Zelophehad’s Daughters

For the Discouragement of Youth

Posted by Ziff

In the “Entertainment and Media” section, the For the Strength of Youth booklet advises:

Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way [p. 11; all page references are to the PDF version].

I saw this bit of FtSoY quoted recently in a discussion somewhere on the Bloggernacle (sorry–I don’t recall where), and it struck me as being overly absolute. In any way? For violence in particular, doesn’t this rule out all kinds of sports and virtually all movies? Isn’t this a little unrealistic?

Running into this statement got me to wondering about whether this type of absolute phrasing was common, or if this was just an isolated example. To find out, I read through the rest of the FtSoY booklet. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how few similar statements I found, but I did find several others that I think have the same problem. In this post, I’ll quote the statements from FtSoY that I think are a problem, and then explain what I think is wrong with them.

Here are the other absolute statements from FtSoY that I think have the same problems:

“Immodest clothing is any clothing that is tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner” [p. 7].

“Be honest with yourself, others, and God at all times” [p. 19].

“Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression” [p. 36].

“Do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings” [p. 36].

So what’s my problem with these lines from FtSoY? I think they’re unrealistic, counterproductive, inconsistent with other Church standards, and too vague. I’ll discuss each of these problems in a little more detail.

Unrealistic

My first problem with these absolute statements is that they set unrealistic standards. Not just unrealistic really; unachievable. For example, with the first statement, it’s just not going to happen that a teenager will never attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way. Take violence alone. Like I said above, following this standard would mean teens pretty much aren’t seeing any movies at all. FtSoY isn’t asking them to pass on movies that have a lot of violence, or movies that have purposeless violence. It’s saying don’t attend anything that’s violent in any way, so even movies that feature nothing more than a shove are off limits. The standard also rules out most sports, for either viewing or participation. Football and hockey are obviously out, but so are soccer, basketball, wrestling, lacrosse, and water polo. Sports where competitors don’t come into direct contact with each other might be okay, so perhaps gymnastics, skiing, and curling are okay.

Or take the statement about being honest with everyone “at all times.” Social interactions are packed with situations where little white lies are almost inevitable (not to mention a that they’re virtually always a better choice than telling each other how we’re really feeling and what we really think of each other’s shoes and haircuts and parenting choices). Certainly I agree that it’s easy to justify lies that shouldn’t be justified, but FtSoY is saying that justified lies just don’t exist, and I disagree.

Or how about “do not do anything else that arouses sexual feelings”? (The “else” refers to the fact that this sentence follows a sentence with specific prohibitions.) I’m sorry, but we humans didn’t get to having seven billion of us on the planet by having sexual feelings that are easy to suppress. Particularly when you’re a teen (or at least that’s my memory), pretty much all you have to do to have sexual feelings aroused is to be alive. This standard is impossible.

Anyway, you probably get my point. If you disagree, I’m guessing your objection might fall along one of two lines. One objection might be that high standards aren’t bad, because if you set standards high, people might not reach them, but they’ll do better than if you set them low. Like Leo Burnett famously said,

When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.

The problem is that I think this approach might work for some teens, but I think there’s a pretty large group that it won’t work for. Me, for example, as a teen. I was (and am still to some degree) neurotic, easily guiltable, and obsessive. If you set impossibly high standards for stable, self-confident teens, you might have them happily reaching to do the best they can. If you do the same for neurotic teens, you’re more likely to have them discouraged and exhausted.

Another possible objection you might have is that I’m just pushing the FtSoY statement to absurd extremes to argue against it. Of course FtSoY isn’t saying that teens can’t watch or participate in sports that have any violence: that would be ridiculous. Of course it’s not saying you always have to give your honest opinion of your friend’s new hairstyle. If this is your objection, then I think you’re just making my argument for me. It is absurd to tell teens such things. But I’m not having to push what FtSoY says at all to get to absurdity. I didn’t add the categorical words like anything or in any way or at all times to the statements to make them sound over the top. That’s how they’re actually written. They are over the top.

Counterproductive

If standards are set impossibly high, and teens (inevitably) can’t follow them, it seems likely to me that this will make at least some teens feel like it’s not worth the trouble to try. If a teen tries to avoid anything that might arouse a sexual feeling, but inevitably finds that she has them anyway, she might decide that since she’s failed already, why not go ahead and have sex with her boyfriend? Similarly, if a teen slips up and doesn’t offer a fully honest evaluation of his girlfriend’s new outfit, maybe he’ll decide that since he’s broken the standard anyway, he might as well start a pyramid scheme and cheat on his taxes.

The problem of setting any binary standard is that when you draw a line between things that are “okay” and “not okay,” you have to lump together things that are not alike. The strategy of drawing an impossibly restrictive line (so that everyone will be across it at least some of the time) seems to be based in a desire to clearly separate behaviors that are clearly not bad (say returning a lost item to its owner) from those that are bad in the mildest possible way (say cheating on a Buzzfeed quiz to make yourself look good to your Facebook friends). This strategy might work as long as you can keep people focused on only that region of badness. But the problem, as I’ve suggested already, comes up when you consider all the behaviors that are lumped together on the “not okay” side of the line. Given that they’re all in the same category, teens can’t be blamed for thinking that they’re all equally bad, when of course the reality is that they are not. They can differ dramatically in how serious their consequences are, and it’s not clear that drawing a bright line between good behavior and mildly bad behavior is the best way to discourage moderately and severely bad behavior.

Inconsistent with other Church standards

The absolute statements from FtSoY are far more restrictive than standards taught in the rest of the Church. I think the most obvious comparison is to the temple recommend questions. FtSoY says “Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression.” The corresponding temple recommend question just asks if you live the law of chastity. It looks like FtSoY is constructing a five mile wide hedge about the law. Never do anything that could lead to sexual transgression? Well, all kinds of ordinary everyday acts could lead to sexual transgression, like attending a mixed-sex school (if you’re straight), or working in a mixed-sex workplace. Are these off limits for teens because they could lead to sexual transgression? For that matter, what about YW/YM joint activities? If teens attend these and get to know each other too well, who knows what could happen? Sexual transgression certainly is within the realm of possibility. Giving up such things as mixed-sex schools, employers, and church activities is well beyond standards anyone else in the Church is held to.

Similarly, telling teens to “be honest with yourself, others, and God at all times” is a far tougher standard than asking whether you’re “honest in your dealings” with other people as the temple recommend questions do. By asking about “dealings,” I think the temple recommend question neatly sidesteps the issue of helpful little white lies that I raised above. By contrast, by saying “at all times,” FtSoY confronts the question of little white lies head-on, and condemns the practice.

As an aside, the comparison of FtSoY and the temple recommend questions makes me appreciate the temple recommend questions for sticking more at the level of asking about principles, and not getting down in the details of specific applications like FtSoY is sometimes prone to.

Too vague

I’ve been arguing that these FtSoY statements are too absolute, so it might sound odd for me to turn around and complain that they’re also too vague. The reason I’m making both arguments is that they’re about different aspects of the FtSoY statements: they’re too absolute in categorically forbidding behaviors, but at the same time they’re too vague in explaining what those behaviors are.

Consider defining pornography, for example. Elder Oaks once said,

Young women, please understand that if you dress immodestly, you are magnifying this problem by becoming pornography to some of the men who see you.

Setting aside all the problems of treating women as objects that have been discussed at length on the Bloggernacle, Elder Oaks is setting up a really low bar for defining pornography here. An immodestly dressed young woman is pornography. But Elder Oaks’s definition is not universally agreed upon, I think, even in the Church. This means that teens can be held to quite different standards in different wards. In one ward, a bishop might condemn teens for associating with friends who don’t cover their shoulders, because that would be participating in pornography, while in another, a bishop might save his condemnation only for teens who are looking at what might be more generally agreed upon to be porn (e.g., depictions of sexual acts).

As I’ve already suggested above, there are similar definitional problems for words like vulgar, immoral, and violent in the FtSoY statement at the beginning of this post. The statement about clothing also has this problem with the word revealing. Clothes are immodest if they are “tight, sheer, or revealing in any other manner.” Revealing of what? Can I reveal the shape of my head? The fact that I have hands? My ankles? Given the fact that this is a booklet written by men, and that it has more specific guidance for teen girls that teen boys on modesty of clothing, it’s likely that the concern is with revealing breasts, specifically. But that’s not what FtSoY actually says. It says “in any other manner,” which kind of makes it read like a call for teens to dress as mummies.

The combination of the absolute part and the vague part is particularly troubling: absolute prohibitions on vaguely defined behaviors means that teens are rigidly held to a high standard, but the standard itself is unclear. The situation seems almost guaranteed to produce wide variability in what teens are actually taught, depending on their leaders’ interpretations of the vaguely defined terms.

Conclusion

All of the FtSoY statements I’ve cited could easily be revised to be less absolute. For some, the absolute words could just be cut out. For example, how about this?

Be honest with yourself, others, and God.

Without the “at all times,” I think it makes the same point, but without pushily condoning compulsive truth-telling in situations where it will needlessly hurt others. Another possibility would be to use the temple recommend question as a model:

Be honest in your dealings with others and with God.

I dropped the honesty with yourself part, but self-deception seems like kind of tangential to the issue of honesty with others anyway.

In summary, I think I understand the motives of the writers of FtSoY. They’re worried that teens are facing hugely consequential choices every day, and given the potential for a few bad choices to have long-lasting consequences, they want to prevent teens from making any such bad decisions. I don’t agree, though, that their strategy of building big hedges about the law with these absolute statements is the best way to achieve this end. I think teens would be better off with less absolute, more realistic standards that are more in line with other Church teachings.

23 Responses to “For the Discouragement of Youth”

  1. 1.

    I think that For the Strength of Youth is meant to set an ideal benchmark for the conduct, thoughts and behaviors of youth, and therefore strong language is helpful and necessary. Teenagers are quick to think that they are the exception to any rule, and so saying that one should keep the rule at all times is needed to help instill that message.

  2. 2.

    I recommend “No petting.” That should clear things up.

  3. 3.

    My grandchildren, who all live in Australia where church members are less than 0.05% of the population, basically ignore FSY and try to behave in a Christlike way, except for church activities where they may be excluded for non conformity.

    We see it as Utah culture that is inappropriate to our conditions and nothing to do with the gospel. I doubt they have thought about it like that but just not relevant.

    If 99.5% of people are not dressing modestly and you insist that the 0.05% do – why?

  4. 4.

    Conveniently, I read the modifier “in any way” to apply only to the term pornographic. “Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic in any way” as opposed to “Do not attend, view, or participate in anything that is in any way vulgar, immoral, violent, or pornographic.”

    Teens come with all kinds of different personalities and will react the language in the pamphlet in a variety of ways. Personally, I think it’s better for parents to tailor their advice to their kids based on their unique perspectives and cultural situation, when possible. I took a lot of the stuff in the pamphlet deeply to heart, especially about sexual morality. Now one of my biggest regrets looking back as an adult at my teens and early twenties was that I was so uptight about any kind of physical affection. It’s a struggle for me as an adult to try to overcome the boundaries that I so enthusiastically erected all those years ago. Other teens, obviously, do not react that way. I kind of wish I could rewrite a tailored-for-teen-me version of the FtSoY pamphlet and mail it to my past self.

  5. 5.

    If standards are set impossibly high, and teens (inevitably) can’t follow them, it seems likely to me that this will make at least some teens feel like it’s not worth the trouble to try. If a teen tries to avoid anything that might arouse a sexual feeling, but inevitably finds that she has them anyway, she might decide that since she’s failed already, why not go ahead and have sex with her boyfriend? Similarly, if a teen slips up and doesn’t offer a fully honest evaluation of his girlfriend’s new outfit, maybe he’ll decide that since he’s broken the standard anyway, he might as well start a pyramid scheme and cheat on his taxes.

    I love this post, Ziff! I’m just old enough (and maybe from a peripheral enough place) that FTSoY itself didn’t get the relentless focus that it does now, though some of the ideas in it did.

    I agree so much about the absolutist language being counterproductive, though. I can’t tell you how many Mos I knew growing up that had internalized that sort of all-or-nothing, polarized mentality. The Mo kids were always the wildest partiers and the craziest boundary breakers — lots of sex, lots of drugs. I think a lot of kids really do get the idea that if they can’t be perfect they should just throw in the towel.

  6. 6.

    Good points. To make matters slightly more complicated, many stakes are encouraging adults to digest and apply FtSoY and, of course, return and report to other adults and youth.

  7. 7.

    Thanks, Galdralag!

    And rb, that adds a whole new layer to the problem, I think, to be telling adults to follow these same overly absolute standards.

  8. 8.

    Great points. Just the other day I was thinking about some of the personal progress goals that I had worked on as a YW. One of the goals, had this sort of absolutist thinking. I don’t remember specifically what the goal was, something like “only think positive thoughts for one whole day”, but I do remember the frustration I felt when I realized early in the day that that goal was essentially impossible to achieve. I was thinking that it might be interesting to investigate the goals that are part of the YW program and analyze them from the perspective of how achievable they are and how useful they are for personal development etc.

    On a different note, I think one of the larger problems with these standards is that they vilify aspects of the human experience that are, imo, healthy and normal parts of life. We are supposed to feel sexual feelings. We should talk about violence and sex in our world and it is helpful to read and view works of art that explore these topics. There is a wide range of ways these topics can be explored, from condoning senseless violence to showing some of the negative effects on the individual and society that violence can have. We should teach our youth (and ourselves) to be thoughtful consumers of media and to think about the more challenging aspects of the human experience instead of pretending that they don’t exist.

  9. 9.

    Even the mention of sexual arousal was enough to induce sexual arousal in this red-blooded American youth. So take that, FtSoY, you pornographic little pamphlet!

    As for violence, does this mean kids shouldn’t watch the Lamb of God movie? Or any number of other church movies with their on screen or implied violence?

    Relatedly, I’m current on Game of Thrones and Vikings and starting the Wire and I feel better about myself and my god and my church now than I ever did as a youth bedeviled by that pamphlet.

  10. 10.

    Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I never considered the implications of the absolutist language before.

    I like standards for the youth because they can be a “schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.” Following the standards in the FTSOY can help youth come unto Christ.

    A big problem I see is when we enshrine the standards and elevate them to the same level as the gospel or the Doctrine of Christ. We do this when we talk about standards more than the fundamental principles of the gospel or when we insist that adults should also focus on standards.

    At some point in our lives we need to graduate from our standards schoolmaster and become a true disciple of Jesus Christ.

  11. 11.

    I’m glad you went over a couple of potential objections early on. One I didn’t see addressed is that FtSoY shouldn’t be given in a vacuum. The entire thing should be given with parents and leaders who can help teach nuance. It’s something teenagers badly need to learn anyway. How much angst do they already have to deal with in the absolutionist commandments in the scriptures? I mean, there’s the whole “lusting in your heart = adultery”, not to mention the biggie, “be ye therefore perfect”.

  12. 12.

    Kind of precludes reading published media such as the Old Testament and Book of Mormon because they both contain violence and immorality.

  13. 13.

    @Snowdrop has the best interpretation I’ve seen. P0rnograpgic in any way. But then again wasn’t Jesus the one who told us to be perfet . That sounds far more discouraging than anything FTSoU says.

  14. 14.

    Great post, Ziff!

    I remember studying that pamphlet as a teen and trying really hard to follow the teachings, with exactness. So much of the way I used to think in those days was absolute, so I’m not sure if I really understood the possibility of nuance as I do now.

    I’d love to have the standards re-written, with more emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. Beyond that, I want to see leaders admit to mistakes and reptence, to set the example for the youth and get rid of the unattainable perfection mindset.

    We had a Stk Pres who gave a good-bye address in our ward and mentioned that he fondly remembered members of our congregation who had “participated in the repentence process.” He made those people seem like “othes” and not someone like him, who also repented. It felt condescending and a little holier-than-thou.

  15. 15.

    *I should note that the SP did not point out the members by name, but just mentioned them generally.

  16. 16.

    @Jessawhy – I’ve heard a bishop describe his favorite part about being a bishop as “Seeing the atonement of Jesus Christ work in other’s lives.” Perhaps a better way of saying the same things?

  17. 17.

    Really insightful post, Ziff! Thanks.

  18. 18.

    These are good observations. They are not restricted to modern publications, however. I’ve always been bothered by the Savior’s teaching that to look upon a woman and “lust” after her was to commit adultery already, and that men so doing we’re denying the faith, losing the Spirit and, in modern scripture, likely to be excommunicated. First, does it apply to men only? Not likely. Second, what precisely is “to lust?” Where does ordinary attraction become more sinister? Granted the thought precedes the act, but is it really equal qualitatively to behavior? I think I know what denying the faith could mean, and it isn’t turning away from the fold necessarily. As I saw somewhere in commentary, it could mean denying (or perhaps losing hope?) that your nature can be changed to be like Christ’s. Finally, it seems clear that if one is embroiled in lustful thoughts, one is not likely to have the Spirit. So I guess I’m somewhat conflicted when I come across what seem to be dogmatic, black-and-white, all-encompassing pronouncements. I agree the temple recommend questions are better because the allow for more introspection without prejudging as the other examples seem to do.

  19. 19.

    I disagree. I think it is good to not be too specific since kids live in different parts of the world. I think the pamphlet is great and parents can use it to discuss specifics of how to live them. I like having it be strongly worded rather than the more worldly be honest except when it is not convenient or socially acceptable to lie which is different in each culture. I have two teenagers now and two younger.
    The fact is that itis impossible to write something that will be perfect advice for each teen….not too this or too that. I support the current version and don’t feel like my kids are harmed. Now one of my teens doesn’t seem to have a problem with choosing not to live all the commandments so it is interesting to raise her with house and family rules that are nonnegotiable and church rules that are her choice to live or not, as well as reasonable secular advice that she can choose to take or not take.
    Neither she nor I seem to have a problem with the existence of fsoy. fsoy is a great tool to help most people in the church. I guess having always been a person of integrity I don’t get the problem. Do your best to live what you believe. I just talked with my son about swearing. I hope he chooses not to swear. I appreciate the church telling him not to. I need help and support in raising my kids in the church.
    It sucks to have a kid reject beliefs or standards that you have, but I am not going to blame a standards booklet or a leader or my own parenting. She has a brain. She can use it as she takes in all the secular influences and the church influences. Nitpicking about a church booklet but them exposing her to the internet and public school seems a Little ridiculous. The fsoy is a tiny blip compared to imgur or you tube.
    Anyway, she gets a 4.0 , is respectful and spends her non internet time studying. She tries to improve her self and cares about others. She may not care about living some of the fsoy, but she is very honest with herself and others and god. We wouldn’t know of the ways she chooses to believe or act differently unless she shared them with me in heartfelt conversation because she is honest and has integrity. So I guess I feel like fsoy has served her well even if she does in some ways reject it.
    I support having it even if some people choose not to live it. That is their choice as well as how to live it in their current circumstances.
    I wonder if some people look back and try to fix all the difficult parts of being a teen. If it isn’t one thing it is another that would have been hard for you. Teens are growing up and you can’t spare them all the ants and the learning times. My daughter is in some ways thrilled to get to think about things in her partially grown up brain. She doesn’t want me to rob her of all the thinking and learning and experiencing.
    As much as I want to give her all my wisdom it is impossible. She listened well for 14 or 15 years but now she doesn’t want the cliff notes from me all the time, wants to read the book.
    I think when we want to get nitpicky about the words is because we want to share our perfect wisdom from our years of experience. But everyone’s wisdom is slightly unique. We should share it but sometimes we can only share it with a very few. And ultimately, as a parent I know that my teens reality is different from mine and I need to remember that.

  20. 20.

    Jessawhy, wow! That does seem like a big deterrent to making people feel welcome and included if leaders are suggesting that those who fail to keep up with standards of perfection are “others,” and they are doing it just fine.

    Also, Anonymostly and Frank, thanks for pointing out that the absolutist language is in the scriptures too. Regarding “be ye therefore perfect,” my experience is that whenever this is read in Sunday School, people fall all over themselves to point out that this is impossible. I guess I can hope that there are similar qualifiers given with FtSoY. Like you said, Frank, it shouldn’t be given in a vacuum.

    “On a different note, I think one of the larger problems with these standards is that they vilify aspects of the human experience that are, imo, healthy and normal parts of life.”

    Beatrice, this is such an excellent point that I didn’t even really think of. But I think you’re spot on.

  21. 21.

    I, also, always found “be ye therefore perfect” incredibly stressful (ermm, I kinda still do), moreso than FtSoY, though the latter didn’t do me any favors either. I remember feeling strongly, as an adolescent, that there was a line I might cross and then it would all be over, I would have plunged too far into sin to ever come out–there would just be too many black marks against me for me to ever really sincerely repent of every single one. And the terrifying thing was, the line might be anywhere. I might have already crossed it, and be pretty much doomed. I wouldn’t pin this on FtSoY exclusively, of course, but it’s symptomatic of a religious culture where proscriptions are merciless and abundant.

    I actually think the concession that these standards shouldn’t be given a vacuum points to a related problem. Because if a kid has a supportive environment, a good relationship with her parents, and youth leaders who get her, then sure, she can deal with a crappy standards pamphlet. But if those things are lacking, then chances are she’s already struggling. Why throw a shrill list of unflinching absolutist rules into the mix?

  22. 22.

    I guess our youth shouldn’t be watching the church’s various Easter videos, which consistently show one of the more shocking acts of violence in history: the crucifixion of an innocent man.

  23. 23.

    If standards are set impossibly high, and teens (inevitably) can’t follow them, it seems likely to me that this will make at least some teens feel like it’s not worth the trouble to try.

    FtSoY seems to me to be perfectly in keepiing with the spirit of that great LDS classic, The Inevitability of Condemnat… oh, sorry, The Miracle of Forgiveness, which is the most harmful book I have ever read as a member of the Church. I made the error of reading it during the first year of my marriage, as I was trying to adjust to married life.

    I was a convert at age 20, served a mission 13 months later, and never felt as if I had done a decent job. One visiting GA told us all that if we didn’t give it everything we had on our missions, “the Lord would never trust us again.” So I came home convinced that I hadn’t given it my all, because who does? got married, and read TMoF.

    That’s the spirit I get from FtSoY. I encourage my kids to live gospel standards, but I try to be realistic about that. It took/has taken/is taking me decades to get over those early experiences.

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