Twenty Lessons from Two Thousand Teenagers
In 2019, clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen wrote in Scientific American:
"No matter the culture or the label, failure to launch cases are mostly, but not all, young men. Numbers indicate the problem is increasing. Indeed, in 2014, over seven million American men ages 25-54 were neither working nor looking for work, up 25% from 10 years prior...
"Why is this happening? Ask a dozen experts, and you’ll get a dozen answers: the economy, the number and kind of jobs available, an unwillingness to take on education debt that can’t be paid off by lower-level jobs, the decline of rites of passage to adulthood, or the falling frequency of marriage.
"All these things may be keeping young adults at home, but the defining feature of failure to launch is foot-dragging, delaying, stalling, or flat-out refusal to participate in life." (Hendriksen, 2019; emphasis added)
A lively debate is underway on the causes and solutions to these challenges. In this article, I'd like to explore a concept that may not typically be found in that debate.
Throughout history, every society has a moral foundation advocated for by prophets, philosophers, and poets - men and women who espouse an ideal that answers fundamental questions about right and wrong, and the meaning and purpose of life.
Homer, Moses, Marx, and Mao were such men. The societies in which their ideas took root looked vastly different from one another, but they were similar in this way: the political, economic, and social structures that grew out of their ideas formed a stack, a Culture Stack that is coherent and comprehensible from the perspective of the underlying moral structure.
When we find ourselves at odds with the beliefs held by another individual or group, we may find clarity by exploring this level of the stack - the moral worldview undergirding their beliefs about politics, economics, family, religion, community, etc.
Like most churches, the one I belong to regularly speaks to the moral underpinnings of individual behavior and their impact on society. We have a program entitled Come Follow Me that encourages members to read and discuss a block of scripture each week with their family. Last year we studied The New Testament. This year we are reading from a companion book of scripture entitled The Book of Mormon that covers the history of God's dealings with the indigenous people of the Americas from about 4200 BCE to 400 CE. This week's reading was from Alma 53-63.
In these chapters an unusual story takes place. Two thousand young men volunteer to fight in place of their fathers who had vowed to never fight again. They were "very young" and "never had fought." In other words, they were not ideal soldiers, or so it seemed. And yet, when they engaged in battle, not only were they victorious, but not a single life was lost.
As I consider the significant challenges facing young people today, including the rise in mental illness rates, I can't help but wonder what lessons we might learn from these young men's upbringing. We live in a rapidly changing world. Like these young men, our youth must have sufficient hardiness, resolve, and flexibility to pivot and face life circumstances they weren't necessarily prepared for.
From the historian's account, I gleaned twenty characteristics held in common by these young men that seemed to make up for their inexperience in military matters:
They were exceedingly valiant for courage
They were exceedingly valiant for strength
They were exceedingly valiant for activity
They were men who are true at all times in whatsoever thing they are entrusted
They were men of truth
They were men of soberness
They were taught to keep the commandments of God and to walk uprightly before him
They never had fought, yet they do not fear death
They thought more upon the liberty of their fathers than they do upon their lives
They had been taught by their mothers that if they did not doubt, God would deliver them
To anyone who asked, they rehearsed without hesitation or shame the teachings and faith of their mothers
Their unprecedented success in temporal matters was ascribed “to the miraculous power of God, because of their exceeding faith in that which they [have] been taught to believe—that there was a just God, and whosoever did not doubt, that they should be preserved by his marvelous power”
In spite of being young their minds were firm
In spite of being young they put their trust in God continually
In spite of receiving many wounds they stood fast in that liberty wherewith God has made them free
They were strict to remember the Lord their God from day-to-day
They did observe to keep his statutes continually
They did observe to keep his judgments continually
They did observe to keep his commandments continually
Their faith was strong in the prophecies concerning that which is to come
These twenty attributes raise many deep questions that may challenge prevailing ideas about how we might raise our own children.
In 2003, religious leader M. Russell Ballard spoke at an education conference held at Brigham Young University and said the following:
Conditions in today’s world demand… young men and women filled with faith and deeply anchored testimonies... of the gospel of Jesus Christ... They need to be like Helaman and his 2,000 stripling warriors, young men who ‘were exceedingly valiant for courage, and also for strength and activity; but behold, this was not all – they were men who were true at all times in whatsoever thing they were entrusted." (Ballard, 2003)
Consider each of the points in the above list. How did they become like that? What are the implications of having that type of character?
Consider just one instance in which a people failed in just one of these points. The Jews at the time of Christ ignored point #20 at their peril. They did not recognize their Messiah because they were not familiar with the prophecies of His first coming. The Jewish people, hundreds of generations of them, have been profoundly impacted by the failure of a single generation on just one of these twenty points.
Personally, I struggle to know how to solve the problems facing today's young people, particularly the challenges of mental health, but I suspect there are lessons we can learn by studying successful generations of the past.
What differences are there in the Culture Stack and subsequent upbringing of these 2,000 young men and youth of today?
What impediments might our culture be placing in the way of our youth?
What can you do differently in your home?
Ballard, M. (2003, August 19). The Sacred Responsibilities of Parenthood. Retrieved August 16 2020, from https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/m-russell-ballard/sacred-responsibilities-parenthood/
Hendriksen, E. (2019, May 18). Failure to Launch Syndrome. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/failure-to-launch-syndrome