“A Conversation about Primary,” Ensign, June 1988, 78–79
The continuing growth of the Church throughout the world brings corresponding increases in the size and responsibilities of auxiliary organizations. Shortly after Michaelene P. Grassli was sustained as the new Primary General President, the Ensign spoke with her about the challenges that growth brings to the Primary organization.
Q: What are your early impressions as you consider your new calling?
A: We have in the Church more than 1,300,000 children, and we have more than a quarter of a million leaders and teachers. During the next five years, I anticipate that hundreds of thousands of additional children will come into the Primary—many in places where the Church doesn’t exist now. The opportunity to influence that many children means we can have a significant impact on the Church. I like to think how many future mothers and fathers they represent, who can perpetuate righteous living throughout the world.
Q: How can the Church face the challenges represented by this growth?
A: President Dwan J. Young’s leadership left the Primary functioning effectively. We have, we believe, the strongest Primary curriculum that has ever existed. It is based on the scriptures. The children begin the Articles of Faith at age three when they learn “We believe in God, the Eternal Father. …” They are learning more and understanding more about the gospel of Jesus Christ at an earlier age than ever before.
Q: Is this curriculum too challenging for some of the children?
A: The capacity of children is just astounding to me. We have to scramble to challenge them. We must never underestimate what they can handle. But we must use methods of teaching that draw children to the gospel and make it interesting and exciting to them.
In Peru, for example, I saw Primary leaders call children out of the audience to give extemporaneous talks. The first little boy came forward, opened the scriptures, and said, “My favorite scripture is …” Then he read it, and he said, “I believe this is what the Lord was trying to teach us.” He told us what he believed we should do to live the scriptural principle better, and bore his testimony. I thought, “I’ve learned something today. The important things of the gospel are not too deep for children.”
A recent visitor from Leipzig told us of a Primary activity day during which children dramatized scripture stories for members of a ward. Leaders gave them a few costumes and assigned the stories. The children had no scripts, but they knew the stories so well that they were able to ad lib. Their impromptu performance left the audience in tears.
Q: What difficulties do you face in implementing Primary curriculum in a variety of cultures around the world?
A: The challenges of the Primary as an organization stem from inexperience of some of the leaders, which is due to their short tenure in the Church. But we see much intense devotion and dependence on the Lord as they strive to carry out their assignments!
One Primary leader in Australia told me that she had grown up in humble circumstances in another country and did not have the opportunity to learn to read. When she was first called as a Primary teacher, she was embarrassed to admit she couldn’t read, so she would place the open lesson book on her bed. She said: “I would kneel and pray and pray and pray until the Spirit told me in my heart what to teach the children that day.”
I tell this story still emphasizing that the Lord wants us to turn to our manuals, because he wants us to use what we have been given. But with teachers and leaders who commonly show that kind of dependence on the Lord, there’s no limit to the good that can be done for the children.
Q: Teaching children may be a completely new experience for many who are called to positions in Primary. How would you tell them to approach their calling?
A: I would tell them to enjoy children for what they are—just enjoy them. Sometimes children are going to wiggle. They are exploring, they are feeling what life is all about, and that can be disconcerting to adults. But if leaders just sit back and enjoy them, they will be able to influence the children while helping them to control themselves and learn in a positive environment.
Q: Why is that environment so important?
A: What a child feels when he or she comes to Primary will remain in later years. One adult man told me he could only remember two of his Primary teachers by name, and he couldn’t recite a single principle they taught him. But he could remember the great love they felt for him. Because of this love, he had believed everything they taught him and had tried to make it part of his life. We hear stories like that frequently.
The Brethren have been teaching us the importance of ministering to children. Fortunate is the child who learns the gospel at home. But also fortunate is that child who, not learning it at home, feels the touch of something sweet and beautiful at Primary, or who has reinforced at Primary, in a powerful way, something the child has been taught at home.
If Primary could be just the way I’d want it, the children would feel so loved, and feel the Spirit so strongly, that they couldn’t wait to get there. We mortals have to carefully prepare ourselves as leaders to be able to create that kind of experience for children. It may be a lofty goal, but I think it can be done.