My husband and I teach the CTR 6 class. Actually, Brother J has been teaching Primary for the last four years, so he’s an expert. But our ward split and the other gentleman who team-taught with him went to the new ward, and so a few weeks ago they called me to be his new teaching partner. I’ve served the majority of my adult years in Primary, starting when I was 18; I’ve been a Primary pianist and a Primary chorister, but I’ve only served as an actual in-the-trenches Primary teacher once, and that was thirteen years ago and only for a few months before they had to release me. If you must know, I had a nervous breakdown. I blame the five-year-olds. But that’s another story.
So it’s been a long time since I’ve been intimately acquainted with a Primary manual. Technically, I’ve had to consult Primary manuals from time to time when I’ve substituted in Primary, but the thing I like best about substituting in Primary is that I don’t feel particularly responsible for teaching the children anything. I just have to make sure they stay in the tiny room with no windows for 50 minutes without killing each other, and I can consider my duty performed. Now that I’m a real teacher again, I feel like I should probably strive for something better. (Never mind the fact that striving for something better usually ends in a nervous breakdown; at least this this time I have another adult in the room, i.e. someone to hide the sharp objects.)
So a few weeks ago I was preparing for Lesson 38 in Choose the Right B, “I Can Be Pure and Righteous.” The manual suggests opening with the following object lesson.
Pour some salt into your hand, and show it to the class. Explain that in your hand you hold pure salt. It is pure because there is nothing in it besides good, clean salt.
Shake some pepper into the salt in your hand. Explain that the salt is no longer pure because it is no longer free of things other than salt. When people allow wrong or unkind thoughts in their minds or do wrong or unkind things, they are no longer pure. They are like a mixture of salt and pepper. Emphasize that pure people try at all times to think good thoughts and do righteous acts.
So I had a little problem with this activity, as did my husband. Not that we’re against trying at all times to think good thoughts and do righteous acts, but here are a couple things:
Thing One: Being fallible is part of being human. It may actually be all of being human. Every person on this earth is a “mixture of salt and pepper,” as it were. Even if you repent, you’re still going to sin (though hopefully not always the same sin) because that’s what people do. Nobody is “all salt,” except for the people who are fresh out of the baptismal font–which brings me to Thing Two.
Thing Two: This is a lesson designed for children ages 4-7–children who have not reached the age of accountability. Now, can a child who isn’t accountable still do bad things? Of course. Should we teach them not to do bad things? I certainly hope so. But does doing bad things when you’re not accountable render you “impure”? This doesn’t really jibe with Mormonism as I understand it. (But then, I’ve been working in the Bloggernacle for the last three years–I could be really confused by now.)
In Junior Primary we work on preparing children for baptism, so naturally we talk about reaching the age of accountability and the concept of repentance, which all of them will have to do at some point. But if sinning is like mixing salt and pepper, then repentance must be like trying to pick all the pepper out of the salt–and that would be difficult to demonstrate. Note that the lesson doesn’t ask you to demonstrate it, just to tell the kids they’d better not get pepper in their salt. But getting pepper in their salt is inevitable. Maybe I’m over-thinking it, but it just seems like if you’re going to bring up “impurity,” you ought to include something about the re-purification process.
But that brings me to my other problem with this lesson. We start by saying, “When people allow wrong or unkind thoughts in their minds or do wrong or unkind things, they are no longer pure.” The lesson goes on to talk about how to be righteous (and therefore, pure). It gives examples of kids obeying the Word of Wisdom and not swearing or looking at pornography. Now, what’s missing here? Oh, I know–an example of a moral dilemma your average four- to seven-year-old actually faces on a daily basis. I like the Word of Wisdom. I’ve taught it to my own kids. It’s pretty awesome. I also think that eschewing foul language and pornography is a super idea. I mean, I guess it’s never too early to tell kids they shouldn’t look at porn, right? And I don’t think I’m super-naive–I know kids get exposed to swearing and pornography at younger and younger ages, it’s very sad, blah blah–but most six-year-olds I know don’t really struggle with the porn and the swearing. Or the beer and cigarettes, for that matter. Most kids that age–that I’ve met–have more problems with stuff like lying, cheating, stealing, disobeying their parents and being unkind to others.
So…what? Are we talking about smoking and drinking and swearing and porn because the kids are unlikely to be involved in that, so we aren’t apt to make them feel all guilty and impure by mentioning that those things are wrong? Do we want to give them a sense of accomplishment, build up their righteousness confidence? “I’m seven years old and I’m drug- and pornography-free!” I’m just trying to sort this out. I’m a piano player, not a teacher!
I’m conflicted because I do think that we should teach children to avoid smoking and swearing and porn-looking, but I worry about the distorting the gospel message–giving kids the idea that these are the things “righteousness” hinges on. I remember the shock and awe on my oldest child’s face when I told her that I’d rather she wore a midriff-baring outfit every day of her life than ever hit her brother again. (Um, it’s kind of a long story. Just go with it.) She was dumbfounded, which I thought was kind of sad. Is my daughter permitted to wear midriff-bearing outfits? No. But I’ve definitely instilled in her this idea that there’s a hierarchy of sin, and cruelty outranks “immodest dress” by…my math is rusty, but…a lot. (Does she still hit people? Occasionally. But she feels really, really bad about it. As she should.) I don’t want my children to swear, but I really don’t want them to get the idea that not swearing is as righteous as it gets. That’s setting the bar way too low, even if they are only seven.
I reiterate how conflicted I am because I’m not trying to say, “You can swear and/or have a tattoo and still be a good person.” You can, but that’s not the point, and I don’t think we need to explicitly teach our children that lesson. I think they will get the idea if we place appropriate emphasis on the things that matter most. God commands us to be holy, and I think we should teach our children to be holy. Keeping your language clean and watching wholesome entertainment and whatnot is all part of becoming holy. But we can argue all day about what constitutes holiness, so I’d rather save that for another blog post. I could get behind a lesson on holiness (though my experience with church manuals tells me that such a lesson would probably be problematic as well and anyway, Mormons don’t talk much about “holiness” per se), but that’s not how this lesson is framed. It’s framed as a lesson on being “pure”–which is kind of odd when you’re talking to reasonably-innocent-and-ostensibly-pure-by-default children–and “righteous,” which I think ought to entail more than throwing out your cigarettes and pornos, at least when you’re six. (There’ll be plenty of time to lower expectations later on.)
Brothers and sisters, the time is now yours to deconstruct this post and mount your individual gospel hobby-horses.