When President Monson announced the change in missionary age, my 18 year old daughter jumped up and threw her arms around my shoulders. She hugged me so tight I could barely breathe. She held on until I felt liquid dripping down my neck– her tears of joy.
Throughout the church, members rejoiced at this inspired announcement. We imagined countless positive effects of this change. I imagine more young men being worthy when it’s time to serve a mission; I imagine fewer missionaries being distracted while on their missions. I see elders being motivated by enthusiastic sisters. I see the missionary force growing. Tremendous blessings are in store for the investigators the missionaries will teach as well as for the missionaries themselves.
As excited as I am about the missionary opportunities for young women, I thought it appropriate to first celebrate the blessings that will come to the young men.
Allowing young men to serve at 18 eliminates the “lost year.”
The year between high school and college is an easy time to get “lost.” In high school a young man’s parents keep an eye on him. As a missionary his mission president, while providing considerably less scrutiny than his parents, still keeps an eye on him. The transition from a lot of scrutiny to a little scrutiny is a great opportunity for young men to learn to govern themselves. However, the transition from high school where an adult who knows all a young man’s comings and goings to college where nobody monitors his comings and goings can be so dramatic that some youth will get lost.
Not only will youth get lost if if they are not on somebody’s radar, they can also get lost if they have no direction. When a mission is a year off, some young men may procrastinate their preparation and thus, lose focus. However, when youth go directly from high school to a mission they have a clear direction. Because a mission is so imminent, they may be diligently preparing for a mission while still in high school.
More worthy missionaries
Young men can also get “lost” during that year between high school and college when they get a steady girlfriend.
Prophets have repeatedly counseled young men not to go steady with a young lady before their mission. President Benson said, “Avoid steady dating with a young man prior to the time of his mission call,” (Nov. 1986 Ensign).
President Hinckley said, “Do not get too serious too soon. You have missions ahead of you, and you cannot afford to compromise this great opportunity and responsibility. ” (Priesthood session October 1997 conference, reported in Ensign November 1997.)
There is plenty of logic to this counsel: Emotional intimacy is the precursor to physical intimacy, so if a young man gets too serious with a young lady before his mission he increases the risk of becoming immoral, and thus compromising his ability to go on a mission.
As logical as this counsel is, it seems to be very difficult to follow. High school sweethearts are as entrenched in American culture, even Latter-day Saint culture, as the palmetto plants are in my Florida backyard. Going through high school without a ever having girlfriend can seem like going through high school without ever attending a football game.
Latter-day Saint Youth are already so different from the world. We don’t dress the way the world dresses. We don’t listen to the same music, don’t dance the same way, don’t use the same language, don’t watch the same movies, don’t drink the same beverages, and on top of that, we don’t even date the same way.
Young men who found it hard to be so different from the world, and felt waiting until 21 to have a girlfriend was just too long to wait sometimes ignored the prophets’ counsel and decided to go steady before their missions. These are the young men who were vulnerable to the very temptations the prophets were trying to warn against in the first place.
Perhaps such young men will feel that waiting until age 20 to get a girlfriend is a goal they can reach. Rather than just throw up their arms and say, “that’s unrealistic” they will feel it is possible to heed the prophets’ counsel and serve honorable, worthy missions.
More effective missionaries
Often a young lady will be a good influence and will actually persuade a young man to choose missionary service. This is a win-win if the young lady is truly a friend.
However, if that young lady becomes a girlfriend a young man risks being so distracted as a missionary that he can’t focus on the work. He’s still focused on a girlfriend back home. Furthermore, when he gets the inevitable “dear John” it will de-rail him for who-knows-how-long, interfering further with his ability to be an effective missionary.
This additional logic further helps us understand the prophets’ counsel to wait until after a mission to get a girlfriend.
Young men who wait until until after their missions to go steady can make better decisions about marriage.
Again, the prophets foresaw this advantage.
“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.” (Priesthood session October 1997 conference, reported in Ensign November 1997.)
Virtually no young man has reached the age where he thinks of marriage before his mission, which means an obedient Latter-day Saint young man won’t get his first girlfriend until he returns from his mission.
Some adults panic at the thought of their son waiting to get a girlfriend until after his mission. They fear he will be afraid of girls, or not have the experienced needed to date seriously. To them I want to reply, “Peace, be still.”
Young men are far more prepared to date seriously at 20 then they are at age 18, (or Heaven forbid, 16). When a young man returns from a mission, he has already had the opportunity to date casually before his mission. Now he is home and he chooses the right type of girl to date seriously, and the timing is right, because he is at an “age when he can think of marriage,” the chances of them succeeding as a couple are far greater than when the timing is off because he is not at an age when he can think of marriage.
You are probably realizing that lowering the age of missionary service will also lower the age when young men return from their missions, and lowering the age when young men return from their missions may lower the age when they start dating seriously, and lowering the age when they start dating seriously, could lower the age when they marry.
I don’t know for sure, but maybe that was part of the plan all along.
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 the website for youth is www.unsteadydating.wordpress.com