A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
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The recent tragedy in Colorado had many of us questioning why such a terrible thing could happen. It was hard not to be drawn to the television as the story unfolded and details became available. For me, the struggle to understand was aided by watching the news and hearing the stories of the heroes who helped others or sacrificed their lives in order to save their loved ones.
It was my son who pulled me back and reminded me that media coverage of tragedies like that, while riveting for adults, can be quite frightening for children. His plaintive moan of, “Isn’t there anything else on?” reminded me that for his sake, I needed to turn off the news and focus on something other than this violence.
I settled down into a chair, my ten-year-old curled up on my lap, and we talked about the events that happened. I attempted to reassure him that this horrible event was not likely to occur in our small city and that he was safe. But in this case, reassurance was hard to offer. We go to the movies often and enjoy our time there. He could relate personally to the fact that these people wanted to have a fun experience and anticipated watching the movie, only to find themselves dying, or injured, or running for their lives. This was not a war in some faraway place that he’d never been to. This was something that could have happened to him—in a place he’d recently visited.
We can’t expect young children to understand violence as adults do, or even process it the same way. When we respond to what they are most struggling to understand, we can help the most. This usually means trying to find out as much as we can about what is bothering them, and how much they already know so we don’t end up giving them additional information that will only trouble them more. Then we can answer their questions and clear up misconceptions by following their lead.
Like most children who hear tragic news on television, my son was concerned about his own safety. At one point, he even stated emphatically that he was never going to the movie theater to watch a show again. While I don’t know if it will change his mind about going to the movies, I did reassure him that this wouldn’t happen to us because our movie theater is never crowded, and we rarely go to see a movie when it first opens. These were two things that he easily recognized were different from our usual movie-going experiences.
After our conversation, I was dismayed to discover my son had found a toy Nerf gun in his cousin’s closet and was using it to shoot foam darts at the window, making loud noises to accompany the shots. Was he emulating the gunman? I feared all sorts of terrifying thoughts in that split second as I watched him fire off that toy gun. Then I realized this was probably just his way of dealing with the news he had heard, and his need to put himself in a powerful position after feeling so vulnerable.
Feeling the need to act out the event can actually be a healthy way for children to process violence, even if it seems disturbing to parents. Encouraging them to express their fears, anxiety, or anger through art can also be cathartic—whether it’s drawing, working with some clay, or banging on a drum.
The most important thing is letting them know they have your support. And if you cannot assure that a place is safe, then perhaps you can help them to understand that when people love each other, they can keep each other safe.
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Beyond the unconditional love, loyalty, and affection we expect, a family pet can also offer children a chance to develop a sense of responsibility and learn about the cycle of life right in their own home. Taking care of a pet has also proven to facilitate the development of compassion and empathy with all living things. For Unitarian Universalist children, having a beloved family pet can help them understand many of our Seven Principles.
According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, having the opportunity to share secrets and private thoughts with a special animal friend can encourage a child to develop trusting relationships with others and even help with the development of non-verbal communication skills. You might say that just having a pet improves a child’s role-playing skills because they must put themselves in the pet’s position in order to feel how the pet feels. It’s only natural to then assume that this can transfer to determining how other kids might feel. In this regard, a pet in the home can help a child not only conceptualize the interdependent web of life, but understand the inherent worth and dignity of all people through developing empathy and compassion for other beings.
Children can experience the miracle of birth if their pet has offspring and become acquainted with loss and grief when a beloved pet dies. In between these two events, the cycle of life is witnessed and felt in a loving, touching way that no other childhood experience can match. Whether that pet is a goldfish swimming in a makeshift aquarium, hamsters in a wire cage, cats who rule the roost, dogs offering unconditional love, or even those odd-looking iguanas, that pet will hold special meaning in your child’s life. When the time comes to say “goodbye,” the loss and grief can be acute, but death is a natural part of life and all of us must learn this lesson at some point in our lives.
Pets are such an integral part of many of our lives that many Unitarian Universalist congregations celebrate this unique relationship though an annual Blessing of the Pets worship service. Families are encouraged to bring their pet(s) on Sunday morning, being mindful of other who might have allergies and pets that do not get along well with others. However, most people who’ve been part of such a worship service have thought the animals were generally as well-behaved as the humans in attendance. And at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Elkhart in Elkhart, Indiana, one year the only accident on the floor was the result of my two-year-old toddler’s excitement and not that of one of the many four-legged friends who were present that day.
Other resources: In Praise of Animals: A Treasury of Poems, Quotations, and Readings, edited by Edward Searl (Skinner House Books, 2007).
Death has touched our family again, for the fifth time in five years. You would think that we would be getting rather acclimated to the grieving process after having gone through so many losses in such a short time, but it is never easy.
This time there doesn’t seem to be as much soul-searching by my teenage daughter to understand why bad things happen; not as there was when, at age ten, her best friend was killed in a tragic accident. Now, after the death of her beloved but aging grandmother, she suffers from an abundance of guilt (for not spending more time with her) and struggles with biting her tongue when well-intended people speak of a theology which doesn’t match hers. Meanwhile, my eight-year-old son struggles with his own sense of mortality and—even worse, perhaps—mine. He is aware that his father was present when his mother took her last breath, which, unfortunately, is an all-too-acute reminder that his own mother will one day face death as well.
Parenting in times of intense grief is never easy, especially when we are in the midst of experiencing our own feelings of regret, anger, and sorrow. As Unitarian Universalist parents, many of us yearn for comforting words to say to our children because it tears us up inside to see them suffering. However, sometimes there are no words which can bring comfort from the grief. In times like these, our loving presence and support can offer them what they need. We can reassure them that we will be there for them when they need to talk, to vent, or even rant a bit.
As for dealing with the well-meaning words offered by others, I can help Shannon to recognize that while their words may not offer comfort through the ideas they express, it can be possible to find some support in why they are being expressed. I learned this important lesson from a very good friend of mine, also a Unitarian Universalist parent. After her daughter’s death, she heard many comments about angels and being with God, yet instead of feeling resentment over these words, she chose to “translate” these words into something which did offer her support.
Recognizing that people expressing such thoughts are well intentioned can help us embrace their concern for us, even when they share words that don’t fit our own personal theology. The reality is that most people really don’t know what to say, even as they struggle with the need to show they care. Embracing this care and concern expressed by well-meaning people can offer us some solace, even if their words do not.
I don’t pretend to know what happens after we die, and perhaps I will never know the answers the Great Mystery holds. However, I do know that if my in-laws are reunited together in some ethereal place like heaven, rejoined with some sort of greater cosmic consciousness, or are souls waiting to be reborn into a new existence, they’re probably arguing with each other over how long the green beans should be cooked in the pressure cooker. Unless, of course, they’re able to find themselves as part of a foursome playing Pinochle in the Great Beyond, and then I hope they have the winning hand.
Resources: “Talking about Death,” by Betsy Hill Williams (Connections, Church of the Larger Fellowship)