A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
It may be back-to-school time all across the country, but I want to address the back-to-nature issue. You may have heard some talk about the nature deficit
experienced by this generation of kids, how most of them play too many video games or watch lots of TV and spend not enough time outdoors just exploring and using their imaginations.
This summer, I attended the Prairie Star District’s Camp Star Trail at a conference and retreat center just outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Besides coming home with a whole new group of Unitarian Universalist friends who live in Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota, I returned with a sense that we need more opportunities for families to spend time together exploring nature and what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist.
We did the usual camp-type activities such as water-balloon fights and making s’mores. There were family swims and canoe paddling adventures (even a song shared by a teen about such fun as part of the variety show one evening). But there were also times for deep reflection and sharing as part of small groups, exploring the notion of compassion under the guidance of the Rev. Nate Walker. There was time for worship, singing, and meditation. There was the space to be Unitarian Universalist among other families and people of all ages who are also seekers and skeptics.
I heard many teens vocalize how it was so comfortable to share their ideas in this space. Many of them who normally remain in the background at school or other public ventures felt free to express who they are and what they think, and felt affirmed for being themselves. I also witnessed one boy, the same age as my own son, participate in role-playing activities, act out stories in worship, and tell amazing stories as part of the Variety Show night. Yet, his mother told me that he normally is rather shy and doesn’t feel so free to jump right up and participate. Having been to this camp for several years now has made a real difference in his life.
For years I have heard directors of religious education express how they wish our churches were places such as this—places that are truly multigenerational and where people of all ages and life stages can come together and be who they are. While we still have a long way to go on that one, it is clear to me that the many UU camps and conferences are doing just this.
Since being Unitarian Universalist so often means being in the minority, it is good and healthy for our children to be able to have the opportunity to join together with others for whom a family with two mothers is no big deal and where it is okay to say you are seeking, but just don’t know; to have a space and time with no bullying, no accusations, and no put-downs; to have a place where everyone truly feels their inherent worth and dignity. It is good when we get some time to explore the independent web of all existence, be it with a too-full canoe or a wide-mouthed frog by the pond.
Early adolescence is often a time when a child’s appreciation of the magic that younger children see everywhere in the world becomes squelched or outright ignored. Wide-eyed wonder about life and the universe isn’t “cool” and gaining the respect of their peers often becomes tantamount.
By the time they have become teenagers, most children have already developed that ever-present internal critic that haunts adults. This can keep youth from being fully present in any moment, let alone experiencing the sacredness of life or a connection to the divine.
Today’s teens also live in a world of multi-tasking and hyper-attention to multiple sources at once. Texting, instant messaging, social networks, instant access to the internet via Wi-Fi, and other modern tools mean youth are used to spreading their attention over multiple stimuli at one time. From a spiritual perspective, Mimi Doe, author of Nurturing Your Teenager’s Soul, argues that all of this multiple and simultaneous auditory and visual input “tends to numb teens out, disconnecting them from their hearts, minds, and intuitive wisdom. When over-stimulation is a way of life, quieter moments may seem empty” as a result.
Our job as parents, then, is to offer opportunities for our youth to remember that quiet time doesn’t have to mean being bored or even engaging in deep thinking. We can orchestrate moments that help them to reconnect to the extraordinary and reawaken what may seem like a sleeping sense of wonder.
One of the best ways we can do this is through immersion in the natural world. It doesn’t have to be an expensive trip to the Grand Canyon or Badlands National Park. In fact, those places are so often so overrun with tourists that it may be more difficult to engulf yourself in the experience than it is at home. Taking a hike through a local woods, camping overnight in a natural space, or planting vegetables together in a community garden are wonderful ways to open up the possibilities of connection to one another and the greater universe.
Teenagers have a strong, intense need for acceptance, which is one of the real draws of the popular and charismatic evangelical Christian youth programs that are all around us. Nature, too, accepts us for who we are and never rejects us: The connection youth can feel to the larger universe is empowering, even as it reminds us how small we are.
As you sit around the campfire or simply light a candle in your home after a hike in the woods, retell them our creation story—how millions of years of evolution have passed to create them and their generation, and now it is up to them to be the caretakers of the amazing world with which we have an everlasting connection. Remind them that they are a part of the universe and that they contain the same elements as the stars that were born during the Big Bang. Blow their minds with the science of physics; share theories of how time is relative, not fixed, and then watch them tune into the moment right before your eyes.
Learn more: “The Wonder of Evolution: Welcome to the Ecozoic Era” (UU World, Spring 2006)
For many years, I rejected anything to do with the camping experience. A semi-flooded tent during a teenage camping nightmare was enough to turn me off of the idea forever.
However, my husband persisted and, eventually, I relented. It was becoming clear to me that I was cheating my kids out of the full nature experience with my selfish insistence upon four walls and indoor plumbing. So, after a trip to Death Valley and Yosemite where we would bathe in nature and all its glory only to return to a hotel at the end of the day, it seemed only right that our next road trip as a family include sleeping under the stars.
So my Eagle Scout husband bought a water-proof tent that anchors well into the ground even during high winds and an air mattress so this camping wimp could stomach the tenting experience. I stiffened my spine and went along with the rest of the family, certain it would be an absolutely miserable experience. The plan was to simply endure it so the rest of my family wouldn’t have to leave nature’s holy grounds in order to sleep for the night.
Of course, the first night in our tent, I woke up in the middle of the night with the urgent need to use the bathroom. So, I dragged myself out of the sleeping bag and managed to push myself off of the air mattress, which seemed reluctant to let me go. I reached for the flashlight and unzipped the tent for the anticipated dreadful night-time walk to the latrine.
However, once I stepped outside and stood there in the moonlight, gazing at the amazing cascade of stars, all of my trepidation melted away. There was the belt of Orion, and the Big Dipper, and the spray of the Milky Way—all right there before me. Darkness surrounded me, yet the moon lit a path so that I didn’t even need the flashlight. I could hear some night creatures rustling about, and the chirping of the crickets overpowered the deep silence of the campground. With no other human beings in sight or making noise, I was truly alone, making this deep connection to the sacred only more intense. As I marveled in the experience, feeling the awe of all that was around me, I moved through the grass quietly to absorb it all. Even after I took care of the bodily need that had initially woken me, I continued to walk, now reluctant to return to the tent and leave the beauty of the night.
That first night’s trip to the facilities turned into a night-time sojourn and was a real eye-opener for me. All those years I resisted the very idea of camping, then finally relented so my children could have the experience—only to discover it was just what I needed.
Since then, there have been many middle-of-the-night trips to the bathroom—some with plumbing, and some without—and, over the past few years, I’ve even managed to ride out a few thunderstorms in our tent. While I can’t say that I appreciate every night-time walk as much as I did the first, I always lose my breath for a minute when I step from the tent and become enveloped by the stars and nighttime sky. As my eyes adjust to the darkness and the quiet of the night surrounds me, I remember the words of Unitarian Universalist architect, Frank Lloyd Wright: “I believe in God. Only I spell it N-A-T-U-R-E.
Photo (cc) by Anthony Thompson, via Flickr.