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UU Parenting with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of UU Parenting

A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe

Starting over

fresh start

© 2011 marekuliasz/iStockPhoto

Our children absorb not only our words but also our behavior as they attempt to understand what it means to live a moral and ethical life. They see and hear what we believe from the answers we give them and they internalize our actions as evidence of our values.

This is already a tall order for most parents, but for Unitarian Universalists—who pride ourselves in being anti-racist/anti-oppression as well as environmental activists who are standing on the side of love and believing in the inherent worth and dignity of all people—it can be difficult if not impossible to always live up to our ideals.

Despite our best intentions, we all make mistakes, act inconsistently, and generally fall short of our overall goals of parenting. There are days when we are tired, irritable, sick, or just plain cranky, and we may not be respectful, just, honest, or particularly careful about what our behavior is teaching our children. This is only to be expected. We are human, after all. We may carry some spark of the divine and the potential to accomplish great things, but we also have moments when it just doesn’t work.

Children understand this and are more than willing to forgive—particularly if we recognize our transgressions, explain how we wish it hadn’t happened, and perhaps even share what we will do to make it right. In fact, owning up to our mistakes is a great way to teach children that it’s okay to not be perfect and that we all make mistakes—including the people they look up to.

We can use these imperfect parenting moments as an opportunity to teach our children valuable lessons about how at times we all fall short of the ideal. None of us is without fault, nor is the world we inhabit. Every day carries with it the possibility and the opportunity for us to grow, improve ourselves, and come to terms with imperfection. Instead of glossing over our mistakes, we can instead celebrate them as opportunities for learning and growing. This not only teaches our children that it’s okay for them to make mistakes, but it teaches them what they should do to make things right when they do mess up. They also can seek forgiveness, make it up to the person who’s been wronged, or promise to do better next time.

The Jewish faith tradition has the important yearly ritual of examining past deeds and asking forgiveness as part of their High Holy Days, culminating with Yom Kippur. Annually, the slate is wiped clean and they are able to begin again fresh without the burdens of last year’s misdeeds to affect their attempts to do good in the world. What a wonderful gift this ritual gives to them, this chance to start over with the idea of doing better next time.

Unitarian Universalists could also use a cleansing ritual like this, to help us come to acceptance of how we regularly fall short of the high ideals we have established for ourselves. Then we can begin anew and do better.

Maybe that’s what New Years’ resolutions should be about.

Celebrating animals in our lives

Saint Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi, Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, New York by Flickr user Randy OHC

St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, and his feast day of October 4 is celebrated worldwide by holding pet blessings and similar events throughout the autumn. While Unitarian Universalist congregations may conduct pet blessings, they are not always associated with the celebration of St. Francis. The time around the autumnal equinox, however, is an excellent season to celebrate the importance of animals in our lives, and you don’t have to count on your congregation to conduct a pet-blessing worship service in order to do it.

The Humane Society of the United States has a terrific resource, a St. Francis Day in a Box kit. It includes information on their Fill the Bowl Project to encourage local donations of pet food, a documentary on factory farming (from a Christian perspective) called Eating Mercifully, and KIND News, the Humane Society’s magazine for school-aged children up to grade 6.

It also includes ways families can celebrate wildlife right outside their door. A great family ritual or one-time project would be to examine your yard and outdoor spaces from the perspective of the creatures that inhabit the world with us. While most of us do not intend to damage ecosystems, we do need to learn how to restore some balance and garden with the idea of complimenting the wildlife that is already there and attracting other native plants, insects, and birds that should be there.

Children of many ages will be excited about the idea of growing caterpillars or watching next season as hummingbirds flit from flower to flower instead of hovering around a feeder of sugar water. Educating ourselves about how we affect the animals around us, and making simple changes, is a great way to express our love of the interdependent web and communicate our responsibility to take care of our Earth and all its creatures.

Working in the yard to create a more creature-friendly habitat during the fall shows our children the reality of the cycle of seasons. Even preparing for the return of the spring is an exercise in theology. So bring the kids outside and enlist their help to not only do a fall cleanup around the place, but encourage them to help you build a place where creatures are welcome and even celebrated.

Letting go

Family moving children into college, with the back of an SUV filled with boxes and clothes.

2009 Freshman Move In Day/© Siena College

Two weeks ago I dropped my daughter off at the place that will be her home for most of the next four years: a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin. What a roller-coaster ride this past summer was, with intense bonding intertwined with heated arguments. I was confident; I was cool. And I thought I was doing a fine job. So why all the arguments along with the bonding?

It turns out that as a last gasp to hold on to their childhood, graduated seniors bound for the college life can revert back to their early teen years of feigned helplessness and blaming of others. The familiar refrain—as described in the book, Letting Go: A Parents Guide to Understanding the College Years —is repeated from coast to coast. The child’s point-of-view after being pressed to fill out yet another form and make another decision is: “Leave me alone, stop reminding me I’m growing up and leaving.” And the parent’s point of view after finding wadded-up dollar bills at the bottom of the washing machine? “I’m not so sure you’re ready to leave. I’m not sure you can make it without me.”

So, we made it through the summer of I-don’t-want-to-grow-up-and-move-away-so-stop-pressuring-me.  We carried boxes of mementos, extension cords, and ecological “green” light bulbs up three flights of stairs. We talked about roommate expectations and being courteous to those we need to share space with. And then I left her with a hug and a squeeze and tears in my eyes. It’s a good thing my husband was driving.

Like all parents, I am hopeful and yet fearful that I gave her everything she needed to prepare her for adult life. Will she spend her money wisely? Will she study hard and do well in her classes? Will she remember to eat before she is ready to faint? Will she get up in time to make it for her 8 a.m. class two days a week?

All the phone calls home she’s made since we’ve left her there, along with the Google+ chats we’ve managed to arrange, have been reassuring. But it was a recent Facebook post that really let me know how things are going for her.  “Found out my Environmental Studies prof is a UU . . . today is a good day.” Yeah, things are going to be just fine.