The Quaker Parenting Project: A Report

Quakerism holds a promise and a challenge for parents. The promise is that there is a way of living with and guiding children that can be intensely spiritual, that can broaden and deepen parents’ spiritual journeys. The challenge is to follow the way once found, to put it into practice in those everyday events we all experience with children—getting out of the house on time, being sure homework is done satisfactorily, knowing what adolescents are doing without being overly intrusive.

Three years ago a group of about 30 parents began to explore how Quakerism spoke to us as parents. We shared what Quakerism had meant to us and what we wished we had found. The discussions were open and raised many questions such as: Where is that of God in our two-year-old having a temper tantrum in the supermarket, or in our teenager still not home though curfew was an hour ago? What does it mean to treat all people equally when dealing with young children? And if we follow the Peace Testimony faithfully should our home be free of conflict? How should/could/does our meeting support our parenting?

A smaller group evolved who more formally searched Quaker literature, shared their own experiences, and began to write. This group included a new mother, two grandparents, a parent with a toddler, several with adolescents, and one whose children were in the emerging adulthood stage. Some were new to Quakerism, others had been raised as Quakers; some were convinced Friends, others lifelong Friends. In other words, we were a mix in our experience, both in our Quakerism and in our parenting.

From our discussions has come a manual, Minding the Light: Reflections of Quaker Parents, which is now being piloted and, hopefully, will be published in the spring.

Our Writing

Quakers speak of faith and practice. That is where we started. Can we who do not believe in dogma articulate our faith? Are there Quaker practices that support and strengthen our parenting? We quickly realized that between our faith and practice are the Quaker testimonies, which give direction to what we do. And so we incorporated this third component of Quakerism into our work.

Our Faith

Common to us all was and is our faith: that there is something more to life than what we can see and touch. In naming that Divine we spoke with many voices. For some there is a God, a Divine Being who is guiding us. For others it is the belief that there is a Truth to be sought, an Understanding that may come to us through quiet, deep meditation.

And in some way we all see a bit of this Divine, this Mystery, in ourselves and in our children. We varied among us as to how that Divine is expressed in our children. Some saw their infants and children as inherently good. Others viewed their children as having the potential to be either good or bad. None of us took the Puritan position that our children were born in sin. But, even with these differences, seeing a bit of the Divine in ourselves and our children gave us a common approach to our children. They and we are to be respected, listened to, as well as loved.

Our faith rests on our corporate and personal search: for ever-greater understanding of that Truth or for a deeper relationship with that Divine Being. We believe in continuing revelation, and that it is guided by queries. We believe firmly that there is a Way and that that Way will open.

We found these beliefs and the process involved centrally important when living with and guiding children. It leads us to believe in and look for the Divine in our children. Our children are continuously changing. Querying keeps us searching to know who they are and who they are becoming. It keeps us asking ourselves: What is this child searching to understand now? To what is this child responding, and about what is this child marveling? What role is this child exploring through these before-unseen behaviors?

The box below lists the components of our faith on which we all agreed with queries relevant to our living with and guiding our children.

Our Belief Queries Raised
There is a God, a Divine Truth, Light, which we all can experience directly. How does God speak to you? How have you come to know the Truth?
That Divinity is somehow also within us. Where do you find that of God in yourself? And in your children?
We are all on a spiritual journey of seeking to find the Truth, the path for us. How has parenting challenged your faith?
Queries prod us on. What queries guide your parenting?
There are Leadings along the way. What insights and understandings have come to you as you live with and guide your children?
We believe there is a Way and that the Way will open to us if we are open to it. How has your belief that there is a Way sustained you? How has the Way opened up for you?
Thus we believe in continuing revelation. How has your understanding of Truth or knowledge of God grown and changed?
We believe firmly in living our understandings, by being involved and committed—"walking the talk." How have Quaker beliefs, testimonies, and practices guided your parenting? How is the way you parent based on where you find that of God in your child?

The Testimonies

The Testimonies, we agreed, give guidance and direction to our parenting.

First we had to decide which testimonies speak particularly to parents. There are several different lists of testimonies. We started with one commonly referred to by the acronym SPICES: Simplicity, Peace, Integrity, Community, Equality, and Stewardship—but we found that there were other issues not addressed by this list. Service is an integral part of Quakerism in our efforts to live our faith; should it be a testimony? Education has been historically an integral part of Quakersim; should it, too, be included? Where does worship—time set apart—fit in? And community: is it really a testimony? We felt it was more a state of being than a testimony. Community demands others; by living the other testimonies, we can build community.

We finally settled on a list of six testimonies that speak especially to parents: Integrity; Equality; Peace/Harmony, Conflict, and Growth; Simplicity; Stewardship; and Service.

In an effort to make the testimonies more relevant to family living, we asked of each: What is the meaning of this testimony? What is its message for family life and for how we nurture our children? And what would our lives look like if we lived this testimony?

We answered our questions by first turning to Faith and Practice and other Quaker literature that illuminated the testimony. We then drew from the psychological literature to write brief reflections on the developmental implications of expecting our children to live by these standards. Third, we shared our own personal struggles to follow a testimony while living with and guiding children. And, finally, we wrote queries to use for those who wish to integrate the testimonies into their family life.

Initially, we were working from the SPICES list of testimonies. Writing about Integrity, Simplicity, and Stewardship was clear, very relevant to family life, and seemed to give relevant direction.

We struggled with the three remaining testimonies on that list, Peace, Equality, and Community. We wondered how the Peace Testimony, which has so often been interpreted to be a call for harmony, fits realistically into family life. We knew that conflict of beliefs, ideas, and ways of behaving is not only inevitable but frequently spawns new insights and spurs new growth. We finally gave the testimony the new and very awkward but much more realistic name of Peace/Harmony, Conflict, and Growth. The Peace Testimony speaks to the kinds of behavior used when dealing with or living through conflict. The testimony also sets clear boundaries. People are to be kept safe both physically and psychologically even though, when the differences are deep and intense, anxiety will undoubtedly rise.

The testimonies of Integrity and Equality raised developmental issues. If integrity means speaking the truth, we could not expect it of three-year-olds who are just beginning to differentiate reality from "let’s pretend." Children’s knowledge of what really happened would be almost nonexistent. Or it would be unreasonable to expect adolescents to "live with harmony in both their inner and outer lives" (another definition of integrity), when they are just in the process of identifying who they are. We wondered how can all family members be treated equally when there are such differences in ages, experiences, and responsibility? We settled by realizing that treating equally meant to treat each respectfully but with different expectations.

The examples included in the manual testify to the strength of the testimonies as directives for our living with and guiding our children. One example illustrates our experiences:

I grew up in a family of eight, and we joked about how this helped in making equal shares. A pie divides so easily into eighths with never an extra piece to fight over. It took me a long time to recognize that this take on equality didn’t get at all the subtleties, that careful slicing and apportioning assumes a uniformity rarely found in any group.

The challenge then comes in how good we are at recognizing, then attending to those different styles and needs. If my younger child craves attention in the mornings and my teenager only opens up fully after midnight, am I able to be equally available to both of them? When the older one takes out his frustrations on the younger one, am I equally loving and relaxed around the victim and the bully? (Pamela Haines, 2005)


Quaker practice suggests to us the methods for following the testimonies, for creating the kind of family/community we envision. We can work toward this by addressing five concerns parents constantly monitor as they live with and guide their children:

First, How can I be open to my child, what the child is facing, how the child is feeling? The common practice of holding a person in the Light transfers easily to holding a child in the Light. It means taking time to center on a child: how the child moves and acts, what the child says and does, what interests and what restrains the child. Holding a child in the Light gives parents insight into the strengths of that individual child.

Second, How can I discover the needs of my children, search how to meet those needs, and decide how to guide my children? Querying—the asking of questions, so vital to our Quaker practice—is invaluable to parenting. We may query ourselves and our children. What is the situation? What are reasonable expectations?

Third, How can I respond to my child and guide my child as I want, even in times of stress? Centering helps us focus on what direction we really want to take. We know the value of centering in the quiet of the meetinghouse on First Day morning. Learning to reach for that centeredness when the children are fighting and the supper is burning on the stove can give us insight and strength to deal with the situation.

Fourth, Where and how can I find support and guidance within my community? Worship sharing—gathering with other parents, and hopefully with grandparents, to share experiences, concerns, and insights in worship—can provide invaluable support and guidance.

Fifth, Am I able to nurture my children? Am I able to care? The nurturing of children seems to be just another expression of the concern Quakers have traditionally had for others and our commitment to understanding and respecting others’ views.

One example illustrates how implementing the practices strengthens one’s parenting. A mother wrote:

My heart was heavy as I settled into the quietness. Alice, my 14-year-old, was so unhappy at school. Not only did she feel that she had no friends but she reported the mean things the other kids said to her. Her image came to mind: baggy, plaid flannel shirt extending over her blue jeans; her blond, wavy hair framing her serious, sad face and diverted eyes. And then I saw her as she practiced her recital piece. Her body moved with the rhythm of the music; her face was intent, but a smile would come with the frolicking that Mozart had worked into the piece. (Holding a person in the Light)

Quietness settled.

How does one deal with a school that lets kids be teased? How does one help a child make friends when she doesn’t know where to find friends? It was not like when she was little and my friends’ children were her playmates. What was it about my child that seemed to make her such a target? (Querying)
As my mind stilled and I quieted down, actions/plans arose. I saw myself talking with the counselor at school—learning how she saw Alice, what she would recommend, and finding out more about what was going on in the school. Alice’s music teacher came to mind. Alice had been wanting to extend her piano lessons to an hour. Her teacher was an enthusiastic person who seemed to relate well to Alice. This would give Alice another supportive person in her life as well as extend an area in which she excelled. And then another image emerged. . . . Alice accompanying another a vocalist. . . . (Leadings)

My tomorrow was planned. (Walking the talk)

Activities of the Quaker Parenting Project

When we started on this pilgrimage we knew Quakerism spoke to our parenting. It did so in different ways for each of us and in ways that were difficult to communicate to others. A couple of us had been leading workshops and discussion series for parents for years. Our weaving in our Quaker faith, beliefs, and practices had been scattered and inconsistent. Now we find we have greater clarity to move forward not only in our own parenting and grandparenting but in what we have to offer others. Parenting Creatively, a discussion series, has since its inception used queries to help parents focus on what they envision for their children, the kind of relationship they want to have with them, and what the specific situation demands. Underlying the discussions increasingly are the Quaker testimonies and practices that can vitally support the parents. Parenting Creatively has become Parenting Creatively in a Quakerly Manner. Another discussion series focuses directly on Quaker beliefs, testimonies, and practices. Each is defined and explored as to its meaning for parenting and family life. Single-session workshops deal with issues of interest to those requesting the session. Topics have included "Integrating Quaker Values into Family Life," "Raising Nonviolent Children in a Violent World," and "The Quaker Parenting Project: Its Purposes and Goals." Discussion series and single sessions are always facilitated by experienced, trained leaders.

As our intense writing phase of this project ends, we look to expand opportunities for parents, grandparents, and children to explore how their Quaker faith can nurture their family life. While doing so they will build friendships and supports with other like-minded parents. Weekends for families will be occasions for families to worship and play together, for parents to share their experiences with other Quaker parents, and for children to build friendships with other Quaker children. Presentations at meetings, schools, and other gatherings will give us an opportunity to share with others how our Quaker faith guides our nurturing of children and grandchildren. Our writing, put into forms that make it easily accessible, will give parents another vision of how Quakerism can speak to their lives.

In reflecting back over these years of discussing Quaker parenting with others, we realized what a stretching experience it has been. We had to keep ourselves open to others whose beliefs and insights were different. We found commonalities in our faith on which we could build. Our hope is that those commonalities and differences will spur other parents to continue to seek in their Quaker faith ways it can support them as they nurture and guide their children during times of joy and fun as well as times of confusion and stress. That is the challenge.

We have found more clearly the promise of Quakerism. The Truth, which comes not from us but through us, is to be sought in relationship to our parenting and our children as well as in the other facets of our lives. Integrating Quakerism more intentionally into our parenting deepens the spiritual journey we are on. It sustains us in difficult times by reassuring us that there is a Way. Certainly many other groups and sources teach conflict resolution, encourage problem solving, and recommend centering and listening. Our belief in ongoing revelation intertwines the skills and techniques we learn throughout our years of parenting to carry us to see new possibilities and to come into closer communication with the Divine.

Harriet Heath

Harriet Heath, a member of Radnor (Pa.) Meeting, is a psychologist and a member of Friends Counseling Service who works entirely with parents and their children. She authored a First-day school curriculum for middle school students, Learning How to Care for the Meeting's Children; a Pendle Hill pamphlet, Answering that of God in Our Children; and a book, Using Your Values to Raise Your Child to Be an Adult You Admire. She is the clerk of the Quaker Parenting Project, which has been sponsored by Friends Institute and operates under the umbrella of Care and Counsel for Meetings and Members and the Religious Education Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting.