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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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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The election season is in full swing, and the negative ads are inundating us. How do we help our children learn about the importance of democracy without encouraging them to fall into the polarization that is all around us?
First of all, it’s important for us to watch what we say. Words are powerful, and although it doesn’t seem like it, our children are listening to us. If our children hear us badmouthing particular political parties or candidates, then they pick up on the message that this fight is good against bad. This is particularly true for those children of elementary school age who naturally find comfort in understanding the dichotomy of good and bad and readily absorb their ideas about the world from parents and other influential adults in their lives.
“They want to figure things out,” says Tracy Hurd, in her essay “Children, Democracy and Unitarian Universalist Faith” in the UUA’s ”Faith Development in Families” resources. “They want to know good and bad. They are always categorizing; they’re very concrete.” As they attempt to make sense of their world and categorize things as a simple dichotomy, it is up to us as parents to help them see there is middle ground, and that there should be plenty of room for different perspectives in our democracy.
We can also take this opportunity to help our children become critical thinkers. Encourage older elementary age children (10+) and teenagers to be “fact-checkers.” When watching TV ads or online videos of candidates’ positions, start by asking them what they think of the assertions made by the advertisement. Do these seem realistic to you? Does this fit in with what you understand to be true? Then show them reliable, factual sources where they can find information that supports or refutes the assertion made.
Also, be available when they ask questions. For instance, when watching the Republican convention, my 17-year-old daughter asked what Mitt Romney meant by working for freedom of religion in his speech. Growing up Unitarian Universalist, this concept is very important to her. However, she also recognizes that in almost every other assertion he made, she disagreed with his position, particularly on the issues of reproductive freedom and the right to marry.
Unfortunately, his reasons for wanting freedom of religion bear little resemblance to hers. But she was thoughtful enough to clarify and ask for more information rather than just dismissing all of his ideas without considering whether or not there might be something they could agree upon—or accepting without question that this was indeed something they could find in common.
Finally, make sure they see you vote. Let them know that voting is not a choice but an important responsibility. So many people fought hard (and died) for the right to vote. When we throw that away, we throw away our voice in this democracy.
Children’s growth doesn’t usually happen neatly or smoothly. Instead, children go through what’s known as “growth spurts.” One day, your child’s favorite shirt is just too small to make it over his head. If, with great effort or force of will, you manage to get the shirt on, it’s too short and his belly is exposed. Yesterday, that shirt seemed to fit just fine; now it has to be relegated to the hand-me-down pile. For my son, these growth spurts almost make me wonder if his bed has a stretching feature—one day his new pair of pants fits just fine, and the next morning they resemble cropped cargoes instead of the long pants they are supposed to be.
A child’s development in the areas of faith and spirituality happens in much the same way, with one big difference: Once a shirt or sock is outgrown, the child will never wear it again. There is no going back when it comes to physical development. However, in other areas of growth that are not so visible to the eye, there is much traveling back and forth, lapsing and relapsing and changing and reversing. Rather than growing in a linear fashion with huge leaps forward, a child grows in faith and spirituality through a spiral that circles round upon itself many times before the child takes a giant leap forward.
Understanding this back-and-forth nature of emotional and spiritual growth can be reassuring to parents who naturally feel frustration at the child who does not seem to “act her age.” It can also help to assuage any fears that the child is not developing normally. It is normal for a child to seem generous and giving one day and selfish the next. It’s all part of the evolving nature of the inner self. Thinking of the overall process and the growth that happens over a lifetime can help put these frustrating relapses into perspective.
Physical growth opens the door to moral, ethical, and faith development; with larger brain capacity a greater understanding of concepts such as compassion, justice, and gratitude becomes possible. These advances in morality may then promote faith development, which can lead to greater ethical understandings that govern behavior.
For example, unlike most adults, young children do not routinely question their thinking because they are completely unaware that others can have a different perspective. This means that perception and feeling are more dominant than thought at this age; young children will use external cues to determine what is right and what is wrong. It is only later, with greater physical maturity and life experience, that children are able to recognize relationships and even to logically link together the chunks of knowledge they possess, thereby allowing them to understand different perspectives. As their faith development expands to include ideas of justice, fairness, and compassion, their ethical development begins to center around following rules and regulations instead of expecting punishment and reward.
Therefore, those parents who neglect the faith development of their children lose an opportunity to stimulate their moral and ethical development. What is right, what is fair, and what is just—these concepts are all intricately linked with beliefs about the meaning of life and the purpose of our existence. Since children (and even most adolescents) look to their parents first and foremost in shaping their morals, ethics, and spirituality, it behooves us to be intentional about sharing our beliefs with our children in order to shape their own developing sense of self.
What moral and ethical issues have you had to address with your children? What frustrates you the most about the inconsistency of your child’s moral and ethical development? How have you resolved issues of fairness and equality in your family when elementary age children insist on equal treatment despite differing circumstances? Please share some of your experiences.