The New FTSOY: Let Them Govern Themselves(?)

M. David Huston lives and works in the Washington DC metro area. He is a husband and father of four who has previously written for poetry, international affairs, and LDS-related publications.

Like many, I was genuinely pleased when I reviewed the recently released For the Strength of Youth (FTSOY) pamphlet. As Elder Deiter F. Uchtdorf explains, the new “guide”—a word that did not appear on the cover of older versions of FTSOY—“focuses on values, principles, and doctrine instead of every specific behavior.” Gone are the specific lists of “standards” to which youth are encouraged to adhere. (See here for a very good comparison of the 2011 and 2022 versions of FTSOY.) Of this shift, Uchtdorf states, “Is it wrong to have rules? Of course not. We all need them every day. But it is wrong to focus only on rules instead of focusing on the Savior.” Fundamentally, it seems, the new FTSOY is premised on an idea as old as the restoration itself: prophets teach people correct principles and the people govern themselves.

But letting go of lists can be so hard — especially when the items on those lists have become a visible part of our culture.

Many dress and appearance standards (some of which go as far back as 1965 when the first FTSOY was released) are now part of the fabric of Mormon life. Multiple generations of LDS members have lived with, and have a personal stake in, some variation of these dress and appearance standards. For a sizeable portion of the church, young women covering their shoulders and only wearing one set of earrings (as just two examples) are more than just dress and appearance standards, they are markers of cultural identity. Between 1965-2022 FTSOY served to outline, in fairly detailed language, what it looked like to be a good and faithful church member. Dress and appearance standards were a way to both metaphorically and literally wear your faith on your sleeve.

And because dress and appearance standards have become a marker of cultural identity, transitioning to this new principles-based approach will probably be difficult for many. My experience is that there is currently, and I think will remain for some time, the feeling that the old FTSOY list of dress and appearance standards are still in full force. The sentiment is something like: “Sure, young women could get another set of earrings (or wear tank-tops, again just examples), but you still shouldn’t even if the new FTSOY doesn’t bar them expressly bar them.  The new FTSOY is not an excuse to try to get away with something. Good church members, who respect their bodies, still won’t do those things.” From this view, the old dress and appearance standards remain, not as a list which should be followed, but as an indication of the ‘proper’ application of the new FTSOY principle-based approach.

But there are two potentially damaging aspects to layering the old FTSOY dress and appearance standards lists on top of the new FTSOY principles-based approach: First, in the past, the FTSOY dress and appearance standards were often discussed in the context of obedience to prophetic guidance.[1] But if members see youth who now choose to deviate from the past dress and appearance standards as ‘trying to get away with something,’ then these youth are more than just non-compliant to list of dos and don’ts, they are apparently unable to ‘properly’ apply gospel principles. Viewing these youth in this way could call into question their ability to ‘properly’ engage in any gospel-related scenario (after all, if they can’t be trusted to ‘properly’ apply gospel principles tied to dress and appearance, how can they be trusted in other contexts?).

Second, reading into the new FTSOY the same old list-based-standards approach misses entirely the point of what I think the new FTSOY is trying to do. The new FTSOY’s approach to dress and appearance seems to be: (1) it may not actuallymatter that much in the eternal scheme of things (and may have never really mattered as much as we culturally believed it did) whether youth wear tank-tops or have one set of earrings or two (for instance);  (2) the most important thing is that youth are making thoughtful, intentional, prayerful decisions about how they dress and how treat their bodies; and (3) that youth are and should remain empowered to make those choices as part of their own spiritual journey, consistent with their understanding of gospel principles and their faith in God and Jesus, and with the advice of trusted adults. That is a remarkable and empowering vision for decision making. It shows profound trust in our youth. But we chop it all off at the knees if we add to it “…. but you still shouldn’t show your shoulders or wear two sets of earrings…”.

From my seat, trying to put the “old wine” of past dress and appearance standards into the “new vessel” of the FTSOY’s give-them-principles-and-they-govern-themselves approach works against the very thing that the new FTSOY seeks to foster: an empowered rising generation who are more focused on the two great commandments than anything else. That’s a vision we should all get behind.


[1] Mary N. Cook, “Be an Example of the Believers,” General Conference, October 2010; Jeffrey R. Holland “To Young Women” General Conference, October 2005; and Thomas S. Monson, “The Lighthouse of the Lord,” General Conference, October 1990.  These are three examples of General Conference addresses among a multitude of others that take this approach.  This is not to say where was no general scriptural nor theological reasoning, only that obedience to the specific dress and appearance standards as part of following prophetic guidance was an important part of the previous discourse on FTSOY.

Comments

  1. This has been my thinking as well. After seeing how my stake president seems to be interpreting the change, youth will now be expected to hold to rules that are now unwritten, while not being allowed much space to come to their own conclusions about what the spirit of the law means to them personally.

  2. Ya know, I was a pretty obedient, timid, eager-to-please kind of kid back in the ‘90s, but I still never read the FSOY once. Well-meaning Bishops and youth leaders would keep giving me copies cause they knew I never read it, but I still threw every last copy in the garbage. I don’t say that to brag or anything dumb like that, only to establish how little interest it held even for me.

    Cause here’s the thing: by the Church’s standards, I turned out fine—RM, BYU grad, temple married, tithe-paying, stake calling, kids in Primary, all that nonsense. But that all happened in spite of, not because, the FSOY, which again I never read.

    So here’s the question: if the FSOY is, at best, irrelevant towards keeping one active, and at worse actively damaging to one’s mental, emotional, and spiritual health, then why bother keeping it around at all? It’s just always struck me as a strange waste of church resources, Uchtdorf’s talents, and everyone’s time.

  3. Pconnornc says:

    “ And because dress and appearance standards have become a marker of cultural identity” – I don’t think these “have become”, but they always have been since the beginnings of civilization.

    I am also confused as to how the new FSOY has become “at best irrelevant to keeping one active”? First the old FSOY was too “detailed”, now it is “irrelevant” – it’s hard to make people happy these days.

  4. I would think that teaching correct principles would involve discussing some examples, and would mentioning having sleaves be an example?

  5. As those of us who wear beards will tell you, old paradigms fade away slowly… At a snail’s pace.

  6. If the principle, say on dress, is modesty the one set of earrings that dangle to your elbows is less modest that two small studs placed on the earlobe. Counting the number rather than the effect misses the point. The point is to avoid too much in the way of flashy jewelry. I have two holes per ear and I keep two simple earrings in them 24/7. My niece has six holes with small studs. I have seen apostles wives with one set of dangly, flashy, large earrings that are much less modest than my niece with her six studs. The over all effect should be what counts. But my niece with her modest studs is considered in violation of standards, but the over sized flashy things are not?

    Then there is style. When I was growing up, to have holes permanently punched in your ears, well that was for hookers, not good Mormon girls. Because for my mother’s generation, it was desecration of the body to alter it in any permanent way. Tattoos and swearing were for sailors, not Mormons. Any tattoo or piercing was outside of the 1940’s unstated rule book. The earrings of the WWII generation that she was expected to wear all day at work were painful, but it was just “immodest” to get your ears pierced. Then by the time I was 18, even my mother had her ears pierced. Then by the time it became church law that you shouldn’t wear two sets of earrings, the style changed and young girls were wearing multiple pair of earrings. Now the style has changed again and nose, lip, or belly button piercings are in style. The style for dress length goes up and down. If you go look at the BYU home coming queen pictures, you will see strapless gowns in the 40s and 50s. For high school yearbooks, they had the girls in a drape kind of thing that was off the shoulders. Good Mormon girls with bare shoulders. No one was having hissy fits. The style was different back then. But skin tight t-shirts, nope that was immodest. Now, I laugh at some of the clothing I see sold to girl missionaries. Their grandmothers would have been scandalized back in their day. You can see the garment lines under the shirt fabric, and they are very figure hugging. “Modest is hottest” only changed from bare shoulders to skin tight, still just as sexy looking.

    The church should not be regulating style by keeping the young people in what their grandmother would have worn. Or keep our young men in 1950’s haircuts and business suits. That isn’t anything to do with modesty, just the latest styles. The “priesthood uniform” has become 1950’s style dress. Which I suppose is better than monks in 1400’s robes or nuns in whatever century theirs uniforms were adopted in and then never allowed to change. Or the Amish in their 1800’s clothing and buggy. They froze what was “modest” in time, rather than adopting a principle.

    Our standards should be set in a way that changes over time and keeps up with style. Saying your clothing should be appropriate to the activity, not draw attention to oneself, and not be too sexually revealing, and not flaunt wealth, is good. That is much better than specifying your dress should cover x inches of body.

  7. Great article. And a great point from Anna: way too often the Church freezes a standard in time (dress, facial hair, music styles, etc.) instead of adopting a principle. And as a result too many members cling to something which is absolutely meaningless.

  8. A lot of the response, I suspect, will depend on location. Maybe the Mormon Belt will layer old written rules over the newer standards-based style. But in Chicago, nobody blinked an eye at the fact that my daughters wore sleeveless dresses to church. And I’m sure it was a combination of a ton of different factors, ranging from the fact that their YW leaders tended to be in their early 20s to the fact that my daughters are, if not the only, then at least the majority of the YW in our ward, to the fact that Mormons living in Chicago are a self-selected group.

    My wife and I will have words with the stake, however, if, at next year’s Girls Camp, they still require one-piece swim suits. (To be clear, stake leadership tends to live in the suburbs, making them older and more conservative than the people in our ward, so I have no idea whether their reaction has been closer to my ward’s lack of reaction or closer to a layering of unwritten rules.)

  9. I should add that it’s worth noting that the implicit/explicit facial hair prohibition has just not existed in Chicago in the 14 years that I’ve lived here. Again, it’s anecdote, but it is one data point in support of the idea that the power of cultural standards depends at least in part on location.

  10. The new FTSOY is asking youth to seek personal revelation and come closer to God. I don’t think it’s a rejection of the old rules so much as it’s an admission that the old rules were inadequate to the task of converting youth.

    Personal revelation is not about finding excuses or exceptions so much as it is about finding opportunity. How can I devote myself more fully to God? What does what I wear say about my relationship with him and my beliefs about myself? Etc. If our youth look and behave like youth outside of the church, I think we missed out on an opportunity.

  11. When I heard Elder Uchtdorf, I thought of many leaders and parents in my stake, who will probably say : OK, standards are not written anymore, but they are implied. And if a teenager doesn’t guess, well, it’s because he doesn’t listen to the Spirit, we’ll have to explain. Because we know and they don’t. I wonder when adults will start to think that they, too, can use their free agency to choose their Sunday clothes. When women won’t feel obliged to wear dresses, and men ties. And it doesn’t seem to may that I have less respect for the Sabbath day or the Lord because of a piece of clothe…

  12. M. David (OP) says:

    Sam–I agree this will likely vary by location, local leadership, etc. And though Chicago sounds like a place that is happily free from some of the more conservative approaches to dress and appearance (at least as you describe it), my sense is that the desire to hold onto the old lists may extend beyond the Mormon-belt….
    …so (to everyone) I’d be very interested to hear how others are seeing this play out in their areas. Are the previously-written lists now just “unwritten” rules (as Trevor calls them above)? Or is there really a move toward something like Sam describes in his area?

    Mike–I also agree with the sentiment that “I don’t think it’s a rejection of the old rules so much as it’s an admission that the old rules were inadequate…” My point (and to what I just noted above) is that really embracing a new approach requires really letting go of the old rules. And failing to let go of the hold rules feels (to me) like holding onto an inadequate approach. But you may feel differently.

    As far as what the FTSOY aims to accomplish (which both Mike and JLB address in different ways), I think that is an interesting question. In the pamphlet itself it says, “In ‘For the Strength of Youth,’ you will find the teachings of Jesus Christ and His prophets. With these truths as your guide, you can make inspired choices that will bless you now and throughout eternity.” And thus it seems like a key goal of the FTSOY is help youth to foster the ability to make “inspired choices.” I want to believe that means ’empowering our youth to take ownership of their own destiny.’ If so, then my vote is to do that and trust our youth to make their own decisions.

    And to Anna: Sometimes it feels like dress and appearance standards (written or not) boil down to “whatever is considered conservative… do that.” I say that a little tongue-in-cheek, but it gets to the same point that you make. So how does a church culture that remains fairly conservative (as David says, there are social expectations about what constitutes proper clothing for adults too) make room to embrace (or at least not recoil at) things like eyebrow rings?

  13. Antonio Parr says:

    I wasn’t raised in the Church, and grew up with some pretty amazing non-LDS friends. The families with whom my family associated dressed “modestly” because modesty carried with it a certain sense of dignity. For example, boys didn’t wear Speedos, and, while girls at times wore bikinis, they were not of the kind that were the female equivalent of male Speedo’s, ie, they were modest. I still see value in this approach and would strongly encourage any youth within my limited sphere of influence to do likewise.

    With respect to teens and tattoos – who among us want to be forever bound by the decisions of our 17-year old selves? I hope we all are encouraging kids to be slow to bind their 30 and 40 and 50 year old selves-to-be with tattoos that their future selves may not want.

    I never saw TSOY as tablets carried down from a mountain. Instead, they generally seemed to be reasonable guidelines for kids to avoid a lot of life’s pitfalls.

    I would never shun or shame a young person who made different choices – they’re just kids, after all – but, whether codified in a pamphlet or not, the standards of the Church will serve them well as they move forward in life.

  14. aporetic1 says:

    As for people referring to the old pamphlet as the “real” set of rules, we’ve already experienced this. My teenage daughter has a friend (*the stake president’s son) who loves to “encourage people to come to Christ”. Before the change in the pamphlet, he would take it upon himself to “help” my daughter by reminding her of the standards when they made different choices (Hanging out with non-member friends, clothing choices, music choices, Sunday activities, etc…) . She’s pretty good about firing back that she feels good about her choices and that she is following her standards, and that his interpretation of the standards isn’t the only one. (it’s a friendly repartee).
    After the new pamphlet came out, he proudly declared that he was going to follow the old pamphlet and encouraged her to do the same. She responded by saying that she was going to Follow the Prophet and do what it says in the new FSOY pamphlet, suggesting to him with a grin that maybe sticking to the old standards isn’t actually “following the prophet”. She felt like she bested him at his own game.
    (*He sort of sounds like a prick from my description of him, but he’s actually a really nice and great kid. He has a heart of gold.)

    So glad to see the changes. I especially liked the line under the section of Make Inspired Choices that says “It’s between you and the Lord.” I think that sums it up for me and what I really want to teach my kids. It’s between you and the Lord.

  15. It’s between you and the Lord….

    Can we pilot that take for Tithing Declaration and Temple Recommend Interviews for adults?

    Can that line be used for Ecclesiastical Endorsements too?

  16. Anotnio Parr has a point about it being a good thing to set boundaries with kids. I think where I see it differently than he is that the boundaries are set by parents based on the age/maturity/situation/culture of the kid rather than just blanket rules from the church. The church just needs to hand over decision-making/control to parents.

    My family has a firm no permanent changes to your body until out of H.S. and over 18. That includes one set of earrings in ears only (I’ve got a kid who has been lobbying for a cow-bell nose ring since she was 11). But want to go crazy on hair color? Sure. Wear pants to church? Absolutely. Tank tops that don’t show cleavage? No problem. (We also have a rule about being respectful about displaying too much sexuality for given situations.)

    I feel like the new FSOY opens up the opportunity for parents to work with their kids to set boundaries that teach principles that are important. It’s not a perfect booklet, but it’s definitely an improvement.

  17. Just realized I totally mangled/misconstrued what Anotonio Parr was saying. My apologies!

  18. Growing up in the youth programme in 1980s UK, I was aware of personal progress (which I didn’t do), and completely unaware of FSoY. It certainly wasn’t something that was pushed in the way it was for my kids generation. When and how did that change happen I am wondering…

  19. Thanks, David. I think you’re right that a simple Mormon Culture Region vs. Non-Mormon Cultural Reason is far too simplistic, and that’s absolutely not what I wanted to communicate. I think probably all sorts of factors will go into whether the new standards get layered over the old rules or not. I suspect that some include the age of the leaders and the number of youth (younger leaders and fewer youth will, I suspect, reduce the chances of that layering).

    I also think it’s the kind of thing that, to the extent local leaders try to do that layering, parents are responsible for pushing back.

    It will be interesting to watch what happens over the next, say, year or two and what happens in the long run.

  20. For a couple of gross generalizations, most local youth leaders nowadays are Millenials (born 1981-1996). If they are allowed to do their thing, I trust the overwhelming result will be principles based. Most stake leaders are older. If the stake leaders feel impressed to take over, I expect old rules will prevail.

  21. Thomas Parkin says:

    Just to point out, no matter how a young person chooses to adorn themselves, they will be dressing like people in ‘the world.’ Just, maybe, they will be looking more or less like the business / professional kids, the very future essence of ‘the world’, instead of the band / art kids.

    There is a Yeats poem that speaks from a woman who is making herself up in front of a mirror. Two of the lines are ‘ … no vanity’s displayed / I’m looking for the face I had before the world was made.’ As someone who has spent a lot more time among odd looking people than LDS culture people, I have no qualms saying that among the people who are dying thier hair blue and getting tattoos there is much less of a desire to conform to some kind of image, and less rebelliousness, and more integrity than what is imagined. I myself wear my hair quite long, and have preferred this since early elementary school. The reason I do is when I look at myself in the mirror, I recognize myself. It feels true.

    Whatever. Men look on the outer appearance but the Lord looks on the heart. My oddball kids, now well into their adulthood, have hearts at least as good as those struggling to beat in their more manicured peers.

  22. The Other Brother Jones says:

    I imagine that some kids are dressing/adorning themselves in such a way to challenge their parents and leaders to love them. Like, “Are you still gonna love me if I present myself this far out there.” And we meet that challenge by choosing people over programs. It is less about getting youth to adhere to rules and more about guiding them through the mess that is growing up.

  23. Antonio Parr says:

    The Other Brother Jones is 100% correct that we need to guide our children through “the mess that is growing up” and that we must love them no matter their dress/hair style/tattoos/lifestyle choices, etc.

    My concern about tattoos is that, while ~we~ may still love them, their older selves might not feel that same way about their younger selves, who are permanently imposing designs that may be a source of consternation a little further down the road.

    Hopefully, those older selves won’t look to us to blame for not blocking the doors to tattoo parlors , , ,

  24. eastofthemississippi says:

    My understanding is that one must 18 years of age to get a tattoo in the USA, that eliminates a large amount of the worry on that issue, excluding bootleg tats. That one thing I did council our children on, don’t get tats, they’re forever, and one actually listened, as far as I know.

    I like to point out to them that as a merchant mariner by trade I’m the one who should have a tattoo… and doesn’t.

  25. We teach them correct principles, and then we govern them ourselves.

  26. The points made in the OP were just confirmed in the most recent edition of the Church News where Brad Wilcox (YM’s 2nd counselor) is quoted as saying: “This guide [the new FTSOY] is not announcing that the standards have changed.” As the OP speculated, the old rules remain, “not as a list that must be followed but as an indication of the proper application of the new FTSOY principle-based approach.”

  27. eastofthemississippi says:

    In other words, it will really now be dependent on leadership roulette, and now unwritten rules enforced, and or made up, by said leaders.

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