(Adapted from an interview conducted by Susan Owen)
Ten years ago Jennifer Siegel started a study group for children at their home in Boulder, Colorado. The young folks meet at the same time as the adults but in a different room. All the children in the group come from families where parents or grandparents are readers. The children, however, must be able to read well and they have to able to sit still and pay attention. According to Jennifer, “There is nothing worse than religious instruction that is forced by parents. So over the years I’ve had a few instances where kids didn’t want to be there, it didn’t fit and so they didn’t come back. But generally they really look forward to class. And in fact when I have to be in Chicago they really miss the experience.”
It requires different methods to teach children and Siegel has to keep them engaged. In a recent meeting she asked the kids, “According to Dale Carnegie, what do you think, is the most favorite word of people?” The answers were love, thank you, and please. But, according to Dale Carnegie, the word is your name. So each week she talks about how they are and it seems to have made a difference. “I start with: ‘How was your week?’ If they answer, ‘Good,’ I ask, ‘Why was it good?’ Or if they say ‘bad,’ I ask, ‘Why was it bad?’ We go around the room and they share a lot or a little, depending on what’s going on in their lives. Over time I really get to know these kids and they feel validated and heard by an adult they trust—who’s not their parent.”
After the social bonding time the group reads the Jesus Papers. They started at the beginning and continue to work their way through. When they come to a difficult word Jennifer will read it so there is no embarrassment or trying to sound out the word. That keeps it interesting even though there are seven-year-old and seventeen year old readers. Occasionally Jennifer will stop and ask questions: “What do they mean by that?” “What’s happening here?” “How does this relate to your life?” “Remember that story you just told us? Is this similar in some way to what Jesus is experiencing?” So the young folk’s study group features a lot of conversation about what is being read, which, according to Siegel, the kids really love. At the same time she is also a strong disciplinarian, so if a child isn’t ready she has no qualms about asking them not to return unless they really want to follow the rules.
The youngest child in the group is currently seven years old and attends regularly. There are two students right now who are third generation; one is nine and the other is seven. The youngest wanted to come to class since five, but wasn’t ready. Now seven, he was theoretically ready, but he wants to be there so badly he sometimes has to sit on his hands to stay still. But they both are engaged and bright. “They get it,” says Jennifer. “You never know what is going to come out of their mouth. They have an appreciation for spirituality and learning about the history of Jesus and the significance of that. Next week we are starting on the world’s religions section. I told them this might be a little difficult for them. It’s a lot of information and we might choose to skip it and come back to it in a year.” But Jennifer believes some of the most important information in the revelation comes in the Jesus Papers, and though she does not require that her students be Christian, she does try to instill some form of faith, and some understanding about the nature of religion. Her philosophy combines the best of a mother and teacher: “If you end up being a Urantia Book believer, that is great, or a Buddhist—I am still going to love you. But this will be your first introduction to other faiths and other cultures.” The kids voted and they decided they were ready, and this was the first time they tried the voting system. “I think it made them feel like they were part of the planning,” said Siegel.
The most recent kids who graduated to the adult study group were all girls who started when they were little. Once a year the group goes on a retreat to the mountains or hot springs, where they read the book, do mediations, and some kind of an art project. “I’m going to dance at these girl’s wedding,” says a proud “study group mom.”
When asked what makes these children want to join your group, Siegel responded, “One common denominator is these kids have really good parents who are engaged and involved in reading the book, attending study group, and other social activities. Some might argue that religion is genetic and an interest in having faith is something handed down through the genes. And perhaps these kids all just have that gene because they are truly interested. If they aren’t, they don’t come back to the group. Children also respond the loyalties of their parents. Some parents are afraid to push religion on their kids because it can backfire. But doing nothing is the worst thing you can do, in my opinion. Look at how successful the Mormons have been in introducing their children to their faith and having it stick. They are not shy about their faith. And I would say this is what my students’ parents have; they are not shy or embarrassed by their faith. So they are comfortable sharing their faith with their children. When they attend study group, Jesus’ Birthday celebrations, or a worship service, they take their kids with them. Their attitude is ‘This is what we do as a family.’ Today I think too many parents are afraid to be assertive on the subject of their faith for fear of looking like a religious fanatic. But if you don’t let them have these experiences they won’t have a faith foundation from which to explore.”
Living in Boulder is an advantage since there is a large Urantia community there. Even still, everyone agrees there is no magic formula for raising children with The Urantia Book. “I just happen to live in a town where lots of parents are students of the teachings and they come to study group every week,” Siegel says, adding, “It’s them, not me. But, if you live in a community where it’s you and a couple others that read the book, chances are you could become that kid with the ‘weird religion’ and find yourself an outsider. If you go to a church with all your friends from your school, that’s normal, that’s comfortable.”
Continuing this theme of the social implications that revolve around being among the first to discover an epochal revelation, Jennifer tells a story of a conversation she had to have with a young student about sharing her faith in the Urantia teachings. “She a little more outspoken than her parents are comfortable with. We had a talk about how Jesus never took away from anyone’s belief, even though he might disagree. He just built on the good beliefs. She needed to be careful and of course, nobody likes to be corrected. She has the blessing of this book that has given her more information than most people have. And if she starts preaching in elementary school she’s going to become the weird kid. And that’s not good for her or the book.”
Jennifer also uses a reward system: sugar. She always has a bowl of something their parents would not feed them at home. Lately it was Halloween candy. They get one when they arrive and she believes it’s OK because these days kids are up at dawn with school, then soccer practice or other activities, so maybe a little sugar treat isn’t a bad thing. After they read they get another one. According to Siegel, “This encourages the shy ones to read. It usually takes about three weeks to get over the shy thing. Another example of the reward system is a young student who I took to task. I said to him, ‘Now I know you like to get this candy, but if you continue to disrupt the class, interrupt, make funny faces, and wiggle around in your chair, then when every other student gets their candy reward after they arrive and after they read, you will have to watch them eat it, because you’re not getting any.’ Sometimes it takes withholding to get their attention,” she allows, “but bribing works. I think it helps to mean what you say, act with authority, be willing to remove those who are not interested. Speak softly and carry a big book.”
The young person study group only reads the Jesus Papers, unless someone requests another topic, like if a relative just died and they are interested in life after death. Discussion about Thought adjusters is also popular. “But mostly,” says Siegel, “we stay in the Jesus Papers because it is easy to understand and has such great stories. On occasion we do an unexpected field trip to get frozen yogurt or some other fun activity. I also do weekend retreats, in the past they have been with the older girls, but my current mixed group should be old enough to be away from home next year.”
Jennifer’s advice to new parents about bringing children up with The Urantia Book is: “Don’t be shy. You love your faith, why wouldn’t your kids? Presbyterians aren’t embarrassed about taking their kids to church or nervous about sharing their faith with their children. Catholics are really comfortable about their children having their catechism and first Holy Communion. Why don’t we do more of that? We can’t expect our children to learn by osmosis; we have to teach them. Your child is not going to learn math unless he does math equations. Your child is not going to know Jesus unless you introduce them.”
The Boulder Urantia community hosts a quarterly worship service at a local church where they rent space. Sometimes the program is music based, sometimes readings with music, but they always have prayer and meditation and a remembrance supper. The Siegels also periodically have a remembrance supper in the adult study group and include the children when they are ready. “Kids love ceremony,” and Jennifer knows how to foster that in a gentle way: “They love it to be all about them, so a celebration of the arrival of the Thought Adjuster would be a great addition.”