Monday, 16 December 2013

Being a Quaker Parent

"The best thing about not having children must be that you can carry on thinking of yourself as a nice person."
Fay Weldon

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?


  1. I am neither a parent, nor was I raised in a Quaker family, so I cannot really speak to Craig's three questions. I will say I find Gerrard Winstanley's comment "True religion and undefiled is to let every one quietly have earth to manure," an interesting twist on "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world." (James 1:27).

    My other response is to Craig's observation that "Children have an inherent capacity for spiritual insight and experience, which is sometimes extraordinarily vivid and powerful." It is not my *personal* response per se, but rather something from the writer Philip K. Dick. He was not a Quaker, but he definitely was a searcher/seeker in terms of spirituality, and I share some of his words from a transcribed speech which can be found in its entirety here:

    "The power of spurious realities battering at us today—these deliberately manufactured fakes never penetrate to the heart of true human beings. I watch the children watching TV and at first I am afraid of what they are being taught, and then I realize, They can't be corrupted or destroyed. They watch, they listen, they understand, and, then, where and when it is necessary, they reject. There is something enormously powerful in a child's ability to withstand the fraudulent. A child has the clearest eye, the steadiest hand. The hucksters, the promoters, are appealing for the allegiance of these small people in vain. True, the cereal companies may be able to market huge quantities of junk breakfasts; the hamburger and hot dog chains may sell endless numbers of unreal fast-food items to the children, but the deep heart beats firmly, unreached and unreasoned with. A child of today can detect a lie quicker than the wisest adult of two decades ago. When I want to know what is true, I ask my children. They do not ask me; I turn to them.

    One day while my son Christopher, who is four, was playing in front of me and his mother, we two adults began discussing the figure of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels. Christopher turned toward us for an instant and said, "I am a fisherman. I fish for fish." He was playing with a metal lantern which someone had given me, which I had nevel used... and suddenly I realized that the lantern was shaped like a fish. I wonder what thoughts were being placed in my little boy's soul at that moment—and not placed there by cereal merchants or candy peddlers. "I am a fisherman. I fish for fish." Christopher, at four, had found the sign I did not find until I was forty-five years old."

  2. Hi Craig and Friends,

    Thanks for writing on Quaker parenting. I think there's a lot to think about around parenting, and incidently that it's currently very under represented in our current Quaker Faith and Practice and Advices and Queries. So would be great to see more advice and encouragement in future editions!

    You've talked both about relationships within the family, and about practical decisions in family life, and I have to say that though I think those more practical decisions - about what to eat or what to buy - will have an influence on the family ethos and atmosphere, I think it is in the interactions and relationships between family members that our Quaker testimonies will be most important, and most thoroughly tested.

    I'll leave my comment just there for now, partly to test whether it will post OK, and may come back later with some further thoughts - for example about how supportive I have found it to raise my children within the wider community of our local Quaker Meeting, and with the friendship of other Quaker parents throughout the country, enabled by the different national gatherings and support that we have been fortunate to be able to access.

    A growing sense of Quaker identity has, alongside the friendship and sense of belonging to a community, been especially important to my daughter. I hope my son will also find in his own way that Quaker friendship, community, and values, will be a source of encouragement to him too through the coming years.

    With best wishes to all for all that 2014 may bring!


"When words are strange or disturbing to you, try to sense where they come from and what has nourished the lives of others. Listen patiently and seek the truth which other people's opinions may contain for you. Avoid hurtful criticism and provocative language. Do not allow the strength of your convictions to betray you into making statements or allegations that are unfair or untrue. Think it possible that you may be mistaken."
(From Quaker Advices and Queries 17)