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Quaker Parenting from a Quaker Mother and Daughter

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Lynn: My daughter, age 16, is a dyed‐in‐the‐wool Quaker. Other Quaker parents are often very curious how I pulled this off. To me one of the most significant things is that from her birth, I felt I was steward of a spiritual being, a soul sent into my care and nurture.

I noticed early on her own expressions of spirituality, and unlike non‐religious parents who might ignore or even discourage these expressions, I encouraged and nurtured them. My daughter had a great love of nature and expressed a sense of awe that tied what she encountered to a sense of majesty and the mystical. I affirmed this. I was influenced by the writings of Barry and Joyce Vissell who say that our image of an all powerful and hopefully loving God is shaped by our early experience of our own parents as all powerful. This makes much more important how we as parents use power and model just, fair, compassionate, and truthful behavior.

Sara Alice: I am a leader among West Coast high school Friends, and soon to be part of a lovely team of powerful, young Quakers, clerking the Friends General Conference Gathering’s high school program. You don’t get this way by accident. There are choices my mother made as a Quaker parent which led to my growing into my Quaker‐ness, and I suspect if one asked my weighty Young f/Friends how they got that way, one would hear of similar experiences. If we really wish to see the Religious Society of Friends continue, Quaker parents must raise Quaker children; this does not have to mean shoving your beliefs down your kid’s throat.

It seems Quaker parents rarely tell their children what to believe. They often don’t give them the spiritual framework to figure it out themselves, which is necessary for children exploring their own spiritual life. What I find most horrifying is not acknowledging our kids have spiritual thought, as if somehow being children means they can’t feel the Spirit. Doesn’t that contradict the idea of that of God in everyone?

“Mommy, what is God?” I asked from the booster seat as a three‐year‐old.

“I can’t tell you,” my mother said.

Unsatisfied with this frustrating answer, I asked, “Why not?”

“I could tell you what I think God is, but you’re going to have to form your own definition,” she told me, meeting my eyes through the baby mirror. I know that I proceeded to ask my mom for her definition of God, but I couldn’t tell you what she said next, because that isn’t the significance of this memory. This conversation from the back seat on a spring day when I was three is still so memorable because this interaction set a precedent for the rest of my life. I knew from that point onward that my mother would never tell me what to believe.

Lynn: When Sara Alice was about three or four we went to the Olympic Peninsula and camped overnight on a bluff looking out at the rock stacks jutting up in the ocean. We woke at low tide and walked through the fog out to the base of the now‐exposed stacks. The ocean had retreated to reveal starfish, barnacles, and small fish in tide pools swimming to the music of the ocean! Sara Alice was enchanted!

A number of years later, when she was seven, she announced to me: “I know what God looks like.”

Some parents would have rushed in with logic about how no one can know what God looks like. I held my breath and calmly asked, “What does God look like?”

She then described to me the mystical experience she had on the peninsula that morning and said solemnly, “That’s what God looks like.” I could only agree and be amazed at her wisdom of recognizing the presence of the Creator when three years old.

I never set out to teach Sara Alice the testimonies. I tried to live them, and this made them values that were real to her. Each of us describes below our memories of how some of these things were communicated and learned.

Social Justice

Lynn: In 1999, when Sara Alice was three, the World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference took place in Seattle. I decided I would take Sara Alice to the demonstration but leave if it got violent or if tear gas was released. How could I explain to a three‐year‐old what was happening? She knew who the president was, and most children’s books had kings as rulers, so I explained to her that there was an important meeting happening in Seattle where presidents and kings of other countries were coming together to decide how things like water and food would be made available to people all over the world. I told her that some of the things they wanted to do would make it hard for people to have clean water or enough food. Sara Alice said, “We should tell them to share with everyone.” I told her that the people we were going to walk with would carry signs to make that message to the kings and presidents. When the tear gas started a mile ahead of us, I quickly pulled us out of the march and turned around to go home, telling her simply, “We need to go home now.” She cried saying, “No, Mommy. I want to see the kings first. We have to tell them.”

I think children naturally want to do what is right for all. If we don’t confuse them by doing otherwise, they stay with that belief. Throughout Sara Alice’s life, I explained why we bought certain foods or products and not others and also what the labor conditions of the workers or the implications for other people were. Politics were constantly discussed at our dinner table.

Sara Alice: I am an activist. Most 16‐year‐olds will not own up to that yet. One of my frustrations with our faith is that not all Quakers are activists, but I believe the words should be synonymous. When social justice is a testimony of our faith and we believe in peace, equality, integrity, and stewardship, why would we not stand up for these? I was taught to stand up for them. I am an activist partly from being born with a rebellious spirit but largely due to my mom’s example. I still remember the WTO protest and many other protests. I was taught that if you want justice in this world, you must seek it through nonviolent revolution and that it doesn’t get done any other way.

Peace

Lynn: My own parents, also Quakers, would not let my sister and me have toy guns or even water pistols. I resented the water pistols part, so when Sara Alice was little I got her a plastic fish that squirted water. I did, however, always tell her that it was wrong to kill under any circumstances, because there is that of God in everyone, and that one should not hit or be violent to others either. I also told her that her classmates would believe otherwise because of how they were raised by their parents and prepared her for the idea that beliefs about this differ widely in our society. She never entertained the idea that violence was a way to solve things. I acknowledge readily to parents of boys that I think this is much more challenging when raising a boy because of the messages in our culture to boys about violence.

Sara Alice: The peace testimony is one I’ve watched parents nail‐bite over, and it is perhaps the hardest to teach in a society that worships violence. In the simple logic of my toddler mind, it wouldn’t make sense to hit another kid in the face for a toy, because then they would hit me and who wants to get hit in the face? But it’s a little more complex than that. Our culture is so saturated in violence that it’s hard not to expose our kids, but that’s the key: exposure. I was not allowed to watch certain TV shows or movies rated violent. I won’t lie: I didn’t like it. When all your other friends with non‐religious, non‐pacifist, and very American parents get to watch something that you don’t, it’s not fun. But it was those kids that hit each other for building blocks and used violent language. I’ve grown to appreciate my mother’s sensibilities.

Equality

Sara Alice: I was not allowed to watch Disney as a kid. This was the hardest media censorship of all, because like many little girls I loved princesses. All my friends loved princesses, and we each wanted to be one. Of course, I eventually saw some of the Disney princess movies at other girls’ houses, but that didn’t stop my mom’s intention. She told me, “Disney is sexist and racist; all those princesses are always rescued by men. Why do they need men to save them?” I never had an answer for that question.

I look back now on my childhood, and I frequently tell folks that my mother’s greatest feat as a parent was not allowing me Disney. Because I didn’t watch Disney, I didn’t learn from the crows in Dumbo or the warthog in The Lion King that people who talk in Ebonics or with a Latin American accent are dumb. I didn’t learn from the shading differences in lion’s fur that “bad guys” are a darker color than the other lions. In fact, I didn’t learn the concept of “bad guys.” Along with less exposure to stereotyping while simultaneously hearing in children’s meeting that God is in all of us, I learned equality.

Lynn: I did not want Sara Alice to learn good vs. bad dichotomies or stereotypes about gender and race, but all her friends could watch Disney, and so this was frustrating to her. I would explain to her what a stereotype was and that these movies had them. This was uninteresting and unsatisfying to her, and I did not think I was getting anywhere. Then one day when she was four she was looking at a Disney t‐shirt of princesses in a store (a previously much coveted item), and she said to me, “I don’t want this anymore.” I asked why and she explained, “There is no princess for Layla” (an African American friend in her preschool). I knew at that moment that she understood.

Integrity

Lynn: I told Sara Alice it was important to tell the truth, and I always told her the truth. Sometimes I would tell her a subject was too adult, and I would not talk about it. I would not make promises to her unless I knew I could follow through on them. I also made clear to her that I expected her to tell the truth and that it was important to me that she not lie. I realized when she was small that if she did something wrong and I punished her when she told the truth about it, this would teach her to lie. So if I asked her something like “How did this get here?,” “Who spilled this?,” or “Who broke this?” and she responded with the truth, I did not punish her. I just told her what I wished she had done, or I expressed my disappointment or other feelings about it. I also sometimes expressed appreciation that she was telling me the truth.

As she got older, she would sometimes initiate discussions with me about situations with friends where she was struggling to figure out how to act with integrity. The sincerity with which she examined these things always impressed me, and I wished some adults I knew would give as much thought to their integrity!

Sara Alice: Integrity is my favorite testimony; it’s also the hardest to live by 100 percent of the time, which is why it is my favorite. Every kid will experiment with lying; when I did, my mom didn’t get mad, just disappointed. That disappointment was enough to make it feel icky, and it remained so. But integrity is more than simply honesty.

This testimony I learned alongside the one of equality, and in my world they are inseparable. I learned to have integrity for myself as female, being spared images of Barbie’s “basketball boobs” and Disney princesses’ helpless wails. Like violence, it’s about what you expose your kids to.

As a child, I played a game which I still practice today. When I didn’t like my classmates, I’d look for their Light in some trait that wasn’t that awful or in the way they drew with crayons. Now I look for what I can relate to, even if it’s only their teenage insecurities. This is how I learned to treat even the kids I didn’t like with integrity.

Simplicity

Sara Alice: We all know the United States is a hot bed of consumerism. The encouragement to want, want, want and buy, buy, buy is an easy trap for children to fall into, since advertising is often directed toward them. In part I learned simplicity because growing up with a single mom, we never had a ton of money. So when I’d ask for luxury grocery items, I was denied. But she would say to me with my bottle of Nutella in hand, “Do you need that?” And I couldn’t make a case for why these things were necessities, so this logic forced me to put them down.

From my aunt Cindy (who is not Quaker), I learned that gifts aren’t always material. Every year she takes me to a show for my birthday, and it’s the best gift she could give me. My mother lives simply (as Americans go), and I learned by example but never felt deprived or empty, only fulfilled by life.

Lynn: Like most children, Sara Alice wanted toys her classmates had or things she saw advertised on TV. We had a lot of dialogues about how and why I was not going to buy most of these items. I tried to tell her that she had enough and did not need toys that do things for you. Everyone and their uncle was giving Sara Alice stuffed toys, and when there were 30, I put my foot down! I told her she had too many to play with, and they needed to be loved by someone. Then I said that from now on if she got another one, she would decide whether to keep it and give up one she already had or to just give it away. She kept to this and as a result, we could see some parts of her bed!

If I had to say one thing to Quaker parents, it would be that Quaker parenting requires a lot of hard stands: swimming against the tide of popular society, needing to explain a lot of things, and having the strength of your convictions. But such parenting also unites with that which is innate in all humans: a sense of fairness and love and wanting good for all. The results are pretty stunning.

 

Lynn Fitz-Hugh is a psychotherapist and a founding member of 350seattle.org.  She and her daughter both belong to Eastside Meeting in Bellevue, Wash. Sara now goes by Alice Grendon and is in her first year at Hampshire College studying sustainable agriculture and dance. She sojourns at Mount Toby Meeting in Leverett, Mass.

Posted in: April 2015: Mentorship: Teaching Our Values, Features

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