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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?

Caroline

Caroline is a PhD student in Women's Studies in Religion and mother of three.

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31 Responses

  1. E.D. says:

    I think you make some good points. I am a returned missionary, never married, 48-year old woman. When I taught Young Women’s I told the girls that there are a lot worse things that could happen to you than not getting married. Because I grew up believing that there really was only one option, it took me years to realize that I’m okay just where I am and I’m not unhappy being single. That was a wonderful epiphany; just wish I had had it quite a few years sooner.

  2. Craig says:

    Those are all really good points. Mormonism would gain a lot from revising its teachings thusly, and would become a lot less abusive and problematic.

  3. nikki says:

    To go on with your point about “The World.” I was the only girl in YW’s who had friends that were of other faiths. I was criticized for this, and felt pressure to not be friends with them. That by not being friends with them, I was being obedient, and sacrificing for the Lord. Too often, not just in YW’s but in church, we talk about being a “good example.” This is not what the Lord expects of us. This is passive. We need to be an influence, and we do this through our relationships, and interactions. Not just by being a bystander and hoping someone will notice.

  4. Maren says:

    I enjoyed reading your list and you make a lot of excellent points. I’ve been in YW for 4 years now and love it, but like you, see that a lot of the lessons in the manuals could be improved. I’ve heard that they are updating the manuals for next year, so I hope they incorporate some of the points you’ve made as well.

  5. Emily U says:

    I like each point quite a bit. I think most of my hangups came from Seminary teachers in Utah, though, not YW.

    The one point I’d take small exception to is about their vision of the future. Rather than teach that there is an ideal from which their lives may vary, I wish youth could simply be taught that there are many legitimate ways to live in the gospel.

  6. Halleldanglujah. You’re henceforth in charge of the YW manuals. Or at at I think you should write one so I can buy it if I’m ever called to YW. And use it for 2 weeks before being dishonorably discharged for not using a violated baked good analogy.

    I agree with all of the above. I think mostly the idea was to scare girls into behaving in the desired manner. It definitely worked for me, but unfortunately my default mode is still to be terrified of everyone and everything.

    I would also like to add (or better yet, subtract from memory) all the time we spent being reminded that attracting and keeping a man was the pinnacle of womanly achievement. In our weekday activities we learned to cook to impress men. We learned to wax and apply makeup to impress men. We learned how to stand to look thinner in photographs and impress men. On Sunday, we learned to cultivate the type of spiritual attributes that attract an RM who’s looking for someone to rear his offspring. Meeting my husband is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I’m all for marriage. Don’t think it should outstrip developing a personal relationship with deity as a goal for a church auxiliary, however.

  7. DeAnn says:

    Those are great. I have been teaching YW for about 20 years and I find it interesting that all of those have come up and I find myself turning to the Ensign and New Era for more timely examples. There is such a profound need for new lesson manuals.

  8. jacki says:

    The all or nothing view of the gospel really rings true in my experience. My seminary teacher talked about doing unchaste things as a slippery slope, so just don’t give one kiss, because it’s so hard to stop. Meanwhile my friend next to me in class, is heavy in sin with his girlfriend, and pretty much gave up resistance to change, because the teacher expressed no confidence in our ability to overcome and change our behavior. I think the main lesson here is to encourage strength against temptation, and the ability of one to change one’s habits through the atonement.

  9. Kristen says:

    “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.”

    This. This. This. Basically everything you mention, but this especially. I genuinely thought I was depressed as a youth because I missed a day or two a week of reading scriptures. It seems totally absurd now, but it took me until age 20 to even begin to unravel that. The worst part is the percentage of adult members who still think no one would experience mental health problems if they would just behave well enough. God is not the vending machine of happiness.

  10. These are all very good points. When I taught YW in NYC for a few years, it became all too obvious where the lesson manuals were lacking. Many of these girls made mistakes. Big mistakes. Luckily, the gospel is for us sinners, not the perfect.

  11. D'Arcy says:

    Wonderful post! I just agree and agree. I’ve found it interesting that I don’t have children, I don’t teach in school and yet, and yet, when my sweet little 16 year old student walks into class and it’s the moment I realize she’s pregnant…well, I think we’ve got some changing to do.

    Thanks for carrying on the message AND the ideas!

  12. mj says:

    Thanks for your post Reese. Though I would agree with your comments regarding the unpredictable nature of life, I would have to add that women need to have the freedom make choices (like not having children, or choosing a career) and be accepted for those choices.

    I was strongly affected by a young women’s lesson I was assigned to teach last year (manual 1, lesson 8). In a nutshell, the lesson teaches that we promised Heavenly Father that we would cheerfully accept our divine roles as wives and mothers. One quote in the manual states that “we made vows, solemn vows, in the heavens… that we would marry in the temple and would rear a family…” There are no other divine roles mentioned in the lesson. I rewrote the lesson to teach the YW they can do anything that makes them and the world better.

    This lesson epitomizes one of the main challenges I have with the church; you must fit into a very small box to be accepted. I don’t want my daughters to ever be exposed to lessons like this.

  13. EmilyCC says:

    Reese, thanks so much for this post. I particularly like idea of lessening the focus on the “Do Not” list. When that’s the only list I’m looking at, I limit my responsibility and motivation for true spirutal progression. I wonder if we, as leaders, can find ways to center discussions more on what to do to become a dsciple of Christ if the “do not” list then becomes and implicit part of the “do” list.

    Then again, the “do not” list is so much easier to teach 🙂

  14. Beatrice says:

    Related to your comment about not all girls getting married etc, I would add that YW leaders should teach that there is more than one way to be a mother. I adamantly avoided motherhood for years because I felt like it was an all or nothing choice. If you chose to be a mother it meant that you had to be a full-time stay a home mom who was really into all the homemaking stuff. If you decided to work and be a mother, then your children would be horribly neglected, you would be stressed out all the time, and your marriage would fall apart. I saw working vs. being a mother as an either/or choice so I chose not to be a mother. It wasn’t until later that I realized that I didn’t have to be the type of mother that is so idealized in church settings.

  15. JM says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post.

    In regards to your statement, “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.” While I agree with the statement in general, I wonder, what really is the “ideal” to teach? In my 20’s, I used to think that the “ideal” was to marry someone LDS in the temple and be a well-educated SAHM (or work only part-time). Two decades later, and not falling within this ideal, I can no longer accept that as a universal ideal because it leaves out too many people that, whether because of circumstances beyond their control or their inspired or well-meant choices, or the consequences of unfortunate choices, do not fit into the ideal. Feeling that I have less of a life through the lense of the Mormon ideal for women has caused me a lot of pain, even though intellectually I realize that there is nothing wrong with my life.

    Further, even when a woman marries on the younger side and is a SAHM, eventually the children grow into adults and that woman still has a lot of life in front of her!

    I am not in YW, but I would hope that the YW of the church are not taught a narrow ideal, but that at all phases of their life they can have an “ideal” life through devotion to God, personal and professional development, rich personal relationships, and service to family, friends, and the community.

  16. ZD Eve says:

    Excellent recommendations, Reese. I’ll definitely come back to these if I ever get called into YW again.

  17. Ziff says:

    Great post, Reese!

    I never got to attend Young Women’s (sniff) but I think you make some excellent points. I particularly think that some of these ideas in combination have the potential to mislead even over and above their ability alone.

    For example, take “happiness is a function of righteousness” and combine it with “all or nothing view of the gospel.” At least for me, this combination is deadly because it’s clear from a very little observation that there are lots of people out there living very few gospel standards but who are nonetheless quite happy. My response, at least thinking back, was to think that if leaders taught such obvious bull excrement, what else that they were teaching was false? More importantly, was *anything* they were teaching true, or was it all similarly baloney?

    So thanks for pointing out the problems with teaching these things.

  18. ErinAnn says:

    Reese, I love this. Thank you.

  19. Bro. Jones says:

    Have we determined a GOOD analogy for teaching chastity to youth yet?

  20. DenMother says:

    Thank you, Reese.
    I certainly appreciate your points and perspectives. I whole-heartedly agree with the your point of view. I also think these points, or very similar points, would be appropriate for new sister converts, too.

    I live in a rural area of the USA and attend a very small branch. We currently have no YW but we do have a fairly recent sister convert. She and her non-member hubby moved in from a large ward in another state. Recently she was questioned if she was prevented (her words) from taking the Sacrament because she some angry thoughts she had toward someone earlier that week. “Oi vey!” I thought.
    But you know what? I was a convert and I had a similar experience a few weeks after my baptism. When I asked my RS leader about my concern, I received the stock response from my, “Pray about it, dear.”
    Will the circle EVER be unbroken???

  21. Kelly Ann says:

    Thank you for sharing this Reese. It makes me happy that people are thinking about the impact of lessons to the youth.

    I had a rough experience in Young Women’s (something like four president’s in my six year tenure). I enjoyed it but looking back see all sorts of hangups produced as a result of various experiences.

    Regarding chastity, a certain poem stating something like “the more a kiss is given, the less each one is worth” kept me from kissing anyone for a long time (till I was 28).

    However, the most transformative experience in Young Women’s was when several of the active girls including myself had to approach the Bishop regarding some misconduct on the part of the Young Women’s president causing her to step down. It really made us realize our worth.

  22. Stacee says:

    I am new to this site, but am enjoying the outlook here. I would like to add an idea about what we teach in YW/YM. I would like to change the way we teach our children about modesty. I feel that modesty is much more than the clothes we wear. We are so hung up in our mormon culture about sleeveless tops and too short shorts or swimsuits, that we miss the woman wearing the clothes and label her as immodest. I am the mother of 4 teenage boys and I have taught them that it should not matter what a girl wears to a dance or any other activity. She is still a daughter of God and should be treated that way. We are in control of our thoughts and actions and clothing shouldn’t be the deciding factor as to wht we are thinking about or her worthiness. We need to learn to control our thoughts and ideas in any situation and not when we are dressed “modestly” only.
    We are so wrapped up in the whole modest clothing issue that we are shaming our children into believing that there bodies are a dirty and bad thing and should be covered up. We need to teach them that there bodies are a gift from our Heavenly Father and that we are created in His image and are a wonderful, beautiful thing. We should be teaching how wonderful we are and how great it is to have a marrital commitment when the time is right. Not how dirty or bad sex is. I know that these two ideas are two different ideas, but they do go hand in hand. We promote a “Good Girl Syndrome” in our culture and when these YW get to the marrying age, they have a hard time turning off the ideas of negativity, and turning on the idea of a beautiful and healthy sexual relationship. I think it starts in our constrained teachings of modesty. One can be modest in a swimsuit for instance. It should not be the responsibility of the girl/woman to control the thoughts and actions of each boy/man!!!

  23. Caroline says:

    Great points, Stacee. Welcome!

  24. Julie says:

    Where did the idea of out of wedlock sex is next to murder in severity come from? Is that actual doctrine or mormon-lore? I know I’ve heard it a lot, and it makes no sense to me.

  25. Allyson says:

    This is why I stick to Primary. The lessons are so much simpler and easier for me to teach. YW’s is tough, but I love how you have figured out some tricks. Thanks for sharing.

  26. Caroline says:

    Julie,
    I believe there’s a verse in the book of Mormon about sex being the sin next to murder in seriousness. I don’t know the reference right off hand however. I find it a ridiculous idea myself. Seems to me like torture, rape, abuse, cruelty, etc. are way worse than people having sex.

  27. Starfoxy says:

    Julie,
    It’s from the book of Alma where Alma’s son Corianton is supposed to be serving a mission but was spending his time with “The Harlot, Isabel” instead. Alma is chastising him and says

    “Know ye not, my son, that these things are an abomination in the sight of the Lord; yea, most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?”

    That’s where the idea comes from. But the idea isn’t repeated very much by other prophets, or anywhere else really, except for youth leaders trying to scare kids into being good.

  28. Kelly Ann says:

    When people reference that verse, I like to point out it was a specific rebuke to Corianton, who was a missionary at the time he hooked up with a harlot. If you are representing the church, I think there is greater responsibility for any mis-step. So I can see a greater severity for his actions that than I can for people having pre-marital sex or even extra-marital affairs. Although I still don’t rank any consensual sexual relations below murder. Like Caroline, I think rape, torture, abuse, are way worse. So I then try not to rank sins. I don’t think it is the way from keeping people not sinning.

  29. James Gehrke says:

    Thanks for your suggestions. I am teaching leadership to Stake and Ward leaders in which I have included case studies of how we might mishandle situaitons. Your ideas have promted me to think of things we may say/do in clases that have negative or unforseen consequences as well.
    Many thanks,
    James

  30. James Gehrke says:

    The real lesson here is to be kind, loving, open and always focusing on the love and charity and atonement of our Savior and his love for all of his children.

  31. Kiri Close says:

    dudette,

    this is really awesome. in Young womens (lately especially), our lessons are A LOT of listening, probably more than anything else (after all, at this point, even our 12 year olds already believe they are adults, which means they want their own space to practice their own good choices. take that space of independence away, and you have a lovely festering recipe for disaster or eventual ‘weirdness’).

    so, we’ll be listening to the latest in the girls’ lives for a while, even if it means postponing the Sunday lesson.

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