The Church’s stand on teenage relationships has never been so clear. Youth have long known not to “date” until they were 16. January’s “New Era” plainly states that a “date” is merely an opportunity for two people to get to know each other better, and having a boyfriend or a girlfriend is not appropriate until they have “emerged from their teens.”
Now that the Church’s stand on post-16 dating is indisputable, parents have a responsibility to help their youth make correct choices. Because I have written two books about adolescent romance (www.unsteadydating.com ) and speak frequently on the topic, scores of parents have asked me a relevant question: “What do I do to keep my teens out of an exclusive relationship?”
Wise parents know that taking away an adolescent’s agency or trying to force them to make a correct choice only leads to adolescent rebellion. Adolescents have a way of doing what they darn well please. We ask them to dress modestly, and if they don’t agree with our counsel, they will trade clothes with a friend once they get to school. We ask them to avoid exclusive relationships, and they meet their beloved under the bleachers at a football game.
The way to help adolescents avoid exclusive relationships in high school is to help them gain a testimony of the prophets’ counsel. The way to help anybody (adolescent or adult) gain a testimony of anything (dating or otherwise) is by the power of the Word. We can’t ground, threaten, beat, or force a testimony into our kids’ hearts. We can only teach. The most effective way to teach (besides teaching by example) is by sharing the Word.
We learn from Alma that the preaching of the Word had a greater tendency to lead the people to do that which was just than the sword (or grounding or spanking) or anything else (Alma 31:5). The most powerful Word we can share with our youth is found in the scriptures. However, the scriptures don’t say a thing about dating. The only place the word “dating” even appears is in the topical guide.
Nevertheless, the scriptures testify of two truths that will help an adolescent stay out of exclusive relationships while in high school:
1) The scriptures teach us to trust the Lord, that He loves us, wants us to be happy, and know the way to happiness.
2) The scriptures are replete with examples of prophetic counsel blessing the lives of those who would listen.
Since you won’t find the word “dating” in The Standard Works, if you want to know what to teach your adolescents how to stay out of exclusive relationships, consider modern day scripture such as that found in Church magazines and in the Strength of Youth.
Parents who want to teach by the power of the Word can educate themselves as well. Study the words of the prophets. Develop your own testimony of their counsel, because it is impossible to teach what you don’t believe. Yet, when you bear powerful testimony of something you fervently believe, the Holy Ghost will carry it to the hearts and minds of those who listen. When parents truly believe the wisdom of postponing romance until after adolescence, their children will know it.
Sometimes logic persuades youth who don’t have a very strong testimony of the prophets, and are slow to trust their parents. Books such as Unsteady Dating map out sensibly, and clearly the wisdom of waiting until after adolescence to get serious. Sometimes statistics and case studies influence youth who still have fledgling testimonies. Notice, the word is still the persuader, even when it comes from medical science, and not prophets. In either case, the parents’ best tool is to teach, teach, teach. Share everything you can learn. Let the adolescent make his or her own decision based on the word.
Sometimes, in spite of our teaching, adolescents may choose to experiment, not on the word of God, but with the practices of world. Just like the two-year-old who is told not to touch the glowing burner on top of the oven, teenagers may choose to find out for themselves if the stove is, indeed, hot. Those who learn from their own experience, still learn, however painful those lessons may be.
If a teenager chooses to learn tough lessons for himself, we can’t give up on teaching. We must continue to teach, teach, teach. Eventually the words we have taught will burn in his heart, just as the words of Alma the Elder came to the mind of Alma the younger, who “remembered to have heard his father prophecy” (Alma 36:17) and his mind caught hold upon this thought (Alma 36:18).
As we teach we continue to love. Parents sometimes try to control behavior by withdrawing love. Instead of reassuring the child we have his best interest at heart, and we can be trusted, parents who withdraw love teach a child that our love is conditional upon his behavior. That doesn’t feel like love no matter what we call it. Our Savior showed love and compassion for the sinner, just as He did the saint.
It’s a tricky balance to love someone and not condone their behavior. One way that has proven effective is to schedule the teaching moment. Rather than lecture a wayward son or daughter every time they walk in the door, and at every opportunity we get, we can let our relationships progress as if the adolescent was not experimenting with the ways of the world. We embrace them when they walk in the door. We talk about other things besides their behavior. We can talk about school, and sports, and friends, and hobbies and politics and the weather, and whatever we can think of to build our relationship that does not center around the adolescent’s disobedience. Then, at a previously arranged time, we can do our teaching. It can be at Family Home Evening, or Friday night ice cream at Baskin Robbins, or in the car on the way to an event, or all of the above.
Our teenagers deserve to know, that although they have their agency, and we will not rob them of agency we, as adults, have a commission to teach. They cannot rob us of our commission to teach (D&C 68:25). During those teaching moments, if we teach like the Savior does, with love, compassion, and conviction the Holy Ghost will touch a disobedient heart.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who has counseled adolescents for 21 years. Her books, Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance and Unsteady: What Every Parent Absolutely Must Know About Teenage Romance are available at www.amazon.com