At a recent parenting workshop, I was asked, “How do you help children with being ‘different’ from standard Judeo-Christian peers?” This is a question that troubles many Unitarian Universalist parents.
My answer is: you can’t. They are different—and in all likelihood, they will continue to be different. In fact, many Unitarian Universalist youth will feel empowered not only to accept that difference, but to challenge others on it by dyeing their hair bizarre colors and wearing clothing combinations that are bound to turn heads in the high school corridor.
The question is sort of like asking how Jewish families can help their children with being different or how Muslim families can stay “under the radar.” Instead of teaching our children that they should “blend in,” let’s teach them instead that being Unitarian Universalist is great.
So, as parents, our real role in this process is to help them to accept that they are different and support them so that they can feel this is a gift and not a curse. We can do this first and foremost by giving them a church community that welcomes them for who they are as individuals and understands that even as teenagers they may be more advanced in their faith development than many of us adults who adopted this religion later in life.
Finding a church community with a dynamic youth group is a plus, but not necessary, as long as the people in the church truly value your youth and give them opportunities to express their opinions and be visible as important members in the congregation. For both children and teens, having adults who know their name and have some sort of interactions with them go a long way toward making them feel appreciated. Knowing that they have that support—that all-important “village”—to care for them and help them grow is so important when they begin noticing that they are “different” from many or most of their peers.
Beyond that, one of the best ways to empower your child or teen to embrace their differences is by helping them to understand that your family is not the only “different” family around. Giving them chances to interact with other Unitarian Universalist children, youth, or families encourages them that being different is good and uniqueness should be treasured. So, instead of sending them to a non-secular camp over the summer (or one with slight Christian undertones), give them the chance to go to camp with other Unitarian Universalist children or teens!
There are also a number of family Unitarian Universalist weeklong camps around the United States where parents and children gain the opportunity to gather together with many other Unitarian Universalist families, and for those families who return year after year, the experience of building friendships and knowing there is a group of people who care for them even when they are not together. All of this empowers our children and youth to accept the differences they feel—and instead of feeling left out, they can learn to feel good about who they are.
Camps like Camp Unirondack in New York, U-Bar-U in Texas, Rowe Camp in Massachusetts, Camp UniStar in Minnesota, Camp de Benneville Pines in California, Ferry Beach in Maine, Murray Grove in New Jersey, The Mountain in North Carolina, Star Island in New Hampshire—and many more—all have summer camp programs for Unitarian Universalist children and teens.
To name just a few of the camps where Unitarian Universalist families gather together each summer, there are Ferry Beach in Maine, Camp Unirondack in New York State, Bayside in Wisconsin, QUUest in Colorado, MUUSA in Missouri, Camp Star Trail in Nebraska, and Star Island in New Hampshire—which actually has a religious education week for families.
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).