Helping Youth Choose Sexual Purity

By Joy Saunders Lundberg

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    All around us is convincing evidence that we must give high priority to teaching our children moral purity. In the past, we could count on society to give us a helping hand, but no more. In fact, society, in general, seems to have defected to the enemy, accepting immorality as an inviting life-style.

    In spite of what some media would have us believe, however, there are still bastions of morality in our society. Millions of parents are trying to combat the evil around us. Certainly we in the Church understand our responsibility to resist immorality and to teach others to resist it.

    Over the past few years, I have talked with many parents, bishops, and youth about sexual morality. I have discovered that parents who raise morally clean children follow a similar pattern. It can be summed up in five guidelines.

    Teach with Openness and Warmth

    We need to be the first to teach our sons and daughters about sexuality, for the first information can have the greatest impact. Carefully and prayerfully, we must plan how we will teach them the basic sexual functions of their bodies.

    We must also recognize that this instruction is not just a one-time event. After the first teaching session, we can’t tell ourselves, “Whew, I’m glad that’s over.” The need for more information grows as the child grows. We must be there to answer questions, unembarrassed and spiritually guided. Children need to know that their bodies are sacred, created by a loving Heavenly Father, and that it is their divine responsibility to protect and never defile their procreative functions.

    One young man who has lived a life of moral purity told me, “My parents started teaching me about sex when I was just a young boy.” In addition to explaining the biological process, they taught him about the proper role of sexuality in marriage. “I always felt I could ask them any question I wanted to and have gone to both of them many times for answers.”

    Usually it’s difficult for a child to initiate discussion about intimate subjects. Parents can be helpful by opening the way for a child to ask questions. One father found fishing trips a perfect opportunity for uninterrupted one-on-one conversations. A concerned mother provided the opportunity by occasionally having lunch alone with each of her teenage daughters. But most opportunities occur naturally while family members are doing chores or other regular activities together.

    Some parents may be so worried about teaching these concepts the right way that they end up not teaching them at all. In today’s world, that can lead to tragedy. For suggestions on teaching your children about sexuality, you may want to review the booklet A Parent’s Guide, prepared by the Church.

    Teach the Doctrine of the Church Regarding Morality

    Our Church leaders have provided us with a clear definition of what the Lord expects of us regarding sexual purity. In the pamphlet For the Strength of Youth, they have stated: “The Lord specifically forbids certain behaviors, including all sexual relations before marriage, petting, sex perversion (such as homosexuality, rape, and incest), masturbation, or preoccupation with sex in thought, speech, or action” (page 15). We must be sure our children understand the meaning of these words in the context of the gospel; if we don’t, someone else, without the Spirit, will teach them in a different context.

    We need to help our preteens and teenagers understand the words of President Ezra Taft Benson: “In the category of crimes, only murder and denying the Holy Ghost come ahead of illicit sexual relations, which we call fornication when it involves an unmarried person, or the graver sin of adultery when it involves one who is married. … In the eyes of God, chastity will never be out of date.” On another occasion, the prophet said, “So garbled in values have our morals become that some youth would not dare take a cigarette but freely engage in petting. Both are wrong, but one is infinitely more serious than the other” (The Teachings of Ezra Taft Benson, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1988, pages 279, 281).

    If effective teaching had taken place, it is likely that the following situation, related to me by a young man, would not have happened. A young Latter-day Saint woman who worked at this young man’s place of employment confided that she and her boyfriend, who was planning to serve a mission, sometimes engaged in immorality. The young woman’s co-worker informed her that there was no way her boyfriend would be worthy to go on a mission. Her reply was, “Oh, yes, he can. We’ll just repent.”

    Our children need to have a clear understanding that “it is not pleasing to the Lord … to engage in sexual transgression of any nature, and then expect that planned confession and quick repentance will satisfy the Lord” (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, November 1986, page 83). In reference to missionary service, serious sexual transgression could delay a person’s mission a minimum of one year and as much as three.

    We need to teach repentance, but we must be honest in the teaching. President Benson said, “I would not have anyone believe that there is no hope if there are some who have made such a grievous mistake, because repentance and forgiveness are also a part of the gospel. Thank God for that! But it must be real repentance. Such repentance is a deep, heartfelt sorrow for sin that produces a reformation of life. It is not just a confession of guilt” (God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1974, page 196).

    Teach How to Make Wise Choices

    Children need to understand that their sexual feelings are natural and God-given and that they have the power to control the expression of those feelings. We must help them comprehend the blessing of their great gift of agency. “Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves—to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life” (2 Ne. 10:23).

    Who would choose everlasting death over eternal life? Perhaps only those who are not experienced in the art of choosing. According to a bishop in Texas, “many parents aren’t allowing their children to make even simple decisions on their own. How can they make choices with eternal consequences if they aren’t allowed to choose their own clothes, hairstyles, hobbies, etc.?” Parents need to guide youth in making some choices more than others. But children can learn to choose appropriate friends, music, movies, and other activities if we lovingly help them consider the effects these choices can have on their morality.

    In his April 1991 general conference address, Elder Richard G. Scott of the Quorum of the Twelve listed guidelines for making wise choices. Of most importance, he said, is that we “place the Savior, His teachings, and His church at the center of [our] life. Make sure that all decisions comply with this standard” (Ensign, May 1991, page 34).

    When one parent was asked how he reared such good children, he said, “I did not consider my children’s bad decisions as a tragedy to shame them with, but an opportunity for teaching.” He asked questions, such as “How do you feel about it? What could be the possible consequences of your actions?” He resisted the desire to solve their problems for them. Instead, he tried to patiently preserve the parent-child relationship while building their self-esteem and confidence.

    By using stories, examples, and analogies—and resisting the urge to preach a sermon at the end—we can help children learn to think through situations and make wise choices. For example, President Benson said, “Guard and protect your virtue as you would your very life” (Ensign, November 1986, page 83). To help youth understand the seriousness of this statement, I have used the following analogy. If you were walking down a dark street alone at night and, sensing someone was following, you turned around and discovered that a stranger stood behind you with a knife raised, what would you do? Always they answer, “Run with all my might.” Then I ask, “You mean you wouldn’t hang around, thinking, ‘Oh, a few little stabs won’t hurt’?” They laugh at the absurd idea. Then I repeat the words of the prophet: “Guard and protect your virtue as you would your very life.”

    This method of teaching takes a nonthreatening “what if?” approach. One parent whose family uses this method reports that it works well. Someone says, for example, “What would you do if your friend wanted to become physically intimate?” Then others say what they would do to deal with various situations. Deciding in advance is a great advantage in making right choices.

    My husband, Gary, a marriage and family therapist, shares valuable insights about parent-child communication. “Asking simple questions and then listening is a great way to get children thinking,” he often tells parents. I’ve watched him do it in our home, and I’m gaining some skill in putting it into practice myself.

    For example, our son came home from school one day and seemed discouraged. I said, “What’s up? You seem sad.” He replied, “Jim [not his real name] is such a jerk.” And I said, “Oh, how’s that?” I was surprised at what followed. “He’s been inviting his girlfriend over to his house every day after school since his mom started working.” Resisting the temptation to begin a magnificent sermon on morality, I said, “Hmmmmm.” And he said, “It’s so stupid. He’s just asking for trouble.” That was definitely similar to what I would have said, only more concise. I asked, “What do you mean?” Then a flood of information poured forth regarding all the dangers of being alone in a house with a girlfriend. But it didn’t stop there. He discussed all sides of the issue, including the terrible effects of venereal disease and abortion. All I did was listen and agree. I’m convinced he would have heard very little of the sermon had it been preached by me.

    A different way of helping children think about their options was suggested by another mother: “I find that warnings are accepted more readily if I discuss a news article on a subject I am concerned about. My husband and I talk about it while our children absorb the information. Then they never think I’m preaching.” She made no special effort to draw her children into the conversation, but merely “counted on a teenager’s compulsion to insert his opinions—especially if he thinks he isn’t being asked for them” (Ray Guarendi, “Why Some Kids Listen,” Readers Digest, January 1991, page 120). A consequence seems to have credibility if it’s reported in the newspaper, even if it’s in a personal advice column. Knowing and understanding consequences can help children choose wisely.

    Help Build Strong Testimonies of the Gospel

    Over and over, young men and women have told me that the most important factor in their choosing sexual purity was their testimony of Jesus Christ. When I asked how one young woman gained that testimony, she said, “I saw how important the Church was to my parents. As they’ve shared personal spiritual experiences with me, I’ve seen tears of testimony in their eyes.”

    A young man preparing to leave on a mission told me he grew up feeling his parents’ love for the scriptures, particularly the Book of Mormon. “Our family studied it together,” he said. “Mom and Dad taught us about the Savior, and I saw how much they loved him. Gradually I began to study and pray more on my own. I wanted the joy in my life that I saw in my parents’ lives.” Then he added this significant statement: “As my testimony of the Savior grew, I knew I could never let him down.”

    A young woman told me, “I pray continually that I will resist temptation. I feel very close to my Heavenly Father. I can tell him anything and can always count on his help.” Asked how she gained that testimony, she said, “I have grown up knowing the power of prayer by watching my parents.”

    We must provide every opportunity for our children to gain strong testimonies. In order to do this, our own testimonies must continually be nourished and shared with them. Seeing parents face life’s challenges with faith and commitment can be a child’s greatest testimony builder.

    Create a Happy Environment at Home

    We need to enjoy life around home. One father of teenagers said, “Having fun with our children has been a key to helping them choose morality. My wife and I emphasize that it’s fun to be good.” Then they try to prove it. “We work at having fun, and it’s paying off.”

    We must not convey the feeling that it’s the end of the world when our children make mistakes. One father recalled, “My teenage son made a foolish mistake that resulted in an accident that could have taken his life. Instead of being angry, I just held him in my arms and told him I loved him. He had learned all he needed to learn from it, and I didn’t need to say more.”

    Expressing and showing love makes home an inviting place to be. I remember growing up with many hugs from both parents and hearing compliments regularly. My father died years ago, but to this day I remember the happy feeling I had as a teenager when he hugged me and said, “You look so cute in that dress.”

    Having a bright outlook on life, in spite of our problems, encourages moral living. I have learned much from a friend, a single parent, whose faith and joyful countenance have blessed her children immeasurably. “They’re turning out just fine,” she says.

    A bishop in Wisconsin commented: “I see a familiar thread that runs through successful families—the parents are there for their children. They not only know what’s going on, but they’re a part of what’s going on. And they know how to have fun. They care.”

    Through prayer and our own diligence in keeping the commandments, we can be guided by the Spirit in helping our children live morally clean lives. Our Father in Heaven will be with us, for after all, these are his children, too.

    Photography by Steve Bunderson