Bowdlerizing the Book of Mormon

November 11, 2004 | 22 comments
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This afternoon at lunch, my angelic three-year-old daughter said causally to her quesadilla, “I’m going to kill you by plunging my spoon into your heart.” With two active preschoolers, chaos often reigns in my home, but this was enough to catch my attention. Upon further questioning, it was revealed that Elena had no special feud with bastardized Mexican foods, but was merely taking to heart the wholesome lesson she had attentively absorbed from our scripture reading the night before. You guessed it, Teancum and Amalickiah, and the fateful javelin to the heart.

Elena loves the Book of Mormon. She reminds us to read every night at dinner faithfully, and as the anecdote above illustrates, she absorbs quite a bit; she frequently selects the BoM audio tapes to listen to as she goes to sleep; she loves to inspect the illustrated BoM storybooks we own. Tonight we went out to dinner (Mexican, incidentally), and she insisted that we bring the BoM along to read. I haven’t tried especially hard to instill this interest in her, other than reading at her request and supplying the audiovisual materials. While I’m glad she loves the scriptures, I’m starting to wonder whether the Book of Mormon is appropriate for a pre-schooler. I ruthlessly censor the stories and videos she watches (I think nothing of skipping the part where Frances gets scared of monsters in “Bedtime for Frances,” for example), and I’m starting to wonder whether I should censor the scriptures, too.

We made the decision to read the standard text, rather than one of the several family versions available, because we want our children to become literate in the scriptural idiom. But is it wise to expose such a young mind to such intense and violent material? And is it fair to immerse her so deeply before she has critical thinking skills? How do you do scriptures with young children?

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22 Responses to Bowdlerizing the Book of Mormon

  1. Adam Greenwood on November 11, 2004 at 1:28 am

    “And is it fair to immerse her so deeply before she has critical thinking skills? ”

    Everyone is going to absorb a whole bunch of stuff before they develop critical thinking skills. That’s just childhood. Probably not too bad of thing, all in all, if the scriptures are part of it, though, uh, yeah, I soften things a little bit when I tell stories to my girl.

  2. danithew on November 11, 2004 at 2:26 am

    That is the best quesadilla story I’ve ever heard. I also think its extremely cool that your daughter loves the Book of Mormon that much.

  3. Derren on November 11, 2004 at 5:28 am

    I think it’s great what you are doing but at the same time I think that you should allocate specific occasions and moments to read the Scriptures. You mentioned that she wanted you to read the BoM while out for dinner having Mexican.

    I did not quite get if you did satisfy her request. I would have not. The risk is that she will miss the whole point that you are try to make and consider the Bom as a ‘nice book of stories’, just fiction.

    I understand she find it extremely entertaining but, it is only my opinion, if reading the scriptures does not come with a sort of ‘introduction’ to the whole reading process – something that stresses the sacrality of it – she might develop a total indifference to the Bom in the future since she might look at it as the book of stories that parents use to tell her when she was young.
    I rarely go back to my old book of fables …

    All the best, Derren

  4. danithew on November 11, 2004 at 11:24 am

    I don’t know. If your daughter has such a voracious appreciation for the Book of Mormon, I’d encourage her to go with it. But that’s just me. Clearly from her comment, she understands whats going on and is having an imaginative experience. But as long as she’s taking that imagination out on quesadillas and not on people, I would think she’ll be fine.

    If the Book of Mormon were taken away from her, the appetite and imagination that she is demonstrating would still be in existence and might be replaced with something other than the Book of Mormon. My guess is that if she’s allowed to go forward with her interest, she’ll simply develop a very strong testimony of the Book of Mormon early in life. She’ll have answers to questions at her young age that some people don’t get around to asking until they are in the MTC.

    When I was still a kid I loved to read and my parents got me those illustrated New Testament and Book of Mormon stories. I was fascinated by the swords and the Jaredite wars but in the process of reading these books I also was touched by the teachings of Jesus. I can still remember having very reverent feelings as I’d approach and then read the story of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. I was very young but I was able to feel the Spirit and gain a testimony, even though these illustrated stories I was reading had fairly realistic depictions with blood and swords and arrow impalements.

  5. Ana on November 11, 2004 at 11:46 am

    Rosalynde, I think I wouldn’t be shocked if my kids (Samuel, 5, and Abraham, 3) threatened their quesadillas with gory death, and as I write this I’m trying to figure out why. I also don’t censor for them other than holding off completely if I dont’ consider the entire book digestible for them. We read the bathrobe/monster scene in Bedtime for Frances, and we’ve read The Hobbit and Harry Potter and the Book of Mormon without skipping the scary parts. Regular violent play is par for the course, and by that I mean two plastic dinosaurs engaged in a fight to the death, with lots of yelling. I lean towards the explanation that I take this approach because my parents did the same. I fondly remember sitting–absolutely terrified–at my dad’s feet as he read The Hobbit when I was five and my brother was three. I think it’s possible that working through ideas about violence and fear through carefully selected literature can be a very healthy pursuit for a developing mind!

    By the way, after reading your last post, I am thinking I was in a course or two with you in the BYU English department about 1996, probably Gene England’s Mormon Literature course or something. Right time frame for you?

  6. Kristine on November 11, 2004 at 12:00 pm

    I’m actually really squeamish about doing the scriptures with my kids. My then three-year-old became fascinated with crucifixion after a Primary lesson last Eastertime, and it gave me the creeps. (He would only draw pictures of crosses for weeks–stuffed animals were nailed to popsicle stick crosses, etc.)

    I think this squeamishness is a very recent phenomenon–our children are so sheltered from death and violence compared to children of even a hundred years ago (or children in other places). I really struggle with trying to figure out how much of my protective instinct is just silly political correctness absorbed by osmosis, and how much is a legitimate response to the happy fact (for which I am exceedingly grateful) that violence is mostly not a part of my children’s world, and they don’t need stories to contextualize and make sense of it.

    But, divest the scriptures of violence, and you’re left with the Sermon on the Mount, and some Pauline epistles, and a few other things that are way too conceptually advanced for kids. And, let’s face it, kids really *like* violence and grue–at least mine do. “Integrity” doesn’t really get 7-year-olds very worked up, but being burned because you won’t stop testifying, well, that’s something they can get worked up about!

    In short, I don’t know how to deal with this. I flip-flop. My children will grow up to hopelessly wishy-washy, or they’ll become vehement iron-rodders in reaction, and my grandchildren will recite the war chapters of the Book of Mormon to me as I lie writhing in agony on my nursing home bed…

  7. Nate Oman on November 11, 2004 at 12:22 pm

    “My children will grow up to hopelessly wishy-washy, or they’ll become vehement iron-rodders in reaction, and my grandchildren will recite the war chapters of the Book of Mormon to me as I lie writhing in agony on my nursing home bed… ”

    I wanna watch! I wanna watch! I wanna watch!

  8. Bryce I on November 11, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    We read the standard text with our oldest daughter (now 6) for a few years, but as her younger sister became more able to sit and listen, we decided to take a break and use the illustrated readers for a while so that the kids could both be involved at the same time, and so they could get a better sense of the narrative than they were getting with just a few verses each night. I think once we’re through the Bible stories we may go back to the actual scriptures.

    I wouldn’t worry about your kids turning into sociopaths from reading the Book of Mormon. For some kids, the gory action sequences are the hook that keeps them interested. Of course, individual children demand individual attention (standard disclaimer).

  9. CB on November 11, 2004 at 1:16 pm

    Two experiences.

    When I got married, my mother gave me a scrapbook she had been keeping for the last two decades – primary awards, school essays, report cards, etc. The book contained a drawing I had done in crayon at age 4, which depicted Ammon whacking arms. I’m proud to say that I emulated Minerva Teichert, with the liberal use of the color red.

    When our son was 9, I overheard him threaten a younger sibling with the words: “Give me that right now, or I will begin to inflict the wounds of death upon you, that you become extinct!”

    Our son is a decade older now, and has managed to stay out of juvenile court. My advice is: relax and enjoy.

  10. David King Landrith on November 11, 2004 at 2:12 pm

    Kristine: I think this squeamishness is a very recent phenomenon–our children are so sheltered from death and violence compared to children of even a hundred years ago (or children in other places).

    I think that Kristine hits the nail on the head with this point, though I impute a different significance to it than (I think) she does.

    I think that half the stuff that we do to protect our children from what we consider psychologically dangerous actually inhibits proper adjustment. Here’s a rather offhand example: When I was a kid, we watched (for example) a cat and mouse (Tom & Jerry) beat each other with hatchets, chef knives, shovels, etc. Nowadays, kids watch Barny singing, “I love you…” But when I was growing up, nobody brought guns to school.

  11. Austin Frost on November 11, 2004 at 2:59 pm

    That is quite the vocabulary for a three-year old. I wouldn’t worry about it. I have a Religion teacher this semester who said that he watched his four year old hold a play gun to the Book of Mormon and say “Freeze Book of Mormon.” He then proceeded to pull the trigger, drop the book on the ground and dance wildly around the “dead” Book of Mormon. My professor was horrified; I was amused. He’s a kid being a kid, as is your daughter. Just be grateful it is a cheese crisp and not a doll: that would be a bit more frightening (though harmless just the same). BTW, did she really say “plunge” or did you add that in there for aesthetic reasons?

  12. Rosalynde Welch on November 11, 2004 at 4:07 pm

    Great comments, all, especially for such a tossed-out post. A few responses.

    Derren–Interesting perspective. You seem to have a Catholic view of scripture–that is, scripture should be kept separate, sacred, and partially inaccessible–which, in my book, may not be such a bad thing. I admit to cringing when I see funny-page cartoon versions of BoM stories at Deseret Book.

    Ana–You probably have the better approach to censoring children’s media–the all-or-nothing view. I admit to occasionally not screening the picture books we read, so I do insert some improvised lacunae now and then. I agree that literature can provide a healthy way for children to encounter and deal with violence–it can also provide a sobering window to their world. I’ll never forget the first time I read “Peter Rabbit” to Elena: she was first incredulous and then truly appalled to learn that old Mr. Rabbit whipped his son. “A daddy should never hit his children, Mama,” she said. By the way, it probably wasn’t me in Gene’s class in 1996, since I spent most of that year on my mission. However, if the person you’re remembering was brilliant, beautiful, kind and sophisticated, feel free to assume it was me.

    Kristine: You’re right on, of course, that some children today are far more sheltered from violence than children historically have been. But, like you, I can’t help feeling that this is a good thing, and can’t shake my feelings of discomfort at exposing my children to violence (and sex, I must admit.)

    DKL: You’re leaving out a few contextual fact, my friend. I think it would be ludicrous to claim that the *total* amount of violence children consume in the aggregate before high school has dropped in the last forty years. “Barney” in pre-school is more than outdone by “Total Doom 45″ video games in middle school.

    Austin: Yes, in fact, she did say “plunge.” Although, as her preschool screening today showed, she is somewhat lacking in gross motor skills, she does have quite a phenomenal vocabulary. “Multitude,” “contention” and “exceedingly” are just a few of the words she’s adopted from the BoM into her everyday speech. Ravishingly adorable to me, of course.

  13. David King Landrith on November 11, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    You’re right about the “Total Doom 45″ type of video game that teenagers play, and if I we exclude teenagers from the discussion, then my example of guns at school isn’t fair game.

    Just the same, call me dogmatic, but I can’t help but think that we’re raising a generation of pansies once we start treating toddlers and small children like they’re too delicate to handle the grittier passages of scripture.

  14. Kristine on November 11, 2004 at 4:30 pm

    My kids like “exceedingly,” too, although their precocious-seeming archaisms are more likely to come from fairy tales. The other day Louisa was in a huff in her bedroom, and when I knocked on the door she hollered, “off with you! Be gone!”

  15. William Morris on November 11, 2004 at 5:01 pm

    The Times & Seasons crowd probably isn’t the best test group because it’s filled with college educated parents who like to read, but I wonder how the Church’s emphasis on reading the Book of Mormon as a family affects literacy among LDS children. Obviously, scripture has been a big factor in (and motivator of) literacy throughout the ages, but I wonder if there’s anything unique about how it is manifested in LDS families.

    On an anecdotal basis — I have no doubt that it had a positive influence on my ability to read and connect with 16th – 19th century English literature in high school and college.

  16. Adam Greenwood on November 11, 2004 at 5:14 pm

    Same here, Wm. M.

  17. Rosalynde Welch on November 11, 2004 at 6:18 pm

    LOL, Kristine! Should I ever doubt the influence my language choices have on my children, I need only remember Elena, at the peak of greatest fury, screaming, “Mom, you’re making a bad choice!”

  18. Kaimi on November 11, 2004 at 6:35 pm

    A few months ago, after we had been discussing the Constitution and civil rights and laws in general with Sullivan, Mardell asked him to take out the trash. He replied “I’m not your slave — the constitution says you can’t have slaves!”

  19. Wayne Wells on November 11, 2004 at 6:51 pm

    When one of my daughters was eight, she didn’t want to go to school because it was so hard for her. We later found she has ADHD. During her father’s blessing before that school year, i was impressed to tell her that if she would read the Book of Mormon, that her reading skills would improve. She read it every day, on her own, without the usual amount of begging, pleading, etc.

    Her reading improved to an average level for her age. We feel that she was blessed by following the promise in that blessing. I was touched by her faith in me.

    For those who are wondering, medication and counciling have improved her reading and study skills even more. She is now in college (and we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to convience her to stay in grade school). She is on the Dean’s honor roll. She tells me that Shakespeare is no problem after reading the scriptures at home.

    Let your kids stab their dinner, shoot their missionary copy of the Book of Mormon, or play Lamanites and Nephites, but please encourage them to read the Book of Mormon.

  20. Kingsley on November 11, 2004 at 7:45 pm

    Sister Welch, that is one of the great angelic three-year-old anecdotes of all time. My friend, reading it aloud to me, broke down with laughter and I soon followed suite.

  21. Dan Richards on November 12, 2004 at 1:20 am

    she frequently selects the BoM audio tapes to listen to as she goes to sleep

    If the cadence of the scriptures puts her to sleep, she might just have a future as a full-time missionary…

  22. Brian on November 13, 2004 at 2:56 am

    How can everyone miss the real issue here?! Quesadillas threaten our way of life. They breed like crazy and will go for your throat as soon as your back is turned. They’re small, but deadly. Don’t let the cheese fool you.

    My cousin Hiram went to Taco Bell. Ordered a quesadilla. Lost two fingers.

    I had a pet dachshund. Walked too close to Del Taco. Came home with nothing but a leash.

    Good thing little Elena had that spoon. She probably saved Rosalynde’s life that day. The only good quesadilla is a dead one and we need to wipe them out fast.

    Before they team up with the taquitos.

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