Saturday, April 9, 2011

Scripture study with three small children: How we try to keep it sane

Mormon families are encouraged to study books of scripture together. We think it's a good way to bring a good feeling into our home and remind ourselves each day that there's a bigger picture to our lives. It also helps our children learn basic principles of the gospel.

As uplifting as the scriptures are to us as adults, they're new territory for children. How do you get a 5 year old, a 3 year old, and an 8-month old to sit still for any amount of scripture reading? I thought I'd share some ideas that have worked for us.

We currently hold "scripture study" for a period of 5-10 minutes before our oldest child leaves for school. Every member of the family is present. If it's on a weekend, we do it before the first person leaves the house to do something in the morning. Doing it the same time every day helps us to be consistent; however, we are not perfect. There are occasional times where we forget or are especially in a hurry, and we try to make up for it by doing the study in the evening.

Our children are young enough that they are not going to be able to process extended passages of scripture. So when we first began daily study, we took the set of 100 "scripture mastery" passages (used by teenagers in Mormon seminary classes) and studied one each week. These passages consist of usually one or a just a few verses that cover a key point of doctrine. For seven days in a row we read the same passage, and accompanied it with a different thought, or some thoughtful questions, each day. Occasionally in church when one of the scriptures was quoted, our oldest son would turn and look at us with wide eyes and we knew he had remembered it!

When we ran out of scripture mastery scriptures (yes, it took about two years) we studied the 13 Articles of Faith. By this time we had begun to accompany the study with a song or a hymn related to the passage we were studying. I believe the words of the songs are sometimes easier for children to understand and remember than the scriptural verses, but the songs have the double benefit of reinforcing the principles we are learning in the scriptures.

Having exhausted the scripture masteries and the Articles of Faith, we needed another place where we could find focused passages to study. The "few verses a day" approach was working well for our little ones. Usually we could keep them quiet for at least 30 seconds and ignore whatever ruckus was brewing for the next 30 seconds, or distract them with a question about the material. Their thoughtful answers showed they were usually listening.

We finally found a scriptural gold mine in the Gospel Principles manual, which is essentially the textbook for what you could call the "Mormonism 101" Sunday School class for new members and visitors. It has dozens of in-line scripture references in each chapter. So we started with the first in-line reference in the first chapter and read it as a family on the first day of study. With this manual we decided to no longer repeat the scripture for the whole week, so on day two we just went to the next in-line scriptural reference in the chapter. We have kept this up to the point where we are now in chapter 16, having touched a great variety of areas of the scriptures. Sometimes we'll also read a few sentences of the very concise and easy-to-understand Gospel Principles text that accompanies the scripture reference.

We finish our study with a prayer together as a family. Although there is nothing doctrinal requiring us to do this, we hold hands in a circle during the prayer because we've found it extremely effective at curtailing any toddler mischief that might occur while (most people's) eyes are closed. Two of our children are old enough that they can participate in offering the prayer when asked to do so. We take turns.

I imagine our study techniques and practices will change as the children get older. I look forward to the day when they are old enough to take turns reading and we can cover longer passages. But I doubt those moments will be any more satisfying than the ones we are having now each morning. Although everyone has good and bad days, more often than not I get in my car for work with a great feeling after spending this period of time focusing on my family and God.