It would seem that writing about raising Quaker youth would be an easy undertaking, especially as my husband Rick and I have successfully raised two daughters. However, I found myself writing and rewriting until it was unclear where I was heading. First, how do you answer the age-old question that all parents face: How best might we nurture our children into functioning adults? Now add Quaker to the equation. I’m not sure I have any answers except to say with love and a lot of faith—neither of which is always easy to do.
So many factors define who you are, as a family and as individuals, that it becomes impossible to separate them. Growing up as active members of Conscience Bay Meeting in St. James, New York, has helped shape who my daughters are today, as did growing up without a television, being homeschooled, and performing music as a family band. Which of these elements influenced the other, I’m not sure, but all of the pieces placed together served to put them outside of mainstream culture allowing them to grow into unique individuals. It was, and still is, their lifestyle.
Rick often says he’s a man without a plan (usually when asked how he’s going to fix something), but truthfully we had no specific plan when we started our family. We had known each other since high school. Young and idealistic we were sure we’d somehow "do things differently," but 1991 found us as typically busy suburban homeowners with two young daughters, a station wagon, a dog, involved in too many outside activities, and eating hurried dinners in front of the TV. But on Easter Sunday 1991 things changed. Easter is a miracle of renewed life, a time of rebirth, and a day of joy and hope and love, so it’s fitting that our lives changed then.
I remember this particular Sunday well. Dressed in our Easter finery, the girls and I were ready for our visit to grandma’s house; at ages four and seven they were anxious to see their cousins. Annoyed that Rick wasn’t home yet (he was running on the beach) and feeling pressed for time, I thought I’d go yell for him (or at him), but got no further than the door when I noticed him in the yard deep in thought. Something stopped me, and I stepped back into the house wondering what had happened.
"I heard a voice," he said. "Well, maybe not a voice," he clarified, "it seemed to be all around me. It said we’re straying too far from what life is about, what family is about, we’ve lost sight of what’s important." I wasn’t prepared when he followed that by stating we needed to get back to a simpler way of doing things, although I should have realized that’s where he was leading. It was at this point that the decision to throw away our television was made. I was also to dispense of my trusty bread machine and make bread by hand. In fact, we were to do everything as much "by hand" as possible because it built community and strengthened family. Rick explained to me how he felt coming home from work to find the girls eating dinner in front of the TV. We weren’t spending enough time together, at least not time that really had value. As he outlined the steps we should take our mouths dropped open in shock, and maybe that’s an understatement, but we had an hour’s drive to grandma’s to discuss how we would simplify and consider what this meant to us as a family. By the time we arrived the girls were in the spirit. It seemed to them like an exciting adventure, something out of the Little House on the Prairie books they loved.
The next day we began the overhaul and threw away, donated, or sold every electrical appliance we had, including other items we deemed were ultimately unnecessary. The refrigerator, washing machine, and my computer (for work) were the few exceptions making it through our housecleaning. Without the television, we found new ways to entertain ourselves. We read books aloud, we played board games, and, as our involvement as a family increased, so did our involvement in school.
Wanting to share our newfound knowledge, and at the urging of our daughters, Rick and I began volunteering in the girls’ elementary school. I recall going into Erica’s third grade class to show the students how to make juice from a handcranked juicer. (Many years later she would run into a boy from this class who asked if we were still Amish.) Other children took in turtles or bottle cap collections for show and tell, but Annalee took her father in. The two of them had written a song together, "Wish I Was a Big Oak Tree." Rick wrote the melody and the lyrics, Annalee came up with the movements, and together they led the class in a rousing rendition of the song. We were trying to show the children something different from what they were normally exposed to, a different type of lifestyle that sometimes seemed a stark contrast to the middle-class suburban environment that surrounded us. After this, Rick was asked to come into school often to sing and play guitar, writing original tunes for specific events. For the 100th day of school he wrote "100 Steps" and led the entire student population in song. Ten years later we would record it as a family.
But that’s getting ahead of myself. The following year Erica began taking violin through the school. Her orchestra leader, who also gave her private lessons, informed me one day that the school didn’t support the string program and Erica had potential. Perhaps I might consider homeschooling. His wife, he said, had homeschooled all four of his daughters. I might want to talk with her. I did and then had a long talk with Annalee’s first grade teacher. She was extremely enthusiastic and dragged us down to the principal’s office and made the announcement. It was set.
Following the Simplicity Testimony doesn’t necessarily mean hanging your wash outside in ten-degree weather rather than using a dryer (although we do). It also means leaving time for quiet in your life, time to reflect, time to pray. This is often difficult, especially as you’re working toward a new lifestyle for both yourself and your children. Since we opted to live without most appliances, however, life seemed more hectic, and the added decision to homeschool compounded it. It took three weeks for the girls to get used to not having a TV, but I think it took me several months to get used to the chaos of having them home constantly. Books, toys, and projects abounded. There was continuous noise. But much of that was laughter. The dog and the red wagon became a horse and chariot from ancient Rome. The girls traveled to the land of the pharaohs while wearing time-travel cooking pots on their heads. They marched down the road shaking and banging homemade instruments made from nature. They found signs of fairies in the trees and planted fairy gardens. They lay on their stomachs and observed ants at work. We grew herbs and dried them all around the kitchen. We bought a canoe and foraged for wild food while paddling down rivers. Rick and Erica built a beehive and we ordered bees, getting a panicked call at 6 am one day from the post office. During the early days of homeschooling someone in meeting for worship shared the message that all work was prayer, including washing the dishes. It’s often (well, almost always) extremely difficult to keep this thought in mind, but I’ve tried my best to share it with my daughters.
It’s difficult to nurture children amid cultural pressures and influences that undermine Friends testimonies. As it is stated in New York Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice, "We try to harmonize daily life with spiritual belief." By pulling the girls out of school we had simultaneously made our lives both more hectic and considerably more simple. Without the peer pressure of school the girls were not afraid to grow into their own and, we found, were more receptive to ideas than they might have been otherwise. This was a benefit we hadn’t considered when we made the decision to homeschool. Anyone who has raised children is aware of how much of a dominating force their peers can be.
Our monthly meeting was extremely supportive in our endeavor. For most of the girls’ childhood there were only four children in First-day school, but it was active and almost all the adults took turns teaching them—or maybe just participating in their antics. Help was given when they were trying to learn to crochet and knit, or when they couldn’t grasp a concept in their studies. They were applauded when they played their instruments and sang at potlucks (probably horribly out of tune), and they were encouraged to keep up the good work. They wrote plays (staging one at a local prison), they had a comparative religion course, and they painted on the walls. Most importantly, they were allowed to be children. The range in ages of members also allowed the girls to feel comfortable with people of all ages outside of meeting. I recall walking out through my mother-in-law’s back door to find Erica and Annalee doing cannonballs into the pool with her friend, a man in his 70s they’d never met, but with whom they were laughing and splashing about as if he were family.
In an article in the January/February 2004 issue of Quaker Life, "Raising Quaker Children in the Modern World," Roger Dreisbach-Williams wrote, "At the very least families should sit down together for one meal a day in the presence of the Lord. Young children should be put to bed by at least one parent . . . with a time of reflection, love, hugs, prayer and a story." I agree, as we had discovered the truth of this ourselves years before. In order to eat together as a family we changed dinnertime to 8 pm when Rick arrived home from work.
All meals were made "from scratch," with love, becoming a prayer in and of themselves. Last semester Erica took a Food and Culture course and did an essay using only photographs of my hands preparing a meal at our house. We were amazed at the responses she got from her classmates—and her teacher—on how they envied her. Both girls are also good cooks and understand the sacredness and importance of eating together, making me confident that they will continue to do so when they have families.
After meals were done and the kitchen cleaned, we would make popcorn and gather in the livingroom in our pajamas where I would read aloud. I read everything from Little House on the Prairie to Lord of the Rings, every Madeleine L’Engle book, and our favorite, the Redwall series. When the reading was finished, Rick would walk the girls upstairs, tuck them into bed, and softly play his guitar singing them to sleep. This was a ritual they anticipated every night, and which they reminisce about all the time, often breaking into songs from those early years.
For our family, a large part of who we are is represented in the act of playing music. It’s hard to pinpoint what got our family band going. Was it giving away the television? Was it Annalee’s decision to take Rick in for show and tell and their collaboration on a song? Or was it the bedtime ritual? I suppose it all played a part. Erica continued to participate in the school orchestra even after we began homeschooling, but as the orchestra leader predicted, she grew bored with the pace of learning and the material. Turning to Rick, she begged him to teach her instead. She was ten. Not wanting to leave Annalee out, we bought her jawharps. With some sort of clever scheme in mind, Rick announced one day at rise of meeting that he was buying me a dulcimer so we could all play together.
This sense of togetherness and enjoying each other’s company was reflected in other areas, such as when Erica asked me to participate in her tap dance at an end-of-the-year dance recital, or when I joined both girls for a Hawaiian hula dance. Another time Erica asked Rick to play a banjo tune, and she simply got up on stage and improvised a percussive flatfoot dance. While sitting in the audience I overheard another parent exclaim, "I can’t believe she lets him on stage with her—my own children don’t even want to be in the same room!"
In September 2000 Newsday ran a featured story on us, "In the String of Things, TV Free," by Paul Vitello. It followed a report by the FTC stating how the entertainment industry targets youth with sex and violence to consume products. Paul was fascinated with the fact that the girls grew up without a TV. He also noted in his article that "they sit for long periods of time in the company of adults, and don’t seem to mind. . . . They seem like awfully nice, eye-contact-making, bright, interested kids." Perhaps he should have come to meeting.
My daughters are now 20 and 23. They never fully realized that their lifestyle was so different from other people’s until they entered the world of college, dating, and work, but by then they were already unique individuals. Unfortunately, we don’t attend meeting often because we travel and perform on Sundays, but Erica became an adult member and Annalee plans on doing the same very soon. Erica graduated this past May with a degree in Performing Arts, and also teaches dance and private fiddle lessons. Annalee is in her fourth semester studying Arts Management and works as a page at the library. At performances they often strike up conversations about how they were raised. The majority of the audiences always ask the same question—how did you decide to perform this kind of music and do it as a family—and the girls are only too willing to explain. This usually ends up with them giving their own interpretation of Quakerism and its influence on their lives. I often come across them in the midst of these discussions and am pleased by how they handle themselves. In their way they are influencing the people with whom they come into contact.
This is not to say they’re perfect. Anyone who thinks we don’t fight should be in the back seat of our minivan as we drive 13 hours to the next performance, or listen to Annalee whine about having to shorten her showers, or watch Erica toss a textbook down the stairs because she’s frustrated. But when I point this out, Erica answers that we may fight and annoy each other but it passes because we know we have something special.