Chad Nielsen’s recent post at T&S on updates on the hymn book revision process reminded me that there are a couple of songs that I’m really, really hoping don’t make it into the new Children’s Songbook. The first isn’t even in there now, but from Chad’s post, it sounds like it’s a strong candidate. It’s “If the Savior Stood Beside Me.”
If your ward loves this song like mine and you’ve been in Primary in the past couple of decades, you’re probably familiar with it. Its lyrics begin with its title, and then has the singer ask if they would do various things differently if the Savior stood beside them. “Would I do the things I do?” “Would I think of his commandments and try harder to be true?” “Would I say the things I say?” “Would I try to share the gospel?” “Would I speak more reverently?”
I understand that this might just be because I’m a neurotic Mormon, but the tone of this song strikes me as very much shaming kids and reminding them that they need to stop having so much fun and return to the grim, joyless path that Jesus wants them to be on. And yes, I know there are scriptures and statements by GAs about how the gospel means living joyously, but I think for kids in particular, what they often learn in Primary is that Jesus is most concerned with having them shut up and stop wiggling. So having them sing a song where they question whether they would do this or that or the other thing if Jesus were standing there seems to me to be very much a reminder that having fun is for places other than church, and when we’re at church, we’re quiet and miserable.
Even if you don’t agree with how I read the tone of the first two verses, I wonder if you might not agree that the song has an impractical approach to teaching kids to be moral agents. Do we really think the best way to get them to make good choices is to have them think that Jesus is always looking over their shoulder? I think it would be far better for them to learn some internal moral compass where they can make good decisions on their own. Because even if you do think Jesus is always watching them, he sure doesn’t seem to intervene much, so what if they conclude that he’s not there, or that it doesn’t matter if he is, so they can just go ahead and do what they want? I know philosophers and theologians have thought about this question a bunch, and I’m sure there are a bunch of details I’m missing, but I just think it’s more practical to have kids be internally motivated to do good rather than externally motivated, because the external motivation will not always be available.
Anyway, getting back to the song, to be fair, I think it is somewhat improved by the third verse, where even though it has the kids sing that Jesus is in fact always there looking at them, it’s actually because “I am in his watchful care.” I still don’t think this makes up for the first two verses, though.
The second song that I really hope doesn’t make it into the new Children’s Songbook is called “To Think about Jesus.” That’s its title, anyway, but in my head when I think of it, I always refer to it as “It Shouldn’t Be Hard,” because that’s the line that’s repeated over and over in its lyrics. Here’s the first verse.
It shouldn’t be hard to sit very still
And think about Jesus, his cross on the hill,
And all that he suffered and did for me;
It shouldn’t be hard to sit quietly.
It shouldn’t be hard, even though I am small,
To think about Jesus, not hard at all.
What I hate about this song is that it’s obviously written from the perspective of an adult, someone who has decades of practice sitting still in long meetings, and projecting this adult behavioral norm back onto kids, for whom it obviously is hard to “sit very still,” regardless of what they’re supposed to be thinking about while they do. It sounds like it was written by a frustrated Primary teacher. To be clear, I totally sympathize with that teacher. I’ve taught Primary, and fought the endless, hopeless fight to try to get kids to keep their bums in their chairs during class or singing time, when all they want to do is be up on their feet or down on the floor or maybe if they’re using their chairs, using them as stepping stools. I sympathize with the teacher, but I think the problem isn’t with the kids, it’s with the structure of Primary, which requires willingness to sit still for periods that seem totally inappropriate for the ages of at least the younger of the kids. I also think it’s particularly awful to take these lines–these lies–and put them in the kids’ own mouths, and make them sing them. It teaches them that something’s wrong with them that they can’t sit still for long periods of time. It teaches them that the only reason they can’t is because they must not love Jesus. When of course the reality is that they’re kids, and especially when they’re young, kids aren’t going to sit still for any length of time for anything.
If we are going to force kids to sing this self-condemning song, I vote that the kids get to force the adults to sing the following alternative version:
It shouldn’t be hard, remembering back
When I was a child, the focus I lacked.
How each minute felt an eternity,
How painful it was to sit quietly.
It shouldn’t be hard, even though I am tall,
To recall my childhood, not hard at all.
Unlike “If the Savior Stood Beside Me,” this song isn’t improved by its later verses. Its second verse is just more of the same, featuring the lines “It shouldn’t be hard to sit tall in my seat, To listen politely, to quiet my feet,” as well as the same chorus as the first verse (the last two lines above).
After thinking of these couple of songs, I wondered how many other songs for children I might not like for similar reasons. I read through the lyrics of all the songs in the current Children’s Songbook. While there are some other songs I’m not a fan of for other reasons, I was pleasantly surprised that there weren’t any others that struck me in the way these two did. Actually, I was very happy to see how many songs talked about trying to be good, which strikes me as so much a better tone than shaming kids for not being good enough.
Also, maybe to disabuse you a little of the notion that I’m only a complainer and a critic (which I admit is probably a fair perception), here are a few of my favorites from the Children’s Songbook that I really hope do make it into the new version: “I Feel My Savior’s Love,” “Kindness Begins with Me,” “Beautiful Savior,” “I’ll Walk with You,” and “Stars Were Gleaming.”
What songs would you like to see added to or removed from the Children’s Songbook? (And if you haven’t already, be sure to let your voice be heard in the Church’s survey too!)