As I look over my Young Women’s roster, I am struck by a disturbing trend. I noticed the same trend when I worked in the Stake Young Women’s Presidency and the same trend when I taught seminary. My Beehives are almost all active in the church. About half of my Mia Maids are active and only two of my Laurels are active. My friends who work with the YSA’s insist their activity levels are even more dismal. I feel like the Lord of the vineyard who wept and asked, “What more could I have done? Have I slackened my hand, that I have not nourished it?” As I ponder this question it becomes obvious what has happened to my girls between the time they were Beehives and the time they were Laurels. They experienced puberty.
Puberty produces all kinds of changes: guys get stronger, girls get prettier. And of all the changes, one of the most profound is a powerful attraction to members of the opposite sex. I often wish we could postpone puberty until the mid-twenties when the human brain is fully developed. Giving the powerful emotions of puberty who fall toward a boyfriend or girlfriend and fall away from the church may occur because their boyfriend/girlfriend keeps them busy and lures them into conflicting activities on Wednesday nights and Sundays. But we would be naive to believe that wholly explains the trend.
In reality, our precious youth are being forced to choose between two masters. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches that teenagers not yet ready for marriage should not be in exclusive relationships.
In October 1986 conference President Ezra Taft Benson told the young women of the church, “Avoid steady dating with a young man prior to the time of his mission call.”
Since then his counsel has been reiterated abundantly, most clearly by President Hinckley who said, “When you are young, do not get involved in steady dating. When you reach an age where you think of marriage, then is the time to become so involved. But you boys who are in high school don’t need this, and neither do the girls. (October 1997 General Conference)
Merely having a boyfriend/girlfriend in high school is inconsistent with the teachings of the church. In addition, the boyfriend/girlfriend may encourage the Latter-day Saint teen to engage in specific behaviors that are contrary to the teachings of the Church. The youth then feel guilty coming to church, knowing they are not living its teachings. They experience what we call in psychology, cognitive dissonance. In order to avoid this inner conflict they have to choose a master –their boyfriend/girlfriend, or–the Savior. Too often they choose the worldly master.
The day a high school student chooses to be “in a relationship” (to use Facebook vernacular) or to “go steady” (to use the words of the parents) they have chosen a worldly master. If they let go of the iron rod and gradually lose their way along the path of truth, by the time they are supposed to go on missions, they will not be worthy.
One might argue that the day our youth choose to do anything that is in disharmony with the Church is the day we lose them. The day they choose to take a sip of alcohol, or the day they cheat on a test… However, a boyfriend/girlfriend seems to be a more jealous master than some of these others.
A boyfriend/girlfriend may pose loud, persuasive arguments deterring the church-going teen. The teens are not only experiencing inner-conflict at this point. They’re in the middle of a down-right fight. “Your church is just too strict.” “Your leaders are too old-fashioned.” “Things have changed in today’s world,” says their worldly master.
Of course most parents and leaders have already warned their youth about going steady with a non-member who might purport such loud, persuasive arguments. Yet they may not have warned their youth about going steady with a member. Too many adults still cling to the culture of their own youth, where going steady wasn’t discouraged, and may have even been encouraged.
Going steady with members can be every bit as dangerous as going steady with non-members, if not more so. Youth may let down their guard because they think they can trust a member to respect their standards. Trusting a teenager in a steady dating relationship to adhere to all the standards of the church is like trusting a kid in a candy shop not to ask for any of the candy.
I seriously admire what one of my own youth leaders said. Her son asked if he could spend the weekend at their lake house alone with a girl he claimed was “just a friend.” “Don’t you trust us?” he challenged. “I wouldn’t trust myself in that situation,” the mother wisely replied.
Naturally, youth can bounce back from many of the transgressions they experience during adolescence. But getting too involved with a boyfriend/girlfriend before they are in a position marry can be the toughest of all transgressions to undo.
My bishop wisely summarizes the consequences of youthful transgressions thus: “Primary is where we learn the gospel. Young Men/Young Women is where we decide if we will live the gospel. Adulthood is where we live with that choice.”
Transgressions of a sexual nature affect adulthood in ways other transgressions never will. If a young man becomes ineligible for a mission, he will miss out on growth experiences that can impede his spiritual progress for decades. If a young person gets so involved with a boyfriend/girlfriend that they choose to marry, the entire marriage is jeopardized. Marrying outside the church can lead to the inactivity of both the member and all their progeny. Marrying at too young an age drastically increases the chance for divorce. Not marrying after a child is conceived can be equally devastating. Bearing a child out of wedlock can affect a young woman spiritually and emotionally, even if she gives the child up for adoption, and if she doesn’t give the child up for adoption it affects her spiritually, emotionally, socially, and physically.
Of course there is hope for youth who disobey the prophets and find themselves a boyfriend/girlfriend while still in high school. Some of them avoid moral transgression. Some of them manage to keep their same-gender relationships intact. Some of them resist the proclivity to neglect their family-of-origin. Some repent. Some actually marry and live happily ever after. However, the rarity of such happy endings make it ludicrous to invite the risks.
Following the prophets’ counsel is virtually risk-free. Doing things the Lord’s way is the closest thing we have to a guarantee of happiness. When faced with two masters, why would anybody choose the way of the world? Why risk man’s ways, when following the Lord produces such great rewards?
JeaNette Goates Smith is the author of the newly-released, Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance. Her website for adults is www.unsteadydating.com and her website for youth is www.unsteadydating.wordpress.com