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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A Republican state senator in Indiana is promoting a bill in the legislature that would allow public schools to start the day with prayer. Not just any prayer, mind you, but the Lord’s Prayer.
Putting aside the broader issues with religious freedom and separation of church and state, requiring students to recite the Lord’s Prayer is a blatant exclusion of people who are not Christian. A child being raised as Muslim or Jewish should not be required to recite a Christian prayer any more than a child being raised as Christian should be required to recite a Jewish or Muslim prayer. Other questions abound: What version of the Lord’s Prayer will be uttered? The Catholic version? The King James version? Or one of the many modern adaptations commonly offered in the wide variety of Protestant churches? How about the version found in the Gospel of Luke, which differs from the better known version in the Gospel of Matthew?
The bill’s promoters say that it offers a way for students to “opt out” of the prayer. Obviously, these people have no concept of the peer pressure and possible social ramifications if a child did decide to opt out. Children and teens who have refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance or even just the words “under God” as part of the pledge have been persecuted by their peers and repeatedly punished by their school systems. While they may eventually prevail in the court system, is it worth it to live daily with the taunting and the teasing and the loss of privileges?
Needless to say, I was surprised when my 10-year-old son told me that he is glad there is an option for a parent to send a letter so he wouldn’t have to say the prayer. “You would be okay with that?” I asked him in response. “Do you know what the other kids might say to you?”
He seemed to think that it wouldn’t be a big deal. While I would like that to be the case, I have a lot more life experience than he does. And I’m much more familiar with what it’s like to be a religious minority in a very religious and politically conservative state. I’m also all too familiar with what my daughter, now 17, went through in middle school when she came out as an atheist. When she later came out in high school as bisexual, it was no big deal given what she had to go through over her religious beliefs.
Then there was the atheistic parent I talked to about this proposal who said, “Go ahead, let them pass it. I’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court.” This parent, who plans to encourage his child to say the prayer but in a goofy way, would challenge this law directly. If his child is punished, he’ll insist that his son had said the prayer required by the law.
I have trouble with this attitude, and not just for teaching a child to be disrespectful of the school and the law. It feeds the stereotype that non-believers are radical litigators who want to ruin it for everyone. And I have to wonder how the child’s needs factor into the equation. My spouse and I agreed when we first sent our children to the public schools that we would never use them as pawns in a battle over our beliefs. I’m more than happy to be there and support my children in their own quest to challenge the system, but I won’t ever use them to do so on my own behalf.
The good news is that the bill is unlikely to pass, even in the deeply red state of Indiana. The bad news is that my son is only in fourth grade and we have a lot of years yet to get through the public school system.
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Many Unitarian Universalist families still struggle with how to “do” spiritual practices—and even with the word “spiritual” itself. Perhaps it could help to think of it this way: theology is what you believe, and spirituality how you feel or express it.
While religion is usually passed down through the generations, spirituality is often passed upward. Children have an innate sense of spirituality and awe. Our job is simply to help them keep that wonder alive and allow ourselves to be open to it as well.
Beyond the physical, obvious, and logical, spirituality is the experience of life itself. Spirituality does not have to be something distant and elusive. It can be part of the everyday moments when we allow ourselves to tune into the here and now and feel a connection to the universe. Spiritual practices like prayer and meditation can be the vehicle that helps us to make those connections and allows us to focus our minds.
Furthermore, the prayers, unique stories, and customs of a religious tradition serve as a language that allows us to live out our beliefs and share them with children. You might even say there is a universal human need for prayer and meditation, since it is a crucial part of so many religions and has been around in some form since the beginning of recorded history.
Yet, most people grow up with the impression that prayer means reiterating memorized words, unaware that it can be an important tool for psychological well-being—no matter what your personal theology is. Sure, reciting certain prayers or mantras may be powerful, but we need to be open to the idea of prayer as a fluid process. Traditional prayers may be comforting and easier to express because the words written were crafted by someone else, but open-ended prayers allow us to go into a whole new territory.
When children create their own prayers, they are free to express themselves from the deepest parts of themselves. Like meditation, prayer allows the expansion of our minds and suspension of ordinary thought. Listening to our children verbalize their gratitude, their concerns, or their hopes for the future can be a powerfully moving experience for us parents. Listening to their words spoken from the heart can not only help us to understand who they are as a person, it can deepen and enrich the very connection between parent and child.
Essentially what we do when we encourage our children to pray is to allow them the opportunity to experience a connection to the divine. Through expressing their hopes, dreams, and wishes, along with their gratitude for the world around us, they learn to appreciate what they have and grow compassion for others.
Until adolescence, children’s minds are inherently concrete and their thinking is highly relational. They can easily grasp the idea of sending healing energy to another person as a warm light or relaxing their own highly active brains by visualizing a gentle waterfall or bubbling creek.
During adolescence, it can be a challenge to help our teens tune in to the now and shut off that internal critic. If we have laid the foundation for using prayer or meditation when they were children, then it becomes much easier to simply reinforce and encourage them to continue. If not, we will need to be more creative in encouraging such practices and helping them to understand the value of allowing time and space to quiet our thoughts and connect with the divine.
Finally, we need to remember just how important it is that we fill ourselves with energy from our own spiritual practices. For only when we are centered and energized are we able to give to our children without draining our own reserves.
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Regardless of your personal theology—be it theist, deist, pantheist, atheist, or anything in between—as a parent you will inevitably face questions about God. Images of the divine are all around us and deeply embedded in our culture. God is mentioned in television programs and popular music, thanked by celebrities for their perceived success, and even mentioned in the Pledge of Allegiance spoken every morning in public schools across our nation.
Even if you yourself do not believe in God, or hold an image of the divine that is not anthropomorphic or close to the traditionally male father-figure of the major monotheistic religions, your child will undoubtedly form an image of such a God in his or her mind. As is the case with Santa Claus, it is not hard for children to believe since the evidence seems to be all around them. However, even very young children are able to embrace mystery surrounding the divine because they find the whole world mysterious. In fact, many children have been disappointed, hurt, and confused when their parents have given the impression that any inquires about God are unwelcome or forbidden.
Last Sunday, my family visited our local mosque as part of our Unitarian Universalist church’s religious education program, which includes units focused on learning about other religious traditions. As we were preparing to leave and return home, I was surprised to find my nine-year-old son in the worship space with his forehead pressed to the carpet as he had seen the Muslims pray. I thought he was merely imitating what he had witnessed and “trying it out” to see what it was like, but he later confessed to me that he wished we prayed at our congregation.
While I tried to explain that we did indeed engage in prayer-like activities such as meditation and spoken words which inspire connections to the divine and the universe or all humanity, he was still not satisfied. He wanted to be able to use his body to pray and humble himself in front of an all-powerful being which he could pay homage to. Once again I was humbled—apparently even I, with my supposed vast knowledge of faith development and religious education philosophy—was completely unaware that my child wanted to pray.
We have done yoga and meditation, walked a labyrinth full of wildflowers, said grace after lighting our family chalice at meals, and explored many other spiritual paths. However, the one that I neglected to introduce—and he apparently craved the most—was prayer. Because he also seemed to appreciate the kinesthetic aspects of the body prayer he witnessed, we are now exploring other traditions that utilize body prayers and working on creating our own bedtime prayer where he can express his thoughts, his longings, and his joys.
For it seems that even if you as a parent have come to conclusions that are meaningful for you, it is still necessary to teach our children that the questions they ask about the nature of the divine have not been answered to the satisfaction of a great many freethinkers and that questions about God are tough to determine because of the nature of our knowing. With maturity and physical growth, faith development also expands—and our children may expand their thinking about the divine over time, or may not. And with that, we should never make assumptions about what our children are looking for in terms of spiritual practices.