Everything I needed to know in life I learned from the Children’s Songbook

Today I got to be the substitute pianist in Primary. From the time I was eighteen, I served as a Primary pianist for about fifteen years, in several different wards. I’ve always thought Primary pianist is the best calling in the church. You get to experience all the energy and sweetness of working with children without actually really having to work with them. Minimal responsibility, maximum joy. (Of course, this is only true if you are a confident piano player. Piano players who lack confidence will find the Primary pianist calling torturous, as it involves quite a lot of piano playing.) However, I have not served as a Primary pianist (even as a substitute) in the almost-five years that I have been in my current ward. It was a tad embarrassing today when these songs I used to be able to play in my sleep proved rather…elusive to the old fingertips. Well, it was sort of like riding a bicycle in the end, and at least I didn’t hurt myself. I did enjoy the reminder of why I love Primary (at least from behind a piano).

I’ve often thought that being ghettoized in the Primary–specifically on the Primary piano bench–was God’s gift to me during a relatively long period of spiritual malaise. When prayer became an iffy proposition and cynicism and bitterness seemed to pervade most of my waking hours, music was always a reliable form of worship for me, the only way the Holy Ghost could seem to touch me. People who can’t play the piano are always extraordinarily grateful for those of us who can, but particularly after having children, the opportunity to sit down and play the piano–without little people screaming at me to stop and pour them some juice already–has always felt pretty indulgent to me. It was the one part of Sunday that was truly a day of rest.

Today we were practicing for the Primary program, which I guess is next week. (Funny how I have four children and a husband in Primary and I still don’t know what the heck goes on there. That’s how out I am.) This year’s theme is “I Am a Child of God,” and our Primary gets a lot of mileage out of this song over the course of the program–they sing three verses, reprise the chorus, and re-reprise the chorus in four different languages.

As it happens, I’m not a big fan of “I Am a Child of God,” which feels like a reasonably blasphemous thing to say, especially since I can’t point to anything particular about the song that I dislike, except that I’ve played/sung/heard it so many stinking times, and the millionth time is not a charm. However, by coincidence my husband had been reading the book I Am a Child of God (with artwork by Greg Olsen) to our daughter the night before. The book, while not something we would have purchased for ourselves (’twas a gift from my mother-in-law), is perfectly fine, except for one page that says, “I know I am a child of God because He surrounds me with people who love and care for me.” This hearkens back to the line in the song about “parents kind and dear.” Last night I made some snarky comment about all the kids God doesn’t feel Fatherly-enough toward to surround with people who love and care for them. (Fortunately our daughter is too young to pick up on sarcasm just yet.)

It occurred to me again today as I was playing these Primary songs, that many songs about the family assume loving relationships that not all kids necessarily enjoy, though I wouldn’t call it a horrible injustice that they’re all forced to sing them in Primary. My husband always had trouble with “We’ll Bring the World His Truth” because it starts out saying, “We have been born, as Nephi of old, to goodly parents who love the Lord,” when certainly not all children are born to parents who love the Lord. I pointed out that this was no more insensitive than suggesting that God sends us all to earthly homes “with parents kind and dear” and that he was probably only inclined to criticize the line because he didn’t like the song in the first place and it wasn’t the sacred cow that “I Am a Child of God” is.

My mother-in-law, who was widowed at a young age and raised her three sons alone, has a problem with “Love Is Spoken Here” because she is so painfully aware that not everyone’s home is one “where every hour is blessed by the strength of priesthood power.” While I appreciate her feelings, there are few things I find more touching than Primary children singing “Love Is Spoken Here”–despite the fact that my children don’t see me kneeling with the family each day, and if they ever stop screaming for juice long enough to hear me whisper a plea to the Father, I don’t imagine it “quiets all [their] fears.” (Certainly not if the thing they fear is not getting their juice in a timely manner.)

I learned at a relatively young age that my mother didn’t like the hymn “Love At Home.” I thought it might be because she felt guilty that our home was not that idyllic haven of joy with the gentle brooklet and brightly-beaming azure sky, but the real reason was that it was the hymn that was being sung as she sat in church one Sunday and decided she had to divorce her first husband. When my mother joined the church, she was pregnant with my older sister and separated from the alcoholic man who’d used her as a punching bag and threatened her with a gun. She had moved out of the home she’d shared with him, but did not initially consider divorce because, well, when you were married, you were married. I think she thought she was eventually going to work it all out somehow. It was while listening to “Love at Home,” that sentimental ode to idealized family life, that she realized that if she wanted to raise her child in a loving home, she had to leave, really leave, her abusive marriage.

So she got a divorce, and eventually she married my father. They had a good marriage, and a good family. It wasn’t perfect–joy wasn’t exactly in every sound, if you know what I mean–but there was love. Years after my initial discovery, I realized that my mother didn’t really dislike “Love at Home.” For a long time it conjured up some painful memories, but at some point those were overshadowed by feelings of gratitude. The reason it was hard for her to listen to “Love at Home” had nothing to do with guilt or resentment; it was just a song with powerful emotional associations, and sometimes it overwhelmed her.

I have similar associations with the song “Families Can Be Together Forever.” Growing up, this was never one of my favorites. I wouldn’t say that it is now. My mother loved it; it nearly always brought tears to her eyes. I thought that was endearingly cheesy of her. A few weeks after she passed away, I was sitting in my Relief Society, and the closing hymn was “Families Can Be Together Forever.” I don’t think I got past the first line before bursting into tears. Uncontrollable sobs, really. As I type this I recall it so vividly. The morning I got the phone call from my father–4:20 a.m.–telling me that my mother was dead, my roommate who had heard the phone ring came into my room and asked if she could pray with me. She herself was a convert, like my mother. She said she felt totally inadequate to the task, but she felt like praying was the thing to do. The first thing she did was express gratitude for the doctrine of eternal families. I don’t remember the rest. I was just so grateful she had thought to pray. It hadn’t occurred to me.

That was almost twelve years ago. To this day I can’t hear “Families Can Be Together Forever” without thinking of my mother and her sentimental tears, my roommate’s prayer and the loving sisters in that Relief Society room, who put their arms around me while I wept. I have to say, it is a challenge to accompany Primary children, when your fingers are out of practice and your eyesight is going anyway, and their innocent, untrained voices singing that song have to go and make you cry.

I’d walked out of Sacrament Meeting earlier because my kids were whining and fighting amongst themselves because we’d accidentally left the Goldfish crackers at home, and my oldest daughter was ruing (again) the day she got baptized, and I sat out in the hall wondering what lesson I was supposed to be learning, as I was cursed with the task of raising these creatures who seemed to suffer from congenital evilness. You might say we were all suffering from a lack of Love At Home (and abroad, for that matter). A day in Primary was what I needed. I remembered that we’re all just fumbling through this life. Our homes are messy and we get frustrated and cantankerous. (Seriously, kids, where’s my juice? Where’s my Goldfish cracker?) Nothing’s like a Primary song. But thank God for Primary songs.


  1. Thank you for your honesty. Your post touched my heart.

  2. Julie M. Smith says:

    What a great post. Thanks.

  3. I was cursed with the task of raising these creatures who seemed to suffer from congenital evilness.

    Great line. It’s good to know that other parents feel this way at times. I remember when my son was two and decided he wanted to be naked in sacrament meeting and started throwing clothes in all directions (and trying to punch me when I suggested it was not the right time and place), I thought he was the devil himself. We laugh about it now, of course, but at the time I wanted to drop him off a bridge. Primary songs have saved the day for me more than once.

  4. This is really wonderful. Thanks.

  5. Rebecca, this is a moving post. Thank you for it.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    There are so many good things in this post.

    I understand what you mean about the emotional connection we have with songs. In my case, I never liked I Often Go Walking until the grandchildren sang it at my mother’s funeral. I still think the song is kind of cheesy, but whenever I hear children’s voices sing the line “Dear mother, all flowers remind me of you”, I get something in my eye and the waterworks go into overdrive.

    I remembered that we’re all just fumbling through this life. Our homes are messy and we get frustrated and cantankerous.

    When I read about the condescension of God in First Nephi, I finally realized that God sometimes comes to us in spite of all our all our mediocre crapiness.

  7. You know, the problem of singing about perfect families in primary is a tough one. I know I always felt bad about signing Father’s Day songs and Mother’s Day songs when some of the children did not have fathers and mothers who took care of them, but I don’t know of a good alternative. If we got rid of all of those songs and scrubbed the songbook of references to our loving families it would certainly be for the worse. As a primary chorister I tried to be sensitive to these kinds of things, but I think (I hope) that they know we are singing about ideals which they can embrace and live for even if life hasn’t live up to them in their lives so far. I do really love some of the primary songs and sometimes wish we would rotate the best ones into sacrament meeting.

  8. The evils of kids hooked on juice need to be more widely understood.

    Thanks for this spiritual oasis in my day.

  9. Rebecca, this is lovely. I hope someday I’ll manage to be more philosophical about it–for now I alternate between heartbreak and rage when my children have to sing these songs. It’s one thing for adults to have to navigate “Love at Home,” another thing entirely to ask little kids to manage the cognitive and emotional dissonance of being asked to choose between loyalty to their family and faithfulness to what they’re told god expects. Children whose parents are abusive or divorced or whatever ALREADY spend a lot of time grieving the lost ideal; they really don’t need to have that pain religiously enforced. And they’re already angry at me; they don’t need to also think I’m wicked and sinful.

    This helps me a little, Rebecca. Thank you.

  10. Left Field says:

    Love at Home isn’t exactly my favorite song, but I don’t mind it so much as long as we don’t have to sing it at half tempo.

    Loooooooooooooooooooooove aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat hoooooooooooooooooooooome

    Loooooooooooooooooooooooooooove aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat hooooooooooooooooooooome

    I guess it’s okay that love should last for eternity, but it ought to take a little less than eternity to sing the word.

  11. Rebecca, thank you for this post. I am going to share it with our Primary President. The whole thing was beautiful and touching, but the last paragraph . . .

    Thank you.

  12. Such a great post. To crib a line from a grown-up song, it reminds me that there is “sorrow that the eye can’t see” in many quiet hearts. I have to confess, I like all of the songs mentioned, but this reminds me to be kinder to those around me for whom they may be untentional but painful reminders.

  13. Rebecca,

    I so love your honesty, both here and on your personal blog. I can relate in so many ways on so many different levels.

    Thank you for continuing to write.

  14. Christine picked up on some of the ideas in the post I’ve been turning over for a while. I don’t have much to add, except that we ought to try to sort this out. It was interesting to hear it addressed as an issue at the opening of the last worldwide training thang, but much more needs to be done to help with than cognitive dissonance.

  15. When I read the title, I almost didn’t read this post, for I thought it would be unbearably sweet. The last time I was Primary chorister it was the year we did temples all year and we had an 11-year old girl whose parents were divorced who cried great big tears every time we sang about eternal families.

    Thank you for addressing the issue, and for loving Primary songs in spite of it.

  16. I can relate to this post. Although sometimes the ideal of a text can be painful to sing along with (e.g., as a teenager, not wanting to sing, “I have a family here on earth, they are so dear to me”), other times, it’s just a normal, unpainful adjustment that everyone makes (e.g., “It’s always fun when grandpa comes, when grandpa comes to stay” when a grandpa lives in the same city and never comes to stay over).

  17. The theme for next year is basically the proclamation on the family. It will be interesting to see how that gets translated for primary understanding. I’m already cringing at the new song that was in this month’s Friend. Sigh.

  18. Michael Swenson says:

    Thanks Rebecca. I normally don’t post myself. Normally I just lurk and read, but this is one case where I can’t help myself. Your thoughtful honesty made my morning. My defense mechaism for primary songs is to make up new words to the songs that have started to grind on me. For Love at Home it’s:

    There is beauty all around when the kids are asleep
    There is joy in every sound when they don’t make a peep

    Through the years in order to make it through the primary presentations I’ve had to sing new words to “We are a happy family”.

    I’m mad at Mom she’s made at me
    we hate Dad, yesirree
    we all fight and so you see
    we’re a dysfunctional family

  19. Michael, even though my kids love the original, “We are a happy family” always reminds me of the similarly-titled Ramones song.

  20. Researcher says:

    If you’re trying to compile a list of songs that are potentially offensive to a sub-group of church attendees, I’ll mention the following. (Lifted off an email I wrote to someone who recently mentioned the song.)

    Let’s talk about “Whenever I Hear The Song of a Bird.”

    He gave me my eyes that I might see
    The color of butterfly wings.
    He gave my ears that I might hear
    The magical sound of things.
    He gave me my life, mind, my heart;
    I thank Him rev’rently
    For all his creations, of which I’m a part.

    It was always rather innocuous until I had a child born with a tricky heart and then it sounds very different. I guess the message of the song could also offend if you were deaf, blind, lame, insane, or dead.

    (I know I’m not the only “heart mother” who has a problem with this song. Some of them rewrite it with their own words. I’ve finally gotten over the need to cry when I hear the song, and now it could even have some deeper meaning if I felt like giving it such. )

  21. Researcher says:

    By the way, Rebecca J, it was a very nice post. Thanks!

  22. #6 I like “I Often Go Walking” too. Mostly because my son sings “I often go walking, in meadows with Grover”.

  23. Wonderful post. You raise several concerns which troubled my wife and I as we wrote the Primary program a few weeks ago (I’m the chorister, she is the pianist). In the end, we opted to structure the program as a Family Home evening, but chose a family in the Ward with a single mother and live-in grandparents. The mother conducted the FHE. In addition to getting lines in like “We are all sons and daughters of heavenly parents who love us very much,” and adding the closing hymn “Oh My Father,” perhaps my favorite bit was this line, said by the mother of the family:

    The Family: A Proclamation to the World was given to us through the prophet and apostles. It teaches the responsibilities of mothers, fathers, and children in the home. There are many different types of families and homes. Some homes have a lot of children, others have very few or none at all. Some have a mom and a dad, and others have only one parent. Some people live alone. But we know that God loves all families and looks after them. We are all part of God’s family; we are all children of God. This eternal family has a home on earth we can visit with our brothers and sisters. This home is the House of the Lord; the Temple.

    Song: I Love to See the Temple

  24. Always love your stuff, RJ. Totally.

  25. I am the worst pianist in the church, hands down (and on all the wrong notes). But still, primary pianist was my favorite calling ever – absolutely the minimum responsibility with the maximum joy as you said. Except on the primary program day.

    I love primary songs.

  26. I hope I’m remembering this correctly: We sing “I am a Child of God” quite frequently at the MTC, and missionaries are sometimes encouraged to sing it in the languages they’re learning. On at least two occasions, the speaker has said that this is the first song which gets translated when new missions are opened.

    I’ve come to love it. As I’ve realized what draws people to the Church, I see this particular song as comprising the most essential and unique doctrines. It talks about the pre-existence, about our association with God, about His love for us, and about how we will relate to each other on earth. It is foundational.

    Thanks for this lovely post.

  27. Thank you all for your comments.

    Margaret, everything you said about “I am a Child of God” is true–which is why I always feel guilty admitting that I get tired of singing it. Probably now that I’ve just put it out there, I will feel free to enjoy it again.

    Jacob J, I agree that while these “perfect family” songs can be problematic, I would not want to get rid of any of them. I’m not even sure how one would alter the lyrics to ensure that it had application to everyone, or how meaningful that would be.

    Left Field – One of my seminary teachers would have us all sway back and forth when we came to the “loooooove aaaaat hooooome” part, which made it kind of fun. I still can’t help swaying a little bit when I sing it.

  28. Alex #22 – Your comment made me laugh, but I don’t dare share any of the crazy lyrics my children (and husband) have made up for these Primary songs because…well, I just don’t dare.

  29. I seem to remember someone singing “There is beauty all around when there’s no one home.”

    I sometimes need to fight the urge to shun or fix all those things that make me feel uncomfortable or make me worry about someone else’s comfort. If we can learn to accept that our own worth shouldn’t be compromised by the comparison, then there is joy and hope to be found in the ideal.

  30. Mike "okie" Troutt says:

    Well now,
    I think the idea behind primary songs should be viewed through the eyes of a child. Mom and dad usually equals love and happiness. Sure, not everyone has ‘parents kind and dear’ or finds ‘beauty all around’ but ‘Count Your Blessings’ seems to be the song we all forget first.
    Thank you for your honesty. Your post touched my spleen. ;-) –

  31. Yes, making up lyrics is fun, but not as fun as hearing the genuinely mistaken lyrics that 4-year-olds sing (as was the case for ‘meadows with Grover’). I’m also the primary pianist and it is one of the bonus perks of the calling to hear what they come up with in all sincerity.

  32. I love being the primay pianist for the reasons you mention. However, my wife recently complained to the bishop that I don’t get any adult contact, and talked him into releasing me a couple of months before the program. She thought that was a great idea, until our ward actually had the primary program two weeks ago. They were only into the first couple of measures and my wife leaned over to me and said, “They should have had YOU play for the program.”

    I couldn’t disagree.

  33. What a great post! You mean family life really isn’t like a primary song? I’m crushed! I totally believe in it still. My family is going to be that way. I know things aren’t going to be perfect, but I really want to have the spirit of “Love at Home” in my family. I really thought my family was the only one that fell so far short.

  34. # 23 – I think I will cut out that line you wrote for the mother and frame it. I am not a single parent but I know an awful lot of people who are. They are excluded from too many things already; their children should not feel ‘different’ because of a life situation they can’t control.

  35. What a wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you for sharing this!

  36. #34 Thanks, Nora, we were very happy when the script was approved by the Bishopric.

    My mom is a widow, and my wife’s mom never married, so we were anxious to be as inclusive as possible and let people know that the “traditional” view is not the only view.

  37. Great post, Rebecca. My husband really needs to be called to Primary. I think Gospel Doctrine class might just push him right out of the ward.

  38. Kevin Barney says:

    Lovely post, Rebecca.

  39. This was a great post. As an adult, I sometimes have difficulties with certain songs and hymns, and I’m sure some children do, as well. But many children who live in difficult situations survive by fantasizing about a better life. Songs like the ones mentioned can allow such children to live in those comforting fantasies for a few moments. I speak from experience as well as education.

    Michael, #18, I had to pause to go sing, in my very best Primary voice, your version of “Happy Family” to my husband, who has his own demons to battle. He found it as funny as I did.

    Rebecca, DARE. We would love to hear your family’s version of some of the songs!

  40. Karla, I understand Rebecca’s desire to not share alternative versions of hymns. My ribald sense of humor isn’t exactly “appropriate” when it leads me to make up lyrics to songs, and my own alternate versions of hymns definitely should not be recorded for my posterity. It will be passed on through my oldest son (sorry, in advance, to his future wife), and that is enough.

  41. My father was an abusive alcoholic. My mother finally left him for good when he started hitting her while he was sober; I was six years old at the time. We joined the church when I was 9. I was the oldest of five children, with four younger sisters.

    I always heard the “perfect family” songs as aspirational. Even if my father had been an idiot, that didn’t mean I couldn’t have a better family of my own some day. I agree that we can’t change the songs to be relevant for everyone and I do believe the Church should teach the ideal.

    As a happily married man with four children, I’m much closer to that ideal than I would have been without the Church’s influence — and yes, that includes the Primary songs! I’m grateful, and will be forever, that I was taught high ideals and encouraged by families in the Church who modeled those ideals for me, however imperfectly.

  42. Karla #39 – Thank you for making that point – it hadn’t occurred to me before. (But sorry, I dare not repeat my family’s crazy versions of any of these songs – they’re not horribly offensive, but I wouldn’t want to ruin them for anyone the way they’ve been ruined for me. ;) Really, I couldn’t tell you how many songs my husband has ruined for me, in church and without.)

    BHodges #23 & #36 – The script for your program sounds (reads? heh) wonderful. Your ward is fortunate to have you in Primary. :)

    Alex #31 – Yes, “meadows with Grover” is hilarious mostly because it was sincerely and innocently misunderstood. And just the visual image of walking through a meadow with Grover and picking flowers for Mom is funny in a surreal way. Of course, I am going to hear that line that way from now on. Which is why I won’t share anything my family has un-innocently done to the Primary songs.

  43. I would be interested in thougthts on how to deal with the problem of using “perfect family songs” in a Church that emphasizes family, but is full of imperfect families. Do we drop them (the songs, not the imperfect families), revise them, or just continue to use them to teach an ideal? I am not being confrontational and have no hidden agenda. I am seriously interested to hear how people think we should address this issue.

  44. Teancum: I wondered the same thing as I prepared the Primary program. After consulting with the Primary presidency I elected to drop verse two of the song “Home” altogether.

    “Home is where there’s father, with strength and wisdom too.
    Home is where there’s mother And all the children, too.”

    There were several reasons I wanted to drop the verse, though I personally don’t believe it was written to intentionally marginalize women.

  45. “wisdom TRUE,” rather. Oops.

  46. The song is here:

  47. BHodges, it’s funny that you would bring up “Home,” as I very nearly said earlier in the thread that the only family song I would not miss was “Home.” But I just didn’t want to go there. I also don’t think its intent was anything sinister, but the fact that my husband and daughter independently came to the same conclusion I did, that it effectively (if unintentionally) marginalized women. My daughter was so distressed about it, actually, that she wrote a letter to Cheryl Lunt (Gen. Primary President). I wrote about this on my personal blog. Since then she’s gotten a reply (I think Sis. Lunt’s secretary sent it)–something to the effect of “we care about being respectful of mothers, too,” and that they forwarded her letter to the curriculum committee. Though I don’t expect it to go any further than that, I was pleased they took the trouble to respond. Our Primary actually dropped “Home” from the program altogether, partly (heck, maybe mostly) because of my daughter’s complaint. Plus, I don’t think any of the ladies were too fond of it, anyway. :)

  48. Dang it, you made me cry. That was wonderful and thanks for just sayin’ it like it is. I was the Primary pianist for a year way back when I first got married. I loved it. I also love it when I’m back-slapping with the other BP and high council types at our meetings when I say that it was my favorite calling ever. They always look at me funny. I tell them you just play your best and the kids love you. You can even make mistakes and the kids just keep singing their little hearts out. It doesn’t matter how good you are–just that you’re there doing your part. Plus, it didn’t hurt that I was a man and I could glare at those little twerps on the first row and make them sit up and pay attention. The chorister called me “Mr. Music”–so did the kids.

  49. Rebecca, that is very good to know. I’m glad you guys made an effort to say something about it.

  50. Teancum, re:43
    I have heard a few recent references by apostles and other leaders regarding the perfect picture that is often painted of families, etc. To paraphrase, my take of their comments is that they are well aware that many of our circumstances are not the perfect ideal that is often conveyed, but they reiterate that the solution is not to lower the standard. So, I would expect to see the ideal continue to be conveyed in song, talks, pictures, etc., but a balance will also be given of tolerance, acceptance, and love for all and a realization that we will not all perfectly fit the ideal.

  51. Thank you for a wonderful post. This is my first visit to this site, and found this topic to be of high interest to me. Just today I had a primary precidency meeting where we were discussing the needs of some our children and the 2009 (family) theme. We worried about ‘offending’ some of the children who have special situations. It was decided that we would approach the theme with that “aspirational” (#41) attitude. It’s good to know that we are heading in the right direction! Thanks again for a great read!