Friendly Rules


Atlanta’s teenagers talk about how their families help them stay on course

“How was the party?” a mother asks her teenage son as he comes home one night. “Oh, it was okay,” he answers. “They all started to drink, so there really wasn’t much to do. It was pretty boring.” With situations like these becoming more and more commonplace, it is little wonder that Latter-day Saint parents are concerned as their teenagers go out into a world which does not share their values.

Yet parents who are doing their job need not fear, for many young people in the face of temptation remain strong in the Church and true to gospel principles. The Latter-day Saint youth and parents in the Atlanta, Georgia, area are good examples. When many of these young people are asked about their greatest challenges in life they do not say “Trying to resist the temptation to drink,” or “Trying to keep a clean relationship with my girlfriend.” Rather they respond with “Remembering to write in my journal or read my scriptures every day,” “Getting along with my brothers and sisters,” or “Finishing my homework.” One Atlanta high school senior summarizes their attitude well. “Yes,” he shrugs, “we see the bad things, but they don’t bother us. They are not part of our life.”

What keeps these Latter-day Saint teenagers so strong? The LDS teenagers in Atlanta who are succeeding seem to have two things in common, two things which could benefit all teenagers—personal testimonies of the truth, and firm and loving families who live the gospel.

Family Rules

Firm and unwavering family rules help these youth stay on course. A group of teenagers from the Atlanta Georgia Stake admit that they appreciate the rules their parents set. “I’d never tell my parents this,” one young man says, “but I don’t mind the rules we have at our home. Sometimes I’ll ask my parents to let me do something I know I shouldn’t, and I complain when they say no, but I’d be really disappointed if they gave in to me.”

Jennie Busker appreciates rules because they provide an excuse to give her friends when they want to do something she feels uncomfortable about. “Once my friend wanted me to go with her to her boyfriend’s house after work,” she relates. “I didn’t want to go and said I didn’t think my mom would let me. She kept pushing me to go, and I’m afraid I would have if my parents hadn’t said no.” Other youth agree. “Sometimes it’s hard to tell your friends no. You don’t want to hurt their feelings, so you need to have your parents as a backup.”

In order for rules to be really effective, they should be fair and consistent. Some family rules, many Atlanta teens say, are non-negotiable—no dating before sixteen, and church attendance, for example. Others are more open. Families often use family councils or family home evenings to discuss such rules. After hearing the input of their teens, some families have established a curfew. Others have a variable curfew and ask only that their children let them know where they are at all times. Within these broad guidelines, the youth are generally allowed to plan their own activities.

Consistency is another must in establishing rules. Once a rule is set and a consequence decided upon, both parents need to follow through. “Next times” do not always work. “If I hear ‘next time you do this’ too often,” one girl says, “I know nothing will ever happen. I know I can go out and break the rule.” When parents do not remain firm (unless circumstances suggest otherwise), their children feel the rules and the values they represent are really not very important.

Sometimes following through on the consequences may seem harsh. Laura Busker tells of one experience she had. “My mother had told me that I could not go out one Saturday night until I finished my seminary homework. (My mother is the teacher.) Well, I put it off and put it off and when my date came, I had not started. I wanted to leave, but Mom stood firm. I had to do my work while my date waited. That may seem silly or mean to some people, and I wasn’t too excited about it at the time, but that experience taught me how important seminary and learning the gospel were to my mother. And you can be sure I never put it off again. I learned my lesson.”

Although follow-through is important, circumstances also need to be considered. In some situations, consequences might be more effective if they are a little more lenient. Kim Kotter of the Tucker Georgia Stake had gone to a stake dance with some friends from her ward. When it was time to come home, they could not find one of their group. By the time they found her and arrived home, Kim was much later than she should have been. Kim’s father recognized the difficulty of her situation and, instead of becoming angry, picked up the phone and said, “Phone, may I introduce you to Kim. Kim, this is the phone.” In this humorous and calm response, he let Kim know that her curfew was still important and that he would have liked a phone call telling him of the problem, but that he also understood what had happened.

When parents remain firm in their standards and guidelines, children also learn to stand firm. Jane Danneman, a counselor in the Young Women presidency of the Marietta Georgia Stake, says that teens do not bend to peer pressure unless their parents do. If parents give in to the repeated requests of their children, their children are more likely to give in to the repeated requests of their peers. Teenagers are quick to notice any form of hypocrisy. If they see that their parents are not truly committed to the gospel and to living its standards, they feel no need to be committed themselves. But when parents are unwavering in the rules they set and the lives they live, their children are more likely to stand firm, too.

Guidelines and rules are important in the lives of these Atlanta youth, but most who are doing well do not think of their parents primarily as law-givers. A common feeling among these teenagers is that their parents are friends—people they can talk to about anything.

Communication

Good communication is essential in establishing a good relationship. It goes beyond merely telling teenagers what to do; this type of communication often pushes children to rebel. In real communication, parents show their love by becoming involved in their children’s lives, in their interests and concerns, their desires and dreams. When parents become involved, children learn to feel more loyal to the family and its values than to their peers.

According to LeAnn and Philip Youngblood, parents of nine in the Sandy Springs Georgia Stake, an excellent way to open lines of communication is through family home evening and family councils. “Our children usually complain about having a family council session,” Brother Youngblood says, “but we tell them our purpose and hold the councils anyway. And we’ve seen some good results.” He has seen similar good results in the personal interviews he has with his children. He tells of an occasion when one of his sons was accused of a wrongdoing. “I talked to him about it, and he denied doing the act. In a later interview he told me that he actually had been involved. The interview opened the way for him to tell the truth and to repent.”

Another time Brother Youngblood and his wife had some concerns about their children. They spent a day in fasting and prayer and attended a session at the temple where they discussed their concerns and how they might deal with them. After the session, Sister Youngblood called home to express their love for their children and to tell them they had been thinking about them. That night, when they arrived home, their son came into their room. For the next forty-five minutes he shared some of his problems and concerns with his parents. They were able to talk and to discuss ideas. “I don’t think he would have felt comfortable in talking with us if we hadn’t already established a base of communication,” Brother Youngblood says. Without this base for communication, young people turn elsewhere, and they may turn to people who will lead them astray.

Developing a meaningful relationship with teenagers often requires nothing more than being available to listen. “Too often,” says Sister Danneman, “we think that because our children are older and can physically care for themselves they no longer need us. This is just not true. Children in their teenage years need their parents as much as they did when they were small—perhaps even more. They need someone to be there to ask how their day went or if they did well on a test; they need someone just to be interested in what is going on in their lives.”

Phyllis Boice, also of the Marietta Georgia Stake, agrees: “Sometimes being available means staying up until two in the morning discussing a date or some other event. I remember many pleasant talks with my children after they came in from the night’s activities. We’d just sit and chat about what had happened and about their feelings. It was also a time to discuss concerns they may have had if things did not go as well as they might have. If we had waited until the rush of the morning to talk, we would have missed precious times together.”

Sometimes communication means keeping quiet until you have heard all the child wants to say. Some Atlanta young men and women tell of the frustration they feel when their parents begin to give advice before they understand their son or daughter’s point of view. One young man says, “I sometimes feel that if my parents disagree with my view that talking is hopeless. I know they are more experienced than I am and often know what is best, but I know more of what is going on in my life. I just want them to listen to what I have to say and take it into account as we solve problems.”

One fourteen-year-old boy says that he has learned not to talk to his father, who “blows up” whenever he has done something wrong or has a problem he’d like to discuss. His father, with his excessive advice and commands and his refusal to listen, has effectively pushed his son away from the values he is trying to teach.

Spending Time Together

Another factor that has kept these Atlanta teenagers on the right track is the time their parents spend with them both individually and as a family. Dean Black, a bishop in the Tucker Georgia Stake and a counselor with LDS Social Services, says that families need time together. “Our children often moan and groan about family activities,” he says, “but they do enjoy them. Sharing such happy times with children makes it hard for them to deviate from what they have learned.” He tells of getting his children up one morning before Christmas to climb Stone Mountain. “It was a foggy, gray day. The kids complained all the way up the mountain, and I began to wish we hadn’t come. But now my children often ask me when we can go again. It was not what we did that made this event so important; it was the fact that we did it together.”

Often these together times become family rituals. Doyle Kotter takes his family on three-day camping trips. When his wife once mentioned the expense of these trips, one of his children replied, “But Mother, we’re buying memories.” In Rick Jones’s family, each child is given a day to choose a family activity. The day after his graduation from high school in June 1984 was his day. He chose to spend it at Stone Mountain. His younger brother often chooses to go to a lake, and the family regularly buys season passes to Six Flags, an amusement park nearby, where they spend many enjoyable hours together. The McKenney girls—Marge, Linda, Georgette, and Suzette—have a tradition of singing together. Their piano has a prominent spot in the living room.

Many Atlanta parents have found that these times together keep their teenagers close in times of trouble. In the Steeley Humphrey family, children and friends often gather in the living room after dates or the evening’s activity to talk and laugh together. These gatherings usually close with family and friends (members and nonmembers alike) kneeling in family prayer. Such activities are common in the Humphrey home, and gave their daughter, Kim, strength at a critical time. She was dating a young man her parents felt uncomfortable about. “They tried to tell me their concerns, but I didn’t want to listen,” Kim says. “So they just loved me and made me feel welcome at home. We still did all the same old things we’ve always done as a family, and we had some long talks. Eventually, I realized the harm of that relationship and got out of it. And my family was still there loving me.”

An excellent way to spend time with youth, particularly in areas where Church members are a minority, is to support them in their Church activities. Both leaders and youth in the Atlanta area report that participating in Church-sponsored activities helps keep them strong in the gospel. Too often, however, young people are unable to participate because they don’t have transportation to activities which are sometimes fifty miles away. Parents help by offering to drive. Mary Seegmiller, Young Women president of the Atlanta Georgia Stake, admits that spending an entire evening driving teenagers around may seem like a real sacrifice. However, this sacrifice gives parents valuable hours to spend with their children.

Linda Fish of the Sandy Springs Georgia Stake agrees: “Sometimes it’s easier for kids to open up in the quiet dark after an activity than it is at other times. It is during these times that a daughter can share with her mother her excitement at having been asked to dance by a special boy, or her disappointment at having danced only a few times all night. Parents can gain much more insight from this hour’s conversation than they could from the simple ‘The dance was okay’ muttered as a tired teenager goes to his room for the night.”

Parents can also support Church activities when they take their teenagers to early morning seminary. “Seminary is the greatest,” Jori Jordan of the Tucker Georgia Stake says. “We complain about it, but it really is a good way to start the day.” Seminary gives teens the opportunity to associate with other LDS youth, an opportunity they do not get in the schools. Many students in Atlanta say it helps them through the day. One sixteen-year-old compares it to daily personal prayer and scripture study—a guard against the temptations of the day.

Supporting seminary means that parents have to get up with their often unenthusiastic teenagers (seminary begins at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning) to drive them to class. It also means that they are understanding when their children come home after school feeling tired.

Supporting Church activities, spending time together, listening, firmly and kindly administering family rules—all help these Atlanta teenagers successfully resist the temptations of the world. These things help them stay close to the values they learned as children—and bring them back when they stray. They also help these youth gain a testimony, and a testimony of the truth is perhaps their greatest defense. “When it comes right down to it,” seventeen-year-old John Echard says, “you have to know the truth of these things for yourself. It has to be inside. You have to have been taught to pray and to study the scriptures. And you have to do it. You need to make decisions before you get in difficult situations; you need to set your standards, and you need to live by them.”

With the unwavering and firm support of loving families, and with their own personal testimonies, these Atlanta youth are able to face the challenges of the world calmly. Kim Humphrey, for example, wrote a term paper on life after death, knowing she would probably receive a low mark for her treatment of the subject. Heidi Ohern attended a school dance and found the necessity of a police guard and the uncontrolled drinking so distasteful that she called her mother to come and get her. Julia Busker, reading in her history book that the Saints left Nauvoo simply because they wanted to move on, told her teacher that the information was inaccurate and explained what actually happened. One young man who was disqualified from becoming band president by a director who doesn’t want the “Mormons” to “take over” is disappointed but not bitter. And several Atlanta youth faced daily with their friends’ curious questions—“How many moms do you have?” “How do you baptize people who are dead?” “Don’t you believe in salvation by grace?” “Do you pray through the satellite dish in your church yard?” “Is the Book of Mormon your Bible?”—answer kindly and truthfully.

Yes, these youth see the harshness of the world; they live in it. But with the help of their families and the Lord, they are overcoming it.

Photography by Nancy Willey

(Left to right) Chris, Doyle, Jelaire, Adam, and Kendall Kotter prepare for a three-day camping trip, a traditional family activity that helps keep them close.

Atlanta teenagers say that their personal testimonies of the gospel and their firm and loving families help them remain strong in the face of temptation. Shown here are (left to right) Heidi Ohern, Kim Kotter, and Jori Jordan.