Over the last few years as a Woodbrooke Associate Tutor, I have helped to lead a couple of courses on 'Being a Quaker Parent'. I don't consider myself any kind of expert on parenting, but these were opportunities to share deeply with other Quaker parents from around the country about our struggles, joys and dilemmas. For me this was a challenging and helpful experience, and I hope that some reflections on the issues raised by the course may be useful to other Quaker parents.
Talking to many Quaker parents, I have been surprised by how many feel isolated or marginalised in their local Meetings, especially those in which there are relatively few Friends of working age. Sometimes parents feel that children are tolerated rather than fully included in the life of the Meeting, or that young people are seen as the responsibility of parents only, rather than an integral part of the whole Meeting community.
Many Friends also suffer from the self-imposed pressure to be the 'perfect parent'. Quaker parents often have very high expectations of themselves, which can be a source of guilt and anguish when they feel they are failing to live up to their ideals. Most Quaker parents nowadays are the only Quaker in their family. They often have partners, ex-partners or other family members who are not Quakers, and who may have significantly different views on child-raising, so parenting involves a process of negotiation and compromise.
Conflict, confusion and compromise are all inherent and essential aspects of parenting, as of all human relationships. The recent modern interpretation of Quaker testimonies as abstract principles of 'Simplicity, Truth, Equality and Peace' sets up an unrealistic expectation that our families should embody these impossible goals of ethical perfection. Real-life families are not, and cannot be perfect expressions of abstract moral principles. What we can do as Quaker parents is to practise constructive ways of working with conflict and disagreement. We can work at making conscious choices about food, technology, media, fashion, how we spend time together and listen to each other, what boundaries and limits we set - and how we decide on them, explain them and re-evaluate them as our children grow.
These are exactly the same issues that face all parents. As Quakers, our 'testimony' is not a matter of superimposing an extra layer of ethical perfectionism on top of normal family life. It is simply bringing the practise of discernment to our practical daily decisions, which will inevitably result in different choices for each person and every family situation. As Quakers, the parenting choices we make are informed by the reality that we discern through being attentive to the Inward Guide, rather than struggling to conform to an external set of abstract principles. This does not lead us into an outward uniformity, but towards an inner integrity – a growing coherence between the truth of life as we experience it, and the practical choices that we make in our homes and relationships. It is the decisions we make as parents about practical issues, such as what area we live in and how we use the TV and internet, that will have the most decisive influence on our family culture.
The practise of discernment helps us to realise that we do have choices about the kind of family life we cultivate. We do not simply have to accept whatever the consumer culture dictates, including the deliberate targeting of children by the advertising industry. Neither do we have to reject modern culture wholesale in the attempt to protect our children from everything potentially harmful. We can make our own choices about how we celebrate Christmas or birthdays or the changing seasons, without accepting any pre-packaged consumerist forms that contradict our own discernment of what is life-giving and sustaining. We need a practise of continual discernment to ask of every kind of technology, activity, food or entertainment 'is this good for me, for my children, for us as a family?' This is close to the Amish attitude to technology, which is not a blanket rejection, but judges any proposed technological innovation by the impact it will have on the family and community. This is an excellent starting point for us as Quakers too, even if the conclusions we come to may often look quite different.
Quaker parents are often confused about how to nurture their children's spirituality while encouraging young people to explore their own beliefs and make up their own minds. Our Children's Meetings sometimes reflect this tension between the wish to teach children about Quaker beliefs and practices, and the concern to avoid any kind of religious indoctrination.
Children have an inherent capacity for spiritual insight and experience, which is sometimes extraordinarily vivid and powerful. Many adults can recall powerful experiences of deep spiritual perception in early childhood, which sometimes leave a life-long impression. This is not primarily a matter of children's 'beliefs', but of their capacity for spiritual experience that can be either nourished or neglected. If we recognise children's capacity and need for spirituality, it is part of our responsibility as parents and as Quaker communities to nourish our children's spiritual lives, just as much as we are responsible for feeding, clothing and educating them. Just as children need healthy food, they also need opportunities to experience the inward place of gathered, prayerful stillness, and to encounter people whose lives express forgiveness, integrity and compassion. Young people should also be able to expect that by growing up with a Quaker parent, or attending a Quaker Children's Meeting, they will have opportunities to discover and explore what the Quaker Way is about. Whether or not they choose to become Quakers as adults, a confident grounding in Quaker practice will enable young people to make an informed choice about whether it is the right path for them, as well as providing a basis for discerning the more or less helpful aspects of other spiritual or secular traditions. Parents often struggle with finding ways to share the Quaker Way with their children, and the involvement of other adults from the Meeting can be crucial in enabling young people to encounter the possibilities of Quaker spirituality.
I would be interested to hear from other Quaker parents about your experience of bringing up children. Has your Meeting been a support for you as a parent? What challenges have you faced in raising children as a Quaker? Are there any choices or practices that have been particularly helpful for you or your children?