A wise bishop, when calling me to serve as Young Women’s President once, made the following observation: Primary is the time where you learn the gospel, YM/YW is the time where you choose if you want to live the gospel and adulthood is the time where you live with that choice. Certainly there are variations to this pattern. Converts may not even hear about the gospel until their adulthood; people can reject the gospel and then repent. However, his observation is fundamentally sound, and definitely worthy of attention.

Prophets and the scriptures have warned that parents have the opportunity, and also the obligation, to teach our children the gospel. It is our job; it is our calling; it is our mission. If we fail to teach our children to understand the gospel, the sin is upon our heads as parents.

This is an overwhelming commission. Sometimes it’s so overwhelming, couples decide they don’t want the responsibility. Some choose not to have children at all. Some may doubt their own ability to guide the children down a correct path so they just let the world teach the children, or they let the child “do his own thing.”

Granted, raising children is a daunting task and, indeed, it would be downright terrifying in today’s world if we had to come up with our own curriculum. If we had to invent truth, and decide what to teach and what not to teach, I’d lie awake at night with worry. What if I’m wrong? What if what I’m teaching now turns out to be wrong in a few years? What if science discovers something new?

Fortunately, Heavenly Father has provided the perfect curriculum. We know exactly what we are supposed to teach our children. One of the general presidency of the primary simplified the curriculum by holding up her hand and assigning one truth to each of her five digits: 1) God is our Father 2) Jesus Christ is our Savior 3) The Holy Ghost testifies of truth 4) The Book of Mormon is the word of God and 5) There are prophets on the earth today. It is a soul-saving curriculum.

Gaining Trust

Now that we know what we are supposed to teach our children, how can we get them to listen? How can we get them to believe what we teach them? An old aphorism claims, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” This was never more applicable than when teaching children. As hard as we try to teach our children the curriculum Heavenly Father has provided for us, our children won’t believe a word unless they are convinced we have their best interests at heart.

It is difficult for a child to believe we are interested in his welfare if he experiences any one of three traumas: neglect (in any of its forms), abuse (in any of its forms), or abandonment (in its various forms). Rather than obsessing over what not to do, however, parents will have ample success if they focus on what to do. When we successfully communicate the following three messages, our children will believe what we teach them.

Message #1 You are loved.

We show a child his infinite worth by our behavior. He knows he is important when we communicate, “I have time for you. The things you think matter. The things you do are important to me.” Of course we tell our children that Heavenly Father loves them. Hopefully, they will get a glimpse of the magnitude of Heavenly Father’s love when they experience the love of their parents.

Because our love is not as perfect as that of our Father in Heaven, we may also tell our children, “You come straight from heaven, just like me. You are a child of our Heavenly Father, just like me. I try to show you how much I love you, but I’m not as good at it as Heavenly Father is. He never makes mistakes. I make mistakes. But you are still adored.”

Loving, adoring parents have been criticized by the world for creating child-centered families. The public has mocked bumper stickers like “baby on board” or reviled retailers who create special parking places for mothers-to-be. There is a school of thought that claims adoration will spoil a child. Granted, children can be spoiled when we have no expectations of them. However, I agree with the book one of my relatives wrote called, “You Can’t Spoil a Child With Love.”

Message #2 I am here to protect you from harm.

A child needs to know that all the restrictions we place upon him and all the expectations we have of him are for his benefit.

We want to let the child know, “I will warn you about the dangers of the world. I will teach you to fear evil, to flee from temptation.” Some parents claim they, “Put the fear of God” into their children. I hope this means they will teach their children to fear all things God has forbidden, and not to fear God.

A child needs to be reminded again and again, the reason for our restrictions and expectations. We are here to protect him from harm while on earth. We are here to help him learn Heavenly Father’s plan in order to return to Father in Heaven.

The expectations we place on a child are not there just to make the parent look good. The purpose of a well-behaved child is not to protect an adult’s ego. The expectations and restrictions are for the benefit of the child.

We may teach a child, “If you’re mean to your friends, you won’t have any friends,” or “If you don’t study you won’t be able to support yourself,” or “If you break the law of chastity, it will be difficult to create an eternal marriage.” We teach the child because we want to protect the child.

Message #3 You can trust me.

We teach a child to trust what we say by what we do. We don’t make promises we can’t keep. When we do make promises, we keep them.

A parent who says, “Do as I say, but not as I do,” is a hypocrite and hypocrisy by its very nature engenders mistrust.   A trustworthy parent tells a child, “Mom and Dad want you to copy us. We don’t do anything we wouldn’t be delighted to have you do.” Of course children can’t do everything adults do when they are still children. For example, Mom and Dad chew gum, and toddlers can’t chew gum until they get a little older. Mom and Dad eat popcorn out of the kitchen, and perhaps children can too when they get a little older. It’s okay to invite our children, at an age-appropriate time, to follow in our footsteps.

Children need to know Mom and Dad will make mistakes. Mom and Dad aren’t perfect. Mom and Dad are trying to be like Jesus, but sometimes fail. We then tell our children, “When Mom and Dad fail we say ‘sorry.’ We repent. We can be forgiven.” It’s okay for a child to copy that.

Children are a tabula rosa, a blank slate. It’s a huge responsibility to take an innocent child, uncorrupted by the world, a child with hundreds and thousands of neurons ready to be channeled, and to have access to that small window of their life when they are the most impressionable. It is also a wonderful opportunity because if children have a positive experience learning the gospel during their Primary years, it increases the likelihood they will decide to follow the path that leads toward Eternal Life.

JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance, available at www.amazon.com.