Talking about immigration with children and youth

Gail Forsyth-Vail, adult programs director of the Unitarian Universalist Association, assembled a panel of three religious educators to discuss how Unitarian Universalist congregations could talk about immigration issues with children and youth.

Even though immigration is a complicated issue for adults, said Jessica York, youth programs director for the UUA and one of the panelists, children encounter difficult topics like racism and immigration all the time. York, who identifies as a person of color, said that when she was raising her daughter she realized “there is no way of protecting [children] from the harsh realities of life.” Immigration is one of those topics that cannot be avoided, said York. “Not to engage with the topic is a dangerous and irresponsible thing to do.”

York pointed to another difficult topic that many Unitarian Universalist congregations already address with children. The Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality education curriculums are widely used in our congregations with children beginning at age five and continuing up through adulthood. York said that we know children and youth are going to learn about sex somewhere, but “we can choose where they learn about it.” When children learn about sexuality in a congregational setting, they are surrounded with positive messages and support for their families. The same is true of immigration issues.

Mandy Neff, the director of religious education at First Parish Cambridge Unitarian Universalist and another one of the panelists, amplified what York had said, saying, “How do we frame for our children the realities they already face?”

Jenn McAdoo, the third panelist and director of religious educaiton at the First Universalist Church of Yarmouth, Maine, added, “To not address a significant social issue with children seems irresponsible.”

The panelists spoke of the different developmental needs of children and youth of varying ages. McAdoo said, “You must have a sense of the developmental needs of the people you’re working with.” Preschool children will have very different needs from high school youth.

Giving a specific example, York said that middle school youth have a strong sense of justice, and they are beginning to realize that what is fair and good is not always reflected in the world. If youth of this age don’t process the difference between ideals and reality, they can internalize anger on the one hand, or become apathetic on the other hand.

Neff gave a framework for doing social justice work with children and youth. She said it is important to begin by educating the children and youth about a given issue. After they have been educated, they can engage in “witnessing.” Finally, they can engage in actual advocacy to promote change.

York agreed with this, but framed it somewhat differently. She begins with education, then has the children or youth act on what they’ve learned, and finally reflects with the children and youth on what they have done. York said that faith development takes place in the final stage of reflection.

All these are general principles that can apply to talking with children and youth about immigration, or about other challenging social issues.

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