My daughter Shannon is an atheist. This is something that she has come to on her own and as a result of many factors, not the least of which was the tragic death of her best friend in an accident when she was ten years old. It broke my heart to hear her say that she couldn’t believe in a God who could be so cruel as to “kill” someone wonderful and kind like Becky. But four years later, she remains a skeptic and can sometimes be pretty vocal about it.
Which doesn’t go over too well in middle school.
A group of girls at her school made it their mission to turn Shannon into a believer. They were her friends; they didn’t make fun of her for being different. They just thought that they could “save” her. You know, alleviate her pain and suffering, save her from Hell, or keep her from being “left behind”—perhaps all three.
Because these girls were her friends, I believed that they truly wanted to help her and that it was not really their intention to make life miserable for her. She and I had conversations about the ideas that her friends may have grown up with and the real possibility that, up to this point, they may never have known someone who did not believe in God or was anything but Protestant, as they were.
At the time she was going through this experience, I’m not sure it was really helpful for her to know they had her best interests at heart. While she would have preferred that they accept her for who she is and respect her opinions, instead she had to accept they had well-meaning intentions. That’s how we raised her, and she believes very strongly in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, which often means showing respect toward others who don’t necessarily think the same way you do. But this belief makes her different from so many of her peers, and being different is so hard in middle school.
Now she has moved on to high school, and although some of the teasing has continued over the clothes she wears and the company she keeps, her friends, for the most part, accept her for who she is and what she believes. She carries herself with a confidence and projects an impression of maturity that impresses all of her teachers and even confuses some students at her school who assume she is a member of the faculty.
Teenagers are hard at work developing an image of themselves, and the impressions they perceive from those around them often resemble a funhouse mirror that exaggerates and emphasizes some features while distorting others. Fortunately, my daughter’s self-image reflects the influences of her Unitarian Universalist faith community and its belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all persons.
What challenges have your teenagers faced in expressing their individuality while living in a culture that emphasizes conformity? And for those of you who were raised as Unitarian Universalists, what do you remember about being a teenager that can help those who are currently in that life stage? How did you hold onto your uniqueness while risking being ostracized?
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).