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Be flexible. Be kind.

By Michelle Lehnardt

As girls’ camp approached, my inbox filled with little notes: “Remember, no shorts or capris allowed– even when exercising!” “All visitors must sign in at the entrance.” “Anyone not on the list will be turned away.” “No tape, no tacks, no stickers, no glue, no cookies or candy in the cabins.” “All hikes must be preapproved.” etc. etc. and- I’m not kidding you– etc.

With each email, my trepidation grew. Would a draconian set of rules blight our happy days at camp?

Still, I’m an obedient soul and packed my bags with long pants, filled out every form and brainstormed ways to decorate the cabin without using any forbidden tacks or tape. Even with the cheerful greeter at the gates and the wink and nod orientation– “Just sweep out all the cookie crumbs at the end of the week.”– my skepticism continued. Like a child approaching the principal’s office, I knocked on the camp directors’ motor home door to gain approval for our first hike. With a rush of warmth, they pulled me inside, showing off their temporary home, photos of their grandchildren and binders filled with hiking plans. They made photocopies of trail maps, scribbled directions and wrapped me in a hug before sending me out the door. As I left, I noted the sign taped to their tiny refrigerator, “Be flexible. Be kind.”

Seasoned with kindness, the lists of rules suddenly seemed perfectly reasonable. Of course they wanted us in long pants– bugs and thorns are thirsty for our blood; of course we should tell people where we’re hiking or when we’re leaving camp– a hundred girls could get lost in those woods. And of course we should clean our own bathrooms and cooking areas, put out our fires at night, keep garbage away from the bears. Yes, we had bathrooms and sinks and cabins with electricity. It’s a posh camp (with a long wait list).

I’m not lucky enough to be a Young Women’s leader, but when I gained the happy task of Ward Camp Director at our Stake Young Women’s Camp, my primary goal was to make each girl feel loved and to learn how to help others feel more cherished and valued. Sadly, many of our youth feel isolated and lonely even when surrounded by other teens and interested adults. A focus on rule keeping can inhibit the ability to make connections– but sometimes rules can help. For example, the no-shorts rule made the length of shorts a non-issue. Sure, by the end of the first day everyone rolled up their jeans up a few inches, but we didn’t waste a single moment scolding anyone about modesty. Some girls brought phones, nearly everyone brought candy, and some girls– gasp– wore open toed shoes around the cabins, but we chose to let those things go. I believe we have a limited number of interactions with everyone we meet; I want most of those moments to be positive.

In contrast, my friend’s stake conducted a bag check the morning they left for camp, searching for cell phones, immodest clothing and any other inappropriate items. Even the mothers felt violated by this invasion of privacy. One girl, despite her clothing passing initial inspection, was sent back from a hike because her shorts didn’t reach the requisite length. Numerous opportunities to show love, teach the gospel and feel the Spirit were marred by slaving devotion to rules, rules, rules.

When I was called into Young Women’s years ago (Oh! that happy season) one saintly woman in our ward wrapped her arms around me and whispered, “I’m so glad you’ll be in Young Women’s. You love people as they are. You’re not the kind who will make them feel terrible about a short skirt or a second ear piercing.” In truth, my friend saw me as a far more Christlike person than my thoughts might reveal. Little did she know I was pondering a hard-core approach to modesty for the girls in our ward. Her words changed me. I abandoned all plans to discuss modesty and focused on welcoming the girls to church and to activities in whatever they were wearing. Further, I resolved to never pester girls about arriving late or missing events; I simply wanted them to feel loved while they were with us and to show appreciation for the efforts they made to come.

Some of our girls could only come to camp for one or two nights or even just an afternoon, but I was grateful they made the effort to come at all. Teenagers are busy. People are busy. We need to remember we’re part of an all-volunteer organization and appreciate the countless contributions of each member, not focus on their absence or failings.

As far as the bag check– sure, girls might bring things to camp better left at home, but if I’m doing my job to conduct interesting activities where the girls feel loved and included, those things will never come out of their duffle. I love rules, I savor commandments. But kindness and flexibility are often more powerful when teaching others.

Before we embarked on our hike, I told the girls, “We’re not trying to go fast; we’re not here to get a workout; we might not even make it to the top. We are here to enjoy each other and God’s creations. No one will be left behind.” The girls chose darling Courtney– who has had more surgeries than her family can count, whose feet turn in and often betray her– to lead us. She rested often. We all finished every drop in our water bottles. More than once, Courtney fell on rocks and tree roots, but she jumped right back up, assured us, “I’m fine.” and sang over and over, “I feel so grateful in my heart. It’s good to be alive.”

Have you seen rules obstructing compassion in relationships? Especially in the church?

How can we help others feel loved while still maintaining protocol?

Have you ever been to Heber Valley Camp? It’s amazing! And have you heard this sweet song in the video by Regan Rindlisbacher found on lds.org?

About Michelle Lehnardt

(Blog Team) I'm the kind of mom who drives through mud puddles, throws pumpkins off the roof and lets the kids move the ping-pong table into the kitchen for the summer. Despite (or probably, because of) my immaturity, my five sons and one daughter are happy, thriving, funny people. I'll climb a mountain with you, jump into a freezing lake hand-in-hand or just sit with you while you cry. I believe the gospel of Jesus Christ will heal the earth. Founder of buildyourteenager.com, scenesfromthewild.net and rubygirl.org.

28 thoughts on “Be flexible. Be kind.”

  1. It is ridiculous the restrictions we place on the YW standards. Yes modesty counts but the YM wear shorts and no length restrictions and they camp and deal with stickers and bugs. The YM wear tanks (yet someday they will have to wear garments). The YM go SHIRTLESS when they swim but OH MY GOSH if 1 inch of a girls midriff is showing they have to COVER themselves. I have raised 2 beautiful daughters who are extremely modest and follow all the camp rules, but just this week the girls were asked to cover up after a combined swimming event while the boys played volleyball shirtless. What? muscled sculpted YM aren't sexy? YW have no sexual urges? What are we a bunch of Pharisees where the rules count more than the righteous direction of our youth?

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  2. Oh I loved this! I just shared this with my camp leadership, too. Such wonderful reminders and your words will be ringing in my ears when I leave for camp soon. I am praying for positive interactions and an attitude like that sweet Courtney of yours! xoxo

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  3. I laughed right out loud as I read your post today. Love the attitude. If most people saw what members of our little branch wear to church they would walk away shaking their heads. Nonetheless, if they saw how they used to dress, they would be impressed that now they are at least wearing clothes. LOL.

    It is so fun to watch as people feel our love and know with us they are welcome and can ask questions. God loves us all, no matter where we are in our knowledge. Isn't that great?

    Hugs, from the old lady in Salt Lake. Your sister, Midge

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  4. This was so perfect–I loved it. I am glad your experience at camp was a success. It is heartening to know that there are places where people are more important than policy. I was recently released from YW, and it was so discouraging to me how hard the church can be on these girls. I truly believe we talked more about modesty (and by "modesty" I mean dressing to cover up, not the true virtue of modesty) than we did about Jesus. Girls' Camp clothing standards make me sick to my stomach–many places require girls to wear shirts over their already-modest swimsuits and forbid shorts of any kind, regardless of the heat. I worry about how we sexualize them; that we are inadvertently telling them that what they choose to wear is more important than what they have to say, that we care more that they cover their bodies than that they are present and participating.

    Anyway, hope I'm not thread-jacking, but thanks again for this beautiful reminder that rules are best used gently and lovingly, not wielded as weapons.

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  5. Our camp list says long pants or capris. I'm actually happy about the no shorts rule, it limits sunburns, bug bites, and scratches during hiking. And I really wish we were staying at this posh camp. I suppose I should be glad we have flushing potties.

    I am apparently the militant modesty mommy in the neighborhood, as it does appear that my tween is the only one not allowed to wear tank tops. I handed her the For the Strength of Youth pamphlet, we read the modesty standards, and that was the end of the discussion.

    People can get so caught up in the rules that they miss chances to actually impact our youth. I have no problem confiscating cell phones during church (or camp), but a bag check is ridiculous and I would refuse to do it as both a leader and a parent.

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  6. Yep, I grew to like the no shorts rule too. And the Heber Valley camp makes it worth it!

    I'm with you, M2theH, with my own daughter, I'm serious about modesty. But I also have the time and the money to invest in her wardrobe. Finding modest (and cute) clothing for women of any age is incredibly difficult. We went to the mall the other day and just laughed at all the icky stuff peddled to 11 year old girls. Happily, we came home and scouted out our favorite online stores for fall. There are still some brands that realize all kids don't turn goth at age 10, but they are expensive. For the girls in my sister's ward– some with parents in prison– finding modest clothing must be a nearly impossible pursuit.

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  7. I think a huge message is often sent through what parents and leaders wear themselves. After listening to our stake YW president several years ago she cut to the chase that the biggest problem in our stake is the moms. They don't hesitate to buy or even encourage immodest clothing for their teens. Oh dear!!!! This is mormonville (aka Idaho ) She said it kindly but she said it. I went home and cleaned out my own
    closet…..oops

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  8. Posted too early. I love the message of this post it is always always about being kind and loving. We can teach correct principles but we allow others to govern themselves.

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  9. I do think there is a double standard with modest-dress for YM, however, a girl looking at a muscular boy will have a COMPLETELY different reaction than a boy looking at a girl in a bikini top, completely different, women simply have more to cover.
    I heard somewhere (not at church) that the purpose of dressing modestly is to attract attention to the things you say and do, to help others focus on your face and countenance and not be distracted by your clothes and body. I had never thought of modesty as a tool to help emphasize what is important, it always seemed like a hide and cover rule.
    Thanks for the post Michelle, I love rules too but I love kindness more!

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  10. Thanks Michelle
    I love your thoughts. I have never had a calling with the young women, but if I were called I think I would love it.
    The one thing I have learned about "rules" and "protocol" is "Don't assume everyone know's what the rules is and what the protocol are". I work in the medical field and there are so many it's mind boggling, so the general rule is to remind everyone on a regular basis so that they can be practiced. Also frequent training sessions that involve groups and shared experiences concerning those rules help to reinforce the seriousness of following the rules, and also it gives people the impression that following the rules was their idea all along.
    I have felt at times that the word rule or even commandment gives people the wrong impression. They tend to attach behaviors to those words that may cause tension and negativity. So what would Jesus do? What does Heavenly Father do when when we balk at his rules, or modify his commandments? I can only speak for myself, and so far I have not been struck down by ball of fire, but I believe that we should be as He is. Patient and kind, and flexible and compassionate.
    Thank you , this was great.

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  11. There are now more inactive and less active members in the Salt Lake Valley than there are non-members. And it's the women that are leaving in droves. I think your approach of treating girls with love and respect rather than staunch rule-keeping, and let's just say it, shaming, is exactly what we need to do in order to turn this around. Sure, we need to talk of modesty and share with our daughters and young women why it's important. But the shaming must stop. It's driving people away from the church.

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  12. My girls started going to camp a few years ago. Then they had a rule of one piece bathingsuits and knee length shorts. We quickly went out in search of shorts that would reach all the way to there kneecaps and a suitable one piece bathingsuit which we dreaded. (My girls and I like tankinis because of the ease of going to the bathroom. There is nothing more uncofortable then using a public or unfamiliar bathroom and having to pull down a one piece suit or attempting to hold the bottom of your suit to the side while hovering over a toilet you don't want to touch. One piece bathing suits are anything but modest when you are trying to use the bathroom.) Six stores and $300 dollars later My girls were outfitted with everything they needed for a week at camp. As the week went by and pictures started to pour in over the internet many of the girls wore Nike Tempo shorts and Tankinis at the pool. I was frustrated because we could of used our modest tankinis and shorts that landed just above their knees. Needless to say I was frustrated at the money I wasted on clothing my girls would only use that week. I see nothing wrong with modest length shorts and two piece bathing suits that cover stomachs. If we concentrate solely on setting up exact rules and enforcing strict compliance, aren't we no different then satan and his plan to tell everyone what to do? Teens need a chance to exercise their agency where it is safe. If we clearly state expectations and give them a chance to exercise their agency and they choose shorter shorts at girls camp what harm is done? and because they are in a spiritual place they have the chance to feel the spirit of the direction.
    Now pants in 80-90 degree weather for a week just seems silly to me. They are girls at girls camp they see each others legs swimming. Would we tell the girls they are only allowed to wear ankle length skirts to keep them from ever having a skirt that is too short?

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  13. I just want to start by saying I agree with you completely.
    My girls started going to camp a few years ago. Then they had a rule of one piece bathingsuits and knee length shorts. We quickly went out in search of shorts that would reach all the way to there kneecaps and a suitable one piece bathingsuit which we dreaded. (My girls and I like tankinis because of the ease of going to the bathroom. There is nothing more uncofortable then using a public or unfamiliar bathroom and having to pull down a one piece suit or attempting to hold the bottom of your suit to the side while hovering over a toilet you don't want to touch. One piece bathing suits are anything but modest when you are trying to use the bathroom.) Six stores and $300 dollars later My girls were outfitted with everything they needed for a week at camp. As the week went by and pictures started to pour in over the internet many of the girls wore Nike Tempo shorts and Tankinis at the pool. The rules were not enforced at all. I was annoyed because we could of used our modest tankinis and shorts that landed just above their knees and frustrated at the money I wasted on clothing my girls would only use that week. I see nothing wrong with modest length shorts that fall somewhere between the knee and mid thigh and two piece bathing suits that cover stomachs. If we concentrate solely on setting up exact rules and enforcing strict compliance, aren't we no different then satan and his plan to tell everyone what to do? Teens need a chance to exercise their agency where it is safe. If we clearly state expectations and give them a chance to exercise their agency and they choose shorter shorts at girls camp what harm is done? and because they are in a spiritual place they have the chance to feel the spirit of the direction.
    Now pants in 80-90 degree weather for a week just seems silly to me. They are girls at girls camp they see each others legs swimming. Would we tell the girls they are only allowed to wear ankle length skirts to church to keep them from ever having a skirt that is too short? Then why would we make them wear pants to camp in the summer?
    If we make girls who aren't even associating with boys go to this length to cover themselves then boys should always have to wear swim shirts, because that is a completely unfair double standard!

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  14. Your content and the writing style itself is always so well done and heart/soul felt.
    This one is timely, interesting, honest and promotes thoughtful understanding of intent and action concerning rules and modesty. Parents, YW and YM leaders throughout the church should all read it. I loved the article – and the comments. Thanks as always Michelle. Carry on!
    PS – loved the happy video as well – such great girls and leaders!

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  15. How I wish I had someone like you when I was in Mutual. I went to girl's camp once and that was it for me. Why? I was ridiculed to the point that I hid in the cabin and sobbed at night. I vowed then and there I'd never go back. And I didn't.

    I worry now about fourteen-year-old son. But so far he's leaders have been very supportive and encouraging. He loves Mutual.

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  16. We have a very small group of YW in our ward, but I am on constant alert for any bullying or meanness or exclusiveness going on. I will not put up with church, or Mutual, not feeling like a safe and comfortable place for anyone. Even if I think the girls shorts are too short (which most of them are), I am not going to tell them to go home and change because I'd rather they be there hearing the message and knowing people care about them.

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  17. I went to camp this year for the first time since I was a youth. Ours was pretty lax. I saw more than one girl with short shorts, and to my knowledge, no one said a word. We did warn our own girls ahead of time that wearing shorts would put them at much higher risk for being bitten by ticks. (The girls with the short shorts were not in our branch.) Also, we discouraged cell phones, but did not say anything when one girl occasionally pulled out her phone.

    We do have a young woman in our branch who routinely wears skirts that are much too short and shirts that are way too low. To this point, we have not said anything and do not plan to, but I will admit that I feel extremely uncomfortable, particularly when we have been on youth temple trips and she has worn this attire into the temple. This girl and her family are not recent converts or anything like that, and the mom does seem to encourage it, or at least not discourage it. Mom has made comments about how her daughter has great legs and therefore should show them off.

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  18. I love what you said about the opportunity to have them "in a spiritual place they have the chance to feel the spirit of the direction". I think in our haste to correct and "teach" we turn people away from such opportunities to be in the places where they can feel the Spirit. Which is exactly what our church is about!

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  19. This wasn't at camp, but at YW/YM night here in Kansas. A youth leader told me that an investigator girl showed up wearing an immodest outfit, and one of the leaders got a large, black trashbag from the custodial closet and cut holes for the girl's head and arms and made her wear that for the evening over her outfit. Needless to say, she never came back. GAH! (This was years before I moved here, and I didn't ask because I didn't want to know who was the youth leader making that decision.)

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  20. I'm astounded and by all the stories and comments on the lengths people will go to enforce rules. This issue came up in our latest YW presidency meeting, and in choosing between the YW or her attire, we decided the Savior would rather they were present in church with their occasionally questionable attire than at home not being influenced by the Spirit. As an obedient soul myself, I admit it's a struggle sometimes to know what to do in these situations, but when I think about what the Savior would do, the proper choice always seems easier and more discernable.

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