Steven Madsen is an attorney living and working in the Washington, DC area. He and his wife have an 18-month-old son. He currently serves as a bishopric counselor, having previously served as a seminary teacher and youth Sunday School teacher.
I recently spent a hot, humid summer day assisting with our ward’s Girls Camp. It was the first day of the camp and the young women attending were all members of our oldest Young Women’s class. As we gathered around the campfire with the sun setting behind the trees, I sensed (or perhaps the Spirit prompted) that this would be a great moment to have a good conversation with the young women and adult leaders.
I got the discussion going by asking, “What is difficult about being a young woman in the church today?” They were eager to respond. Some shared their concerns with several of the cultural expectations they feel are imposed on young women and adult women, either in society or in the church. Others talked about their desire for difficult issues from church history (e.g., polygamy) or matters of current church policy (e.g., women and the priesthood) to be discussed more frequently in church settings. Each young woman, including some who aren’t often open with their thoughts, took the opportunity to speak and share. The conversation continued to other topics the girls wanted to discuss.
As adult leaders, we shared some small pieces of advice and counsel. But we mostly asked questions and listened. I hope our posture of listen first, talk second helped the young women feel comfortable sharing feelings from the heart. I think they could sense we were not there to judge or correct. We were there to understand and support.
Youth Want to “Talk the Talk”
Research suggests that positive conversations and interactions youth have with adult leaders have a profound impact on them. Commenting on a study of 3,370 American teens, Princeton Theological Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean observed that, among those studied, [LDS] teens “were the least likely to engage in high-risk behavior and consistently were the most positive, healthy, hopeful and self-aware teenagers.” She attributed this success, in part, to the higher number of nonparent adults who played a meaningful role in a teenager’s life.
BYU Professors David Dollahite and Loren Marks report that when researchers ask parents what they think is the most important thing they can do to help their children come to understand and share their parents’ spiritual or religious beliefs/values they generally respond with something like:
- Be a good role model
- Go to church
- Have family prayer, scripture study, and Family Home Evening
In other words, “walk the walk.”
No one can doubt that “walking the walk” is important in helping youth form the foundation of their own testimonies. However, when researchers ask youth and young adults what they think is most important they mention having religious conversations with their parents or adult leaders. In other words, youth want to “talk the talk.”
What does it mean to “talk the talk” with youth? I think it means conversations where adults primarily listen, and youth primarily talk. These types of conversations are open and can be wide-ranging. Youth receive understanding and support from adults rather than receiving advice and counsel.
Some parents or adult leaders may be hesitant to have these kinds of conversations or completely avoid having them altogether. These conversations can be awkward and uncomfortable. Because they are open and wide-ranging, they may stray unto territory that brings us outside of our comfort zones. Youth may share ideas or feelings that challenge some of our cultural or doctrinal beliefs. They may ask us questions to which we don’t know the answers.
My instinctive response to leaders or parents who may be hesitant to engage youth in these conversations is “I understand where you’re coming from.” I was someone who avoided certain topics or subjects of discussion to steer clear of the uncomfortable or negative feelings that sometimes accompanied them. It takes time and effort to move past the boundaries of our comfort zones into an uncertain space; however, the effort and time are worth it.
My challenge to hesitant leaders or parents is to embrace vulnerability. Dr. Brené Brown describes vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” You take a risk when you choose to engage youth in listening conversations. Feeling negative emotion is not anyone’s favorite thing in the world. We are psychologically wired to avoid emotional exposure. However, taking the risk is the key to unlocking connection. ”
What most of us fail to understand…is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave,” says Dr. Brown. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity.” Vulnerability serves all those purposes for ourselves and for the youth we are seeking to connect with. When leaders and parents truly listen to the things in a youth’s heart, however complicated or difficult or messy they may be, a feeling of belonging and safety are engendered. Today’s youth value these things highly.
Learn to Listen, then Listen to Learn
When he was a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, President Russell M. Nelson urged parents and teachers of children and youth to “learn to listen, then listen to learn” from these precious sons and daughters of God. He continued, “A wise father once said, ‘I do a greater amount of good when I listen to my children than when I talk to them.’”
As adult leaders and parents engage the youth of the church in listening conversations, I hope our minds will be open to the wisdom and inspiration they will share with us. I hope our hearts will be open to receive the pain or anxiety or other burdens they will seek for us to bear with them. I hope our ears and souls will be open to the insights the Holy Ghost will share with us regarding how we can support and help youth navigate their increasingly complicated, noisy world. May the Lord bless us as we seek to minister with our ears.