“I ought to number my dad’s lectures,” I overheard a strangely familiar voice saying in a noisy hallway at church. “He could just say ‘Number fourteen,’ or ‘Number twenty-seven,’ and save us both a lot of time. He always tells me the same things not to do each time the subject of dating or dancing or homework comes up.”
Maybe I should have a chat with that father, I thought, in my capacity as a Young Men leader. I casually strolled around the corner to get a glimpse of who was talking. Surprise! It was my sixteen-year-old son.
Like most parents, my wife and I are aware of the many challenges facing our youth today, so we are involved in our teenagers’ activities as much as possible. We attend school and Church events and discuss them frequently. We try to help strengthen our young people against the challenges we know they face every day. However, we are often confronted with the reality that the best we can do on our own may not be enough. We need help.
How strict or lenient should parents be? We don’t want to suggest to our teenagers that the iron rod is as flexible as a rubber band, but neither do we want to be unreasonable on inconsequential matters. What should we stress, and what, if it’s really not all that important, should we ignore?
For the Strength of Youth can serve as both an anchor and a guidepost in defining what Latter-day Saints stand for. I believe there is great significance in the title of the publication. Like a training plan for an athlete preparing for the Olympics, this booklet outlines a course of action that will spiritually and physically strengthen our youth (and all the rest of us, as we follow it with them).
The standards taught in this inspired pamphlet—friendship, honesty, repentance, Sunday behavior, sexual purity, and all the others—should be more than hollow words or abstract concepts for young people. These concepts will probably take on concrete reality for youth as they see others living them, but we as parents and advisers may want to take a more active role in reinforcing the standards. The primary responsibility rests with parents, but adult leaders and advisers can supplement parental influence.
What follows is drawn both from experience in my own home and stake and from my contact with youth and their leaders in other areas.
While there are many good ways to teach youth, these four approaches have proven their value to parents and advisers trying to reinforce gospel standards:
Know when to say no.
Create shared group experiences.
Care because you love them (and if we honestly care, we won’t need to worry about letting it show).
Teach by telling family stories.
Although too many rules can stifle a teenager’s search for identity, too little structure can leave youth uncertain and tentative. Often, parents who discuss with their children the standards in For the Strength of Youth find that after a discussion, it is easier to agree on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t. “I think the process of trying to work things out together makes all the difference in our relationship,” one father says.
One mother explains that she avoids telling her teenage daughter what to do, because the discussion usually ends in an argument. The mother hopes to build a better relationship by avoiding hassles. Her daughter’s reaction was different. “Why does it always have to be my decision?” she asked. “Sometimes I would just like my mom to say, ‘You can’t go.’” If they know their parents are genuinely concerned—not merely inconvenienced by what they do—most young people appreciate some boundaries and limits.
The key does not seem to be having rules to cover everything, but rather using the standards in For the Strength of Youth to establish governing principles. And the process of deciding together is at least as important as the rules or principles that come out of the discussion. Speaking of Sunday behavior, as discussed in For the Strength of Youth, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “I plead with you to do more than passively follow lists of dos and don’ts compiled by others. Generate your own policies, and live by them.” He suggested studying the scriptures, particularly modern revelation, for guidance in establishing our individual and family policies on observing the Sabbath. (Ensign, Aug. 1991, p. 10.) Many parents have found this approach works equally well in other areas.
Shared group experiences, carefully planned, can help reinforce the purpose and practicality of Latter-day Saint values. The goal of these activities is to help youth internalize values as they participate. Service projects, activity nights, even social events can become shared group experiences.
“Both the parties and the service projects in our branch helped me learn what a Latter-day Saint is,” one father recalls. “When the youth of the branch got together, we drew strength from each other; Church members were a very small minority in the schools we all attended. Branch activities taught me that fun wasn’t found in a bottle or on a back road. And service projects like hauling rocks for the wall of the new chapel showed me how much we could accomplish when everyone worked together in harmony.”
Shared group experiences are most valuable when young people depend on each other while participating and then debrief, or talk about the activity as a group afterward, to reinforce what they learned. (Leaders and advisers seeking ideas for activities of this type can find some suggestions under “Problem-Solving Activities” in The Activity Book, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1977, pp. 130–32.)
When youth leaders in one ward decided to transform at least one activity per month into a shared group experience, the new emphasis was welcomed at first because it was novel. Later, there were a few complaints. “Why do we always have to plan things together and then talk about them afterward? Why can’t we just do stuff and enjoy it?” one boy asked. Surprisingly, a peer answered, “I like it better this way. We’re more in control of what happens. Besides, it’s more fun. Instead of having an adviser pour information into our heads, we get to think about problems and come up with solutions.”
When we are in the position of teaching or guiding youth, what we think about them—and whether or not we genuinely like being with them—often matters much more than what we do or say. In leading, in teaching, in dealing with teenagers, the whole tone of our relationship will be conditioned by our fundamental belief in them. We strengthen youth when we truly believe—without qualification or exception—that they are valiant spirits who have been saved for the latter days.
One young woman speaks of a seminary teacher, whose love and trust were deeply felt by the students under his direction. They tried to live by his example, and they wouldn’t do anything that would disappoint him. He modeled the values taught in For the Strength of Youth.
The young woman’s mother recalls a Laurel leader who exerted a similar influence. A recently returned missionary, the Laurel adviser was only a few years older than the girls in her class. But they felt her love and thus she helped to shape their lives.
Family stories—told while riding in the car, sitting around a campfire, or just talking late at night—offer ample opportunities for informally teaching the values we treasure. Retold stories offer examples of making correct choices based on gospel values. My children have enjoyed this story from my childhood:
One day when I was twelve years old, my cousin and I took a ride through the streets of our small town on his horse. As we rode along the edge of the road, we found it challenging to reach down and flip open the doors of our neighbors’ mailboxes. But one man had left something inside his box for the postman—a letter and enough coins to pay for a stamp. We took the letter and the money and used the coins to buy an ice cream bar and a soft drink at the store.
When I went home, my father was waiting for me. Somehow he had found out. Sensing that I was in deep trouble, I confessed quickly, knowing that stalling would only make things worse. My father took me to the house of the neighbor from whom we had stolen the money and waited in the street while I stood all alone before the man and confessed to him. I told him my dad expected me to work to repay twice as much as I had taken. It took a couple of weeks of mowing his lawn, trimming his hedges, and sweeping his sidewalks to pay my debt.
My children like this story because it shows that while growing up I sometimes made wrong choices and was punished for them. It seems to help them accept discipline better, and I think they have also learned something from it about the values of our extended family.
Much of the instruction we received as children and much of the instruction we can give as parents is indirect. Young people most often absorb the values they see put into practice. Most of them, for example, enjoy courtship stories that explain the origin of the family. What brought their parents together? How did their love grow? These stories will shape how the youth feel about dating and courtship. Stories which show that extended families value temple marriage send powerful messages to young people about what would bring blessings in their own lives.
In fact, young people can continually gain confidence in themselves through the caring and trust of parents and leaders who are willing to say no when necessary, willing to promote beneficial group activities, willing to love them for who they are, and willing to share stories of life-shaping experiences. With this confidence in themselves, young people are less likely to fall prey to negative peer pressure. They are more likely to become the kind of people who will teach the standards of For the Strength of Youth to others.
Sometimes what we see as we teach young people can be another thing entirely when seen through their eyes. Parents or leaders may cajole, demand, or manipulate, then justify those actions because “it’s for their own good.” But youth recognize manipulation or subtle coercion, and they often rebel when taught in inappropriate ways.
When we undertake to persuade or direct youth, we must be sure that our reasons have to do with their eternal growth and not our own gratification. Is there a possibility, for example, that we want our young people to look good or perform well so that we will be more acceptable to our peers and feel better about ourselves?
It may be wise to reevaluate our own motivations if we find ourselves using approaches like these:
Guilt: “I do so many things for you, and you never show any appreciation.”
Idle Threats: “If you can’t do this for me, then I’ll have to think again about Saturday night.”
Phony praise in public: “I’m so proud of Allison and the progress she’s making in school.” (An hour or two ago, you were arguing about schoolwork.)
Taking credit for the young person’s accomplishments: “I’ve really worked a lot with Sandy on her Personal Progress goals. Don’t you think she’s done well?” One young woman said in an interview that she wished her father could encourage her and praise the things she did without holding her up to others as though she were some kind of parental trophy.