I have been parenting for 12 years, and before I became a parent I taught for 18 years. Our children, ages 12 and 8, are being raised within our meeting. Many times in my life as a Friendly parent I find myself not wanting to choose between two alternatives but to look at both of them and find some ground between them. Hence the title of this essay.
I am eager to raise my children to be caring, courageous, compassionate, and faithful adults who know their own gifts and strengths and use them in service to the human family. So far, we seem to be doing okay. My 12-year-old serves on Peace and Social Concerns in our meeting and runs a small not-for-profit that has sent school supplies to children in ten different countries. My daughter, at age 8, walks cheerfully over the Earth—socially adept, concerned about others, and a joy to be with. My children are different, but each seems Friendly in behavior and intention. We are blessed by many adults both in and out of our meeting who live compassionate, courageous lives of their own and unselfishly share them with my children. While I would love to have our children embrace my faith, it is more important to me that they act upon Friends’ beliefs than that they call themselves Friends.
I have parented by gut instinct, thoughtful insight, and sheer exhaustion. The image or model that has been most helpful to me is to think like a clerk in a Friends business meeting, always looking for the third way, the sense of the meeting, the underlying truth that encompasses seemingly opposite notions. What follows are some of those truths posed as queries, and the endpoints that I think mark their boundaries.
One underlying scale between these endpoints is expressed by the query: “What do we need to keep our children from and what do we need to expose them to?” I think of the two ends of that thread as being transparency, where ideas and activities are readily visible, and opacity, where a veil or barrier is set up between the child and the idea. We need consciously to protect our children from some things while making other things transparent. I think it is crucial for our children to learn to see “that of God” in each human being long before they see the ways in which “that of God” is hidden by cruelty and violence. Answering that of God needs to be the bedrock, the foundation upon which a child builds his or her life. To see and hear about cruelty and violence when there is no way to integrate it, change it, or understand it is daunting even to adults and in my experience creates anxiety and numbness to the needs of others. In our popular culture there is ready exposure to violence, inappropriate sexuality, unkind behavior, and materialist values. At the same time there is minimal exposure to the healthy life of adults who are working to do good in the world. In our own family we’ve chosen to turn this thinking about the thread of exposure on its head. We have chosen not to have a TV or get a newspaper, or even listen to NPR on the car radio. In addition, we’ve chosen to homeschool our children. This has meant less exposure to violence, inappropriate sexual content, consumerist values, and the ageism imposed in a school setting. We chose to draw a veil over that part of our world when our children were young. But because I want them to find the world of caring, compassionate adults appealing and inviting, we have exposed our children to many other kinds of adult activities. Examples include attending Quaker committee meetings, traveling with us cross-country and to visit family in Europe, playing quietly on the floor during interfaith peace meetings, attending demonstrations, and working with adults on hobbies such as woodworking.
One experience with grocery shopping will serve as an example of how popular culture and our family were in conflict. Each of our local grocery chains began putting in “kiddy corrals” about ten years ago. The underlying assumption was that kids were a pain in the neck and you could leave them in a place where they could learn instead. I found it ironic that kids were being given an educational experience in things like counting and colors when, if the children accompanied their parents, they couldn’t help but learn colors and numbers. (“Hey, do you want green Granny Smith or red Macintosh apples? Can you put five in the bag?”) In choosing to take the children with me when I shopped, I could articulate why we bought local apples instead of those from New Zealand, why we avoided sugary cereals, and why we tried to buy organic food. The conversations were opportunities to share how our faith permeates our lives right down to the choice of what goes on our table. Because they were small, the idea of helping and being part of the family was appealing and important to them.
I discovered that our faith can be opaque to children, and we did not want this. One night at dinner, as my husband and I had our moment of silent worship before a meal, an intuition made me open my eyes. There was our 18-month-old son, Abraham, in his high chair, squinting, trying to both close his eyes as we were and keep them open enough to see what we’d do next. Because the notion of silent worship was opaque to him, we decided to hold hands and sing a grace before every meal. I wanted our son and later our daughter, Hope, to understand that faith and gratefulness were not just for home. So now we’ve sung that grace everywhere, from the burrito place in our town to the Holiday Inn Express when we travel. It’s had a life of its own and has served to remind us at least three times a day that “the Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord.” It also makes our witness transparent to others without much effort. We simply do what we’ve always done. Our children are 12 and 8, and so far they have not been embarrassed at singing. By the time they are old enough to be embarrassed (if that happens), a moment of silent worship will be sufficiently transparent for them.
The underlying thread here is expressed by the query: “What kind of time do we spend with our children?” When I wake up in the morning I can start my bread machine, load the wood-burning stove, start a load of wash, and put the tea kettle on. All of these machines miraculously go on without accompaniment once I push the buttons. Children are not like that, but we often give them directions as if they were: “Clean your room”; “Do your homework.” By accompaniment I mean something like the work done by Christian Peacemaker Teams. Their visible presence is a reminder that God and others who care are watching and that the accompanied person should be allowed to do his or her work. So when I give a child a new job to do, or when one of them is struggling, I try to accompany them. At first we do the work together. Then I simply sit in the room where they are working, usually doing another task that I can drop easily, and we move into “parallel play” mode where the child does the work, but knows I’m there to answer questions. Finally (after much longer than I think it should take) the child is ready to do the task on his or her own.
I’ll share two stories. First, when my children were smaller and needed to clean their rooms, I’d go up and help—usually by tackling one task at a time and handing the child the next block for the block box or the next book to put on the shelf. I handed things out, and the child did the work. And second, my daughter, Hope, loves company and takes piano. For the first two years we practiced together. I’d help, count time, laugh with her over mistakes, listen to her pieces, and be a visible presence. Now I help much less, but when I can I bring my knitting into the room and listen to her practice. My husband loves to hear her practice and will go in just to listen. His presence says to Hope that the work she is doing is important. Such presence from parents also sets up good work habits as the parents can offer reminders, refocus straying attention, and encourage the child when things seem tough or overwhelming. In my experience this method usually ends up with a task that can be done well without accompaniment.
Benign neglect is the other endpoint. You do this when you are around but not available. It encourages children to find their own leadings and create their own play. At our house we have no TV, and computer time is limited to word processing, research, and keyboarding skills. This has not only prevented my children from being exposed to the “ocean of darkness” described by George Fox, but it has also helped them learn to create their own projects and entertainment. In addition, they often accompany us to meetings and events not designed specifically for children. We assume that they will participate if they want to. They bring their own “entertainment bags” full of books, art materials, and games. The practice of benign neglect at home, where they learn to entertain themselves, makes it easy to take them places.
Benign neglect necessitates stretches of unstructured time in which kids can learn to explore their own ideas. Whether they read, dream, or develop projects, they will be learning to be self-motivated, using their own gifts and talents, and in general be given enough open time to figure out who they are. Reading Friends’ biographies and journals, I find that many of them spent a fair amount of time responsible for themselves, and out of that time alone, leadings and callings arose. It is important both to accompany your children and to leave them alone.
This pairing is best expressed by the query: “What underlying functions are served by the technology we choose to have in our homes?” Scott Savage, a plain Quaker from Ohio, once shared with us the perspective on technology of an Amish man. This man said that for his community an important consideration was whether or not a new piece of technology took away meaningful community work. An electric dishwasher may be handy, but it prevents people from washing and drying dishes together.
Packaged food prevents a grandmother and a young child from sitting together shelling peas. Friends have a long-standing testimony of simplicity, and I’ve discovered that one advantage of simplicity is that children can participate in many more activities. I hang clothes on a line as often as I can, and in the winter, to offset the dryness of the woodburning stove, I hang the clothes on racks in the living room. The children can help with these tasks. Buying real food and cooking it has given my children a chance to cook alongside of me (a combination of accompaniment and community work). When Abe was small I could give him a table knife and a portobello mushroom and he would chop it up while I prepared the other ingredients. It gave him membership in the “club” of people who care for others by feeding them. When the children were very small I used the book Clean Home, Clean Planet and mixed up cleaning compounds out of baking soda, vinegar, and Dr. Bronner’s soap. These compounds allowed the kids to clean without my worrying about exposing them to unnecessary chemicals. Doing things this way may take longer and may be less efficient, but it makes for good community within a family.
But where, then, does the other endpoint—efficiency—come in? A dear Quaker friend of ours and his companion of many years once shared with us how they had handled gifts as their children were growing up. They gave their children real tools. Their feeling was the less experienced the user, the more efficient the tool should be. We learned from them and never purchased pretend plastic drills, screwdrivers, or hammers. When our children were between five and six and could understand safety rules, we began letting them use and then own real tools of their own, sometimes scaled down for smaller hands, but tools that worked. Each of them got outfitted with sewing boxes and sets of good-quality art materials. This has meant fewer gifts because real tools can be expensive, but sometimes we get together as an extended family to help purchase one large gift for a child. Examples include fencing equipment and a set of bagpipes for our son. It has meant a homemade balance beam and then a ballet barre for our daughter. Sometimes it has meant money to attend a workshop or conference. This efficient use of gifts and tools sends a message that the work you choose to do is important and we, as parents or extended family, want to provide you with the tools you need to be successful.
Another pairing is expressed by the query: “How do we treat and work *with others?” This thread should embody our testimony about community. Do we compete with everyone, trying to be better than others? That may be appropriate in sports or in games, but not as a general attitude in life. Do we complete other people? Do we help others by working with them, respecting their efforts, and creating an environment where everyone can feel part of the project? In our home we don’t use rewards. Alfie Kohn’s book Punished by Rewards describes why: when you offer a reward, the focus is shifted from the work at hand to the reward itself. In my own teaching experience I’ve seen rewards backfire again and again. A reward is offered in a classroom for the child who reads the most books. Good readers, already reading longer books, suddenly start reading easy books in order to win. The focus is on the reward, not the joy of reading. In a spelling bee the children who need the most practice in spelling are the first ones out, and they spend the rest of the bee sitting at their desks feeling bad about their abilities and not practicing spelling at all. Competition may have great value in terms of setting high standards for oneself or in team sports, but it’s important to focus on completing tasks and cooperating with others first.
When we attended the local Waldorf School for a “Mommy and Me” playgroup, we were told, “Rhythm replaces strength.” It was explained to us that regular rhythms in a child’s life helped with transitions and offered reminders of cyclical patterns in time. Friends are not usually comfortable with rituals, but I think in a family setting they have value. They mark important transitions. When I am weary and don’t feel like doing things, it is the strength of the patterns I’ve laid down that keeps me going. We watch a movie together and make a homemade pizza on most Friday nights between the fall and spring equinoxes. Friday night has become a “landing place” where the whole family gathers and recreates together.
But what about spontaneity? Quaker worship is like this; we have a set pattern or rhythm for worship, but within that pattern, spontaneous messages break out. We create enough space in our worship so that God can come through and speak to us.
Some mornings, when it’s a glorious day, instead of beginning our schoolwork we will all jump on our bikes to celebrate the beautiful day we’ve been given. The first snow, catching leaves in the fall, or celebrating someone’s birthday or a lost tooth are all chances to be spontaneous. Spontaneity is a way of being faithful to the call of the present moment, even when it wasn’t in our plans. We need to have rhythm in our lives, but we also need to make room for spontaneity. One of the wonders of our faith for me is that there is room for both in our worship.
This scale examines the query, “How do I treat or train behaviors in my children?” I think of consistency as being like justice—a sort of fairness evenly distributed without regard to individual circumstances. In every education class teachers are admonished to be consistent. It is important for children to have predictable outcomes, but it is perhaps more important for outcomes to be tempered by compassion. Eknath Easwaran, a contemporary teacher of meditation, once said, “My God is not a God of justice, my God is a God of infinite mercy.” While I am most definitely not a mother of infinite mercy, I have discovered that when one of my children is having a bad day, my response of “Hey, I’ll set the table for you, you go read a book,” often results in more learning than my scolding.
When I treat my children in this way, they often respond in kind, offering to do something for me when I’ve had a bad day. For us we consistently hold up standards of kindness and respect, and sometimes those are modeled by showing compassion where justice seems called for.
The thoughts I share here are incomplete. Like a broken but heartfelt message in meeting, I offer them as my attempts to parent in a way that embodies and exemplifies my faith. I hope that in doing so, a dialogue will be started from which we all may learn. Thinking about each of these threads has helped me in raising my family, being a member of my faith community, and helping me think about how I might raise my children to be like the courageous, compassionate human beings that I see in our monthly meeting and in the wider body of Friends. My children are blessed to have so many positive role models around them.