A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
© 2009 Frank Pali/iStockPhoto
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.
© Agnieszka Kirinicjanow/iStockphoto
Summer is here, and for many middle class families the annual quest for what to do to keep the kids occupied has already begun. Whether it is necessary child care while parents work or enrichment activities for children who are less likely to entertain themselves than previous generations were, there are many different camp options out there.
Local day camps can focus upon athletics, exploring nature, or just plain fun, and may be organized by a YMCA or other community organizations. Other day camps are religiously themed. Many churches offer Vacation Bible School (or VBS) day camp programs. Should a Unitarian Universalist parent enroll a child in a VBS?
While I am a firm believer in teaching Unitarian Universalist children the stories of the Jewish and Christian sacred texts, and I know several Unitarian Universalist parents who have sent their children to VBS programs to educate their children in this fashion, I believe a word of caution is in order.
Most VBS programs presented by Christian churches are carefully crafted and designed with the specific goal of bringing in un-churched families to worship Christ and are often couched in seemingly secular environmental or popular themes. A few years ago, a dinosaur-themed VBS was advertised in my area. Seeing the billboard, my son was eager to attend, but when I called to inquire about it, it turns out that this particular program presented the idea that humans lived at the same years as the dinosaurs! Had my outspoken 8-year-old son actually attended, I have no doubt that he would have likely caused a real problem when he told them in matter-of-fact terms that dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years—long before humans inhabited the earth.
The summer VBS program has become a big-budget industry in recent years. Churches pour lots of money into curricula and other resources, which are sold by Christian organizations to evangelize children who are unaffiliated with a congregation or strengthen children’s ties to the church they already attend. Sending Unitarian Universalist children to many of these evangelical programs could confuse children who are in a very critical stage of faith development that involves identifying with the particular qualities of what makes their religious tradition unique and special.
One alternative, of course, is sending your child to a Unitarian Universalist church sponsored VBS or some other weeklong camp presented by UUA affiliated organizations (such as RE Week at Star Island, MountainCamp at the Mountain, and many district or regionally planned family-oriented summer camp opportunities throughout the United States). More and more UU congregations are learning about the importance of offering summer camps for children and are developing their own programs or purchasing curricula (such as Chalice Camp, written by two Unitarian Universalist religious educators). These congregations have come to understand that through a summer program of their own, Unitarian Universalist children could develop deeper connections with one another, deeper understandings of themselves as Unitarian Universalists, and a greater capacity to be articulate about our faith. In a weeklong camp, children are also able to create relationships and to explore subject matter (such as oppression and anti-racism work) on a deeper level that is just not possible in a traditional weekly Sunday school model.
If no such program exists in your area, and you want to send them to a summer Bible program, it’s prudent to do some investigating to find a program that is compatible with your family’s world view. Or send your child off to a VBS program armed with the knowledge that many people believe in the truths presented by this program, even though we as Unitarian Universalists understand there are many truths out there.
When my eight-year-old son came home from school a few weeks ago wearing a cross around his neck, my first thought was, “Oh, no, here we go again.” Having survived a previous challenge with friends at school proselytizing my daughter, I was frustrated at the thought of going through that all again (see my earlier blog post, “It’s Not Easy Being UU in Middle School”), and this time at a younger age. Regretfully, some of my frustration was evident in my voice as I asked him where he got the necklace, because he was immediately defensive.
Eventually I discovered that it was not given to him by anyone, but found on the playground at recess. This gave me an “out”: I explained that someone who lost it might be sad and suggested that we return it to the school’s Lost and Found. But I recognized that deeper issues were at stake here. This wasn’t just any pretty piece of jewelry that he coveted for himself. It was a cross, a symbol of Christian belief, and an item my son wanted to wear on his body as decoration.
Chalice necklace, by Bob Delboy
Now I had to wonder: Did he understand the symbolism of wearing the cross? If he did not understand what the cross symbolized, then I had failed to instill in him respect for other faith traditions. Donning the religious symbols of other religions in order to be fashionable or “cool” shows disrespect for the sacredness of another faith tradition’s beliefs. If he did understand what the symbolism meant, then I had also failed to instill in him a strong identity as a Unitarian Universalist who respects the symbols of others but understands his own.
Recognizing that the elementary years are an important step in the faith development process, I was able to step outside of the guilty-parent mode and remind myself that one of the tasks children his age need to establish is the ability to differentiate the symbols and stories which separate their religion from the religions of others. Perhaps I hadn’t so much failed as ignored the process we were still working through. Maybe what he needed was his own religious symbol, and perhaps that was what he was really seeking when he found the cross necklace on the playground.
So I dug through my jewelry box and found the chalice my daughter used to wear, now somewhat tarnished and scratched from years of wear. I shined it up a bit, put it on a chain, and gave it to him. Now he wears it proudly around his neck, perhaps even more proudly than he ever would have the cross, because he has a deeper connection to this symbol of faith. He has stood up in front of his church and lit the chalice during a worship service and in his religious education classroom. He also recognizes that I wear my chalice necklace every day, and he is happy that he has a necklace just like I do. This symbol is his symbol, his family’s symbol, his religion’s symbol, and it means more to him because of this.
Have you faced a similar situation with your children? Did you want to wear a cross when you were growing up and thought your parent(s) wouldn’t approve? If you are a Unitarian Universalist Christian, would you feel comfortable wearing a cross to church? What does it mean when we choose to make a statement and hang a religious symbol around our necks?