If anecdotes from general conference and other meetings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are any indicator of overall trends, getting young children to engage in scripture study can be laughably difficult.
Elder David A. Bednar taught an important lesson about family scripture study, prayer and family home evening in his 2009 general conference talk “More Diligent and Concerned at Home.” He said:
“Sometimes Sister Bednar and I wondered if our efforts to do these spiritually essential things were worthwhile. Now and then verses of scripture were read amid outbursts such as ‘He’s touching me!’ ‘Make him stop looking at me!’ ‘Mom, he’s breathing my air!’ … Today if you could ask our adult sons what they remember about family prayer, scripture study and family home evening, I believe I know how they would answer. They likely would not identify a particular prayer or a specific instance of scripture study or an especially meaningful family home evening lesson as the defining moment in their spiritual development. What they would say they remember is that as a family we were consistent.”
In our efforts to be consistent, it can be helpful to consider how to make family scripture study more enjoyable for children. If children enjoy scripture study, it will be much easier to sustain the habit over time. Here are some ideas for engaging even the wiggliest of two-year-olds in scripture study.
1. Keep it simple
Many adults read an entire chapter or more in a single sitting. While this may be appropriate for teenagers and adults, it’s just too much for most small children. Try reading just a few verses per day, and don’t be afraid to pause to talk about words your child recognizes or principles they understand. Use short sentences and bear simple testimony. Children can feel the spirit even in a short period of time.
2. Listen for consistent phrases or specific words
Elder Quentin L. Cook shared a practice his children have used in their family scripture study — helping their children recognize words and phrases that are often repeated.
“For the five-year-old, they have five finger signals to which he responds in order for him to participate fully in the family scripture reading,” he explained. “The signal for finger 1 is for him to repeat, ‘And it came to pass’ whenever it appears in the Book of Mormon. … [F]inger signal 2 is ‘And thus we see’; fingers 3, 4 and 5 are chosen by the parents based on the words contained in the chapter they are reading.”
If an entire phrase is too much for your 18-month-old to remember, invite them to listen for just one word. Each time they hear “Nephites,” for example, they can raise their hands and repeat the word. This will help children become familiar with the language of the scriptures and learn to listen.
3. Use music
The Church’s Nursery manual, “Behold Your Little Ones,” teaches that music is an effective way to teach children. It says, “Nursery-age children are ready and eager to learn about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, and music can help them learn. Music invites the Spirit, and it can create a warm and loving atmosphere, making the nursery class a happy place to be.”
You might start each scripture study with the song “Scripture Power,” “Search, Ponder and Pray” or “If I Listen With My Heart.” You could also use the songs “The Books in the Book of Mormon” and similar songs to teach your children about the scriptures. Primary songs about specific scripture stories can also enhance scripture study, like “Nephi’s Courage” and “Tell Me the Stories of Jesus.”
4. Tell the stories occasionally
While it’s important for young children to hear the actual language of the scriptures, it may be helpful to occasionally skip certain verses or to summarize stories using pictures in the Gospel Art Picture Kit. “Behold Your Little Ones” teaches that even just opening the scriptures and pointing to where a story is told can help children make a connection between what you are teaching and the scriptures, even if you don’t read long passages aloud.
5. Focus on the big picture of the story
Children love stories. Many toddlers love looking at pictures and turning pages as parents read. Parents can make scripture study like story time to keep kids engaged. You might choose to hold up a picture of a scripture story while reading it, or to ask children to summarize what they already know about a story before you begin. As you break up the beginning, middle and end of the story, focus on the moral of the story as you teach.
For some young children, it might be helpful to act out certain parts of the story or to draw a picture of the action. Scripture study with young children is about helping them to feel the Spirit and become familiar with the scriptures. If they know the stories, they will have a strong foundation for future gospel learning.
I wished you had written this article forty years ago — my young family needed your insights!