Recently, while perusing the children’s room at the public library, I happened upon a book called Papa, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse and Barbara Lavallee. I was struck by the beautiful watercolor illustrations, and touched by the book’s enduring message of love. The story is set in Africa and features the Masai culture. One of the most accomplished and mighty tribes in Africa, the traditional greeting amongst the Masai is “Kasserian Ingera.” It means “And how are the children?”
And how are the children? This greeting acknowledges the high value that the Masai place on the well-being of their children. Even those with no children of their own are greeted in this way. And the hoped-for response is “All the children are well,” which means peace prevails, the young and powerless are protected, and society continues to prioritize the importance of caring for all its children.
And how are the children? As Director of Religious Education, this is a question I ask frequently. Sometimes I ask this question to parents and other times to the teachers. And, of course, I also ask the children themselves. I must admit, it’s not something I’ve always done. I’ve worked with children for all of my adult life, and for many of those years I assumed I could tell how the children were doing just by observing them. I had training! I had experience! I had an expensive degree! But I was wrong. Sure, much can be learned about children by observing them, but a whole lot more can be learned by listening to them. And now I make sure that I do. In fact, intentionally asking our young people questions and truly listening to their responses is, in my opinion, one of the most important roles and sacred responsibilities of a DRE.
Although Sunday mornings on the Garden Level are typically filled with the noise and energy Reverend Josh has dubbed “Holy Hubbub”, I try to create as many opportunities as possible for children to be heard. One such opportunity is during Children’s Worship, when the children are asked if they have a joy or concern they would like to share. There are always several slips of paper in the Joys & Concerns basket, as well as a few hands in the air, waving anxiously, lest I forget to give them a chance to share. I learn a great deal during the 5 minutes it takes to hear from all those who choose to share. I learn about new pet cats, deceased pet hamsters, and allergies that make it impossible to have a pet in the house. I hear about birthdays and visits with grandparents, about friends who’ve moved far away, friends who aren’t being very nice, and friends who share their pretzels and Pokemon cards.
Another opportunity for children to be heard is through impromptu brainstorming sessions and informal “focus groups”. Sometimes while children’s choir is rehearsing I invite those kids who aren’t in the choir to come to my office and talk to me about how they think RE is going. I’ve also sent kids home with notebooks and asked them to jot down their thoughts and ideas about RE, and then report back to me the following Sunday. The afternoon activity workshops we offered in March were a result of those notebooks.
In April all the children were invited to complete a survey, which asked them about their experiences this year in RE. Their answers were detailed and thoughtful, and have provided me with valuable information that will indeed help me in choosing next year’s curriculum. As I read through the surveys, there was one particular response that I saw over and over again. The question was, “What is the most important thing you learned in RE this year?” The response from at least a half dozen children was, “I am loved here”, or some variation of that sentiment. And all alone in my office I shouted, “Yes!” Because I couldn’t agree more. I hope they have learned many important things this year, but what could possibly be more important than the certain knowledge that UUS:E is a place where they are loved? I say nothing. Nothing is more important than knowing that one is loved.
Our children have amazing things to say, and they very much want to be heard. I encourage you to get to know them, to talk to them, to listen. And then, if by chance someone should greet you in the traditional Masai way with the words, “And how are the children?”, I hope you will be able to respond, “All the children are well.”