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Interfaith's Role in Empowerment

Kids Learning, Kids Teaching 

Interfaith's Role in Empowerment 

by Vicki Garlock

Empowerment comes in a dizzying array of forms. It might involve building a water well, playing in a rock band, practicing martial arts, or owning a scooter. But what happens when one person’s empowerment triggers another’s moral outrage? I know a fair number of animal rights activists who are horrified by stories of finding empowerment through hunting, and many friends who support more extensive firearm legislation have no interest in reading about empowerment through a Concealed Carry license. Empowerment, like everything else in life, is a balancing act, but some methods of empowerment strike that balance better than others. In this regard, interfaith efforts stand out as a beacon of hope and a call to action for kids and adults.

The empowerment beach ball has been batted around quite a bit since Trump was elected to be America’s president. Minority groups in all the major categories – race, religion, and sex – are concerned about losing their voice as the full force of a Republican-led America takes hold both at home and abroad. Meanwhile, liberal-leaning parents struggle with their own feelings of disappointment and distress while attempting to retain some degree of optimism for their kids. Explaining the election results is only a first step. Over the longer haul, we need to find ways to empower both our kids and ourselves in the aftermath.

Being freakishly reliant on Google searches, I sought guidance in the welcoming arms of the internet. Web-based advice about empowering kids tends to fall into one of two camps. On one side, we have the “empower through self-esteem” approach. These articles suggest providing encouragement, offering positive reinforcement, and celebrating accomplishments. On the other side, we have the “empower by trial” approach, which promotes giving kids responsibility, urging self-sufficiency, and letting them deal with the consequences of their actions.

  Kids learn about the construction of sand mandalas from a Tibetan Buddhist lama. – Photo: Vicki Garlock

Kids learn about the construction of sand mandalas from a Tibetan Buddhist lama. – Photo: Vicki Garlock

I found this dichotomy interesting, so I turned to my teenaged daughter for input. She’s a smart young woman who didn’t need an explanation of the election results. One of her friends, via Snapchat, shared the results before my daughter even got out of bed, and she saw the Electoral College count before I did. Interestingly, her ideas about empowerment lay somewhere in between the two categories described above. “I feel most empowered when I’m given a challenging situation along with the tools to succeed,” she said. Those “tools to succeed” included caregivers who provide the necessary background knowledge and instill a reasonable degree of self-confidence while also maintaining a visible, yet distant, safety net. “Nice balance,” I thought.

So how could I apply a similar level of nuance and balance in the wake of the election? If we are totally honest with ourselves about the recent election, what we can notice is that, while a sizeable number of Americans felt deep disappointment about the results, another swath of the American public felt elated. In other words, the disempowerment of one group was directly correlated with the sense of empowerment of another group. But it’s a false understanding of empowerment since truly empowering scenarios do not play out as a zero-sum game.

“I feel most empowered when I’m given a challenging situation along with the tools to succeed,” she said.

That’s why re-doubling our interfaith efforts in the upcoming years make perfect sense. When we overcome our own inertia, we empower ourselves. When we move past our fears and inhibitions, we model empowerment for our kids. When we extend a hand across unnecessary divides, we empower those who feel the sting of discrimination and marginalization. Most importantly, when our kids participate in those efforts with us, they are empowered, as well.                          

A Bit of Help from Psychology

Social psychology offers some useful terminology on this topic. They use the terms “in-group” and “out-group.” A group with which you identify – on any characteristic, really – is your in-group. Some in-groups are formal and institutionalized – being a practicing Buddhist, a card-carrying member of the National Rifle Association, or Latina. Other in-groups are more amorphous – eschewing vaccinations, dyeing your hair, or preferring modern dance over ballet. In-groups are valuable. They provide a means for like-minded people to find one another, they offer a sense of belonging, and they undergird our notions of identity.

But there are also downsides to in-groups. First, the formation of an in-group results, almost by definition, in the formation of an out-group: if you are this, then you are not that. Second, in-groups often find themselves susceptible to group-think: members are prone to making less-than-optimal decisions by dismissing alternative viewpoints and avoiding “outside” influences. Finally, in-groups tend to be viewed as more homogeneous than they really are – both by members and non-members of the group. All these issues become more salient when the lines between in-groups and out-groups become thick and impenetrable.

Now What?

In some ways, then, our task in the upcoming years is the same as it has always been. We need to ensure that the lines stay porous, and we need to share the “tools to succeed” with our kids. But it’s worth noting that our kids can also empower us. Part of the socialization process that happens over the course of development is learning where the in-group/out-group lines are drawn. Very young children don’t even know the lines exist, slightly older children are often aware of the boundaries but don’t care very much, and teenagers are capable of actively working to erase dividing lines. Follow their lead. You might discover that it results in your empowerment, their empowerment, and empowerment of the “other.” It’s a win-win-win that flies in the face of zero-sum games.

The morning after the election, my 10-year-old son asked rather frantically as we watched the election results on TV: “What are we going to do?!” I gave him the same answer I would have given if the results had been completely different. We will continue to live our lives with integrity, compassion, and kindness. We will continue to bridge divides and walk hand-in-hand with others who do the same. We will continue our interfaith efforts, making connections and inspiring others to do the same along the way. He tilted his head slightly to one side, and I saw his shoulders relax. Then he smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “Cool!” As he grabbed his backpack and headed out the door for school, I detected a little spring in his step. It looked, for all the world, like empowerment. And I noticed that I was standing a little straighter myself.