Jefferson Unitarian Church
Mothers Day, May 13, 2007
Three weeks ago my wife, Phyllis, and I participated in our all church social action weekend. What a magical day that was! We chose to help out building the new community garden at 32nd Avenue just this side of I-70. I was amazed a how much got done in one day. One of the things that made the day special was all the kids there helping out. Even the little ones had tiny wheelbarrows and shovels and rakes. It was criminally cute. They were having a blast. Elementary school aged kids did a lot heavy work, delivering wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of gravel for the walkways.
And what an important experience it was for kids to be able to work side by side with their parents and other adults. One of the frightening things about kids is that they learn by example. As parents and adults, we are teaching kids all the time by our behavior. Alas, often we teach some pretty bad lessons. But not on this day. On this day we were teaching about the joy of real work, about cooperation, about working together to create something good, about sharing the load. That social action day was JUC (Jefferson Unitarian Church) at its intergenerational best.
We have always cared deeply about our children. We always will. We need to honor and celebrate all that this community does for and with young people. It begins with a Sunday morning religious education program. Our programs include coming of age programs, the “Our Whole Lives” sexuality program, participation in youth conferences, and much more. While our program is led by staff, it is the dedication of scores of volunteers that makes youth programs possible. By the way, we are recruiting teachers right now. If you have not volunteered to teach, consider it. It really does take a village to raise a child.
America, today, is one of the two worst countries in the developed world in which to be a child.
Let me share with you the deplorable results of a recent international study conducted by the United Nations. The study looked at the well-being of children in affluent nations along six major dimensions: material well-being, health and safety, education, family and peer relationships, behaviors and risks, and subjective well-being. Actually, the United States is ranked on only five of the six dimensions because, unlike European countries, we don’t collect sufficient data on the dimension of subjective well-being.
In the five dimensions on which the United States has data, we rank dead last in one dimension, second to the last in two dimensions, and fourth from the bottom in one. In only one dimension, education, does our country rank in the middle of the pack (twelfth out of twenty-one).
We do not rank in the top half on a single dimension.
We like to think we value children in our culture, but compared to other countries, we are simply doing a terrible job. And this is the world into which we send our children day after day, week after week.
Let’s look at some of the disturbing data. In the area of health and safety, the U. S. is dead last. The measures for this dimension are such indicators as the percentage of children who die in the first year of life, death from accident or injury, and the percentage of children immunized. It is simply more dangerous to be a child here than in far poorer countries like Greece, the Czech Republic, or Poland.
In fact, one of the clear findings in this large study is that the per capita income of a country does not predict how it treats its children. Several months ago, in a sermon, I spoke about how social science studies show that increased wealth does not buy happiness. Here we see another example of this. In America, increased wealth does not buy health and safety for children.
Now, you and I might think that while these health and safety numbers are terrible, they don’t apply to our children. Those unfortunate kids who don’t get immunized are probably poor and minority kids. They live in another part of town. There is much truth in that, though I find these facts shameful. The fact that a child is more likely to be safe and healthy in Poland, which is one of the poorest countries in the study, makes me ashamed of our country.
But what about a dimension like family and peer relationships? We rank second to last. Our kids are more likely to live in a single parent family than in any other country studied. Our adolescents are among the least likely to find their peers kind and helpful. Our 15 year-olds are among the least likely to eat the main meal of the day with their parents. Among these twenty-one nations we have the highest percentage of children living in stepfamilies. These are all indications that children in America lack a network of relationships that support them.
The data about youth and their health and risk behavior are especially troubling. American kids are the most likely of all to be overweight. Ironically, our kids are among the least likely to eat breakfast. Our kids are among the most likely to use drugs. Our 15 year-olds are the most likely to have had sex and (what a surprise), American teenagers are the most likely by far to give birth.
Now, we cannot protect our children from the culture around them. We especially cannot protect our adolescents. We must find ways of preparing and equipping our kids for life in a culture that has a profoundly distorted sense of priorities.
When we hold our child dedications we commit ourselves as a congregation to support our children. What does it mean to support children in a culture like ours? What can we do as parents? What can we do as a religious community that loves its children and wants the very best for them?
This is a huge, huge, challenge. And I don’t pretend to have all the answers. Creating a place where children and their families can thrive is a job for all of us. It is going to take not only our collective effort, but our collective wisdom.
I want to share some reflections with you. And I do so in a spirit of humility. I do not speak as a model father nor as an expert in child development. (On the optimistic side, my children are living proof that kids can survive huge doses of nagging and fatherly crankiness.)
Let’s begin first with those of us who are parents. One of the most important things we can do for our children is to make time. And space. And energy. Being a good parent is a spiritual discipline. It takes love and it takes attention. This is made a lot harder by the fact that every child is different. Anyone who has had more than one kid—heck, anyone who has been around more than one kid—understands that each one is different and each one needs something different.
My two kids are almost twelve years apart in age. I often joke that we had two “only” children. My son, Miguel, could hardly be more different from my daughter Marcela. Miguel was pretty easy going and, truth to tell, kind of spacy. He would entertain himself for hours building elaborate LEGO contraptions. He grew up to be a astrophysicist—sort of turning spaciness into a career path. Marcela could not be more different. She is one of the most extroverted people on the planet. She never spent five minutes playing by herself. Raising my son did not prepare me for being the father of my daughter. As parents (or grandparents or just as family friends), we must start with each child where he or she is. We must deal with the unique reality of every child. We must be attentive enough, and spend enough time, to learn what each child needs.
We do know this: every child, whether space cadet or chatterbox, whether introvert of social butterfly, needs a village. The villages that nurture children in America are almost all gone. We have to create new ones.
A village is what we can create as a congregation. We must be the village for all our children. We need to learn to be an ever better village. We do a lot. We should build upon all we do. Yet we need to do much more.
I see a new generation of parent leaders emerging here. We heard from two of them in our chalice lighting. I am thrilled to see this. For the truth is, despite our good efforts, we often fall short of being the village our children need. This is especially true as our children get older. Like so many other churches, we tend to lose contact with our teenagers. A good colleague of mine said once that as a movement we practice youth abandonment and call it youth empowerment. Ouch! There is just way too much truth in that. We need to find better ways to engage our young people. This is a huge challenge for us and for most churches in our movement. Our volunteers and staff who work with our youth are dedicated and bright. But it takes a village. We are part of an American middle class culture that has lost its sense of how to relate to young people.
Just this past week I was in a meeting to discuss some ideas for changing our youth program. We need some deep conversations that include youth and their parents. I am so pleased that Dana Lightsey will work with us next year in YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists), our youth program. However, creating a culture that more fully engages our youth is a long term issue that involves the entire congregation. This is not a problem a few people can solve.
Finally, part of our ongoing social witness must include advocacy for children. The children who come here on Sunday morning are certainly better cared for than most. Parents in this congregation work hard to be the best parents they can be. But all the children in America who are not immunized, who live in among broken relationships, who are not safe—these, too, are our children. Surely we can make our society as good a place to be a child as Poland or Portugal. Sadly, children do not have a powerful lobby. They are not a voting block. They need good and responsible people to be their advocates. We must do our part.
Our children and youth are at risk. They need us. They need more than just good parents. They need a real community, a loving and caring village. They need a place where they can be themselves. Children need a place where they can learn respect and compassion. They need a place to share. They need a place where they are loved and accepted. They need a place to develop their spirits, to learn to go deep within themselves. They need a place where their parents can come together with other adults. Raising a kid is too much for any person or any couple. Parents need help.
The good news is that we can do this. We are doing a lot of it already. We need to do more. There is enough commitment here. There is enough wisdom. There is enough energy.
Let us rededicate ourselves to being the religious home, the religious village, our children and their families need. Together, let us create such a place for all our children.