"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
January 30, 2014
False Doctrine in Primary
by Cyndie Swindlehurst

Question:

My five-year-old daughter came home from church yesterday spouting some complete nonsense she learned in her Primary class. When I calmly explained that what she had learned was not right, she exclaimed, “My teacher wouldn’t lie to me!” Then she ran off.

How do I correct false doctrine my daughter learns in Primary without ruining her trust in her teacher?

Answer:

The bond between student and teacher can be a tender one. But in this case, that bond is not the most important thing.

So let’s rephrase this question: How can a parent correct false doctrine a child has learned at church without disparaging the person who taught the false doctrine?

It is a simple fact of life that not everything you hear at church is 100% doctrinally accurate. On any given Sunday you are likely to hear at least one wild idea at church, and that wild idea might come from a teacher.

When children are taught or exposed to false doctrine, parents have a duty to correct the error and present the truth, even if this means an implicit criticism of the person who taught the false doctrine. It is more important to teach truth than it is to create the illusion that everything an adult says at church is true.

Further, since this situation is certain to happen again in the child’s life, it is a useful opportunity to teach the child several important lessons.

First, how to find answers in the scriptures. When your child comes home from church with a nutty idea, it is best if you can show him how to find the correct doctrine in the scriptures. The scriptures are your first line of defense against false doctrine, and you want to teach your child to look to them for answers. (Also, it’s a good idea to refer to the scriptures to make sure you are right before you contradict the teacher.)

So if your child comes home and says that his teacher says God flooded the earth because all of the men in Noah’s time wore beards, and the prophet today doesn’t have a beard, therefore beards are evil, you should not dismiss him with, “That’s nuts. Sister Battenberg is a loon if she thinks that.” That just makes your issue a disagreement between you and the teacher.

Instead, go to the scriptures. Open to Genesis and say, “Well, the scriptures don’t say anything about beards in Noah’s time. But they do say ....” Frame the issue as a factual discrepancy between what his teacher said and the scriptures, rather than a personal disagreement between his teacher and his parent. And an older child can be given the assignment to find and read the relevant scriptures, and then report back.

If the wild idea is not anywhere in the scriptures, that should also be pointed out to the child. Plenty of wild ideas come from unwarranted extrapolation from or addition to the scriptures. Your child will be on a good path if he compares what he learns at church and in the world to what he learns in the scriptures.

Second, to search out answers instead of relying on others’ opinions. Your child is going to hear crazy things about the gospel and the Church throughout his life, from people in and out of the Church. You want him to develop a healthy skepticism, so that when something doesn’t sound right to him, he will seek an answer instead of just accepting what was told to him.

But you don’t want his inquiry to be limited to, “Who is right — Mom or this other person?” Instead, you want him to say, “This new information does not line up with what I’ve always thought. Where can I look to find the answer?”

Third, which sources are reliable, and which are not. It is never too early to teach a child not to believe everything he reads. Even a small child can be taught that some books are more reliable than others. And as you teach your child how to search out answers to gospel questions, you can show him what sources he can safely look to for answers, and how to distinguish reliable sources from unreliable ones.

Now to the second part of your question. How do you do all this without disparaging the teacher who presented the false idea?

First, it is important to remember that what your child reported to you might not be what the teacher actually said. That alone should cause you to hold your tongue about the teacher’s perceived shortcomings.

Second, realize there is no way to contradict the teacher without saying the teacher was wrong. But that’s okay. Everybody is wrong sometimes. And it’s good for your child to see that teachers can be wrong from time to time. You don’t want his testimony to depend at all on the false idea that everything he hears from a teacher is right.

Instead, you want him to learn that we love and respect people and appreciate their efforts no matter what. But that loving and respecting a person does not mean we think everything they say and do is right.

Third, it is sufficient to contradict the teacher’s error. There is no need to provide any commentary on where you think the teacher got the cockamamie idea, what personal shortcomings prevented the teacher from realizing his error, or how crazy it is that such a person has been entrusted with a Primary class.

You have no way of knowing the answer to any of those questions, and it would be unkind to speculate. We all have weaknesses, and if you have a broad base of doctrinal knowledge and an excellent false-doctrine-detector, there is no need to treat others scornfully because they do not.

Finally, in your particular case, you can take this opportunity to teach your daughter the difference between a lie and a mistake. When she says, “My teacher wouldn’t lie to me,” you might respond, “True. But she did make a mistake.” The distinction is an important one to appreciate, as is the fact that good people can be wrong about things.

You will do your child a great favor if you can help her learn that mistakes are not lies and that good people are not always right.

Do you have a quandary, conundrum, or sticky situation in your life? Click this button to drop Cyndie a line, and she’ll be happy to answer your question in a future column. Any topic is welcome!


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About Cyndie Swindlehurst

Cynthia Munk Swindlehurst spent her childhood in New Hampshire and her adolescence in San Diego. She served a mission in Manaus Brazil. She graduated from Brigham Young University with a degree in English and from Duke University with a law degree.

She practiced law until her first child was born. She enjoys reading, tap dancing, and discussing current events. She and her husband live in Greensboro, North Carolina with their two sons.

Cyndie serves as the Sunbeams teacher in her ward.

Visit Cyndie at Dear Cyndie
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