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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

Don’t know yet

Teenaged boy ©2011 oneclearvision/iStockphoto

©2011 oneclearvision/iStockphoto

When Henry went to an overnight camp designed for boys to learn about law enforcement (a subject he was really into), he of course took a bunch of books along with him. He was an avid reader and just couldn’t imagine going to an overnight without some books.

However, many if not most of the other boys didn’t bring books along with them, and they didn’t quite understand Henry’s interest in reading. As they teased and asked him about the books, it eventually degenerated into his roommates asking him, “What, are you gay?”

Henry, having been raised as a Unitarian Universalist and quite familiar with homosexual couples—a number of whom are good family friends—responded to these taunts with a reasonable statement: “I don’t know yet, I’m only 10.”

In his innocence, he didn’t even realize these boys were using the word “gay” as a derogatory term, and since he is fully aware of what the word actually means, he responded as if he was being asked the question in terms of his sexual identity. And while many children already do have an inkling of where their affectional orientation lies at that age, I love the idea that he believed sexuality was something which evolves as you grow and, despite the fact that he didn’t know yet, he believed that if he turned out to be gay, that was okay.

I wasn’t there, but I imagine the boys laughed at his answer to their taunt, and most likely it was an uneasy sort of laughter. Uneasy because Henry made them think and boys (and girls) who are prone to bullying don’t like to be challenged in their thinking.

This is not unlike the comment issued by my bisexual daughter and preserved in her high school’s magazine when she was recently interviewed for a story. In talking about her own sexuality, she explains, “There’s a rumor going around that I’m a lesbian. Well, that’s only half true.”

So while Henry and other children being raised by Unitarian Universalist parents will say they “don’t know,” often times it turns out that they do in fact know a lot more than other kids around them. And who then is better equipped to educate their classmates about loving compassion and social justice?

Dating rules for Unitarian Universalist teens

young couple embracing

© Vladimir Piskunov/iStockphoto

A fellow Unitarian Universalist parent and friend of mine is creating a wiki-style site for his family and recently asked me to check out his “Rules of Dating.” Beyond being intrigued by his use of wiki-style postings, I loved what he had to offer as dating advice to his teenage children. He writes, for example, that “dating is about knowing what our limits are and being brave enough to communicate those limits to others.”

Reading my friend’s rules, it occurred to me that we parents spend a lot of time communicating with our teens about what not to do—ride in a car with someone who has been drinking, experiment with drugs, have risky sexual encounters, etc.—but not much talking about what makes a good relationship and what partners in healthy relationships should do.

Communicating about dating and relationships with your youth really comes down to values. As Unitarian Universalists, we believe that sex is not sinful but can be a healthy expression of affection between consenting persons. Beyond that, we as parents need to communicate our personal values, such as keeping sexual activity within the confines of a committed relationship. This is especially important in the current climate in high schools and colleges, which encourages such things as “friends with benefits” and equates engaging in oral sex with “making out.”

Stressing that individuals may decide to engage in sexual intimacy if they are mature enough, ready for the responsibility, and committed to one another is a powerful yet positive way of communicating that casual sexual activity can be harmful. A young person who feels empowered to wait until they feel ready to take on the responsibility of commitment is less likely to experience an imbalance of power or pressure to engage in sexual activities they’re not ready for.

My friend’s wiki post goes so far as to refer to what he calls making “sacred choices.” He emphasizes that if “something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t the time for it,” and that basically it all comes down to trust. He says, “Whether or not you should move forward in a relationship, back away, or keep it right where it is depends on how well you can trust the person with friends, with family, but most importantly, you.” This is pretty heavy stuff—but it is measureable. Youth who are in the fog of love and raging hormones may need such guidelines to help them make the right choices at the right time.

Likewise, the wonderful Our Whole Lives sexuality curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ also communicates the message that if a youth is unable to talk with a partner about preventing pregnancy and/or transmission of STDs, then they are not ready for sexual intimacy. Talking about contraception and sexual health is not easy to do for many adults, but it is very important—and a gauge by which youth can evaluate whether their relationship is mature enough and they are ready for the responsibility of sexual activity.

As parents, what we communicate about sexuality is important, but we need to remember that talking only about diseases and unplanned pregnancy makes it all seem like a negative. We need to talk, too, about the thrill of romance and the joy of falling in love. We also need to communicate what makes a healthy relationship so our young people don’t find themselves enmeshed in something that just doesn’t feel right but yet may feel so good.

Other resources: “What’s Distinctive About UU Relationships?” (UU World, Mar./Apr. 1999); “Don’t Just Say No” (UU World, Fall 2005); “Forty Years of UU Sexuality Education” (UU World, Winter 2011).

The sleepover dilemma

Teenage friends having a sleepover (© Fotolia XI - Fotolia.com)

© 2008 Fotolia XI - Fotolia.com

My nephew has a friend who has come out as transgender (female-to-male) in high school. He truly is just like one of the (other) boys when it comes to sports and other traditionally “male” activities. Most of his friends’ parents have accepted this development except for one thing: When it comes to sleepovers, he is not invited. Although he is “one of the boys” when it comes to everything else, because he still has female genitalia, he is unable to join the guys for overnight activities.

While this seems unfair, the situation calls to mind just how heterosexually-biased our society truly is. The parents who deny him sleepovers are doing so because of the age-old rule that boys and girls don’t sleep together because something might “happen.” However, this ignores the fact that some boys are interested sexually in other boys (so much for not setting up tempting scenarios) and some girls are not sexually attracted to boys.

When my own daughter came out last year as bisexual (or, as she prefers to call it, “pan-sexual”), I experienced my own moment of pause. (I tell this story with her permission.) Her speech team was headed to the state tournament, and I was all for her attending, but then I learned the girls would be housed in one hotel room together and the boys in another. While chaperones would be accompanying them, they would have their own rooms. With a teenager who could potentially be physically drawn to either a male or female, suddenly all bets were off. Those simple rules such as “boys in one room, girls in the other” suddenly didn’t seem quite so simple!

So basically I had to rely on trust and the good judgment of my daughter, not an easy thing for a parent to do. It helped that her girlfriend at the time was not going along for the ride or the sleepover, so that made things easier for my husband and me to swallow.

I also couldn’t help but remember that when I was her age, I went on a ski trip and spent all of the time with my guy-pals, including one night falling asleep in their room. Nothing happened—and there was even contraband alcohol involved in that particular scenario, which could have weakened resolve and encouraged poor decision-making.

The moral of the story therefore is that boys + girls (and raging teenage hormones) do not necessarily lead to sexual activity. Instead, a fun but (shall we say) uneventful sleepover involves a much more complicated formula such as the individual personalities and attractions of each of the boys and the girls correlated with their ability to overcome possible temptation and attractions. Sure, it’s a lot harder than the simple rule of sleepovers that we’ve come to accept—but no one said parenting was easy!