Brother Bradley R. Wilcox: How do we help young people make good choices based on principles?

With announcement of new ‘For the Strength of Youth’ guide, three BYU religious education teachers give counsel on making choices based on principles

As a young sixth grade teacher, I always began the year by inviting students to write five rules for the classroom, five for the library, five for the lunchroom and five for the playground. Students obediently wrote their lists and turned them in. 

Then I unceremoniously dumped the lists in the garbage and said: “Now that I know you know the rules, let’s talk about a principle: We are here to learn and teach. Anything that gets in the way of that is against the rules.” 

Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, first counselor in the Young Men general presidency.
Brother Bradley R. Wilcox, second counselor in the Young Men general presidency | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Over the next few weeks when students did something inappropriate, I would ask: “Is that helping you learn? Is that helping me teach? What needs to change?” Soon these sixth graders began learning to govern themselves based on a principle rather than a list of rules.

With the announcement of the new “For the Strength of Youth” guide during October 2022 general conference, some wonder how best to help youth make the same transition. How do we help young people make good choices based on principles? I sat down recently with three teachers in religious education at Brigham Young University and asked for their advice.

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Gaye Strathearn, associate dean, said: “Principles are eternal, but application of those principles can change over time and from family to family according to church and individual circumstances. Exodus 31:13–16 teaches the principle that the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant between God and his people. During the time of Jesus, Jews were trying to keep the Sabbath holy, but their circumstances had changed from the time when the command was given to Moses. For example, the Israelites received specific directions about not collecting manna on the Sabbath. By Jesus’ time, however, there had been no manna for over a millennium. Therefore, the Jews looked for other ways to apply that Sabbath command. When I was a teenager, I learned about understanding the principle of the Sabbath day. My dad was not a member of the Church. Every year his fishing club hosted their Christmas barbecue on Sunday. It was the only time that Dad asked us as a family to do something with him on a Sunday. Initially, I did not want to go because in my mind it was breaking the Sabbath. But as I studied Exodus 31:13–16 and learned of the covenantal aspect of the Sabbath, I concluded that my covenant with God also included building an important relationship with my dad.” 

Youth from the Herriman Utah Pioneer Stake hold copies of the new guide “For the Strength of Youth: A Guide for Making Choices.” | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Tyler Griffin, another associate dean, responded: “Counsel together. We see a pattern in the Church in which those with [priesthood] keys often tell members the ‘what’ and leave us to counsel together about the ‘how.’ The stake president who has the keys may say, ‘Let’s plan a great youth conference focused on outcomes X, Y, and Z.’ Then the stake youth council, including the stake Young Women and Young Men presidencies, begin working out the details for how to achieve the inspired outcomes. The conference is ultimately better because adult and youth are counseling together. As families use the new ‘For the Strength of Youth Guide’ (the what) we will have more success if parents and children take time to counsel together about the hows.”

Anthony Sweat, associate teaching professor in Church history and doctrine, said: “Principles help us make choices in advance. One of the greatest blessings about making choices based on principles is that our choices don’t need to be overly influenced by the external pressure of peers or the internal pressure of our moods. Emotional feelings can vary, but principles remain consistent. C. S. Lewis once defined faith as ‘holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods’ (see “Mere Christianity,” 140-141). Sometimes we are not in the mood to read scriptures, serve others or attend Church meetings. As we make those decisions in advance, we simply follow through with what we decided earlier and are almost always glad we did. This perspective is what makes covenants so important. Covenants guide our future behavior. We make covenants today to guard against tomorrow’s tempted versions of ourselves. We make and renew covenants when we are thinking most clearly. A covenant relationship with God and Christ keeps us moving forward even when it is not easy, popular or convenient. Many of our eternal covenants are based on enduring eternal principles, and the revised ‘For the Strength of Youth’ guide explains many of these principles that guide covenant children of God.”

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