“It’s not like we were on a date, Bishop,” said Paul. “We were just hanging out.” Fifteen-year-old Paul was trying to explain why he was having moral problems with a young lady whom he had never “dated.” When the bishop spoke with the young lady, she, like Paul, failed to grasp the seriousness of what they had done because, after all, they weren’t “dating.”
Young Latter-day Saints know the guidelines for dating. Most can recite them by memory: don’t date until age 16, date in groups, and only date those who share your same high standards. But more and more LDS teens aren’t dating in the traditional sense. Sure, they may attend a few proms or other formal dances at school, but most young people today prefer to just hang out. “We just get together at someone’s house,” one teenager explains, “and watch videos, play games, or talk. No one asks anyone. Word just spreads that we’re getting together and everyone comes.” Another said, “Sometimes we pile into cars and just drive around. It’s fun.”
Of course hanging out can be fun. It’s casual and informal. There’s no pressure, and it takes very little preparation. Most parents and Church leaders are happy to see young people gather with positive friends and stay in groups. Such activities can promote feelings of acceptance and inclusion that are necessary and good. However, the casualness and lack of accountability that accompany hanging out can sometimes open the door to problems and put young people in situations where their safety—both physical and spiritual—is in jeopardy.
As a bishop in a BYU student ward, I asked some of the young people I work with for their advice. Is it possible to hang in there with gospel standards and covenants while hanging out with friends? Here are their responses and suggestions:
Plan activities in advance. Josh Smith from San Antonio, Texas, says, “I know it takes a little effort, but it really is better if your friends know what they are going to do. Say, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some cookies and deliver them, or we’re going to play volleyball.’ Just so everyone isn’t sitting around saying, ‘So, what are we going to do now?’” Josh is right. It’s easy to go with the flow, but if we are not careful the flow usually takes us in only one direction—down. Dustin Coffman from Lake Charles, Louisiana, says, “Everyone finds it harder to resist inappropriate videos, music, and activities when such things are thrown at us at the last minute and we haven’t thought about what we could do instead.”
Make sure an adult is around. Ryota Natsume, a young convert from Japan, says, “I can’t believe how many young people feel that it’s no problem to be at someone’s home when their parents are not there. That’s just not respectful or smart.” Jeni Judd from California says, “My friends used to think I was so weird when I would ask if their parents were going to be home while we were there, but that was my family rule. You couldn’t be at friends’ houses if their parents weren’t home. At the time I thought it was dumb, but now I realize that kids just act differently if they know an adult is around. They are just not so wild.”
Respect the property of others. Lindsay Gunnell, from Orem, Utah, says, “I always liked having friends over, but my parents hated it because things would get broken, and no one would say anything or take responsibility. My dad has a nice pool table and entertainment center in our basement, but after they got damaged he just said, ‘No one can go downstairs, period.’” Just because hanging out is casual doesn’t mean the rules of common sense and courtesy don’t apply.
Another example comes from Jason Porter from Chicago. He says, “My friends would just pig out at my house like they had never seen food before. I always felt stupid saying no, so they would just clean out the fridge and the cupboards. My mom and dad were really good about it because they wanted me to have friends over, but they didn’t have the money to be feeding the whole neighborhood all the time.” Few parents do. Amy Lockhart, from Canada, says, “A good rule to follow when you are at someone else’s house is don’t help yourself to food unless it is offered to you.”
Use seat belts. Even young people who have good seat belt habits when driving with their own parents and families are too easily distracted when they are with friends. They pile in and out of cars without even thinking about safety. Lindsay Robinson, from Atlanta, Georgia, says, “I always made my friends buckle up when I was driving and even when I wasn’t. Sometimes they would make jokes about it and call me mom, but they got the point. I think inside they were grateful that I was being careful.” Never try to fit more in a car than the number of available seat belts. If there aren’t enough seat belts for the whole group, then make other plans.
Obey curfews. This was a point that was brought up by all the young people I talked to. They warned that when you’re just hanging out, it’s easy to let the time slip away, and before you know it you’re breaking curfews all over the place and getting everyone in trouble. Dan Stanger from Helena, Montana, says, “Although your parents may give you a later curfew, someone else in the group may have an earlier one. That guy is going to feel stupid bringing it up or being the first to leave, so just pack up and quit the whole thing at a decent hour and then no one has to be in an awkward position.”
Stay out of bedroom areas. “Another thing,” Dan says, “stay out of the bedrooms. I know how it is to get talking with a girl and then wanting to get away from the crowd and the noise, but don’t go to the bedrooms.” Ben Dunford, from Grayson, Georgia, says, “When I came to BYU, I had to sign an honor code that said I would not only keep a curfew and not be in girls’ apartments or allow girls to be in my apartment after a certain hour, but I would also never have girls in my bedroom area or be in their bedroom areas. If it’s smart for BYU students to live that way, it’s smart for any Latter-day Saint anywhere.”
Another young woman in my ward said, “The good thing about hanging out is that you are with a big group of people. The bad thing is that no one is keeping track of who is or isn’t there. You can break away from the group pretty easily before anyone misses you. That can lead to trouble. I know that firsthand. My parents would never have let me be alone with a certain boy, but they let me hang out with my friends. Well, this boy and I always made sure we were both at the same place, and then we would take off to some back room to be alone. We never did anything really bad, but I totally regret what we did and even more the deception and dishonesty we were involved in.”
Immorality is immorality whenever it happens or wherever it happens. Despite what is shown in movies or sung in love songs, immorality always results in undesirable consequences. When it comes to staying clean, sometimes hanging out can be even more dangerous than dating because young people don’t have their guards up. They are vulnerable to temptation and experimentation because they feel more comfortable, relaxed, and safe than they do in formal situations.
Is it possible to stick with Church standards and keep covenants while hanging out with friends? The young college students in my ward answer with an emphatic, “Yes!” But they caution that you just have to remember a few things. Planning wholesome activities in advance and making sure there is an adult around to chaperon are sure ways to set yourself up for success. Respecting the property of others and using seat belts in vehicles are excellent ways to make sure nothing spoils the fun. Following curfews and staying clear of bedrooms are ways to make sure no one has to live with regrets.
After Paul and his “girlfriend” spoke with their bishop, they realized that they could get themselves into negative and undesirable situations even when it wasn’t a formal dating situation. Everyone will be happier if we worry less about what does or doesn’t qualify as a “date” and more about keeping our covenants. Perhaps some of the suggestions from the young people in my ward can help others hang in as they hang out.