Scripture Study

Scripture Study

“The knowledge of God is the principal knowledge, and therefore their [the children’s] Bible lessons are their chief lessons.”

Charlotte Mason

How Firm a Foundation

There is a difference between scripture study and what Mason called “the religious life of children.” From the beginning, parents instill spirituality through their own behavior and attitudes. This is a child’s first introduction to God and His love and laws. “The child can read [whether] the things of God are more to his parents than any things of the world.” We model spirituality and faith by what we do, how we speak, and what we value. The primary role of parents is to present the idea of God to their children and help them form a relationship with Him.

 “You can’t teach what you don’t believe or feel committed to yourself.” (Gawain Wells, BYU Speech) 

Children are extremely perceptive, and can easily sense our insecurities or hypocrisy. A vital idea we must transmit to our children is that we are all bound by the laws of God–parents and children–and will be held accountable for what we do and become. 

“I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people”

Jeremiah 31:33

So how do we write the law in our children’s hearts? 

“A Swedish psychologist distinguished between three categories of religious tradition bearers. Unconfident transmitters of tradition are parents who have problems with their own feelings about religion. When their children ask questions about God, these parents are unable to teach faith wholeheartedly because their hearts are still unsettled. They necessarily also communicate their doubts as well because, as I have suggested, children are sensitive to more than just words. Confident transmitters, on the other hand, can teach in an emotionally harmonious way because they are teaching what they love. Moreover, their confidence is more apt to allow the children to grow in the tradition at their own pace because the parents are also teaching who they love. I suggest the whisperings of the Spirit have a “tenderizing” effect, teaching us more clearly how to discern the spirits of our children.

There are others described as overconfident transmitters of religious tradition. These people try to influence others with great intensity, as though they were going to press the beliefs into the children almost physically. They are likely to be intolerant of any doubt or hesitation on the part of their children, as though it were an affront to their dignity that a son or daughter of theirs would doubt. Research shows that many of the children of the overconfident transmitters reject faith, not because they had considered it carefully, but because they were, in essence, saying, ‘Dad or Mom, if your faith makes you so harsh and demanding, I want nothing to do with it.’” (Gawain Wells, BYU Speech)

We must be careful not to teach the gospel of Jesus Christ as simply “being good” or following a list of rules. Children educated in moralism will often either reject the faith (from discouragement or a sense of hypocrisy) or become modern-day Pharisees. The gospel of Jesus Christ is more than a list of do’s and don’ts. It is about creating and nurturing a relationship with Christ, our Savior and judge, and learning to become more like him. 

Remember, a parents responsibility is to: 

  • Create a positive atmosphere by modeling love, kindness, patience, and humility. This includes recognizing that you are not perfect and modeling repentance when you make a mistake. A parents’ love is a child’s first introduction to unconditional love and mercy of God. This love keeps their heart soft and willing to learn. When we shame and punish a child it hardens their heart and it makes it very difficult to hear the promptings of the Spirit and be willing to change.
  •  Instill good habits of mind and heart. Certain sins are simply habits that we adopt from parents and those around us (like peers) – abuse, yelling, harsh words, lying, stealing, etc. As parents we have an immense responsibility to ensure our children do not develop these habits. 
  • Teach living ideas through scripture stories. The scriptures are full of living ideas; ideas are like seeds that when planted they can grow. Parents were commanded to teach the doctrine to their children so they have these ideas in their mind and heart. The Holy Ghost will bring these ideas to a child’s memory and help them see the discrepancy in their behavior, but he does it in a way that induces guilt, not shame or resentment. 

The parents job is not to:

  • Inflict punishments or rewards.
  • Judge, lecture, shame, or indoctrinate a child. Scriptures should not be used as an instrument to  punish children. Using the scriptures to shame a child after misbehavior may even create a resentment of the scriptures and Christ. A child should be free to accept or reject the gospel of Jesus Christ without being manipulated or indoctrinated. 

As for teaching the scriptures, it is important not to go about it haphazardly, but also not too prescriptively. There needs to be a good balance of intentionality and teaching by the Spirit. The Come, Follow Me guides for Individuals and Families is an excellent resource for teaching the scriptures. 

Young Children

Young children learn best from stories. Scripture stories contain eternal truth that children recognize and internalize on their own. Jesus Christ taught through stories because he knew that the mind works best when the heart has been stirred. Even today scientists are discovering that the human brain works in narrative, not cold facts. 

But it’s important to remember that truth doesn’t need to be dragged out into the open and beaten with the stick of discussion. Simply tell the stories and let the Spirit teach them what they need to know. At this age, resist the urge to ask pointed questions or start doctrinal discussions. If your child asks questions, give them a simple answer. 

Ideally, you would read narrative portions directly from the scriptures. But sometimes very young (or wiggly) children need a different approach. When my boys were young I learned how to read the narrative portions of the scriptures and tell it back to them from my heart. This worked best at bedtime when we were cuddled up together and their hearts and minds were open to a good story. But you can tell them stories at any time of the day. Listen to the Spirit and tell the stories when your child is most receptive.

Telling a story is pretty simple, but here’s a guide I like to use when preparing a lesson for my littlest ones:

1. Read the story over and over to yourself. Get to know it, learn to love it.

2. Envision the story in your mind. Imagine each scene as it happens.

3. Read the story analytically. Mark these four parts: a beginning that arouses interest, a succession of necessary events, a climax that forms the story’s point, an end that leaves the mind at rest.

4. Practice telling it beforehand, if you can.

5. Tell the story then STOP. Resist telling the child if the character is bad or good. Instead, “let what he did tell what he was.” Resist the urge to ask questions or tack on a moral at the end.

Instagram and Pinterest may convince you that you need printables, activities and subscriptions to entertain and entice your children,  but they are wrong. The stories of the scriptures, when approached in the right way, are enough to engage your children.  The only thing I recommend, besides the scriptures, are paintings of scripture stories. You can start a story by showing a  painting from the Gospel Art Book or another art resource. Children enjoy looking at great works of art depicting these wonderful stories. 

You don’t need to read every verse or complete chapters. A segment of a few verses, a story, or a complete idea is enough. After you’re finished reading, ask your child to narrate, or tell the story back to you or someone else (even a dog or a toy works!). 

Older Children

Personal Scripture Study. After around nine years old children should begin reading the narrative portions of scriptures to themselves. Between ten and eleven years old children are ready to make maps, study pictures, do research, and go deeper into a text. 

Begin a lesson by setting the scene. Introducing maps, historical information, etc. then read the story, or narrative portion from the scriptures. Alternatively, ask your children to narrate what they read in their personal scripture study. The books by J. Paterson Smyth are excellent at providing historical context for the Old and New Testaments. These are best for children aged twelve and older. 

Ask Questions. There are two ways to go about this, both are great tools, it just depends on your family and the topic of study.

The first is to present a question focus (a phrase like “love one another”) and ask your children to brainstorm questions about it. Invite them to ask tough (but respectful) questions! After brainstorming as many as they can think of, they choose 2-3 questions to find answers to ( for more info read the Questions article on my website). Ask “how do you think you might find the answer to that?” Finding answers to questions is a great Spiritual goal for the church Youth Program. 

The second method is for every person to ask one question and answer one. Gladys Hunt, author of  Honey For a Child’s Heart, explains how this method worked in their family: “We made a game out of it: sometimes the question was directed to the person on our left, other times to the person on the right. We’d have to listen carefully, because sometimes the questions we had thought to ask were usurped by someone whose turn came first, and we’d have to think of another one.”
Depending on your children’s ages and experience they may be simple, like “What did Jesus say?” and become more advanced like “Why did Jesus say that?” or “What can we learn from Jesus about the way we ought to act?”
Asking questions opens up any text with these three elements: FACT – what does it say? INTERPRETATION – what does it mean? APPLICATION – what does it mean to me? (Honey For a Child’s Heart, p. 38 )

Invite Discussion. Finally, the parent can direct the flow of discussion with open-ended questions, but allow children to apply truths to themselves as they will (i.e. no lecturing, pointing fingers, or shaming). In a survey of college freshmen researchers  found that the students who chose to remain active in their parents’ religion after graduating high school had felt safe asking questions about religion. Their parents invited open and honest discussion at home. 

We may feel that we need to protect eternal truth from tough questions asked by teens (or adults), but eternal truth is not vulnerable, nor does it need our protection.  Lively, open, and real discussions of eternal truth, alleged contradictions, and difficult doctrine can truly enliven this age group. Children should be allowed to ask tough questions, and children should be directed to the source to find real answers — “How do you think you might find the answer to that question?”

As for discussion, here are some open-ended questions that you can use for most stories and gospel subjects:

  1. How is X like Y? How is X different from why?
  2. What does this story [or person] remind you of?
  3. Who was _____ in this story? [kind, forgiving, brave, selfish, honest, etc]
  4. Should he/she have done that? Why or why not?
  5. What surprised you?

Teach the Doctrine. Beginning at age twelve, children begin studying doctrine and how to teach lessons to younger children and peers at church. Take time to go over Teaching in the Savior’s Way with them. Show them how to apply these principles in lesson preparation. Give them opportunities to teach family lessons before they begin teaching at church.

Click on the link to download a list of scriptures to memorize during your family gather time.

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