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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.

What’s a UU family to do on Easter?

Grouped pysanky eggs with traditional design on them.

© 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.

Making Earth Day a holy day

Earth (© Ravi Tahilramani/iStockphoto)

(© Ravi Tahilramani/iStockphoto)

The commemoration known as Earth Day, first held on April 22, 1970, marks the beginning of what was to become the modern environmental movement. The Earth Day celebration in 1990 led to widespread recycling efforts that our children now see as commonplace in our homes and communities. Given how Unitarian Universalism’s Seventh Principle guides us to protect our planet and the “independent web of all existence,” then if ever there were a Holy Day for Unitarian Universalists, this would be it.

Thousands of events are planned every year in schools, communities, and cities all across the globe. The Earth Day Network’s website details activities happening in cities all over the world, including ways that communities of faith can get involved.

This year, the Nature Conservancy is promoting Picnic for the Planet, which just may be the world’s largest Earth Day celebration. Events are planned all over the country for people to celebrate with picnic lunches on Sunday, April 22. Money they raise will be matched dollar for dollar by the Nature Conservancy to help protect sources of food and clean water.

Even if there are no official Earth Day events or activities in your area (and you are not feeling motivated to initiate them regionally), parents can still commemorate Earth Day through intentional efforts as a family: taking time to clean up a local park, making items out of recycled plastic or other disposable items, even planting a tree. The important thing is not so much what you do, but that you do it. While your family may regularly recycle and engage in other “green” activities, celebrating the day as a holiday for Unitarian Universalists lifts it up and highlights its expression of one of our deepest values.

Earth Day is a time to celebrate the gains we have made in the areas of conservation and environmental protection. It is also a time to recognize how far we have yet to go and to understand that we can all play a part in the process. Earth Day can be a time for families to unite around action and our intentions to improve our natural home. So while every day is a time for Unitarian Universalists to engage in environmental activism, recycling, and being “green,” Earth Day is a time to celebrate those efforts and our connections to the Earth. How can it get more holy than that?