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Children, Democracy and Unitarian Universalist Faith

Tracey L. Hurd, Ph.D., Resource Developer, Unitarian Universalist Association Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group

October 7, 2004

It's fall in New England. My eleven-year old daughter and I secure a sign at the end of the driveway. She crosses the street to assess its visibility: Will people be able to read the names of the candidates? Is the angle right? We shift it a bit and then walk up the driveway, jointly satisfied with our work. I feel smug about successfully involving my child in this process. But two days later, driving home from school she asks, "If Kendra comes over, would you mind if we took down that sign at the end of the driveway?" She knows that Kendra has different ideas; she's heard her talk at school. My daughter looks sympathetically at me and adds, "Just for when she's over, okay?"

I hear my perky-teacher voice explain to my daughter that it's patriotic for us to express our beliefs. I tell her that I hope that Kendra's family also has a sign and if it's different from ours, that's ok—it's about participation. I look at her almost-teenager poker face. There's no expression. Maybe she mumbles, "I know," but I can't tell. And in a moment it's clear; she decides not to have Kendra over after all.

The presidential election is just weeks away and we are inundated with photographs, slogans, stories and headlines. Whether active or passive, we're all part of the political process and the choices we make for our participation influence our children. Recent research shows that young adults who vote are more likely to have accompanied their parents to the polls or to have talked about politics in their families when growing up, compared to young adults who don't vote. What we do and how we talk with our children, matter. Families can nurture democracy. Children are intimately part of the landscape of American politics.

Children are active and thoughtful consumers of media messages. The three-year old recognizes which houses have the same signs. The seven-year old hears the sarcasm in a political ad and says, "They don't mean that in a nice way, do they?" The twelve-year old enjoys bumper stickers that amalgamate advertising slogans to serve candidates. The sixteen-year old follows an issue or candidate, reflecting on both what she does and doesn't see reported. Children are constantly taking in information and constructing understandings that reflect their development. They share what they know and think in conversation. But we need to invite dialogue.

The Children's Defense Fund urges all voters to take a child with them to the polls. They hope to teach children the importance of voting. They hope people will vote with children's needs in mind. Children's own questions often focus on values. They ask "why" questions that lead us to explore our reasoning. (For example, "Why does he always talk about tax cuts?"). The presidential election is an opportunity to talk about our principles and walk the path of an active and questing faith with our children.

We need to meet children where they are developmentally. Most children follow a path of development, moving from concrete to abstract thought. They go from having a family as their only reference to larger circles of belonging and influence. As they grow, their understandings of democracy are embedded in their deepening Unitarian Universalist faith.

The four-year old: "Why does Grandpa say that the Democrats are crazy?"

Preschool children are interested in words, labels, and easy-to-understand definitions. They're not judgmental, but they're beginning to know that there can be differences between people. They know they belong to their family and that's important. Often they blur fantasy and reality. Preschool children focus on themselves. When they go to the polls with their parents, they feel like they have voted, too.

They're receptive to descriptive answers to questions. Answering the four-year old child's question about grandpa, a parent might say, "In this election most grown-ups either want a Democrat or Republican president. All presidents try very hard to do the right things, but they have different ideas about how they can be the best. I think that a Democratic president will do what matters most to me. Grandpa thinks that Democrats' ideas are mixed up; he likes Republican ideas better. We all want a very good president and we care about making our country fair for everyone." A parent might add: "It's kind of like our church: We all care about the same principles, but different families celebrate different holidays."

The six-year old notices a picture of the current president on the cover of a magazine. He takes a piece of white paper, cuts a circle, and places it over his face. He says, "I'm covering up George Bush's face because we don't like him."

Early school age children, between the ages of five to seven, are actively constructing their own ideas about the world. They want to figure things out. They want to know good and bad. They are always categorizing; they're very concrete. Covering up the image of the president, the six-year old makes him go away. The family of the Bush-covering six-year old was shocked because they hadn't remembered even engaging in political talk. Children are acute observers who readily learn the perspectives of their family.

Early school age children often dichotomize ideas (e.g. good and bad), but parents can provide alternative ways of thinking about issues. Responding to her six-year old the parent might say, "You know it's not that I don't like George Bush. I don't even know him! I just don't like some the big decisions he made as president." Point out that no matter what "side" someone is on, participating in our democracy—watching the presidential debates, working for candidates and voting—is good. As citizens and as people of faith we need to care for our earth and each other together. The early school age child will feel proud to know that participating in democracy is inherent in the Principles of our faith. For the early school age child, faith is tied to what they do. We must say directly that participating in democracy is one way of being a faithful Unitarian Universalist.

The nine year old child calls up the local candidate running for State Representative to see if there is any way he can help make sure that his after-school program will have funding. He didn't think the presidential candidates would be interested.

School age children are industrious. They are able to understand more complexity: systems, rules and order. Figuring out what is right and wrong, they draw on learned skills of reasoning. School age children are concrete in their thinking. They want to know and contribute to the "big picture" and feel satisfied when they do. The boy in the example wants to make a difference, but he also knows enough about politics to feel that he can contribute more directly to local efforts.

School age children want real information. They can understand explanations about discrepancies between candidates. A parent can say, "When the first candidate answered the question about programs for schools he talked about all the legislation—which programs—were passed. The second candidate talked about only the programs that were passed and were funded. Sometimes in politics people vote for programs but then they don't vote for money to fund them. It's like saying, 'I like the idea, but I can't pay for it now.'" School age children want to know.

Actively part of their communities, school age children can easily understand links between faith and action. Participating in can drives, Unicef collections, UUSC Guest-at-Your-Table offerings, they "do faith." They want to know their work relates to their faith. At a recent intergenerational service, Rev. Gary Smith explained scripture saying, "And I think those words about feeding the hungry and all the rest stand for lots of things, like noticing the new kid at school who nobody else is noticing or letting someone cross the street." The elementary school children nodded in agreement. Wanting to belong and serve, school age children are ready co-participants in democracy and in our living faith.

My eleven- year old child decides not to risk the embarrassment: She won't invite her friend over during the month before the election. She knows the sign at the end of her driveway will reveal that her family favors a different presidential candidate.

In the beginning of adolescence, children look beyond the authorities of home and school and turn to peers. They're sensitive to being or feeling different. They exist as if they are actors in front of an imaginary audience. Their unfolding ability to think about thinking opens up new worlds. As they try to discover who they are, family remains important (even if they often don't reveal that to others). My daughter understands why I favor a presidential candidate, but she doesn't want to defend that position to her peers. She cares deeply about belonging to her circle of friends. I don't offer her the easy solution of removing our sign during her friend's visit, because I want to model my conviction. I trust as she matures she will become confident enough to claim a position that differs from her peers.

Navigating worlds of family and peers, early adolescent youth may challenge their parents or caregivers. Their more developed intellectual skills make them able to critique candidate speeches, positions and political ads. Engaging early adolescent youth in conversation about the presidential election allows them to participate. Like adults, they may at first be glib or sarcastic. But the process of discussion is nothing less than a true entrance into the process of democracy. And as they talk about what is fair and just, they will draw on what they have learned through their faith. Pose questions such as, "Would Jesus be elected president? Would Ghandi?" and they will go deeper. Lessons in democracy for early adolescent youth are intimately tied to our Unitarian Universalist faith.

A sixteen year old says: "I think that since he had to work hard to get all that money, he can only vote for people he knows will help him keep that money. It's not cool, but I understand it."

Later in adolescence youth are more skilled at understanding competing perspectives and demands. The sixteen-year-old labels behavior as "not cool" but he shows understanding that political ideas can be motivated by personal histories. Although peers are still extremely important, older adolescents have confidence that people can amicably hold different ideas. They are interested in knowing about their parents and caregivers' paths to their current political positions, more than the positions themselves. This gives youth room to think about the path they are on in defining themselves and their views.

For many youth, our Unitarian Universalist faith offers affirmation. Often they are comfortable with a relativistic position, where each person can make an individual decision. They understand that people can share values but honor different paths of action. It is important that we support our youths' investment in democracy. Surveys of young adult voters demonstrate that many see voting as a choice, not as a responsibility (PDF). Welcoming youth into the fullness of our faith, we can emphasize that every form of political behavior, including not voting, impacts our democracy. Recognizing the inherent worth of all people is not a passive act. It means actively living our faith, standing on the side of love, and honoring our Unitarian Universalist principles.

In closing: Accompanying our children through a presidential election can be a walk of faith. It's not a linear process, but one of honoring children's different stages of development, and inching them forward. There's no one right way to nurture democracy, just as there is no singular way to nurture faith. But standing together we move forward. And in the process we honor our Unitarian Universalist principles. We carry the flames of the generations before us and kindle the hearts of those who will lead us in the future.

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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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