Other than the Young Women’s “Don’t; at least not yet,” I don’t recall ever hearing a church lesson on human sexuality; so the number as well as the half-candid, half-veiled voice of the lessons I’m finding in periodicals of a century ago are both surprising and surprisingly charming to me. This mother education lesson from 1917, for instance, suggests a way in which Relief Society women can instruct their very young children in the most elemental facts of life while preserving the private nature of the topic.
What to Say in Telling the Story of Life’s Renewal.
by Lucy Wright Snow
(Relief Society Magazine, May 1917, 259-261)
The subject of what to say to children in telling the story of life’s renewal is so big and of such vast importance that the only way to do justice to it is to treat it religiously. Let the eternal Father of all our spirits be, as He is, the great Cause, and this mortal body one of the effects of that great Cause.
A noted educator once said: “If you have a big problem in mathematics that you can’t work out, think of a little one just like it. The principle of the greater will be made plain by the solving of the lesser problem.” By this method, great principles may be brought before even a child mind, and his reasoning power gradually developed.
There can be no definite time given as to when the story of life should be told. The mother must consider conditions and be guided by the child’s degree of intelligence and needs; his questions are the best guide to his mental capacity. There probably will be no two children that can be approached on this subject in just the same manner, or at a given age. A very opportune time for the mother to tell the story of life is just previous to the birth of another child, as the final consummation of her prophetic words will inspire a lasting confidence in the child to whom this great truth is being unfolded, and also impress him with the sacredness of the subject, for sacred indeed it is. The study of the origin of our mortal body leads us to the very foundation of the plan of salvation, and if parents have a proper knowledge of the subject, Jesus’ great plan can be presented in a simple way to a child of tender years and be understood by him. It requires a clear knowledge of the subject, to tell it in simple story form, but the child will be so impressed with its truth that there will be no place in his mind for untruths or imperfect guidance, and his whole after-life will be infused with the joy of living.
Many mothers shrink from talking on this subject, fearing to fill the child’s mind with substance unfit for him. The truth is the child’s inheritance: he came here with God-given craving for it, and he had better be told life’s origin truthfully by his mother who knows something of it, and who has the privilege of being inspired by God, than to be told shocking or distorted things by one who knows neither the truth nor the child.
Mothers fear to reveal something shocking to the child that he should not know, but in reality, he should know the story of his existence at the earliest age that he is able to understand it. The danger lies not in telling, but in withholding, this important truth from him.
Of course, there are as many ways to tell the story of life as there are mothers to tell it. It would not be wise to tell this story in glaring, ordinary language. The Savior offered some of his most important teachings in parable, but remember, a parable embraces a truth and in this subject as in all other subjects pertaining to proper guidance of children, truth should be our motto; avoid such stories as the stork or the doctor stories. You will later be called to account for telling an untruth, and your child will have lost some of his confidence in you. It must be remembered that a child just approaching the age of reasoning (about four years) can not receive whole truths, no matter how plainly they may be told; he must, at this age, call upon his imagination to complete his stories, therefore, this story should be told at first not as a glaring fact, but as a truth veiled.
To the mothers who ask, “How shall I begin?” here follows one pretty way based on Andrea Proudfoot’s* story of life, but it may be revised as the mother may see fit.
Choose a quiet time when you are not likely to be interrupted, preferably when the child has asked for a story. Lead him to ask for a true story and then introduce the subject by saying:
“I will tell you the story of YOU, but before I tell it, you must know that every mother loves to tell this story to her own children. Therefore, you must never repeat it to any other child; besides, it is sacred, and even when you speak about it to your own mother, just whisper.”
“A few months before you were born, I dreamed a wonderful dream; I dreamed that you were coming. I awoke and told your father and we together knew that the dream was true and that you were coming. Soon I could feel you under my heart and you began to grow, and as you grew my mother heart leaped for joy in the knowledge that you were coming. And so, you lived and grew under my heart, just as we all live and grow in the hearts of our Heavenly parents.
“How your father loved me! And how I longed for the time to come when I might see you and hold you in my arms; and how he longed to see and to hold you.
“The Father in heaven knew that at last the time had come when I was able to take care of you, and so you were born, and I cried tears of joy as I held you in my arms the first time on that beautiful June morning, and your father gave us both a blessing. You had no teeth and could not eat such food as you need now, and so the Lord in his wisdom caused sweet mother milk to come into my breasts for you, and you grew and grew; and the most wonderful thing of it all is, that while I now have you in my arms, you are still in my heart too.”
A five-year-old boy once asked his mother, “How did the bones come inside of me?”
The mother took him to the door and showed him the workmen building a house, opposite their home.
“The Lord made a little chamber in a mother’s body, where her children grow. The blood carries little tiny, tiny bricks or bone-bits or atoms, we call them, and the bone atoms are laid one on top of another, by the blood, which is the master workman; and then the eyes are made, like those windows over there; and the mouth is like the door, and the bones are covered with flesh, and finally God says the word, and the chamber door opens and out you came – right out into the world. And that’s our sacred secret, son. See?”
The story will make a life-long impression upon the child, if told in this way, for the mother will, before the end, be shedding glorious tears that will add to the sacredness of the moment. and when it is finished, let the child understand that it is finished, and that it is so sacred as to be not a subject for common conversation.
If this story be told with earnestness and the sacredness that belongs to it, there need be no fear that it will ever be counteracted or discounted by distorted or incorrect stories on the subject, that might later be brought to the child’s attention, therefore, we cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of the mother or guardian telling it early enough, before any other person might plant seeds of doubt or distrust in the innocent mind of the child.
The implanting of a truth has already taken place; the child’s mind is content on the greatest subject in the world and misinformation will find no place in his mind.
I can hear some young mothers of my acquaintance protesting that clinical terms must be used in any such discussion; still, I am charmed by this approach and think that it incorporates some important Mormon ideas of propriety and sacredness into the clinical discussion.
Other lessons and suggestions for teaching children and young girls the facts of life are easily found in the Relief Society Magazine and the Young Woman’s Journal, and I may present some of them in future if there is interest; I’m still looking for equivalent lessons on the instructing of young men.
* Andrea Hofer Proudfoot (1866-1949), Iowa-born student of the German kindergarten movement, helped to popularize scientific methods of early childhood education in the United States. Editor and publisher of a magazine aimed at those interested in the kindergarten movement, suffragette, confirmed Christian, and peace activist at the end of World War I, Mrs. Proudfoot was a natural candidate for admiration from Relief Society sisters of the early 20th century. Samples of her work can be found on the Internet: A Mother’s Ideas (Chicago: Flanagan, 1897), with several other works on mother education and Christian teaching from the same era here.