(also to appear in April’s issue of The Beacon):
[T]he Youth Adult Committee is proposing a change to the Constitution and Bylaws of our congregation to allow youth the right to vote at congregational meetings. I staunchly support this proposal for many reasons. My desire for our youth to have a say in matters than concern them is a deeply held religious value. I greatly admire the passion and commitment I have seen in UU youth throughout my career and believe congregations can only benefit by youth applying that passion and commitment to congregational leadership. But even more than this, my interest in supporting this proposal is pedagogical.
Much has been said recently about the fact that our brains do not finish developing nearly as early as previously believed. Biologically, the pre-frontal cortex of a teen’s brain has not finished developing, leading many teens to tend to act before they think. This understanding undergirds some people’s gut feeling that teens, (especially young teens) may not have the maturity needed to vote responsibly.
At first glance, this is a compelling reason to restrict teens’ access to things requiring higher executive function, but it would be short-sighted to imagine that’s the whole story. We are not characters in The Matrix, waiting for Voting Responsibility to be downloaded into our brains like Kung Fu at age 18. The story of our brain is far more complex than that. Beginning around puberty, our brain is enormous. It’s full of possibility, but not skill. Then it begins to lose cells. We begin to specialize. Did you know your brain lights up when it hears that song you listened to a million times when you were 14? You probably even remember all the words even if you can’t remember what you had for breakfast this morning. Adolescence is, biologically speaking, the time in our lives when the skills we will use through the rest of our lives are being hardwired. The things we choose to do in those years, the skills we focus on, practice and use, are the skills that stay.
As an educator, I must look ahead to the hopes and dreams I have for the future of our congregation, our movement and our society, when I work to support Unitarian Universalist youth. I want our youth to understand their role in Unitarian Universalism and society at large to be one of great value. I want our youth to know the power of their vote, to understand the work it requires to create justice, and to have a religious core that helps sustain them. If we want adolescent UUs to become adult UUs, engaged participants in striving for justice and growing this movement, NOW is the time to develop those skills.
This is why Coming of Age is so important. In Unitarian Universalist congregations across the continent, youth in 7th-9th grades participate in Coming of Age programs. In many cultures there is a moment, often during puberty, when children are asked to make a transition into a new role. Coming of Age is a religious education program that helps youth understand themselves within a context of Unitarian Universalism, and helps them discern and articulate their own spirituality. Youth are paired with an adult mentor to listen and guide their own thoughtful religious development. This program is extensive, over twenty sessions long, with lessons on UU history and theology, discussions of theological and social justice issues, and challenging spiritual seeking. The culmination of this program requires youth to create their own “faith statement,” a snapshot articulation of their own beliefs. In my career I have presided over many Coming of Age services and after every single one, adult congregants have asked me if such a program could be offered for adult UUs. It is a powerful program, designed to embody our shared UU value of a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” When the postlude has finished echoing through the hall and the Coming of Age graduates have finished their service, they have been given the tools we are able to give them in order for them to decide whether or not they wish to be members of our congregation.
In the post-Coming of Age years (9th-12th grades) our youth programs are self-guided. We no longer prescribe particular curricula. Youth choose their own projects, guided by their own interests and passions. Adult advisors assist the youth in carrying out their plans and projects, guiding, listening, and supporting. In the past several years the youth of First Unitarian have planned and executed fundraising concerts, regional youth conferences, service-related field trips, and more.
But if we decide after Coming of Age is done that we have no interest as a congregation in helping the youth practice the democratic process, or understand church budgeting, or make decisions regarding the future of this congregation, we are not only depriving the congregation of a diverse set of voices, we are failing to help these adolescents practice a vital part of what it means to be a UU.
I, for one, want the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, the use of the democratic process, and all our principles, to be in amongst those hardwired things. I want our youth to keep those skills for life. I want them to change the world and I want us to help them do it. Enfranchisement is a powerful thing. I believe we are a better congregation for expanding it to our youth.