Insights by Michele Barkhauer, Dir. of Religious Exploration

Empowerment is a Four-Letter Word

This past week I found myself having two seemingly unrelated but poignant conversations at First Parish. The first, about the struggles our younger congregants are facing and the second, about how each one is a tiny, autonomous being with feelings, desires, fears, and opinions. I can recall many times in my life, both as a child and as an adult, when I can remember thinking “I wish there was something I could do”. Looking back as I write this, I can think of no less than three occasions in the past couple of weeks to be more exact. Each day that I wake up I’m faced with an onslaught of news and media covering this crisis or that faux pas and I find myself frustrated; I believe I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

What would you say if I told you being a kid today is harder than when I was young, and is exponentially harder than when most of us were young? Some of you may disagree but hear me out: kids today are wrapped in what I like to call ‘the everything’, and it’s worrisome. Each of us can remember being a child and growing up dealing with child stresses. Things like bullies and homework, chores or whatever was expected of us and that bar that was set by ourselves, our teachers, our parents was what we aimed to achieve. The difference is, in most cases, our bar was obtainable with hard work, focus, simply trying our best, because the people setting our bar often had our best interests in mind.

While this desire to perform hasn’t dwindled it has taken a new face, the face of the everything. It’s no longer enough to be smart you must be smarter, and it’s no longer enough to be pretty or a good person because your sense of self-worth isn’t just coming from your family and friends. With the trend of social media and ‘going viral’ the whole world gets a say and they’re eager to weigh in on just how unworthy a person is at a moment’s notice. The bar is high, and it’s ever moving, and the people doing the moving have one goal, to see you stumble and become the next accidental viral sensation. I remember teachers telling me that I wouldn’t have a dictionary and a calculator in my pocket everywhere I would go in my life; never could they have imagined the small device I carry with me now (joke’s on her). Seemingly innocuous, a cellphone is many things, not the least of which is a lifeline to the world and to the everything–good or bad, true or false–that’s in it.  So how do we help our children and young people prepare themselves for a world where whatever they say and do can be screenshot into posterity, can be recorded for public consumption and judgement? Empower them.

If I’ve learned anything working with children and youth it’s this: when you empower kids, kids give you hope and that is a four-letter word worth betting on. How many Malala Yusufzais do we have among us, how many David Hoggs, how many Emma Gonzalez’? Children have an incredible tenacity and an unwavering ability to speak up when they truly find their voices. Children can break the cycle of violence, they can shatter the wheels and cogs of a society that tries to oppress them, they can effect change, children can make a new future. We, as a family, as a congregation, are tasked with something difficult, to step back and allow our young people to choose, to decide, to speak. We are charged with helping them realize themselves and reach their potential even if that means getting out of their way sometimes. Each generation is taught about the world by those that are one generation too late to fully understand what it means to live and grow in that time. I am in awe of the Parkland shooting survivors, I am in awe of the children tackling climate change, pollution and immigration. I am in awe of those kids who spoke up at Standing Rock, of those who continually look for ways to put their own skin in the game in the hopes that they will make the world better. These kids are making documentaries, creating inventions, marching on Washington, debating politics. Where did it start? They felt empowered by someone, or many someones in their lives, to do the impossible. How many of our own young congregants might change the world in large or small ways? We don’t yet know but if we look very hard, we can see small opportunities. When we allow our children to make choices, when we honor their opinions, when we listen and engage with them in meaningful ways remembering they are people who bring amazing things to the table, we show them that what they feel, what they think, and what they say has value. The children of the world and of our own congregation are reaching out, they are trying, and the smartest thing we can do is let them.

Michele Barkhauer, Director of Religious Exploration