Saving Our Youth

I recently attended a combined Priesthood/Relief Society meeting that was held in a ward I was visiting. The Bishop was concerned about his youth, and he called the meeting with their parents so he could counsel with them.

That’s a lot of Teenagers!

The Bishop began the meeting by giving us a statistic about our youth, a statistic that he said came from Elder Jeffrey R. Holland: The Church is losing a high percentage of its youth, ages 14 to 18. The Bishop then counseled with us about the fears and concerns of the youth, that we might better understand the problems the youth face and better help them.

It’s a Scary World

He asked the girls in his ward what their worries were. Their list included the following:

  • Being accepted by their friends
  • Being worthy to attend the temple
  • Trying to stay good
  • Afraid they will make mistakes (drugs, sex, alcohol)
  • Trying to please their parents

He asked the boys why the Church was losing its youth. Their responses were

  • The influence of music, movies, and TV
  • The influence of their friends
  • The short clothes worn by the girls
  • Lack of parental support for Church activities
  • Working on Sunday

Am I a Person or a Sheep?

As I look over that list, I see one factor that is common to all of their concerns: The individuality of the kids, that is, whether or not they are making their own decisions rather than being passive members of a group.

  • Teenagers who have high individuality will decide what is important and will set appropriate goals to reach those objectives. Passive persons will go along with the group, letting the leaders of the group set the goals.
  • Kids with high individuality are not overly concerned about the opinions of their friends, because they are concerned about their opinions of themselves. In addition, they will choose friends who support them in their goals. Persons with low individuality give their loyalty to their friends and put their reputations as their highest goals.
  • Teens who are converted to Christ will focus on the temple because of their love of the Savior. They will reduce or eliminate influences that would keep them from the temple. They will earnestly pray for the influence of the Atonement to be in their lives, thus drawing upon the strength that comes from being committed to Jesus Christ. Teens who are passive about their lives will focus on the temple because “it is the thing to do”.
  • Teens who realize the dangers of the media and of modern music will take initiatives to have the music at group activities changed, and they will not bring that music into their personal lives. The other teens will tolerate and then enjoy the music.
  • Boys who have high individuality and are concerned about skimpy clothes will tell the girls that they don’t appreciate those types of clothes. Passive boys won’t say anything to the girls because they don’t want to be thought as not-cool.
  • Youth who have high individuality and who realize the damage of working on Sunday will seek employment elsewhere. The other kids will rationalize their working on Sunday and continue with it.
  • Teens who feel good about themselves and who are sincerely trying to follow Christ will have the courage to face life and will draw upon their faith to keep going.
  • Teenagers who have high individuality will be able to better adjust to parents who don’t support them in their church activities or who expect unrealistic behavior from their kids. Kids with low individuality will be devastated by negative relationships with their parents (this relationship is so important that kids with high individuality will be hurt by poor relationships too).

Not Quite, but Almost a Silver Bullet

I believe that if our teens have high individuality they will be able to withstand the wickedness in the world. Even more important, they will take charge of their lives and become responsible for their decisions. “What?”, you say, “give me a break. You can’t expect that from teenagers.” In response, I say, I can expect it, and I do expect it, because I’ve seen it happen in the lives of teenagers. Let me give a few examples.

It Worked for Them

My four children were born in Phoenix, Arizona but were raised in Massachusetts. When they were in elementary and middle school, they were the only Mormons in their classes. In high school, there were a half-dozen or so LDS kids, but the close friends of my children were non-LDS. That you might realize that Massachusetts was a wicked, drug-infested place, let me relate a conversation I had with one of my scouts. Pete (I’ve changed his name because I don’t have his permission to post this story) said he knew every drug dealer in his high school (my LDS branch was small and I had boys from the three Aaronic Priesthood quorums in the troop). He said he could get as many drugs as he wanted. He said that if he were to report this drug activity to the police, he would be dead within 24 hours. That was in 1976, mind you! It was seven years later that my oldest child entered high school and 13 years later that my youngest child entered high school. I’m sure the drug activity increased during those intervening years!

When my oldest child was 14, I gave him an alarm clock and explained that he was responsible to get himself to school. I said that if he chose to sleep in, he shouldn’t come to us for a ride. He did sleep in once and hitch hiked the four miles to school. He decided that was dangerous and choose to use the school bus. When his brother became 14, he got his alarm clock and the same instructions. My two daughters had been observing all of this, and they came to me and said they wanted their alarm clocks (they were 11 and 8, respectfully) — they got them! During the time that one of my sons was in high school, I was teaching early-morning seminary. He chose on some occasions to skip seminary and sleep in. I didn’t wake him, though, because he was responsible for his schedule and his choices. My kids were active in extra curricular activities, and it was a real challenge for them to be up late and then get up early for seminary and school. I think our alarm clock tradition was a positive influence in their lives and helped them learn to manage their lives.

One day, some high school girls came up to my youngest daughter and held out a $50 bill. “We’ll give you this bill if you will say just one bad word!” My daughter, of course, declined their offer because she had chosen for herself, years before, the type of language she would use. Her older sister also had peer pressure to say bad words, but she felt that pressure was given more as friendly teasing rather than as serious attempts to get her to change her standards, and she didn’t let it bother her. Both girls looked to our home as a refuge, and they enjoyed being home doing crafts with their mother.

My children made their own decisions to live LDS standards, and those decisions became a protection to them. One day while traveling on a school bus to a Math League activity, some boys on the bus were using rough language. One of the girls on the bus went over to the boys and said, “You boys don’t use that language around her — she’s a Mormon.” My second son joined the Army reserve during the summer between his Junior and Senior years of high school. He attended boot camp during that summer, and during the summer after his graduation he received his specialized training in repairing helicopters. He then went directly from Ft. Rucker, Alabama to BYU. He said that was like going from the cold into a warm room. Army life can be full of filth and temptations, but he had chosen before he joined the Army to live the Gospel.

When my oldest daughter was in the 10th grade, her class had to watch a particular movie that had some questionable content. The teacher allowed those who felt uncomfortable to leave the classroom. My daughter left. She also chose to skip the sex education classes. During a musical production they were doing, she paced the hallway during one number because of the lyrics in that song. She didn’t feel uncomfortable about leaving those activities.

All of my children were active in the music and drama programs at school. They weren’t perfect and they made mistakes. I’m sure there were times when they were tempted to follow the crowd, but they all wanted to chart their own course in life, and they chose friends who were also active in music and drama and who supported them in their dreams and goals.

As my kids learned to make wise decisions about their lives, my wife and I gave them more freedom. That, in turn, allowed them to make more wise decisions and to receive more freedom. After her high school graduation, my youngest daughter and I were talking, and she said, “You know, Dad, when you’ve had as much freedom as we have in our family, I couldn’t live in a more restrictive family.” I think that is the essence of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s statement about teaching principles of righteousness and letting people govern themselves.

Now, let me relate some experiences I had as a Scoutmaster. Scouting is a great way to develop character in boys. One of my top goals in Scouting was to help the boys develop their individuality and to be responsible for their actions. Boys may fake out their parents, but they can’t fake out Mother Nature. When they are winter camping with wind chill below -50F, when they trying to cook during 18 hours of heavy rain, when they are climbing the highest peak in New England, they either know how to survive or they don’t. There is no playing around with Mother Nature!

In 11 or 12 years as Blazer leader and Scoutmaster, I never talked with parents about upcoming scouting activities. I encouraged the boys to carry a notebook (a practice I had copied from the Catholic cub scout leader of my son), and I gave my scouts handouts about our camping plans. The boys knew they were responsible to brief their parents about our plans and to get rides to our meeting place (usually my house). I had no problems with parents being upset because I didn’t talk directly with them. In fact, I was told by the wife of our Stake President that she would see her son preparing his camping gear, and she would ask, “Where are you going?” He would respond, “I’m going camping with Brother Leigh.” She was pleased that her son was getting himself ready and was becoming self-sufficient in his scouting activities.

Most of my scouts became self-sufficient in their scouting activities (some did take longer than others to reach that point, as I relate below in a story about Hank). I used to chuckle to myself after Mutual, because the Young Women’s president was busy trying to get rides home for her girls (our Ward covered a large geographical area, and the kids typically lived eight or ten miles from the ward building). In contrast, I made no attempt to get rides for my scouts because they got their own rides (a lot less work for me and, more importantly, a lot more growth for the boys).

There is a reputation among families of Eagle scouts that the parents have to push their sons to the Eagle, or they have to with hold access to the family car until their sons get Eagle, or other similar bribes. With my scouts, it was the opposite. The sons pushed their parents! I did have a couple of scouts not get Eagle because they didn’t have the dedication to stick with it, but those who became Eagles did it because it was their goal and dream.

Now, let me tell you about two scouts who blossomed when their parents let go and gave them freedom to win or lose in scouting. The first boy, I’ll call him Steve, had become quite negative toward scouting, his priesthood activities, and the Church (he was Priest age). His parents had been quite controlling of him. I talked with his father, and his parents agreed to let go so he could manage his scouting activities. His attitude made a quick turn-around. He completed his Eagle project, became positive toward his Priesthood leaders, attended Ricks College, and served a mission.

The second boy was a Teacher in the Aaronic Priesthood. His father was a Master Sergeant in the Army and controlled his family like it was a platoon of recruits. This scout, I’ll call him Hank, was used to having his mother get his camping gear ready. I talked with his mother about letting go of the boy, and she and her husband agreed to do that. During the week before our next campout, she didn’t get her son’s gear ready. Instead, she just asked him a few times how things were going and if there was anything she could do to help him. He was busy watching TV during the evenings and ignored her, knowing she would get his stuff ready as she had always done. This time, however, things were different. She didn’t get his gear ready, and he came to the campout with two items, a baby receiving blanket and a frying pan. No food, no camping gear, no winter clothes! Even though I knew the temperature would be in the high 20s that night, I prayerfully felt he wouldn’t die from hypothermia, and I let him stay. I explained the situation to my Senior Patrol Leader and his assistant, and they met with the boy’s Patrol Leader. Together, they came up with a plan to support Hank with food and room in a tent. I was awake a lot during the night wondering if Hank was dead yet. It was a happy sound the next morning when I went to his tent and heard Hank say, “Brother Leigh, my feet are cold!”. Later, during a lull in our Saturday activities, I took Hank off to the side and asked him one question, “Hank, what could you do next time to make your campout more enjoyable?” He began with “A” and ended with “Z” in answering my question. He knew how to camp but he had been happy to let his mother manage his life. Hank came to the next campout well prepared, and his mother told me it was all on his own initiative. Hank began taking responsibility for his life, and he blossomed into a beautiful teenager.

Ok, How Do I Do It?

The bottom line is how do we get our children to be individuals and not follow the crowd. That is a difficult question, because every child is different and every family is different. There are, however, excellent suggestions given in the scriptures.

  • Study the scriptures and the teachings of the Church.
  • Pray about each of your children, by name.
  • Encourage your children to choose friends who will help them be clean and strong.
  • Listen to your children but don’t lecture to them.
  • As you pray, listen for answers.
  • Set an example of the way you’d like your children to go.
  • Encourage your children to choose Jesus Christ as their role model.

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