“Preassess Your Children,” Ensign, June 1977, 60
There’s something sacred about the teaching that happens when one person helps another gain a deeper insight into gospel truths, make a discovery about himself, or see new ways of applying gospel principles. And that kind of total teaching is not reserved for the classroom. The home provides such formal settings as family home evenings, individual interviews, early morning study classes, and some mealtime conversations, but the informal settings are equally alive with potential: the casual comments, the daily chores, the goodbyes, the hellos, the criticisms, and the words of encouragement.
How can a husband and wife, a parent and child translate that potential teaching moment into a meaningful learning experience? Well, consider the principles taught in the Teacher Development basic course and in the inservice lessons. They can improve the quality of one-to-one learning as much as they boost quality in a classroom.
Take, for instance, preassessment. (Preassessment means determining what an individual already understands about the topic to be discussed.) A father wants to discuss where babies come from with his son. Does he take time to preassess his son’s understanding of the subject? Usually not. Chances are that the son will recognize the “dutiful lecture” tone and tune out. The son may even be a little bored if dad is just repeating what he already knows. Or a father is concerned because his eighteen-year-old daughter is beginning to date one fellow steadily. He wants her to understand what it means to remain morally clean and why it is important. What if he asked, “What do I really know about how my daughter perceives these two questions?” What is being taught in Church classes to her age group? What is my daughter’s own definition of moral cleanliness? If he listens to her first, he’ll know where her strengths and where her questions lie.
A simple—almost automatic—preassessment begins when a parent notices that something isn’t quite right with a son or daughter. A discouraged or frustrated teenager who’s grumping around the house is pretty conspicuous, but if parents correct the behavior without preassessing the situation, they may make things worse. Instead of assuming that the grumpiness is the problem, what would happen if the parent preassessed the situation by saying, “Sally, I can feel that something is wrong. Would you like to tell me about it?”
Two other vital principles that can be transferred from the Teacher Development program are having goals about what kind of behavior you want and planning to get results. Here’s a searching question: “Have we simply lived together in the same house this past month, or have we as parents taken a good look at each of our children and taught them how to change so that they’ll be happier?” Such an objective usually takes a plan, some learning experiences, and the parents’ evaluation of how well it succeeded.
For instance, one couple noticed that six-year-old David was pretty perfunctory in family prayer, that ten-year-old Susan was spending more time with her friends and less time with her family, that thirteen-year-old Frank had been neglecting his chores, and that sixteen-year-old Helen had complained lately about the Church. These parents checked their observation with prayer and pre-assessment, then set some goals. From what Helen said, it sounded as though she needed some personal spiritual experiences to strengthen her testimony. She really wanted to believe, but many of her friends doubted and were putting negative thoughts into her mind. The father and Susan decided to read from the Book of Mormon together two times each week, taking enough time to pray and talk together as well. Susan would also do some reading on her own. The father, in planning for these one-to-one sessions, sought for the Lord’s Spirit to be with him and to touch his daughter’s heart. He also asked the Lord to strengthen his testimony so that he would feel good about sharing it with Susan. Predictably, Susan’s spiritual strength blossomed and her closeness with her father deepened her trust in him in other areas. The same kind of thoughtful planning paid off in other areas as the mother and father worked with their other children, too.
As they tried to increase their teaching effectiveness, they found that the inservice lessons were also helpful. When the mother was talking with Frank about his chores, she noticed that he was always ready to change his attitude and make commitments at the point where he was ready to look her in the eye, a principle of increased power and vitality in teaching that had been pointed out in the inservice lessons. As long as he could look elsewhere, his thoughts and his attitude could remain impersonal. Eye-to-eye contact gives the teacher or parent added strength, and the listener greater understanding and concentration.
The use of real-life teaching situations, another inservice concept, was helpful in working with David on his prayers, but proved to be even more valuable in reaching ten-year-old Susan. When they discussed how she was getting along with the friends she was spending so much time with, she rather uneasily confided that some boys at school were blowing small darts through straws, a dangerous practice that could seriously injure someone’s eye. The principal had announced to all the students that anyone seeing someone blow darts should report it, and his visit would be kept most confidential. In one of Susan’s classes, she saw someone—a friend—blowing darts. “What should I do, Mama?” Susan asked. “Should I report it to the principal or should I just say nothing?”
The mother remembered that the inservice lesson on using real-life problem situations identified four steps: understand the problem, discuss possible solutions with their consequences, apply gospel principles, and make a decision. (Teacher Development Program Inservice Series, no. 2, 1971–72, p. 176.)
The mother and daughter went through these steps. They identified the problem as a conflict between obedience to authority and approval by friends. They discussed possible solutions and their consequences: “What would happen if some of the boys found out who reported to the principal?” “How would you feel if someone’s eye was injured?” “If the boys tried to get even, or even didn’t talk to you, would you feel you had made a mistake?” “What are the chances for injury occurring?” They discussed gospel principles. “What would Jesus have me do?” “What constitutes true friendship?” “How important is it to be obedient to authority?” “How do we manifest our love for others?” After much discussion, Susan made her decision—to talk first to her friends, then to the principal.
Another young couple I know consistently practices another teaching principle: encouraging positive behavior. When they saw one of their children wasting his time at the piano, they would put a hand on his shoulder, give him some encouragement and affection, ask him to play it for them, and thank him for trying. They’d learned that a misbehaving child was often a discouraged child.
One very important teaching principle is bearing your witness of Jesus, Joseph Smith, President Kimball, and gospel truths to your children. I’ve heard many young people say that they have never heard their parents bear testimony in the home. Parents should share these feelings often in one-to-one relationships—just doing it in family home evening isn’t enough.
None of these teaching skills will work, of course, if the Spirit is missing. “It is not primarily by words that the gospel is conveyed to the heart,” points out one inservice lesson, “but by the influence of the teacher’s character and by the Spirit he bears.” (Teacher Development Program Inservice Series, no. 2, 1971–72, p. 153.) Learning is influenced by the kind of person the teacher is. Sometimes the presence of a father or mother close to the Lord is sufficient to calm troubled waters. They needn’t say much. On the other hand, if their own spirits are not right, their words will have little influence.
As we have been counseled, “When you recognize the importance of teaching your children, you become humble, because at once you realize that … you cannot be one thing and effectively teach another. You must live and study and pray for the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost. You must purify and organize your life so that your example and leadership reflect the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” (Father, Consider Your Ways, pamphlet, Deseret Press, 1973, p. 2.)
We don’t always know when a son or daughter may want or accept a one-to-one teaching situation with us. But every relationship can be sacred and special if the parent is striving to master himself and to be in tune with the Lord.