Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

The New Mormon Primary manuals were not designed with real children in mind

The lds.org website has videos and other materials to help Primary teachers adapt to the new curriculum.

 

A guest post by Mette Harrison

As a current teacher of the Sunbeams, the Mormon class for three-year-old children, I was curious about the new Primary manuals for the new year, which are meant to supplement the church-wide home-study program of “Come, Follow Me.” So I went to the meeting we were asked to attend for our ward, part of the regular “teaching training” sessions that are held once a month.

I was . . . “disappointed” might be the kindest way to put it. No wonder so few of the Primary teachers ever attend these meetings. No one seems to have any interest in the needs of young children. All of the suggestions for teaching were for adults and youth.

I brought up my concerns with our Primary President, who assured me that once I had the manual in hand, I’d see how to use it.

Well, that wasn’t what happened. When I saw the manual, I was even more confused. We’re moving from 40-minute lessons to 20-minute lessons each week, yet the manuals have a LOT more material to cover, especially doctrinal material. I like the focus on Christ rather than faith-promoting stories about the pioneers, but I also felt a bit like someone read through the scriptures to find pat answers to particular questions about Mormonism instead of reading to see what the scriptures actually had to say for themselves.

It seemed clear to me that no one is thinking about three-year-olds. These lessons are so far over their heads, it’s silly. The sad thing for me is that the old lesson manual (Primary 1) was absolutely spot on for this age group. I suspect I won’t be the only teacher looking back to those pages for help. Yes, I recognize that the beginning of the “Come, Follow Me” manual tells teachers to pray and feel inspired about what to teach their children specifically. But I just don’t know if there’s anything I can use for these little kids who are often:

  1. Not verbal. As in, they may not speak at all. Or if they do, they don’t speak in full sentences.
  2. Unable to read. Any activity that requires reading of any kind does not work for this age. Many of these children don’t even know what letters are, and that is perfectly age appropriate.
  3. Struggling to understand what chairs are, or how to sit still for more than two minutes.
  4. In need of treats/snacks.
  5. Unable to understand the difference between pretend and real, or between Santa and Jesus (as I discovered when I tried to do a Christmas-centered lesson at the end of the year).
  6. Unsure about abstract concepts.
  7. Not yet able to count or understand numbers.

I want to emphasize that I love teaching these children. But I think sometimes people in church imagine that teaching children by rote is what we’re supposed to be doing. One lesson even suggests that I have children repeat the phrase “Jesus Christ is the son of God.” This idea makes me squirm a little. When I was in high school, one of my friends taught her two-year-old sister to repeat the quadratic formula. It was a great party trick, but this two-year-old didn’t understand the complicated math behind her recitation. She had no advantage over children who hadn’t learned this formula. And using children as puppets to make me feel good as a teacher or to make the parents feel good seems contrary to teaching the gospel of Christ.

Let’s go to the lessons, starting with the first one that teachers are supposed to use this weekend. There are two main teaching points.

Jesus Christ wants me to follow him

The scriptures are true

One of the first suggestions is, “Read the Savior’s invitation ‘Come follow me,’ found in Luke 18:22.” As I said before, reading isn’t a great idea for children this age. Since they don’t understand what letters or words are, and the words are often over their head, teachers are going to have to do a lot of work to make sense of this for three-year-olds. (And here’s another place for me to complain that church manuals are still using the extremely outdated language of the King James Version of the Bible, which is difficult for everyone, but especially children.)

The next suggestion is “Play a game where one child does an action and then tells the other children, ‘Come, follow me.’” This could be fun, but my question is—are you really teaching a concept of following to these children or just playing a game? And if you’re just playing a game, maybe a better game could be suited to age-appropriate learning? (I often play a game of matching anima cards, with mother and child animal pairs that my kids love).

Next is the suggestion, “You can also show the video ‘Light the World’ (LDS.org). Let the children identify how the people are following the Savior.” Really? Using a video? I’m sorry, but I always think it’s an abdication of your teaching responsibility to show a video, but especially in the case of young children. They’re often getting too much screen time already. Aren’t we at church to have real, human interactions?

Then comes the suggestion, “Show pictures of people following the Savior in different ways.” This is the best suggestion here. Children love to look at pictures and find details.

But then comes, “Help the children think of things they are doing to follow the Savior.” I worry that the focus here is on training three-year-olds to know what the “Sunday School answers” are. What are three-year-olds doing to follow Jesus? If it’s just being nice and not stealing toys, why not just focus on those lessons instead?

Finally, we are told to try singing “Seek the Lord Early” from the Primary Children’s Songbook. Singing is a great idea for Sunbeams, but this is an extremely abstract song for this age. Honestly, I tend to focus on “Popcorn Popping” and “Once There Was a Snowman,” with actions so they can get out of their seats. Also, I try to sing the same songs throughout the year so they’re familiar and inviting. Learning a new song just for one lesson is a tough sell for kids who can’t read the words or understand them in a simple way.

Then, we get, “Let them draw pictures of themselves doing these things [following Jesus].” Seriously? Sunbeams can’t draw a human figure doing anything. Many of them can’t hold a crayon or do anything with it other than put it in their mouths. Something far more simple is required here.

Ultimately, my main goals with Sunbeams are 1) to make sure that they think church is fun/interesting, and 2) that they feel safe and loved. These lessons aren’t helping much in those goals.

Compare this with the lessons for Sunbeams in Primary 1:

I Am A Child of God

Heavenly Father Has a Body

Heavenly Father’s Plan for Us

These Primary lessons were concrete and simple. They were specifically designed for young children. I didn’t always follow them precisely, but it felt like someone who had met a Sunbeam had written them. Even better are the later lessons:

I am thankful for birds and insects

I am thankful for fish

I am thankful for trees and plants

I am thankful for my hands

I can’t tell you how much fun I had with my three-year-olds when I designed a lesson about insects. We looked at detailed images of insects, pointed out the different parts, and then colored in pictures. We also often went outside to spy out insects in the wild.

Sunbeams understand insects. And fish. And trees. These are things they see and can touch. I always reminded them that these are gifts from Heavenly Father, but if that part is over their head, they enjoyed the lesson anyway.

I suspect that people at church headquarters already know that there’s a problem with these lesson manuals for Sunbeams. I suspect they are already at work on better material for this age group. But in the rush to get the new curriculum done quickly for 2019, the Sunbeams have been forgotten.


Other posts by Mette Harrison:

The best Mormon Family Home Evening ever

10 reasons Mormons dominate multi-level marketing companies

A letter to my daughter’s Mormon seminary teacher


 

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (Random House/Convergent, 2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church" (Oxford University Press, 2019). She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

40 Comments

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  • “Unable to understand the difference between pretend and real, or between Santa and Jesus.” It seems that particular problem carries on into adulthood for the indoctrinated.

  • The real question is, why are they teaching 3-year-olds at all? It gives me shivers to think that indoctrination happens so early in their impressionable minds.

  • You had me till you got to “Really? Using a video? I’m sorry, but I always think it’s an abdication of your teaching responsibility to show a video, but especially in the case of young children. They’re often getting too much screen time already. Aren’t we at church to have real, human interactions?”

    You’re so nit-picky. Is the inside of your head this kind of torment all the time? Don’t you make a meaningful distinction between doing nothing but showing videos and using an excerpt or clip to use an image or simulation to stimulate a conversation? It may well be that the lesson manual is not properly adapted to the age group but if everything is wrong with it, it’s either the worst-written manual of all time or you’re overreacting.

  • Yes, isn’t that creepy of the Mormons to have Sunday school for toddlers. Maybe they should just leave them at home or shove them into a kiddy keep. What a cult! It’s all indoctrination, I tell ya!

  • You call it “indoctrination” only because you start with the assumption that the information in question isn’t true, and nothing anyone could conceivably say will change your mind. Regardless, your assumption is wrong.

  • Our stake was one of the pilot stakes. Our ward had great success with Come Follow Me. We petitioned SLC to continue after the pilot ended, but did not have the structure and manuals to do it. It is hard to match the primary lessons with the adult topics without the new manual. Going back to the old teaching approach was disappointing, so we try to use the spirit of the initiative in how our classes worked. Wards or teachers that resisted and used the traditional LDS teaching approach were frustrated. I suggest you do not force Come Follow Me to be used in the way you have been used to teaching. It is so hard if you do not change from they way it was done before. I doubt they are wanting to rewrite the manuals to make it easy to go back.

    The reasons we loved this approach was
    1. the concepts are taught by the family for the 6 days before your class. My wife found her primary students came knowing the topic, could discuss it at their level, and contributed to the class. She did not force the concept into the children. She encouraged them to express themselves and ideas.

    2. The topics are the same as being discussed by the others in their family during the week and Sunday classes.

    3. Also the topic is the same in every ward and branch of the church for that Sunday. For example wherever you attend, your children, grandchildren are discussing the same topic. You will never again repeat the lesson three weeks in a row as you travel around in the summer.

  • Why not? They shove the kids less than 3 years old into a kiddy keep.

    In case you’re too young to have figured it out yet, mockery is not a response. It’s a pathetic effort to dismiss something one does not have the intelligence, arguments, or articulation to refute. Just the sort of non-logic I’d expect from a butthurt believer trying to defend his church at all costs.

  • Actually, it’s the exact opposite I call it indoctrination because I’ve spent decades in heavy research of the church, its claims, its history, its leaders, which resulted in an informed conclusion.

    On the other hand, you’re the one starting with the assumption that the information is true and have never bothered to truly put the church to the test.

    I call it indoctrination because that’s exactly what it is by definition. It’s all indoctrination from 3 years old on up. That’s the point of church lessons on DOCTRINE in any religion, to inDOCTRINate.

  • Huh??? So do you think it’s wrong to teach 3 year olds anything or just what we believe? By your logic teaching a 3 year old to share or to be kind to others is wrong too? I mean heaven forbid you teach a three year old anything…its just brainwashing them I guess….you should wait until they are much older to teach them anything I guess….otherwise its indoctionation!! Wow.

  • So, your issue is not 3 year olds.

    Your issue is a rejection of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints.

  • Sorry, not gonna let you pigeonhole me with your simplistic Mormon view of life.

    My issue is to challenge any organization that indoctrinates children before they have the ability to employ discernment. My issue IS children and how careless adults can be with their well-being.

  • This is so interesting. I am a sunbeam teacher and I find these lessons are SOOOO MUCH better then the old lessons. It’s so simple. You understand the basic concept of each weeks lesson, then just pick something to talk about and do!! With Sunbeams your only going to get a few minutes of attention anyway,? So just come up with ways to talk about that one thing, or activities with that idea, videos etc…So for example tomorrow…we will talk about being a good learner and listening. We will talk about following Jesus… maybe play a follow the leader game and color a picture if there is still time. It’s going to go fast.

  • I never even provided my Mormon view of life, let alone a simplistic one.

    I simply pointed out that your issues are with the Church and the concept of “indoctrination”, not 3 year olds per se.

    https://disqus.com/home/discussion/religionnews/the_new_mormon_primary_manuals_were_not_designed_with_real_children_in_mind/#comment-4271866931

    “I call it indoctrination because that’s exactly what it is by definition. It’s all indoctrination from 3 years old on up. That’s the point of church lessons on DOCTRINE in any religion, to inDOCTRINate.”

    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/teach

    teach – verb

    1 with object and infinitive or clause Impart knowledge to or instruct (someone) as to how to do something.

    ‘she taught him to read’

    ‘he taught me how to ride a bike’

    https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/teaching

    teaching – noun

    2 teachings

    Ideas or principles taught by an authority.

    ‘the teachings of the Koran’

  • Yeah, and usually I enjoy reading her blogs, but this entry is so over-the-top nitpicky. I’ve taught that group. There’s not much you’re going to teach them, regardless of what’s in the manual. With small children, you’re just finding activities that are fun and centered around the topic or theme of the week.

  • I was being sarcastic. Every church, every Sunday school, every class in public school, is indoctrinating. Every sitcom with a moral at the end is indoctrinating. Martindale just uses it as a buzzword because he’s applying it to a church whose methods and motives he finds suspect.

  • Indoctrination is when you try to get people to believe what you want them to believe. It’s not neutral. It’s advocacy. And on that basis, that’s what anybody is doing when they’re coming at you with an agenda. What you’ve described is called “going to church.” Been a Baptist. Spent time in the Catholic Church. Spent a lifetime listening to commercials, watching sitcoms, listening to activists. Indoctrination is indoctrination.

    I wouldn’t lose sleep over the idea that a Sunday school class of three-year-olds is getting indoctrinated, though when you’re three, your lack of critical-thinking skills and trained skepticism is matched by your attention span. Whoever is indoctrinating the three-year-olds has an uphill battle.

  • I think you got pigeonholed with your simplistic horror at the idea that Mormons are indoctrinating three-year-olds by teaching them anything in a Mormon Sunday school program. I think any religiously-sponsored daycare is probably doing the same thing – just changing the names next to the angels.

  • As Mark pointed out, I was being sarcastic.

    I don’t have a problem with non-Mormons taking issue with LDS beliefs and practices. In a freemarket of ideas, that’s the point of letting different groups do their own thing.

    I don’t have a problem with people criticizing LDS viewpoints with which they disagree, based on history, logic or their personal preference.

    I do have a problem with smug, judgy people who feign shock and dismay over nothing. Mormons have Sunday school? Oh my! Mormons bring their three-year-olds to church? Oh my! Mormons teach little Bible lessons to those three-year-olds in-between snacks and toys and activities? Oh my! Why, that’s just inDOCTRINation, I tell you! Cue Foghorn Leghorn.

    If you have want to go after Joseph Smith’s 40 wives or Brigham Young’s Adam-God theory or criticize the Priesthood Ban or let out a “Jeeez” when you get to Mountain Meadows, have at it. Mormons aren’t above criticism.

    But to raise an eyebrow and a full-on stink-eye because Mormons have daycare for three-year-olds and in it they teach gospel lessons, “Oh my, my, my! That’s inDOCTRINation!” Yeah, right. Give me a break.

    Not everything Mormons do, did or might do involves Jim Jones, Kool-Aid or Guyana. If you think so, that says more about you than it does about them. Give it a rest.

  • I’m 53. The only thing I’m too young for is adult diapers, but give it some time. Maybe you can show me how to fill some. Maybe you already did.

    If mockery is not a formal reply to an academic question, raised eyebrows and feigned outrage isn’t, either. Mormons bring their kids to church – all their kids, even the loud ones, especially the loud ones. They all sit together as a family and listen – between barnyard banter – to other Mormons read Conference talks and tell personal asides. It is what it is.

    But during Sunday school, families go to different meetings, based on age, sometimes on gender. Little kids go to Primary. And in the levels – between the nursery and the pre-k kids – there’s a class that has three-year-olds. I’ve taught that class. It can be challenging – for the teachers. You really have to settle into how a three-year-old perceives the world, what’s interesting and challenging for a three-year-old, and work from there.

    Mostly what you teach a three-year-old is how to attend a class, how to trust a teacher, how to be separated from mommy for an hour, how to work together with other little kids. The three-year-old class is Mormon flavored but it’s still mostly three-year-olds learning how to adjust to this new environment of Sunday school.

    My wife and I taught one of these. We didn’t abuse anybody. We didn’t raise any children of the corn. We sang some songs, we played some games, we interacted with these kids in a kind of Mister Rogers way. And we did it under the umbrella of a Mormon class at church.

    It was, at times, exhausting, like herding sheep. If anybody managed to get inDOCTRINated, that was way more than we were shooting for.

  • “Ultimately, my main goals with Sunbeams are 1) to make sure that they think church is fun/interesting, and 2) that they feel safe and loved. These lessons aren’t helping much in those goals.”
    I felt the same way after teaching Sunbeams for a couple years. If you can jut get the kids to be happy to go to church, then you’ve succeeded at building a solid foundation. There’s such a broad range in preparation among kids that age – a few kids have the ideal background to prepare them for the material in some of those lessons, but most, especially those outside of Utah, do not.

  • Yeah…. I usually enjoy posts by this author, but this one seems pretty ridiculous. They’re 3 year olds. Don’t overthink things. You’re main goals are exactly those two goals you highlighted. You’re only going to get about 5 minutes of their attention for anything resembling a lesson anyway. Each lesson should essentially be a variation of “God loves you!” Use your knowledge, make some choices and priorities for your class, and just enjoy the trust and autonomy being placed in you to adapt the lessons to YOUR class.

  • I am not surprised that the latest version of homogenized Mormonism would be even less helpful to kids than past incarnations. I got my first taste of teaching Primary in the LDS Church when as a high school senior I was called to run the 11-year-old scout program and after school Primary class for them. I was assigned because the boys then were too much of a handful for the adult women in charge of the program, so I got called as an 18-year-old high school senior to do it. From then on, I always felt like being assigned to Primary was some sort of religious punishment, even when my own kids were in the class that I was teaching. (The last thing that a public school teacher wants to do on Sunday is teach someone else’s kids at their worst behavior for free.)

  • It’s really strange how this non-LDS person, Legion, feels the need to warn you all about Jana lately. He’s done it a few times of late.

  • Mark Connelly is not LDS. Best guess, he’s old school Roman Catholic. I think that he’s been bored with other RNS articles and their comments and has been injecting himself more into the articles about LDS topics.

  • I used to teach sunbeams with my wife many years ago. The kids were great. They told us about their dogs and cats and their grandmas and baseball games. We ate a whole box of Ritz crackers every week and one little girl always ate an entire sleeve of crackers herself. We then played hide-and-go-seek within the confines of the room. All the kids “hid” under folding chairs and the game took about 1 minute to play. We played it at least 10 times every week. I’m sure we taught a lesson every week, but I honestly don’t remember much about the lessons.

  • You say, as if genderless White liberals don’t routinely indoctrinate their children with leftist dogma. The ones that actually get to be born, that is.

  • Nothing but complaints and naysaying – time and again. Why do you continue to be involved at all, for more opportunities to whine?

  • I’m sorry, but my goodness, lady! Take the lesson material, and teach it, or parts of it, or whatever else you want, in whatever way you think a 3-year old can digest it. Is it really that hard, or are you just pining for something to complain about? Does your dissatisfaction with the Church know no bounds? Petty much?

  • “.. a few kids have the ideal background to prepare them for the material in some of those lessons, but most, especially those outside of Utah, do not.”

    I hope you don’t here mean what I think you mean. Kids outside of Utah have a less-ideal background to understand the material? Why? Utah Mormons are better? More righteous? More committed? The culture is purer?

    Smh.

  • Yeah, it’s not written for three year olds…it’s written for 3-11 year olds. So it makes sense that it’d be full of enough material to engage 11 yr olds, and teachers of younger kids are expected to do a little sifting and translating to bring the material down to the level of little kids. I think this is a smart way to avoid having to make and print a ton of manuals. Look at it this way, you have a lot of freedom in what parts you want to teach, don’t want to teach, or want to translate and adapt to youngsters.

    Also, I see videos as a smart choice, as they grab attention. As long as they’re short and on point.

  • Sunbeams need to feel love, acceptance, and that being in church is a good place to be. I always took the old lessons and created my lessons. I even added stories that were not necessarily biblical but taught concepts which were. The keys to not becoming totally frazzled were to (1) be prepared before coming to church and reading over the lesson during Sacrament talks and (2) keeping a sense of humor. The years I taught this age group were wonderful.

  • Part of our responsibility as primary teachers is to NOT follow the lessons word for word or step by step as the old manuels suggested. I find it amazing that we are invited to pray to know the needs of our classes, and teach accordingly. I am never worried about getting through all the material because that is what they are doing at home with their families. It’s not my responsibility to teach them. It’s my responsibility to support the learning at home, and from my understanding we need to do that according tot he needs of our class. I find your post casts a negative light on this new amazing program.

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