Guest Post: Things to Never Teach in Young Women's
Reese Dixon seems to be addicted to blogging, as she writes about teaching young women at Beginnings New, feminism and mormonism at Feminist Mormon Housewives, and motherhood and other creative endeavors at ReeseDixon.com
Since I’ve been teaching in YW my entire adult life, with no end in sight, I’ve been following D’Arcy’s work on abstinence with interest. It’s something I think about a lot, because I’ve seen so many consequences of crazy things that some YW leader taught to someone. I think if we leaders really tried to appreciate just how far reaching the effects of our teachings can be, we’d be too paralyzed with fear to actually present a lesson. But the fact remains that we leaders can send our girls on to a great experience with the gospel, or give them hangups that can plague them for years.
The lesson manuals aren’t always a great help with this either. Over on Beginnings New we obsess about subtext, and if you read the lessons with that in mind it’s often troubling to see the messages that are being sent unintentionally.
After my own trip through the YW’s program and subsequent re-learning of certain aspects of the gospel, coupled with the last ten years of service in the program, I’ve come up with my own little list of things I have to diplomatically correct or root out of any instruction to the young women, whether that comes from the lesson manuals, my own missteps, or the efforts of another well meaning leader who maybe isn’t as obsessive as I am.
In no particular order:
Chastity lessons that include shame or exclude the Savior:
As D’Arcy has written about, this can be tricky. It’s hard to impress upon the girls the importance of respecting themselves and their bodies without slipping into the standard pattern of instruction that includes comparing an unchaste woman to a chewed piece of gum or a dirty broken cookie. These object lessons may be compelling, but are so damaging to someone who has already messed up, not to mention someone who has been victimized. Plus it discounts the effects of the Atonement to create a “new piece of wood.”
In the last conference, Elder Cook included an analogy that was probably the best I’ve heard. A “life-giving” stream that got polluted after not enough protections were taken, restored to purity after corrections were made. If you must use an analogy, use that one. Just make sure to explain that this doesn’t apply if someone else broke down your fence.
Lessons about their specialness that set them up for disappointment with a regular life:
This one comes from unpacking my own baggage. But I know I’m not alone. These youth really are an amazing generation. Smarter, more savvy, more experienced, and they’re most likely going to go on to be smarter, more savvy, more experienced in their regular old happy normal lives. Too much talk about choice generations makes some people (like my teenage self) expect some kind of a grand life befitting such a choice person.
I just yesterday discovered another wrinkle with this kind of talk. My girls told me about a lesson our Bishop gave them called, “You’re not as strong as you think you are,” where he talked to them about avoiding opportunities for temptation. Each one of the girls told me that her first reaction was, “Hey! I am too strong! I’m part of a choice generation!” Oh dear.
That happiness is a function of righteousness:
The most recent lesson I reviewed was about making righteous choices and how good it will make you feel. Imagine my dismay when not once in the lesson did it mention the Holy Spirit. It gave several reasons why it feels good to choose the right, but the one it favored in quantity was that we will feel proud of ourselves for making a right choice. Ignoring the circular logic, I also find it troubling that instead of encouraging a relationship with the Divine as a source of happiness despite life circumstances, it encouraged a false sense of pride in our own strength and for being better than the sinners. This encourages the thought that if I (or someone else – extra ammo for judging others) am unhappy it’s because I’m not righteous enough. So I get to internalize shame, particularly about mental illness, and get a view of God that punishes me with reasons to be unhappy if I’m not reading my scriptures enough.
An emphasis on Do Not’s over an emphasis of good works:
It’s really easy to stick to the things that are quantifiable. No drugs. Check. No alcohol. Check. Don’t let boys touch my boobs. Check. I think this is where the TAMN’s of the world get stuck, stalling on this level of progression and never seeming to catch on that to be a true disciple of Christ you should actually be kind. It’s not enough to just NOT do stuff. We should be defining ourselves as disciples by what we DO.
A vision of their future that does not include the unpredictability of fate:
Statistics say that not every girl I teach will get married. Half of them won’t stay married, and in my area at least, nearly all of them will have to work at some point. I’m not fulfilling my stewardship to prepare them for their future if all I do is talk about one option – particularly staying at home to raise many babies. I should certainly teach the ideal, but there are loads of times when I can at least mention that there are other things that can happen.
An all or never view of the gospel:
As a teenager I was the overly earnest sort, and I was convinced that one kiss, one drink, one poor choice leads directly to the gutter. In this year’s lesson on drug abuse, there was a case history about a 12(!) year old heroin addict and prostitute. I mean come on now. This vision of the world is almost schizophrenic – they go to school with a ton of kids who break the commandments and live to tell about it – and once again it denies the power of the Atonement. Once again it teaches fear about consequences over making choices out of a love of God. And when it suddenly becomes OK to give a kiss and then some, it can be really difficult to let go of that fear and shame.
A condescension towards other faiths:
The way to teach teenagers about the One True Church is for them to experience it, and test it for themselves. Not to build it up at the expense of someone else or denigrate any other options. That just makes them intolerant and lousy citizens.
The world is a big fat scary place:
President Hinckley used to tell us all the time how we were not alone in the world. That our concerns were not new nor ours alone. Sure there are temptations out there, things we should work against, but every time we say “The World,” even if we just mean the people who disagree with us, there are going to be some girls who hear “The World” and think, you know, the world. For me, this fear influenced where I went to college, who I dated, who I made close friends with, and as a result I completely isolated myself from anyone who hadn’t been baptized. Utterly ridiculous, I know, but I had been fed a steady diet of horror stories about friends who seemed fine until the day they tried to shove drugs down the throat of the poor unsuspecting Mormon girl. If we’re going to be good members, good citizens, good missionaries for that matter, we have to actually be a part of the world. Which is different than “The World.”
What do you think? Anything you’d add to the list? Are there still hangups you’re trying to shake from some YW leader who didn’t really think things through?