Understanding Students
July 1977

“Understanding Students,” Tambuli, July 1977, 35

Understanding Students

Elder Boyd K. Packer

In many churches of the world, a doctrine is taught that men are basically evil; that they are earthy and carnal and devilish, conceived in sin and possessed of a tendency to be wicked. This doctrine holds that the corrupt and evil nature of man must be conquered. It holds out the meager hope that by an extension of grace man may, on occasion, be lifted from his evil, carnal, and groveling state. In simple terms, it teaches that man is, by his very nature, inclined to be bad.

That is false doctrine. I could not accept it to be true and still be a successful teacher. The doctrine is not only false; it is also very destructive. Should one accept it, the assignment of a teacher to discipline his class or of parents to discipline their children would be hopeless indeed.

Good, Not Evil

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.

It is essential for a teacher to understand that people are basically good. It is essential to know that their tendency is to do the thing that is right. Such an exalted thought is productive of faith. It makes all the difference when we stand before our own children or go before a class of young people to teach them.

I am fully aware that in the world there are individuals whose basic motivation seems to be contrary and disruptive and evil. I know this exists, but it is against their nature. If we are to teach, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are dealing with the sons and daughters of God and that each, being His offspring, has the possibility of becoming as He is …

Years ago I determined that if I were to be a teacher, a belief in the goodness of man must be fundamental to my philosophy of life. The day I made that decision, things began to change rapidly. Thereafter there was always hope. No matter how fractious or difficult or lawless others appeared, I knew that somewhere within them was a spark of divinity to which we can appeal.

Such basic love and respect are essential to those who would teach. It is essential to the parent as he looks at his children. It is essential to the teacher as he looks at his class. Although at times it is hard to maintain that belief, it nonetheless is true. A fundamental quality of good discipline is the ability to love those whom you are to teach and to maintain a desire to be a servant …

I Will Trust Everyone

A few years ago I indulged on one occasion in some introspection and found there were reasons why I didn’t like myself very well. Foremost among them was the fact that I was suspicious of everyone. When I met someone, 1 had in mind this thought: “What’s his motive? What’s he going to try to do?” This came about because I had been badly manipulated, abused by someone I trusted. Cynicism and bitterness were growing within. I determined to change and made a decision that I would trust everyone. I have tried to follow that role since. If someone is not worthy of trust, it is his responsibility to show it—not mine to find it out.

“A” Grade—Number One

Students, including our own children, will rise to our high expectations of them. When I was a teacher, I always made a certain speech on the first day I met a class. I made it to each new group of missionaries that arrived in the mission field. I have also always tried to convey to others around me the same message. It is a message of confidence. The speech goes something like this:

I assume that you are mature. I look upon you as being old enough to be able to learn and sensible enough to want to. Right now I may not know who you really are or where you have been or what you have done. Most of that, depending on you, will not matter. I take you just as you are and stamp you “A-Grade, Number 1.” You can prove yourself to be less than that, but you will have to work at it. I will be very reluctant to believe it. If there is something about yourself that you do not like, now is the time to change it. If there is something in your past that has been disabling, spiritually or otherwise, now is the time to rise above it.

I have found that with remarkably few exceptions the response has been for people to want to rise above themselves. This has a stabilizing effect. It helps immeasurably with discipline and creates an environment where learning can take place.

As I begin a new relationship with anyone—students, missionaries, or those with whom I associate or whom I supervise—it is on the basis of confidence and trust. I have been much happier since. Of course, there have been times when I have been disappointed, and a few times when I have been badly taken advantage of. I do not care about that. Who am I not to be so misused or abused? Why should I be above that? If that is the price of extending trust to everyone, I am glad to pay it.

I have come to be much less afraid of the possibility of being “used” than I was before. It is sometimes painful when one is misused or when trust or confidence is not honored. That kind of pain, however, is not unbearable, for it is only pain; it is not agony. The only agony I know is when I discover that inadvertently I have misused someone else. That is torture; that I will avoid

When we are teaching moral and spiritual values, we should understand that children have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. It can be appealed to. There are many things that they know simply because they know them. It is important for teachers, including parents, to study those whom they teach. Young people have well-defined guidelines in their minds on what is fair and what isn’t fair. Sometimes these even become exaggerated.

We need to understand whom we are teaching. We must remember that they came from a preexistent state, and while much is not remembered, there still can be considerable spiritual maturity.

The following statement from President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., is important for teachers:

“Our youth are not children spiritually;they are well on towards the normal spiritual maturity of the world. I say once more there is not a youth that comes through your door who has not been the conscious beneficiary of spiritual blessings, or who has not seen the efficacy of prayer, or who has not witnessed the power of faith to heal the sick, or who has not beheld spiritual outpourings, of which the world at large is today ignorant. You do not have to sneak up behind this spiritually experienced youth and whisper religion in his ears: you can come right out, face to face, and talk with him. You do not need to disguise religious truths with a cloak of worldly things; you can bring these truths to him openly, naturally. Youth may prove to be no more fearful of them than you are. There is no need for gradual approaches, for making religious stories sound like fairy tales, for coddling, for patronizing, or for any of the other childish devices used in efforts to reach those spiritually inexperienced and all but spiritually dead.” (“The Charted Course of the Church in Education.”)

Children Already Know

We do not often give credit for the spiritual maturity of children, particularly little children. There are some things they know. They need not be taught them; they just know them to begin with.

Let me give you an example. While our children have been growing up, we have purposely lived in a rural setting where we could keep some animals and birds about, for several important reasons. One is that we have chores, regular responsibilities, that cannot be put off and that must be attended to at least daily. From this our youngsters have learned to work and to be dependable.

On one occasion a hen had hidden a nest away under a manger in the barn. The nest was discovered by our little girl. When the chickens were hatched, the tiny ones began to peep. She wanted to see them and hold them but was confronted by a very angry hen protecting her chicks. When I came home in the evening, she came running to the car and excitedly told me of her discovery, pleading with me to let her hold some of the baby chicks. It was not easy to get the hen to cooperate, but finally I had a double-handful of little chicks. There were black ones, white ones, striped ones, and spotted ones, and as the children gathered around, admiring them with childish expressions, I let our little girl hold one.

“That will make a nice watch dog when it grows up, won’t it?” I said. She wrinkled up her little nose and looked at me quizzically. It was obvious that she didn’t believe what I said, so I hurriedly corrected myself. “It won’t turn into a dog, will it?” As she shook her head, I said, “It will make a nice horse, won’t it?” She looked at me as though I did not know very much. She knew and wondered why I didn’t seem to know that the little chicken would never grow up to be a dog or a horse or an elephant or even a turkey, but when it grew up it would be a hen or a rooster; it would become like its parents.

How did she, a four-year-old, know that? We had never taught it to her. She knew it as children know many things. Children know and understand many lessons that are basic and sacred in life without being taught.

It is easy, then, to explain that when we reach our full development in the eternities ahead, we will be gods. We too will follow the pattern of our parentage. God has created us to address him as Father!

I have always been interested in the fact that little children know what dreams are. It would be impossible to show them, and it is difficult to describe what a dream is. But there really is no need to do so, for children seem to know.

Another scripture is very important for a teacher to understand: “All men are instructed sufficiently that they know good from evil.” (2 Ne. 2:5)

Parents and teachers need to know that a youngster can tell right from wrong. This knowledge may be distorted or perverted or covered up in unfortunate life experiences, but intuitively, as a part of the spiritual gift of all humanity, there is a knowledge of right from wrong.

That gives me great hope, for then I understand that every child of God, however reprobate he may have become, however degenerate he may seem to be, has hidden within him the spark of divinity and a sensitivity to that which is wrong as compared to that which is right.