Parenting the Unitarian Universalist Way

Rev. Anthony Makar

Video from Anderson Cooper 360° Kids on Race Series

That’s a powerful video. It’s a segment from Anderson Cooper’s special 360 report entitled “Kids on Race: The Hidden Picture,” and while we will definitely want to address its findings about “implicit racial bias” (we’ll get there in a moment), to begin with just think about what it’d be like to be Mikayla’s parents, to sit in the hot seat with them, to be under the bright lights being interviewed by Anderson Cooper and you know that millions of people are gonna see your kid in action, and therefore, inevitably, you are gonna be exposing your parenting to the judgment of millions of people.

Boy that sounds like fun! Woo hoo!

We’re talking about parenting this morning, and parenting is really hard. Part of what makes it really hard is the impression out there that parenting is some kind of exact science with definite formulas for what works, and it doesn’t matter who the kid is or what the situation is, you just follow exactly what Dr. Phil says and things are gonna turn out fine. And if things don’t turn out fine, well, blame comes on fast and easy. The parent or parents did not follow the exact science protocols with all the exact definite formulas which are all obvious and easy to do and so they must either be stupid, or lazy, or malicious, or all three.

It’s in the eyes of strangers, watching, where we can sense this judgmentalism so intensely.

Says Nancy Samalin in her amazing book Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma, “One mother told the story of the day she took her two-year-old to the bank. The child was cranky, whining as she sat in her stroller, and the mother felt tense because the line was long. Suddenly, a fly started buzzing around the child’s head, and angrily the child flicked it away and said very loudly, ‘FRICKING FLY!” [The kid did NOT say “fricking.”] The mother felt her face redden as all conversation in the line stopped. She could just imagine what people were thinking. Her first impulse was to slap the child. But instead she went with her second impulse. She looked at her son and said in a very loud voice, ‘Wait until I tell your mother what you just said!’”

I’ll bet that Mikayla’s parents from the Anderson Cooper video were tempted, momentarily, to say something just like that. Just like that. “Wait until I tell your parents about how biased you are towards people of a different skin color! Just wait!”

Parenting is hard. Given the tens of thousands of messages that bombard our children each year through music, the Internet, magazines, TV, billboards, ads, video games, and social interactions with peers, it can make any sane person wonder just how much influence a parent can have on a kid. And then there’s the reality that each child is different, each situation is different, and so what’s successful for one might fall short for another. Which means the inevitability of trial-and-error, on-the-job learning, which means making mistakes. And doing all this in concert with a team of people (often a spouse, and for sure teachers and relatives) in which you hope that folks are on the same page but too often they’re not, the kids are confused by mixed messages and you feel undermined.

Parenting is hard. I could go on. But let me tell you about a picture I have. One of those pictures that captures a moment that is priceless. It’s of me holding my daughter, Sophia, who is 22 now. In the picture I am 24. Sophia has just been born. I am holding her so very carefully in my arms, so careful to be sure her head is supported, and for that brief moment in the picture, I’m looking up, and what you see in the young man’s eyes is sheer amazement, and reverence—the eyes of one who is standing on Holy Ground. What you see in the young man’s eyes is also resolve, and responsibility. That young man who is me will love this child as best as he knows, take care of her, no matter what. I already knew back then that parenting is hard. I already knew that things would happen to hurt her—that I myself would bring things into her life that would be challenging—but my primary job would not be to protect her from pain but to teach her how to be resilient, how to learn something good from anything, how to believe in herself in the face of any adversity. In the picture, this is what you see. Me at 24, who has just become a parent, standing on Holy Ground.

That’s what all parents stand on. Holy Ground. That’s why, despite all, even as the eyes of strangers watch and judge, we jump right in. We dive in deep.

But now the question becomes, What if you are a Unitarian Universalist parent? Does Unitarian Universalism provide guidance for jumping right in? WHERE to jump in? WHAT to emphasize?

And the answer is a most affirmative YES! All year long, in my Unitarian Universalist Essentials sermon series, we’ve been looking at our core affirmations and values as a religious people, and we can easily apply them in this context. Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means parenting in alignment with our theology and vision.

Start with this core affirmation: that the Sacred (whatever it is, whatever you want to call it) is fundamentally Mystery and Wonder, and when we’re plugged in, we are transformed. Our spirits are renewed. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means supporting children’s natural sense of connection to Mystery and Wonder. Helping them plug in and stay plugged in, in a way that makes sense to them.

Writer Meg Cox, in her book The Heart of a Family, illustrates exactly what I mean in putting the emphasis on “making sense to them.” The story is about the Siegel family of Alexandria, Virginia. They “had started to eat dinner one night when two year old Rebecca, sitting in her high chair, suddenly got very quiet. Tears rolled down her cheeks, while her confused parents and older sister frantically tried to figure out what was wrong. She didn’t seem sick or in pain. The food on her plate was something she liked. What could be missing? What had they done differently? Suddenly, it came to them. They had forgotten to sing grace.” So they held hands and sang the grace their family used. As they began to sing it, Rebecca’s crying had escalated into loud sobs, but then subsided quickly as she heard the familiar tune that began their meals. She calmed down and ate her dinner.

The family never forgot grace again.

Unitarian Universalist parents come from all sorts of religious backgrounds. For some, it was not necessarily bad but fuzzy and undefined, with scattered traces of this and that but nothing coherent or grounded or articulate. For others, the background was much stronger but was ultimately rejected as limiting or irrelevant or downright dangerous. For still others, who might have been raised Unitarian Universalist, they might have lived through the years when our faith was not the fully pluralistic and holistic faith it is now but was rather far more head-centered and humanistic. You might relate to the Rev. Kendyl Gibbons, where she says, “As a young Unitarian Universalist in the 1960s, I was educated about human sexuality in a relatively open fashion; human religious experience, in contrast, was a closed book. I discovered my spirituality in much the same way that my peers raised in more conservative faiths discovered their sexuality—accidentally, furtively, without guidance, moved by overwhelming inner tides, and with some sense of shame.”

Whatever your background, today, the way of Unitarian Universalist parenting leads us to honor (without shame!) the “overwhelming inner tides” of our children’s spiritual lives and to give them the concrete tools and the means to express them. This topic is huge; there are so many ways to do this—and not just at the dinner table. But a great place to begin is to remember the lesson of Rebecca’s crying and sobbing. Ritual feels good to a child. Ritual makes a child feel connected to their depths and included in something important. Religious ritual at dinner becomes an opportunity to say thank you and in this way magnify a feeling that is essentially religious: gratitude.

But now we turn to a second core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: Everyone has inherent worth and dignity. Everyone has amazing potentials which are just waiting to become known, and the job of religion is to make it so. Make those potentials actual. The nineteenth century Unitarians called it “salvation by character.” Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means developing children’s character. It means guiding them in ways that develop self-esteem, helping them become life-long learners, enabling them to manage their emotions and tolerate discomfort. This work is ongoing. The work is, in a word, discipline.

Now that’s an uncomfortable word for some. Discipline. Setting limits. And it’s challenging. A recent U. S. News and World Report article says, “It would be hard to find a parent who doesn’t agree that setting and enforcing rules are an essential part of the job description. Yet faced with whining, pouting, and tantrums, many parents cave. ‘The limited time you have with your kids, you want to make it ideal for them,’ says Rex Forehand, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont… ‘As a result, we end up overindulging our kids.’” Whatever our reason for shying away from discipline, the facts are clear. The article goes on to say: “Paradoxically, not having limits has been proven to make children more defiant and rebellious, because they feel unsafe and push to see if parents will respond. Research since the 1960s on parenting styles has found that a child whose [parent or parents] are permissive is more likely to have problems in school and abuse drugs and alcohol as teenagers. ‘Parents ask their 1-year-olds what they want for dinner now,” says Jean Twenge, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me. ‘No one ever said that a generation or two ago.’”

Parenting is about growing people who can act responsibly and effectively in our world. People who are ethical. People who, when they make mistakes, can pick themselves up off the ground, dust themselves off, learn from what happened, do better next time. This doesn’t happen by chance. I always go back to figure skating as my favorite analogy. It is simply absurd to strap skates on a kid and say, OK, get on out there and figure out for yourself how to do an axel (which is a kind of jump, you launch yourselves forward into the air, rotate one-and-a-half times). You’ve got inherent worth and dignity, we say to them. The ability to do an axel: it’s inside you. So make it happen. This is ridiculous. This is abandonment, not empowerment.

Becoming a human with good character is far more difficult than figure skating, yet so often, our children are left to figure it out for themselves. We don’t want to be dictators, we don’t want to be punitive. But the solution is not to go to the other extreme. We must find the middle way, which is firm and respectful. “But why can’t I have that new doll?” says the kid. “Because I’m not ready to buy that today,” says the parent. “Why can’t I stay up late to watch the show?” says the kid. “Because that’s the rule in our house,” says the parent. We can draw the line in a neutral manner, without criticizing anyone. “Seat belts must be worn in the car and put on before we start.” “In this home, we use words: we don’t hit.” Fred Gosman, author of How To Be a Happy Parent … In Spite of Your Children says, “Kids won’t come out and thank you each and every time you make a decision they aren’t totally fond of….But in their hearts kids know you’re doing your job, just like they are doing their job by arguing.”

Some of my favorite books on firm and respectful discipline include: Love and Anger: The Parental Dilemma by Nancy Samalin; Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child by Robert MacKenzie, and ScreamFree Parenting, by Hal Edward Runkel. The titles say it all, don’t they? But remember: it’s about living out our faith in the inherent worth and dignity of our children. We want them to have the kind of structure that will support their growth into becoming all they can be. That’s what we want.

But now, let’s turn to the third core affirmation that guides Unitarian Universalist parenting: everyone belongs to love. No one left out. “Give them not hell, but hope and courage!” The Universalist side of our heritage proclaims this most loudly. Our purpose in life is to build beloved community in which everyone feels like they belong and they DO belong. Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means teaching our kids how to notice differences and value them. Teaching cultural appreciation skills. Diversity skills.

Not the opposite, which is unconsciously conveying unconscious racial bias. Of course, when we’re talking diversity, we’re talking all kinds. Class, gender, sex, ability, and on and on. But I want us to focus on race right now. I want us to go back to the video we saw earlier. Anderson Cooper and his 360 report, “Kids on Race: the Hidden Picture.”

It’s eye-opening. The reality of  “subconscious racial bias,” which we saw in the white girl Mikayla, which is “a bias that kids pick up on–from messages they hear at school, at home, the characters in the TV shows they watch, what they see online. These are not overt feelings of racism, but rather the things that we’re not aware of, the things that we do when we don’t realize it.” I’m quoting here from Dr. Melanie Killen, Anderson Cooper’s go-to expert, and she goes on to observe something even more important and fascinating: “What was really interesting about the study,” she says, “was that the young African-American kids are just much more positive about the potential for friendship. When they’re looking at a picture card of a white child and a black child and you ask them, well, can these two be friends? They’re much more likely to say—in fact, the majority of them will say—yes, they can be friends. Whereas we found a different finding for the white kids. Much less likely to say that they could be friends. It really makes you think about why is that and what goes into that.”

Sharp guy that he is, Anderson Cooper then asks, “So why are young black children more positive about race than young whites?” Dr. Killen’s response? The misperception from some parents that kids are color blind has a lot to do with it. “African-American parents are very early on preparing their children for the world of diversity and also for the world of potential discrimination. In contrast, what we find is that a lot of white parents, they sort of have this view that if you talk about race, you are creating the problem.” When, to the contrary, the real problem is not talking race.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way, when we are in alignment with our historic affirmation that “everyone belongs to Love,” means that we have to talk about race. Kids are not colorblind. Not talking about something that is so obvious to them means: it’s bad. That’s how they interpret the silence. When they don’t see different races interacting and getting along—when they are familiar with only one race (theirs)—the default conclusion is, I can’t trust people who have a different skin color. Not good. Stay away.

That’s subconscious racial bias, and I am here to tell you in no uncertain terms that it is positively as un-Unitarian Universalist as you can get. Yet it is here among us.  It is.

But I am excited today to say that the solution is related to the fourth and final core Unitarian Universalist affirmation: that we are powered not by creed but covenant. We come together not to believe the same things but to learn how to love. We come together. It means that Unitarian Universalism is the opposite of lone-rangerism. It means that you can’t be a Unitarian Universalist all by yourself. It makes no sense. The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed puts it like this: “The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is to narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength is too limited to do all that must be done. Together, our vision widens, and our strength is renewed.”

Therefore, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way means that we are going to rely on our spiritual community to help us talk about race—how to notice differences without falling into full-blown stereotyping. We are going to rely on our spiritual community to take the lead in showing us how Beloved Community naturally evolves in the direction of something more multiracial and multicultural. It’s a journey. It’s a good thing. It’s what our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to. And we just don’t have to figure it out all by ourselves, in the tight confines of our nuclear families.

Parenting the Unitarian Universalist way also means that we can join with fellow parents in figuring the whole discipline thing out, or how to support the spiritual lives of our children. Our covenant group program could be a great place for this. Groups of between 7 to 10 people in which participants can grow in relationship even as they enhance their parenting skills. One that comes to mind is called “Mindful Parenting,” and it’s led by one of our Lay Ministers, Rebecca Kaye. Check out our website for more information. Look for “Small Group Ministry” in the drop-down box. Check it out.

Ultimately, parenting the Unitarian Universalist way is something all of us do. Even if we don’t have kids. If we are part of this community, we need to see ourselves as guardians of our young. We need to find ways to love the mothers and fathers among us and support them as they stand on awesome Holy Ground. We all stand on it. Holy Ground.

It’s what the words of our child dedication ritual are trying to say. Are trying to reach towards.

We dedicate children to the personal and spiritual journey that lies ahead for them, calling them to a future filled with love and courage.

We dedicate the family and the larger faith community to the vision of covenant, in which we all promise to support each other in times of struggle as well as gladness.

We dedicate ourselves to a deeper awareness of the sacred mystery of life, evident in the passages of birth, of growth, and of death. We reaffirm that every stage of life has inherent worth and dignity, and we commit ourselves to a greater trust of the journey as it unfolds. 

Let us do that. Dedicate the children. Dedicate ourselves.