“Learning to Teach as Jesus Taught: A Parent’s Point of View,” Ensign, Sept. 1974, 64
Jesus loved both his friends and his enemies. This love and acceptance of others was a bridging foundation for all that he taught, and it reflected an eternal perspective. He cautioned his followers against rejecting anyone, saying, “… ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them.” (3 Ne. 18:32.)
He responded first to those who were rejected by the world—the sinners, the sick, the afflicted, the crippled, and the children, realizing that their needs were often the greatest. Even those who rejected him were regarded with love and understanding, though they often caused him great suffering.
As parents, one of the greatest challenges is to continue to express acceptance of the child who rejects counsel and defiantly runs counter to our desires. It is easy to love those who love us, but how much greater is our challenge when we look beyond ourselves and influence for good those who reject and despitefully use us! Apparently some things are taught best when the teacher is willing to suffer himself.
It is natural for parents to focus their concern and resources on the child whom they perceive has the greatest need. The one whose shoes are worn out gets new shoes, and the one who is hungry or sick gets food or attention. From responding to these needs—one child at a time—parents learn how to solve problems within the family as they arise. It is much the same with teaching. When we care enough about the needs of others to teach them, we are displaying one of the characteristics of the Master.
Looking at those whom we teach through an eternal perspective as Jesus did can genuinely modify our relationship with them. Who are they? Where did they come from? And what are they destined to become? The tremendous potential in the answers to these questions can lift our vision in moments of frustration and days of despair.
When Jesus taught he used his countenance to convey his feelings. (See 3 Ne. 19.) He smiled and he wept. He reflected compassion, mercy, and concern. At times he was tired, and on occasion, disturbed and even angry. He taught with his total self, openly, honestly, and with integrity. A major teaching tool was his spiritual energy, which he freely expressed through his mind and body. Jesus gave of himself in his teaching. He taught spirit to spirit.
If we as parents wish to become instruments in the hands of God as Jesus was, we need to teach with our total selves. It is a magnificent experience to watch a mature mother teach her children. When she is pure, self-disciplined, and imbued with the Spirit, her relationship with them is a living symphony. There is a spontaneity of precision and skill manifest as she reveals innumerable nuances of feeling: tender care, soft love, righteous indignation, disappointment, suffering, uplifting forgiveness, grief, genuine interest, satisfaction, and quick and sharp retribution. The list is almost endless and descriptive words are inadequate.
How blessed are children born to parents who have learned to teach with their total selves! These individuals can act and react with true integrity and not according to a cold and awkward plan that creates frustrating inconsistencies. They are their own best teaching tools.
When he taught, Jesus sought the assistance of powers beyond himself. As he prayed to his Father in heaven for help and blessings, his disciples learned to pray for these same things. Jesus understood that the power of spiritual motivation is not wholly within man but is available to him if he seeks it. (See John 6:44; Matt. 7:7–8.) The way a man exercises his agency determines the influences that will come into his life. Jesus was a master at leading men to use their agency to seek divine influences.
As parents, we invite many people and influences into our homes. Prayer is one means of inviting divine influences into our homes. It is the mechanism by which we acquire the direct assistance of our Heavenly Father in fulfilling parental responsibilities and in teaching one another. Many problems that arise in a family require wisdom and resources that are beyond our own abilities to provide. Few problems, however, are beyond solution if we seek divine help. We should talk to God about our children as much as we talk to our children about God. It is miraculous what can be accomplished when a father kneels and prays with his son, when they pray for each other, and when each member is privileged to pray for his family in their presence. Love is born and nourished in prayer.
Jesus understood that making correct choices leads to true education because new relationships between events and ideas are revealed. Jesus frequently established clearly defined opportunities for those whom he taught to choose the right. (See Luke 7:41–42; Luke 10:26–29; Luke 18:18–23.) He honored their agency by not making their choices for them, but created opportunities for them to choose. He also increased his listeners’ vision by comparisons so they might recognize and reach for higher and more lofty ideas.
The scriptures seem to reflect a great deal of this teaching by the strategy of contrast and comparison. The Book of Mormon is replete with comparisons between good and evil, right and wrong, war and peace, joy and pain. Throughout the scriptures, the prophets have caught the spirit of the Savior’s methodology. They do not try to confuse their listeners by distinguishing grey from grey. Rather, they present dear and simple contrasts or compare the familiar with the unfamiliar in a way that helps one discover true principles—principles that will guide a person through the paths of grey that do exist in life. Consider, for example, the contrast used by Isaiah as he spoke of repentance: “… though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” (Isa. 1:18.)
This method is important because when a person confronts opposites, he is more likely to decide that one alternative is right and the other wrong. In other words, his feelings become involved. Consequently, such decisions have greater impact on his spiritual nature than if they merely registered an impression on his intellect. Parents who practice this teaching approach of the Savior will find many opportunities to assist their children in defining differences and in pointing out alternatives. The right question at the right time can be a great help to a child in his moral growth.
Jesus recognized that although people do and say many things, what really counts is their desire or intent. (See Matt. 13:15; Matt. 15:8; Matt. 5:8; Matt. 12:34.) Since his major concern was helping them do the right things for the right reasons, he focused his teaching efforts on influencing their desires or dispositions. He was not satisfied with those who conformed to the rules or law but still lacked the correct desires in their hearts. (See Matt. 23:23–25.) Jesus taught the hearts of men. He used his mind and body as well as the minds and bodies and surroundings of his listeners, but he taught spiritually heart to heart.
This concept is almost forgotten today. For over 50 years the idea has dominated educational thought that man is basically an animal and can best be influenced through his physical senses and his intellect. The modern education that we and our children are exposed to is heavily tipped toward behavioral and intellectual conditioning. In contrast, when Jesus conversed with the woman at the well in Samaria, stopped to talk with Zaccheus at Jericho, and told the story of the prodigal son to the Pharisees, he was reaching out to touch the dispositions of his listeners. He knew that if the right feelings exist in the heart, right actions will follow naturally. Where do children learn these correct desires? Mostly from us, in the home. Children need to know we are pleased when they display a positive attitude or desire. Exposing them to dramatic productions, music, family home evenings, visit with relatives, and opportunities to serve that reinforce positive desires are also ways to influence their dispositions. Discouraging negative attitudes and behavior is equally important. Children need to be clear about what we embrace and what we reject. They need our responses to know we understand them and their attitudes.
In its earliest usage, the word teach meant to show the way, point out, offer to view, or guide. The object emphasized was the teacher, the one doing the showing. By direct inference he was to possess or to be what the student was expected to possess or become. The role of the teacher was to show the way, and then it was up to the student to accept or reject it. Teaching could occur whether or not the student chose to accept and assimilate.
Jesus taught in this manner. He was what he expected his students to become. He knew the way; he was the way. When Thomas asked him how to know the right path, “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. …” (John 14:6.)
His instruction to the Nephite disciples was similar. He told them they were to be examples and to accept others as he had accepted them so they could see and feel the way. “And ye see that I have commanded that none of you should go away, but rather have commanded that ye should come unto me, that ye might feel and see; even so shall ye do unto the world; and whosoever breaketh this commandment suffereth himself to be led into temptation.” (3 Ne. 18:25.)
In modern education a new definition of teaching has arisen, where the learner receives the emphasis. This idea has led to such statements as “if the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” The teacher is regarded as a dispenser of information, not a model for behavior. Students have been conditioned to respond in prescribed ways without requiring the teacher’s example. In some instances the teacher may be nothing more than a programmed workbook. This new approach assumes that teaching has occurred if a student can demonstrate behaviorally that he can perform according to predetermined standards.
Parents who follow Jesus’ example and live as they expect their children to live are much more likely to be successful teachers. It seems self-evident that we teach what we are, and that’s about all. The newer system of teaching may suffice in some areas, but it is obviously lacking in helping our children develop character.
Jesus used his listeners’ natural, real-life experiences as teaching tools. He asked them to consider the lilies of the field and the traveler who was assaulted by thieves. He helped the young man face a real choice between giving up his temporal wealth and becoming a true disciple or forfeiting his place in the kingdom. He helped the woman at the well face the fact that she was living out of wedlock. He prepared Peter to receive instruction by contrasting two experiences: fishing all night and catching nothing, then feeling the joy of a full net. For the most part Jesus used the natural context of his listener to get his attention and focus his interest.
Home life is probably the most natural context for teaching lessons essential to developing character. Parents occupy the most strategic role in helping children make correct decisions. They know them best, love them more, and hold a position that commands their attention. They have usually earned the fight to speak to them honestly and are in the most effective position to help children make and carry out decisions. When children are caught in a wrong act, frightened by a challenge, confused about a special decision, or facing other problems, parents have the opportunity to use natural circumstances to teach them right from wrong.
When Jesus ministered to the Nephites, he spent three days discussing instructions and organization. Following this, he initiated an interesting program: he spent time teaching and ministering to the children who then taught their parents even greater things than Jesus had revealed to the people. (See 3 Ne. 26:14.)
As a parent I can appreciate the wisdom in this approach to teaching. Children are very effective teachers because they tend to teach the way Jesus taught. By nature of their own development, they reduce things to a simplicity and clarity that is often lacking in adult communication. As parents we feel some sense of “ownership” in what they say and do, and this allows them a power and influences not available to others. We are less likely to be defensive and in some ways much more able to accept what they say than what others might say about or to us. It makes one ponder the phrase “except ye become as a little child.”
When Jesus left his disciples, he promised he would send them a teacher to be their constant companion in his absence. (See John 14:16–17, 26.) This teacher is the Holy Ghost. Without his influence, we are incapable of fully magnifying our callings as parents. The Holy Ghost can assist us in appropriately choosing and using the teaching powers and principles the Savior used. If we exert sufficient effort on our own and exercise a desire for his help, we will be able to teach as Jesus taught. The Savior himself promised, “… He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do. …” (John 14:12.)