A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
It really doesn’t matter if you are a theist, deist, pantheist, agnostic, or atheist—as a parent you will inevitably face a myriad of questions about God. So what do you do when your child professes to have a belief in God that is absolute? Or wants to know what you believe and you really don’t know?
Some parents can be dismayed, feeling as if somehow they have failed in their attempts to teach freethinking and skepticism to their children. However, the reverse may actually be true.
Young children cannot help but develop an idea of an anthropomorphic deity. The “proof” seems to be all around them in the adults who talk casually about it (Grandma says God loves me), in the programs that air on television (The Ten Commandments), and in many other aspects of their world (pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving thanked God for their bountiful food).
Even if songs, movies, and television programs don’t raise the issue of God—often with confusing imagery and misinformation—our children’s playmates on the playground or in the daycare center will. And because children once viewed their parents as all-powerful, it is not hard for them to make the leap toward understanding an all-powerful God as a parental figure.
What we can do is stretch their idea of what God is and what the concept of God means. We can let our children know that God has meant many things to people in different times of history. We can share alternative images of the divine with them, like a Mother-God, the Universe-as-God, or many different Gods to express different ideas. We can let them know that some people believe that God is nature itself or that the spark of divine is in all of us.
In his book, When Children Ask About God: A Guide for Parents Who Don’t Always Have All the Answers, Rabbi Harold Kushner advises parents to teach children that the idea of God is difficult even for adults to comprehend. We can let them know that answers about God are tough to determine because of our limited capacity to know everything about the world. And when we emphasize that our ideas about God may change as we grow older, it may not limit their questions, but it will engage their young minds in the challenge of eventually developing their own beliefs about the world.
What we do not want to do, however, is inadvertently teach our children that questions about God are off limits. If we appear uncomfortable or give a short answer that limits further conversation, we communicate that this is a subject we are unwilling to talk about. When we do that, we not only teach our children that questions about God are bad or wrong, we also send them away to seek their answers from others. And those others may be more than willing to share their ideas about God with our children.
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We teach our children from an early age about the inherent worth and dignity of every person; they learn that it is important to seek justice, equity, and compassion; we emphasize a responsible search for truth and meaning and the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Then they hit a brick wall. Sometimes it’s middle school, sometimes it comes earlier or later in life. But come it does: the realization that we are different from a large part of the world.
Lifelong UU Kate Erslev describes in her book, Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs, how Howard Welsh, a Vietnam veteran raised as a Unitarian Universalist, felt his church had let him down by focusing only on its ideals. Welsh stressed to Erslev the importance of helping children and teens face the walls in our society. When their idealism comes face-to-face with the realities of injustice, intolerance, and judgment by their peers, will they be prepared? Or will they feel betrayed when they come up against our sexist, racist, oppressive, violent culture?
Although she is getting ready to graduate from high school now, I vividly remember the struggle my daughter Shannon faced in seventh and eighth grade when her school friends made it their mission to “convert” her to Christianity. Her church had taught her since she was a preschooler the importance of respecting the beliefs of others, and she just couldn’t understand why her friends didn’t follow the same code of morality that she did. It was only after multiple conversations between us, accompanied by lots of hugs and moral support from her church, that she was finally able to understand that her friends actually believed that they were helping her by trying to get her to accept Jesus as her Lord and Savior.
They’ve since parted ways, and Shannon has found a group of high school friends who love her and accept her for who she is. She is now out in her high school as bisexual and an atheist (which was actually harder for many people at her school to accept than the idea that she wasn’t “straight”). She has also had the support of two different church communities, a Unitarian Universalist youth group and lifelong friends she bonded with at a camp for UU teens.
Did I as a parent let her down by not preparing her for this life lesson? At the time I feared that I did. But parents cannot anticipate every challenge our children will face, nor can we cushion them from all the difficulties they will experience in their lifetime. I did try to explain to her that other people in the world thought differently than we did, but it was mainly in the context of bullying and standing up for others. Instead, it was her friends who demeaned her by trying to convince her she was wrong, not her adversaries.
We cannot possibly protect our children against all the evil and pain in the world, and we shouldn’t even try. But we do need to provide a safety net for them when they fall, and give them a sledgehammer of Unitarian Universalist faith for when they come up against that wall.
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Because we live in a culture where Christianity dominates, Easter offers many opportunities for us to communicate our family’s theological perspectives on the meaning of Jesus. Since the celebration of Easter is for many people tied to Jesus’s resurrection, it is important that we let our children know—whether or not we consider ourselves Christian—the story surrounding this holiday.
One of the ways that I have done this, now that my children are older, is by watching the movie Jesus Christ Superstar on Good Friday (the remake done in the year 2000 makes the story more contemporary and less “retro” for today’s youth). I particularly like this movie because it is ambiguous. Throughout it, the question is posed: Is he a man, or is he God? It’s rather open to interpretation and perspective.
This movie always opens the door for conversation and the opportunity to respond to thoughtful questions. Whether it’s “Why do they call it Good Friday if that is the day he died?” or “If he was God, why couldn’t he just stop them from killing him?” these questions need to be considered and talked about. Our Unitarian Universalist children have inquisitive minds and are burning with questions. Easter can be one more opportunity to help them find some answers.
For younger children, there is the picture book on Unitarian Universalist views of Jesus by Lynn Tuttle, Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of A Beloved Teacher. Mentioned briefly is Jesus’s birth, death, and resurrection as part of celebrating Christmas and Easter. Sharing this with children will give them a sense of how Jesus might have lived as a man working to promote kindness, love, and respect.
Some Unitarian Universalist parents are torn over the celebration of Easter. While they may have no problem celebrating Christmas—and the birth of Jesus—they balk at a holiday that commemorates the resurrection. They wonder if they should celebrate a holiday contradictory to their theology.
While some families wouldn’t mind a secular celebration of the holiday, so many of the non-Christian traditions around Easter involve candy and gifts. Without any real substance behind the celebration, it seems rather shallow, and the parents who share this perspective may opt out of celebrating it altogether.
There is another tradition associated with the secular celebration of Easter, however: the coloring of and hunting for Easter eggs. Eggs have long been associated with new life and were an essential part of many spring celebrations in diverse cultures.
My children have grown up participating in egg hunts where they receive candy, but also ones that involve finding stickers or other low-priced trinkets. There are some Unitarian Universalist churches that have started connecting a food drive with the annual Easter egg hunt, effectively removing the candy from the picture and turning the hunt for eggs into a service project.
My own favorite church tradition is the wearing of hats or a fancy Easter bonnet to church. This allows anyone to come in hats—sometimes crazy or silly—that express their personalities. My thanks go to the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart, Indiana, for giving me and my family the chance to participate in this annual tradition.
Unitarian Universalist families who want to celebrate the secular aspects of Easter can approach it from the perspective that they are commemorating the arrival of spring through the symbols of ancient pagan traditions. Parents can talk about the annual resurrection of life through plants, flowers and trees—and if they wish—encourage their children to color eggs and participate in egg hunts to celebrate the coming of spring and the changes the Earth brings. They can also approach this holiday as a time to share about their personal beliefs and be open to questions children may have about the man called Jesus—and how other families may perceive him differently than their family does.