Teaching Morality to Your Children

“Teaching Morality to Your Children,” Ensign, Mar. 1981, 10

Teaching Morality to Your Children

If I turn the light on while my children are sitting in the dark watching TV, they notice. They squint, complain that I’ve disturbed their atmosphere, and ask me to turn the light back off. Once they’re used to the dark, it’s difficult to be confronted suddenly by the light.

Teaching children the truth is like turning on the light in a dark room. Children can’t choose the light if they’re kept in the dark. And if they become comfortable with darkness, they may resist the light, innocently seeing it as an intruder rather than as a welcome guest.

The opposite is also true. If they are accustomed to light, they’ll see darkness as the intruder. Children deserve to see the light before darkness has a chance to envelop them.

The Lord used this pattern in training Moses. Moses was “caught up into an exceedingly high mountain” where he saw and talked to God face to face. Moses learned the true nature of God and saw the glory of the Creator; he was transfigured before God.

After having this experience, he was confronted by Satan, who said, “Moses, son of man, worship me.” But because of his earlier visit with the Lord, Moses wasn’t deceived at all. He challenged Satan, “Who art thou? … and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee?” (See Moses 1:1–13.)

Moses knew the difference. Because he had already been exposed to the light, he recognized its opposite; he was prepared to deal with the false claims of Satan.

In teaching moral cleanliness to our children, the when is at least as important as the what. We should prepare them to live in the world by teaching them the truth before they have to meet the temptations of the world head-on. We are to teach them to walk in the light before they are eight years old.

Test yourself to see how well you as a parent are preparing your children to meet life. Imagine that your children are five years older than they are now. If you have an eight-year-old boy, he is now thirteen. Your ten-year-old girl is fifteen. What are you teaching them right now which they will need to know at thirteen and fifteen? In five years your boy will be entering junior high. What will he need to learn between now and then to help him experience success in junior high? He will have been a deacon for a year. What does he know about the priesthood now, at age eight, that would lead him to approach his ordination reverently? What does your ten-year-old girl need to understand now about dating, about life’s purposes, that will help her prepare to wait until sixteen for dating experiences?

The most effective teaching for the future comes before the future is here. By adding five years to your children’s ages, you can rehearse the future in your own mind and determine a course of action to teach them.

Teaching moral cleanliness in this manner means starting with fundamental ideas about the purpose of earth life and, more specifically, about the purposes for which we have been given bodies. The world has either ignored or profaned the worth of our physical bodies and the power to create life. Therefore, if we want our children to hear the truth first, we ought to teach them years before they’ll confront non-gospel ideas. The more we offer them the truth, in reverence, the less likely they are to assign worldly meanings to sacred things.

In fact, by teaching the Lord’s view on moral cleanliness, we are offering our children a standard by which alternative views can be seen for what they really are: alternatives to the Lord’s view. Children will thus be able to compare and contrast behavior and beliefs. By receiving an understanding of the gospel, children have the foundation to do the comparing and contrasting. Without it, they are more susceptible to false doctrines and philosophies.

What fundamental ideas should we teach? For young children, basic truths about the sacredness of the body provide a foundation: Our body is a gift from God; it is necessary for us to progress; we had to come to earth to get it; we must take care of it; one of the blessings of having a body is that someday we will be able to create other bodies.

I have found that children find these ideas logical and meaningful. They see that our bodies are valuable gifts not to be mistreated. And they are willing to hear how the Lord has instructed us to take care of them so that they can help us to do all that we came to earth to do.

One set of the Lord’s instructions, the Word of Wisdom, tells how to take care of our bodies so they can be physically strong, be protected from disease, and serve us well.

Suppose you were explaining the sacredness of the body to a five-year-old. Assume that you have some quiet moments with your daughter at bedtime:

“Julie, you sure did a lot of running and jumping today. You have a healthy body. That’s one of the reasons you came to earth—to get a body. You need a body to do many things while you are here. If you take care of your body and protect it, you have a better chance of being strong and healthy. The Lord has taught us how to treat our bodies wisely. He has even given us a commandment called the Word of Wisdom. He teaches us to get plenty of rest, to eat the right foods, and to not eat things that would harm our bodies.”

Of course, most five-year-olds would interrupt the preceding dialogue (which, by the way, is just an example—not a model) with questions neither you nor I would have thought of in advance. Such questions aren’t really interruptions; they reveal what the child is thinking and understanding.

Typical questions or comments from five-year-olds might be: “Why can’t I eat candy for breakfast?” “I saw Billy’s daddy smoking!” “Why do I get sick?”

Each of these responses could be used to teach something about how important our bodies are or how we ought to take care of them:

“Candy doesn’t give your body all the different kinds of help it needs to stay strong.”

“Billy’s dad doesn’t understand what we know about how to take special care of our bodies.”

“There are germs on the earth, and sometimes they make us sick.”

Perhaps a week or two later, during another quiet time, you could ask your child some casual questions about your earlier conversation to discover his or her point of view:

“Julie, now why is it that we came to the earth?” or “If your little sister asked you how to keep her body healthy, what would you tell her?”

There is a good chance your child can answer one of those questions. However, there is also a chance that he will have the same answer to all your questions: “I don’t know.” If you get that answer, it’s usually not the time to say, “Oh, you do too!” or “We just talked about it.” That kind of pressure promotes silence rather than disclosure. A better approach might be to offer a multiple choice question like, “Well, is it good for us to eat oranges, dirt, or kitchen chairs?” Another possibility is to ask, “I’ve got an idea of one way to keep your body healthy, and it has to do with why your bedtime is at eight o’clock. What do you think my idea is?”

Your goal in these quiet times is to teach, learn, listen, and love. Correct, precise answers are less important than a willingness to share and listen in a “line-upon-line” fashion.

Another set of commandments from the Lord tells us how to guard the power to create so that it is used in the way the Lord would have it used. At some point it becomes appropriate to talk about this other major idea. Here’s a sample way to introduce it:

“Our bodies make it possible for us to help create bodies for other spirits to come to earth. When you grow up and get married, you will have the chance to use a power Heavenly Father has given you to become a father or a mother. Your Heavenly Father wants you to keep your body healthy and strong so that when it comes time for you to be a mother or father, your body will be ready.”

Typically, any child but the youngest is going to ask all those questions about mother’s fat tummy, about how the baby is growing inside (“how does it breathe?”) and about why mama has to go to the hospital to get the baby. All those questions may be answered as simply as your own wisdom dictates: “The baby ‘breathes’ and gets food from a special tube.” “A doctor helps mother make sure the baby is all right.”

No matter what your answers are, they’ll probably generate more questions. Your very vocabulary may create unintended images in your child’s mind. However, if your tone and attitude about the subject are calm and assuring, he will more than likely gain the same positive feelings. So don’t be troubled if occasionally he doesn’t understand everything. It is better to say in those circumstances, “As you get older you will understand it better and we will talk more about it,” rather than saying “You’re too young to understand.” The second response slams the door of inquiry; the first is forward-looking and hopeful of additional understanding. It also contains a promise of continued parental teaching.

Our culture has attached procreative meaning to everything. Innuendo abounds in television programs, and questions sparked by curiosity are discussed during school recess. Consequently, as your children get older, you’ll probably see a need to share more and more about how to be caretakers of the sacred power which still lies dormant within them. Specifically, they need to be warned regarding worldly views of the body and reminded of the differences between that and the Lord’s views.

For example: “Not everybody understands how to take care of their bodies as the Lord has explained. Some people in the world abuse their bodies by drinking alcohol or by taking drugs. Also, some people want to use the power to create before it is right for them to do so.”

An ideal time to teach in depth is when children have been exposed to a situation where the gospel view and the world’s view can be logically contrasted.

While watching Roots one night with our fifth- and sixth-grade daughters, we were caught by surprise by the scene in which the master of the plantation abuses the slave girl. Our daughters felt the bad spirit of the situation. We asked: “Do you feel that what is happening is right?”

Children: “No.”

Parents: “Why not?”

Children: “She doesn’t want him to love her.”

Parents: “What if she wanted him to. Would it be right then?”

Children: “No.”

Parents: “Why not?”

Children: “Because they’re not married.”

Parents: “Why should there be a marriage first?”

Children: “I don’t know.”

Parents: “Would you like to have a mother but no father to help teach you and care for you?”

Children: “No.”

Parents: “Would you like to be a mother with no husband to help you raise a child?”

Children: “No.”

Parents: “One of the reasons Heavenly Father has asked us to be married before we use the power to create children is because he expects two people to help one another and to love and raise their children together.”

We were not comfortable with the setting which prompted this conversation. But we felt much better about using the situation to teach what we felt to be the truth, rather than just avoiding it by saying, “Shhh—never mind,” or “Go into the other room,” or “It doesn’t concern you right now.” We didn’t say everything we could have said at the time, but we did teach one important truth. And deeper explanations will come as the children get older.

In teaching my children, I have found it effective to explain that many people don’t know why the Lord has given us our bodies. For preteens, you might say, “Sometimes people like to show off their bodies by not dressing properly. Because we are created in the image of God, and because our bodies are special, the Lord has asked us to be modest. Modesty means that we do not try to pretend we are any more special than any other of God’s children. When people try to show off their bodies, it can mean they think they are better than others. Although they may not know it, they are not showing gratitude to the Lord for being able to have a physical body which was created in his image.”

Of course, we live in a world where even the negative attitudes just noted are not the extreme ones. How can we prepare our children to deal with more serious negative influences, or with perverted or lascivious actions to which they may be exposed?

First of all, do not underestimate the power of children to choose the right when they have been properly taught. Although they may be confronted with drugs or pornography as early as elementary school, if they understand the truth about our purpose on earth, the sacredness of our bodies, and the reality of right and wrong, they need not be traumatized by exposure to such incidents.

I know a family who moved to a different city when their two oldest daughters were six and five years old. The parents had, as a matter of course, taught their children the sacredness of the body and the importance of modesty. But this family didn’t know that a six-year-old boy in the area had quite a reputation for harassing the little girls. One day the five-year-old girl returned from kindergarten to report her confrontation with him. He had threatened to treat her immodestly. “But,” she brightly explained to her parents, “I said to him, ‘I won’t do it. I will be modest!’ I hit him on the head with my book and ran home.”

These parents had never rehearsed such a possibility with their daughters; they had only taught general principles. To be sure, they had taught their children by using some illustrative examples of how some people in the world want to misuse their bodies, but explicit details were not spelled out. The counsel not to teach too much too soon applies here.

It’s impossible to prepare children for every possible experience they’ll ever have. And it’s unnecessary to explore the numerous possibilities they might be exposed to. For one thing, such detailed discussion tends to shift the focus from the basic principles being taught to an explanation of the illustration itself. For another, it’s unlikely that the exact event used to illustrate the principle will occur. It is better to teach a correct principle with a simple illustration, counting on your children’s own experiences over the years to provide means for you to broaden and deepen their understanding, than it is to offer them an encyclopedia understanding at the start.

Nevertheless, the wickedness in the world could mean that someone might attempt to abduct or molest your child. Teaching children to avoid strangers, not to get into anybody’s car (however pleasant the invitation), not to accept food, and so on, should still be standard instruction. And boundaries on where children go, with whom they go, and how long they stay are crucial. No community is an island apart from the influences of the world. Neighborhoods and parks can always contain more than neighbors. Shopping malls, even in small cities, attract the full range of influences in our society. Parents need to set boundaries. When children are sent to public places, it might be wise to always send them in teams.

One caution, however: It is possible to see the world as so unrighteous or hostile that instead of preparing our children to meet life confidently, we teach them to fear it. Remember, the possible isn’t inevitable.

Children don’t need to experience evil to understand that it is evil. Some people suggest that we shouldn’t shelter our children lest they be unable, in later life, to deal with the real world. But I believe in sheltering my children from negative influences. I will work to prevent their being subjected to profanity, hate, pornography, drug use—anything that would harm them spiritually or physically. I won’t shelter them from a knowledge that these influences are in the world, nor from a clear understanding of why they are evil. I will use practical examples from the newspaper, neighborhood, or school grounds to teach them what the meaning of wickedness is and to illustrate what the Lord says in the scriptures about such actions. Newspaper accounts of arrests for drug abuse, of community vandalism, of reckless driving, can be discussed at dinner, and principles can be taught.

With respect to curiosity about things, simple answers are best. One of my young daughters has already asked what a “homo” is. We explained that some men claim to have love feelings toward other men like the kind of love feelings a husband and wife have for each other. They even claim they can’t help having these feelings. But the prophets have taught differently. The love feelings between a man and a woman, which are part of their ability to have children, are sacred. God has not given those same kinds of feelings for men to love men. That answer made sense to her, and she accepted the truthfulness of it. To dwell further seemed inappropriate.

Our older children will eventually need to learn additional precepts regarding the purposes of the body, and that learning will include the whole gospel plan. The meaning of being morally clean will broaden and deepen as they are instructed.

Young teenagers, for example, deserve to know that neither the body itself nor any of the gifts of God which go with the body are inherently evil. This has been an apostate doctrine of some religions. But Elder Boyd K. Packer reminds us: “How glorious it is to have the revealed word of God, to know that we have a child-parent relationship with Him. If we are of His family, we have inherited the tendency to be good, not evil. We are sons and daughters of God.” (Teach Ye Diligently, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1975, p. 72.)

In addition, teenagers need to know that the spirit controls the body. One of the false notions of our society is that we are victims of our appetites and passions. But the truth is that the body is controlled by the spirit which inhabits it.

No one can claim that his spirit is controlled by his body. The spirit tells the body what to do—and barring defects in physiology, the body responds. The body has the capacity only to respond; the spirit directs. Moral cleanliness is a condition of one’s individual spirit. A lustful spirit uses the body as a tool to carry out its purposes. A spirit seeking first the kingdom of God will direct the body in a righteous course.

As an example of the body’s responsiveness to the spirit’s direction, consider this illustration: My brother, as a deacon, sat in the warmest part of the chapel for sacrament meeting. The heat of the summer brought perspiration and warmth to the congregation. Many fidgeted. Many were restless. The deacons were particularly unsettled. In one particular meeting, my mother noticed the standard wiggling and agitated row of deacons. My brother was there, but sat stark still. He seemed calm, untroubled, comfortable. She commented later on the fact that he was so attentive while the rest of the deacons were so fidgety.

He said, “Oh, yeah. I was hot and uncomfortable. But I decided that my spirit was more interested in listening to the bishop, so I told my body to be still.”

A missionary serving in the eastern United States was confronted by a college student who was less interested in the message than in the missionary’s strict moral code. The student sneeringly asked the missionary how he controlled his desires when there were so many beautiful girls around, implying that the missionary must not be normal. The elder explained: “It is not that I am abnormal; it is that I know I am responsible and in charge of my body. You think you are helpless in the face of your desires. You think you are a victim of them. I have proven to myself that I am the master of those feelings.”

It would be a cruel trick indeed if the Lord had told us to keep our appetites and passions within certain bounds and then hadn’t placed us in charge of those appetites. We have not only the responsibility but also the capacity to behave in the way the Lord has commanded. Claims to the contrary are rationalizations.

Teenagers can also benefit from the knowledge that temptations to abandon moral cleanliness are usually invitations to the spirit to do evil, rather than direct assaults on the body to respond to appetites and passions. Temptations to misuse the power to create life usually consist of some selfish motives such as attempts to gain recognition, or to obtain the honors of men, or to achieve power, or to gratify pride or lust. These mental appetites are more likely to be the sources of temptation than any physical ones. Physical desires are in the service of the goals of the spirit. Just as the powers of heaven, with respect to the priesthood, “cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness,” (see D&C 121:36, 35) so also must the gift of God to create life be controlled by righteous desires. When it is exercised in the service of selfish motives for personal gain, lust, power, or pride, the gift is subverted and profaned.

Teenagers should be taught that the power to create is a gift of God—and that one of the ways we become like God is to see things as he sees them, and, in turn, to behave as he behaves.

An LDS high school senior and some of his school friends were discussing sexual morality. Several ideas had been proposed about how to decide what was moral. The group was leaning in the direction of “as long as I don’t hurt anybody else, whatever I do is OK.” The LDS fellow remarked, “I don’t believe I have the freedom to hurt other people—or myself either. I’m worth as much as they are. But there is something else, something more important than just not hurting others by what I do. God has sent us to the earth to help one another. If by my actions I can help and bless others, I am doing God’s work. If I act for myself alone, I am not serving God or others.”

This young man had learned something about unselfishness and had translated it into a philosophy of living which gave him a foundation upon which to act. That foundation included seeing others as God sees them. The Lord’s intent is to bless; by our choices we can bless others. Morality, for this Aaronic Priesthood bearer, included the truth that God intended that we benefit others by the righteous use of all those powers God has given us. To use them selfishly is to misuse them. The law of chastity is a law that fits a people who want to progress to become like God. The Creator has offered us the chance to cooperate in creation. God does not create whimsically. Chastity is not just a wise course of mortal action; it is a godly approach to eternal life. Marriage is the only setting in which the exercise of our creative powers can be chaste.

Is this all too abstract for the “realities” of teenage living, where peer-group pressures are ever present? They aren’t any more abstract than worldly philosophies. Philosophies of selfish individualism (the individual comes first, self-satisfaction is what you deserve) and hedonism (pleasure and indulgence are natural and constitute the quality of life) are antithetical to the Lord’s law. Yet their philosophies are garishly promoted in both the music and media of our times. If we are to prepare our children to meet these challenges as the Lord prepared Moses to meet his, then we must clearly explain the law of chastity to them first so they’ll see the philosophies of the world in the light of truth. (For an example of how this can be done, read Elder Boyd K. Packer’s talk in the April 1972 general conference report, pp. 136–39, or in Teach Ye Diligently, pp. 258–64).

Some parents ask, “But how can I talk to my teenager about this?” Since everyone’s personality is different, every parent will approach the subject in a personal way. Perhaps sharing how deeply grateful you were as parents for the chance to bring your child to earth might be a beginning. The following ideas might be helpful in initiating a discussion regarding moral cleanliness with your teenager:

“How do you plan to stay morally clean?” “How do you plan to handle the pressure or ridicule of friends?” “What are you going to do if someone you really like encourages you to be immoral?”

By giving our children a chance to rehearse their moral commitments with us, we do not guarantee their moral cleanliness—but we offer our interest, our hopes, and our love as they face the challenges before them. If we love them, we will teach them.

When our teenagers know enough to distinguish between the gospel roots of chastity and the philosophies of men that attack the truth, the practical differences in daily living are usually evident. To people who have seen the light, even darkness testifies of what the truth is by being so different from it. Our children can then be prepared to take full advantage of the redemption the Savior offers us—and to “become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26).

Let’s Talk about It

After reading “Teaching Morality to Your Children,” you may wish to discuss some of the following questions during a husband/wife study period:

1. Why do you suppose “the most effective teaching for the future comes before the future is here”?

2. Why do you think discussing how to keep our bodies healthy can be an appropriate way to start discussions on morality?

3. Are you as parents discussing morality with your children? If not, what specific things can you do to feel more comfortable or prepared to teach them about these important things?

4. What do you think the ideal setting and circumstances would be for discussing morality with your children?

5. Why is it important that parents’ “tone and attitude about the subject [be] calm and assuring”?

6. Discuss ways of preparing your children to cope with serious negative influences without causing them to fear everyone and everything.

7. What do you think of the author’s approach of sheltering his children from negative influences but not sheltering them “from a knowledge that these influences are in the world, nor from a clear understanding of why they are evil”?

8. Why is it important that youth learn that “the body is controlled by the spirit which inhabits it”?

  • Terrence D. Olson, associate professor of child development and family relationships at Brigham Young University, serves as a bishop’s counselor in his Orem, Utah, ward.

Illustrated by G. Allen Garns