While living overseas with a young family, I was contemplating one day the overwhelming responsibility we feel as parents to teach our children “everything they need to know” in order to navigate their way through this mortal life and return safely back to our Heavenly Father.
In the midst of this very sobering thought, and with my own imperfections and inadequacies with my five children weighing heavily on my mind, I suddenly had a stroke of inspiration and comfort: if we could teach our children to love general conference and take it into their hearts and minds, they would be safe.
Over the course of their lives they would in fact get all they needed—and at the right times! This became one of the most important moments of inspiration in all my years as a parent. But how exactly do we do this? How do we help our children learn to truly love and embrace general conference?
Acquaint Them with the Spirit
Although we often think of helping children get through conference by finding fun things to associate with it—fun food between sessions, entertaining activities to do during the talks, etc., there is something much more important, and that is helping them associate general conference with an outpouring of the spirit and an overwhelming feeling of love.
Our second daughter has autism, and although she is quite high-functioning, she has some limitations with language and comprehension. Yet this is the child most excited about general conference; the one who—even overseas where conference comes a week later and we watch all sessions at the chapel, in church attire—is the most eager of all. If anyone ever suggests watching one session on the Internet at home instead, she nips that conversation in the bud. She wants the full experience, big screen and all, not because of what she can understand through the words, but because of what she feels. She even expressed this to me on occasion—how happy she felt when she was there in the chapel with us watching all of conference together. This was touching and enlightening.
Here are some of the essentials that I think have made a difference in her life as well as in the lives of our other children.
Send the Right Message: Conference Is a Big Deal
Step 1: Build Enthusiasm
Because we as adults feel that we live from conference to conference, we wanted to find a way to help build a joyful anticipation of general conference in our home. Explaining how the program is organized is an easy way to start. Break the meetings down for the kids so they see the pattern of talks, music and how each session is different. This helps them feel like they are progressing through a program of variety and interest, rather than just listening to so much talking that seems to go on forever. Following the program helps them focus on the spirit of the meetings and be less distracted by the length.
Simple things can be explained: members of the Seventy take turns speaking at general conferences and are given about 10 minutes each, but the Prophet and all of the 12 Apostles speak at every general conference, and their talks will be about 20 minutes each. So it is easy to get to know these individuals well and to love them each for their own unique personality and speaking style. It is even okay to have “favorites” that we particularly look forward to hearing. Because the Presiding Bishopric and auxiliary presidencies also speak regularly, we can remember their faces and learn their names as well. Familiarity helps us feel love, security and continuity.
We can build anticipation for the upcoming conference by asking our children what they think the leaders will talk about or asking them to think of questions they would like answered. As they hear answers to their questions, they will feel love from, and a direct connection to, their Father in Heaven. We can also relate our own favorite stories and experiences from the previous conference.
Step 2: Watch all the Sessions
Feast—don’t nibble! Whenever possible watch all the sessions during conference weekend. The Spirit builds through the sessions and is influenced by the music as well as the speaking. If we decide to watch conference some other time and just pick out individual talks to view online, there is the temptation to skip through the music and announcements and just pick out the talks. While of course each talk individually can be a spiritual experience, there is a special impact when we hear it in context with the music and with the talks that precede and follow it.
A theme seems to emerge from the conference, and the miracle of how these talks work together becomes evident—especially when we recognize that each speaker has chosen his or her topic independently, with only the guidance of the Spirit. This is where the love and encouragement of our Heavenly Father and the Savior really starts to shine through.
Step 3: Dress for the Occasion
While we have found great joy in the experience of watching conference in the chapel on the big screen, dressing up for conference does make a difference in how important the event feels, even if you can only view it at home. By dressing appropriately, we teach our children that we are in the presence of the servants of the Lord, and we want to show our respect for them and the Savior. We want to send the right message, that this is something we are “attending” and not just another TV show or YouTube clip to watch.
Listen with Real Intent and Purpose
After building anticipation, understanding of what to expect, and coming prepared to watch all the sessions, then enjoy! While the youngest do need a few things to do, older primary age children really can follow much of the stories and experiences shared.
Step 4: Teach Family Members to Take a Few Careful Notes
It is important to understand that it’s not so much about writing down what the speakers say, but the thoughts that come into our own minds when they say it. I often put down the key point they are making (or asking us to do) and then when something personal comes to my mind that I need to do, or that we need to do as a family, I immediately put that in brackets. We have encouraged our children to have conference notebooks and do the same.
Interestingly, our autistic daughter also brings a notebook, and although she doesn’t really catch what the speakers are saying, I have seen that she simply makes lists of things that bring her happiness or for which she is grateful. I wondered at first when I saw her doing this and then realized that those were the things that came into her mind when she felt the Spirit.
Helping children with taking notes helps them understand how the Spirit can speak to them and how the Lord shows his love and care for them through general conference.
Step 5: Follow with Faith
This means using what we have learned to make changes in our life. We can review what we have specifically been asked to do in general conference, set family goals and then follow with obedience to the best of our ability. It is also easy to remind ourselves of conference messages by including quotes and stories in our family home evening lessons. We can help our children use them in their Primary talks, and youth can incorporate them into their seminary devotionals and class lessons. In this way, general conference becomes something that propels us forward a few more feet in our spiritual progress every six months.
Now that most of our five children are grown, I can say that every one of them loves general conference, looks forward to it and feels the comfort of the spirit and the love of our living prophets and apostles. They can relate to many of them individually. I can’t describe the joy I have as a parent when I know that our child at college (sometimes on another continent) is watching all of the sessions on conference weekend, with roommates or grandparents, happily and on their own initiative without any prompting from us.
It is exciting to share things together afterward as well and realize how similar our impressions were and how we’ve all felt significantly uplifted and ready to move forward with faith in the coming months.
How have you been able to make general conference a special part of your children’s lives?