When church shut down in March of 2020, my husband and I began gathering our kids on Sunday afternoons for spiritual lessons. We enjoyed this time, but as the months went on, I wanted some guidance on age-appropriate, spiritually-minded lessons centered on values, but not a particular religious tradition. In mid-2021, I began hearing about Uplift Kids. I signed up for a two-week trial and quickly realized I wanted to stay on for the annual membership.
The Uplift Kids lesson library includes lessons on topics such as values (e. g. kindness, forgiveness), wisdom practices (e.g. stoicism: finding inner calm), life topics (e. g. racism, bullying, friendship), and more. For me, Uplift Kids became a guide for having some of the conversations I most wanted to have with my kids. Jon Ogden (he/him), a co-founder, and his spouse Becca Lee (they/them), illustrator, are friends of mine from grad school and I reached out to them for an interview so I could share more about the program. I’m so glad they said yes.
Katie: Please tell me a little bit about yourselves—just a high-level overview for our readers with your background and education.
Jon: I grew up in Springville, UT, and served an LDS mission in Ventura, CA. I went to BYU and got an English literature degree and then a master’s in rhetoric and composition. I have since worked in content marketing, instructional design, and lesson curriculum. We live in Provo.
Becca: I grew up in Seattle, WA. All of my family and extended family are LDS, and then I came to BYU to get an undergraduate degree in English. I met Jon and we got married halfway through our master’s degrees—he was studying rhetoric and I was studying literature. And then we had our first kid right as I was graduating. Then I did an MFA in creative writing. A few years later we had our second kid. Our oldest is now 11 and our youngest is 7.
Katie: How did you become involved in Uplift Kids? What need did you recognize that Uplift seeks to fill?
Jon: After I experienced a faith shift, I found several groups that I was part of that I felt like I belonged to, including Lower Lights, a mindfulness group in Salt Lake City. Lower Lights pulls from all the wisdom traditions as well as psychological research. I found a lot of friends and just felt at home there. As a result, I wanted a similarly expansive way for my kids to experience moral development and spirituality. So a group of us as Lower Lights took on this question—what can we do that can expand some of these same approaches, but have them reach all ages? We started prototyping a bunch of things—first with six families, then thirty families, and then we developed more than a year’s worth of lessons and created a lesson library, using feedback from families to refine our lessons.
Katie: Uplift lessons seem very flexible to accommodate spirituality, wisdom traditions, academic research, and secular learning. What is the reasoning behind incorporating these practices?
Jon: We found that there is emerging science on the benefits of spirituality. For instance, Lisa Miller, a professor at Columbia University, wrote a book called The Spiritual Child. Her research shows a scientific link between spirituality and overall well-being. She shows that spirituality is invaluable to child development. There are many similar findings from other researchers, including neuroscientist Andrew Newberg and anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann. Our intention is that by finding an intersection of spirituality and science, parents can have practices that will transform the home. In this way, Uplift works if someone is religious in a particular tradition—like an active Christian or an active Buddhist—or if they are a nonbeliever who belongs to no tradition.
Katie: What should people expect when they open a lesson from Uplift?
Jon: First there is an optional parental guide to orient the parents to the topic. It includes questions for reflection, resources from the latest scientific research on that topic, and what the wisdom traditions say about the topic (e. g. Buddhism, Taoism). There are quotes from therapists, scientists, or other experts on the topic. Or, the parent can dive right into the lesson. There’s an opening activity, such as a curated video, physical activity, or object lesson. Then there are age-specific sections with content for teens, kids, and littles. For littles, each lesson contains a hands-on worksheet parents can print and color. Then there’s a closing activity such as time for reflection, or discussion on how to put the value into practice in the home. Finally, there are tips on how to keep the conversation going throughout the week.
Katie: As I was looking for resources to use, it was important to me to find a framework that was queer-friendly. What efforts has Uplift made in that regard?
Jon: We have a lesson on LGBTQ+ identities, and we try to be cognizant of those topics throughout our lessons. For example, in our lesson on lineage, we have a chart for littles where they can put themselves, their parents, and grandparents, but the chart isn’t gendered. We recognize that people who use Uplift might not fit what is termed “the norm.”
Becca: I illustrate for Uplift and that is my largest role on the project, but I get access to the lessons before they’re sent out to families. I am non-binary myself, and I think it helps to have a queer person on the team. We especially try to be conscious of the way we talk about families—are we using gendered language? Are we making everyone’s experience with sexuality and gender feel safe and normal with a child’s budding identity and how they experience the world? Are we making space for queerness to exist? Most of the time it’s easy to be inclusive when we ask the right questions.
Katie: I love the illustrations that accompany the lessons. What is your process with the artwork?
Becca: It’s a great arrangement. I get to watch the lessons take shape, so I make the mood of the illustrations match the intention. I get a topic a week in advance, and usually I’ll propose an idea as soon as I get the topic. Most of the time we use animals so we don’t have to worry about gender or race, or even age. That way the viewer can transpose their identity onto the character. I also have a lot of flexibility in what I get to create. We were working on a lesson about emotions and discussed creating an emotions chart, and we considered—do we want to use animals, or perhaps different children of different races? Then I suggested we do the color and shape of what that emotion feels like. When it came together, that collaboration of being able to pitch something and problem solve with all of us creating together worked well.
Katie: What has surprised you about this process of creating Uplift?
Jon: It has surprised me that the response has been so positive. Our retention rates for people who do the trial are between 90-95%. People really like it. The response has been wildly positive. I’ve also been surprised by how free people feel empowered to break away from traditional forms of teaching in the home. They’re watching a video at dinner or talking about topics at bedtime, in addition to more traditional models where everyone gathers around together.
Becca: The most surprising thing for me has been how much just engaging with the material has improved my parenting. There’s a breadth of knowledge there that I just wouldn’t get in my day-to-day life. I might have good intentions about having a conversation about sexuality or other topics, but this gives me a way to have bite-sized conversations with confidence. When I talk to other parents, I’ve found that I’m confident in approaching topics because I’ve read through that content in an Uplift lesson. I’ve become a more intentional parent. There’s a tendency to think of Uplift as an educational resource to help kids, but it’s also a really important tool in becoming a better parent. There’s so much research that goes into these lessons and they pull from so many meaningful sources. I always thought it would be a good thing for kids, but it’s been really positive for me, too.
Katie: For me, it has felt important to move away from a checklist spirituality where there’s an endless list of things to do and a lot of shame and guilt if you aren’t doing the entire checklist. How do you want people to feel when they approach Uplift?
Jon: We want it to feel like an ongoing conversation. We don’t want there to be any sense of, “I’m not doing Uplift right because I didn’t get through all of the content.” That’s the opposite of what we hope. Uplift is a tool to have ongoing conversations about the issues that matter most. For instance, in our lesson on kindness, there’s a video from George Sanders. And if on a Sunday afternoon you get together and watch this seven-minute video, and just ask the kids how they felt about it—do you feel you are treated kindly at school? Do you treat others kindly? And if that’s the entire thing you do, that’s fantastic. If it generates more conversation and you keep going through the rest of the lesson, that’s great too. The purpose is to have conversations and experience transformation in the home without feeling any sense of burden.
Becca: We have two kids and their age gap is six years. It’s pretty adaptable to their age gap for whatever we need. Whether we’re watching one video and having a brief conversation, or working through multiple points, we pick out the parts from the lesson that makes sense for our kids.
Jon: And our youngest child may just run away from the lesson.
Becca: However much he participates, we count that as success.
Katie: My youngest is three, so I get that. What is coming up next for Uplift Kids?
Jon: We’re looking at more ways to do community, whether that is pods of families meeting together or integrating with communities that already exist. A church in Park City—St. Luke’s—is using Uplift as their curriculum for kids. We want to do more of that with progressive religious traditions, as well as non-religious traditions, like possibly Montessori or Waldorf schools, so kids can be learning these things alongside other kids. We’re also producing physical products, like a deck of cards with Becca’s illustrations of emotions that parents can use to talk about emotional intelligence. We have a journal that members can purchase and print at cost. And there’s more to come.