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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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).