (yes, you read that right) as I was trying to get my two kids in the car to go home from church, while juggling a purse, carseat, church bag, and a couple of gifts, my three year old said, “Mom, why don’t you have three arms. It would sure be helpful.” Indeed. I asked him how Primary was and what he learned about–he is thrilled to be in Sunbeams and sing with the big kids. “Jesus. I learned about Jesus. We learn about Jesus every week.”
My son has had fabulous nursery and Sunbeam teachers, and we try to teach him the gospel at home. He is at the age where he is eager to learn new things, and is a fan of Family Home Evening in general. He is especially attentive if a story has to do with President Monson (we get in trouble if we don’t pray for him) or Le-phi (sometimes we get the Book of Mormon prophets a bit mixed up)–we know this won’t last, and so we are trying to capitalize on his excitement. My husband and I are avid readers, and he loves to have stories read to him. We read before naptime (a girl can dream) and bedtime. Recently, it dawned on me that I could use the pre-nap story time to read him a chapter from the illustrated Book of Mormon Stories book I purchased at the Distribution Center, followed by other books.
Which brings me to my point: I have never thought of the Book of Mormon from a toddler’s perspective. It’s scary. It’s violent. In the same week, we learned that the Lord who shocks Laman and Lemuel (known as the bad guys at our house) and sends Sherem a sign is not entirely similar to the Jesus he’s learned about in Primary. It is relatively straightforward to explain miracles, or the Liahona, or trekking in the wilderness (just like the father and son outing, only a whole lot longer) to a preschooler. I can even do reasonably well with repentance and angelic visitations. But cutting off Laban’s head? Laman and Lemuel continually wanting to kill their little brother? The evils of sign seeking (which in this case lead to death?) That’s a lot to handle, even for an adult sometimes. And to offer a more extreme example, recently, my three year old nephew headed to the ER, but was worried about seeing the mean doctor, who “cuts off chins. And cuts off arms.” My sister in law realized they had read the story of Ammon earlier that week–it was her only clue as to why her son was worried about getting body parts chopped off.
It’s clear to me that little ones remember and perhaps even begin to understand far more than we think they will. As you know, after Sherem died, the people started to repent. In Book of Mormon Stories, there is a picture of people reading the scriptures, and upon seeing it, my son said, “They do that so they can feel the spirit.” Surprised, I asked him how the Spirit felt. “Happy,” he said. Of course, then our discussion turned to why lions can’t feel the Spirit (apparently they have hair and eyes but can’t talk, so they aren’t like us.)
I’m not suggesting we completely sanitize the scriptures, even for little ones (although I have started using “be mean to” or “hurt each other” instead of the ubiquitous “kill,” thanks to a friend’s suggestion. Not that much better, but I’d rather have him chasing his friends on the playground, yelling “I’m going to be mean to you now” instead of “I’m going to kill you!”) If I’m wondering about this now, I can’t even imagine how we are going to go about teaching Church History or even the Old Testament to our kids (note: not the focus of this post).
Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers to offer on this topic. Could/should the stories be re-written by the Church in a more pre-K friendly way? Or should I continue to soften the stories as I read, skipping some or strategically hiding the more graphic pictures. Is there value in reading the scriptures chronologically, or is it okay to just tell stories based on the gospel art pictures, etc.? As far as reading them as they are, Laban and all, I would never read him other violent/disturbing stories this young–if I am reading scripture stories, does it justify the violence? My thought, obviously, is no–at least not until they are old enough to understand context.
How do you teach the scriptures to your children, Primary class, family members, etc? Do you have different scripture teaching aids, for the Book of Mormon or other standard works, that work for you? Other books that you enjoy? I’d love some input on this.