Monday, August 27, 2012

Teaching Youth Obedience Without Driving Them Away

I read a post at another blog on “losing” youth (the article is here). The premise was when youth find steady boyfriends or girlfriends we lose them because they are doing something counter to the counsel of the prophets. They are serving two masters. They are cut off. And therefore, we need to do something to keep them from entering into those steady dating relationships.

Here’s what I agree with:

1. The prophets have consistently taught our youth not to date before age sixteen, and not to date steadily until they are ready to consider marriage (after missions for young men). Prophets have been consistent in this counsel for years, and it’s good advice.

2. Dating too early -- and steady dating too early -- can have harmful effects on a young person’s social development, and in the most extreme, can lead to moral transgression. Not only is there the risk that a couple that is too familiar will become too familiar, but by dating exclusively one person, a young person can shut himself or herself off to other friendships and associations.

Here’s what I disagree with:

1. A steady-dating young person is lost. That steady dating young person may be unwise. That person may not have the full social experience that a non-steady dater could have. That person is even living contrary to the teachings of the prophets of our day, and may therefore miss out some blessings. But that person is not lost.

2. Sexual sin, while it may grow out of steady dating, is not the inevitable consequence of steady dating, and steady dating is not the only contributor to sexual sin. It’s true that if I hang around a barber shop long enough, I’m likely to get a haircut, but it’s not true that I will never get a haircut if I never go to the barber shop. Equating sexual sin with steady dating as a fait accompli is harmful to young people.

I left a comment on that blog I read. I suggested that a steady-dating youth is not lost, but it is precisely then that we in the church need to love and support and seek to understand that youth, not to teach him that he is lost and irretrievable.

I’ve mentioned on my blog before hearing Elder Clayton Christensen (then an area authority seventy) speak in our stake and tell us that if we didn’t smell tobacco in our sacrament meetings we were doing something wrong. We desperately want to attract sinners and transgressors to us so that they can feel the Savior’s love and desire to draw nearer to Him. It is the same with our youth. All of our youth, whether they are steady daters, double piercers, short skirted flip-flop wearing girls or unshaven surly boys.

What it comes down to is this, in my view: it’s about how we teach them standards and commandments. If we teach standards as exclusionary markers, we will exclude those young people who are on the fence or already do not comply. If, however, we teach the standards as invitations from a loving Father in Heaven, we may attract some youth to rethink some of their choices and to enjoy the blessings of the atonement.

Don’t get me wrong. I do not mean to counsel the prophets on how they teach the youth. As Elder Holland pointed out not too long ago in conference, general officers of the church need to teach a certain message and a certain standard with absolute clarity. But in the trenches, on the ground, we need to reinforce those teachings with gentleness, kindness, meekness and love unfeigned.

I am peeved by EFY’s requirement to have young people follow a strict dress and grooming code, not because I oppose the dress and grooming code per se, but because it excludes youth that might be close to embracing the dress and grooming code, but are not there yet. (At the same time, I acknowledge that the sponsors of EFY can choose whatever standards they like; I can choose whether I like their choice or not.) I’m glad, therefore, that my stake does not impose an EFY-like dress and grooming code for its youth conference. I’m similarly peeved by a militant application of the principle of white shirts on youth who bless and pass the sacrament. The handbook’s guideline is not militant, but inviting and gentle. In our ward, the application is also gentle, and I’m glad for that. (And almost all of our boys wear white shirts almost all of the time, and, as near as I can tell, don’t make a fuss about it.)

In the end, I think we need to consider our goal: we want to bring our youth to the Savior so that they can enjoy the blessings of His atonement in their lives. We want to invite them to “come and see” for themselves. We want to encourage them to learn from their own experience the truthfulness of the gospel. It is, therefore, in my mind dangerous to establish needless conflict in their lives, suggesting they are lost because for today they make a different choice from established prophetic counsel.

In fact, our youth will choose what they want, no matter what we do. We can teach the standards and model them, and they will see us and see their friends and see all the other influences in their lives and then decide. As important as it is to be clear, it is also important to be inviting and loving as we encourage them to continue to draw near to the Lord. We cannot force them, and if we try, we will fail (if not in the short term, most assuredly in the long term).


  1. Oh, it is a hard thing to balance love for those who are teetering on the fences and not rewarding those who refuse to submit their will to the Father, while not alienating all those who are obedient by looking like we're being soft on "crime". I suppose we'd do best to err on the side of compassion and mercy and let God be the final judge. Thanks for your good explanation.

  2. Interesting image, being soft on crime. I think that's a very apt desciption of the problem I'm getting at. We aren't being soft on "crime" if we love the sinner. Indeed we acknowledge that we are sinners.

    I am not suggesting that someone who transgresses commandments should get a pass. But we can show plenty of love along the way. And maybe we can teach those obedient kids some charity, too.

  3. I agree with you that sexual sin is not the inevitable consequence of steady dating. Statistically it is more like a 50% chance for steady daters, and 80% for early daters. (Yikes)

  4. MMM, thanks for the link, and the sobering statistics. No doubt, it's a good thing to follow the counsel of the prophet, to avoid early dating and to avoid steady dating too early, too. (That article does a great job of pointing out the coincidence, but not necessarily the causality, by the way. I'm not saying there's no causality, but it wasn't evident in the cited article.)

    Of course, my post was not advocating that we not teach what the prophet has taught. It's about how we react to youth who make different (and unwise) choices. It's about continuing to love those young people, and continuing to maintain a lifeline to them so that they have a path to the blessings of the atonement, rather than pre-consigning them to the island of lost youth as the referenced article in my OP suggested.

  5. So, Paul, I just found you from a friend (I've seen you comment at MMM a lot, though) and I loved this post. A lot.

    I'm one of those steady daters. In fact, although I wasn't "dating" my boyfriend, I was 14. Then 16. Then 17. Then 18. And then... college, so it didn't matter, eh?

    My parents were not sure how to react to their mature oldest child and her penchant for finding older boys, either. They were, imo, amazing. They never made me feel guilt or shame. They held down their rules and they held down their standards, but instead of forcing me to follow them and forcing me to choose between a boy and their love/the church/etc., they got to know my boyfriends. They welcomed them.

    The end result of this awesome parenting? I didn't kiss a boy until I was 16. And the second man I kissed was my husband-to-be (at 19). I was married in the temple after 3 semesters at BYU.

    I agree that we need to follow the counsel of the prophets and obey. But if my children choose to date steadily in high school as their form of rebellion, I'm going to do my best to love them in spite of it. I'll remember my parents and try to emulate them. Because, you are right -- I was never lost.

  6. Cheryl, thanks for coming on over. I think your parents are very wise (and I wish I was such a wise parent sometimes). It seems it is precisely when our kids are teetering on the edge that we need to hold them close and show our love all the more.