Cultural Barrier #10: Consistent physical separation of age groups
Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?
When I wonder aloud about the physical separation of age groups among Friends—why our children are almost always in one space, our teens in another, our young adults in a third, and everyone else in a fourth—I tend to get one of two answers.
The first answer I get is, “Young people don’t want to be with the adults.” I’d say that this is partly true. Children and teens especially, though sometimes young adults as well, often don’t want to be in the traditionally adult spaces, but I’m not sure it’s because the people in those spaces are adults. I suspect it has a lot more to do with the culture we perpetuate there, a culture that leaves younger people out (because there’s very little play, a bunch of Quaker terms and other words that they don’t understand, a complicated set of rules that’s difficult to figure out, and a failure to rethink how we do things).
It’s worth noting that I almost never hear, “Older people don’t want the younger kids to be with them” or “Older people don’t want to go into the traditionally young-person spaces.” Both of these statements are often true, but we almost never say them out loud. Everything about the way that we age-segregate implies that the space for older adults is the “normal” space, and the spaces for younger people are the special spaces that we create because we are tolerant of the special needs of younger people. This attitude shows up in the way our schedules are written (with stuff for older adults in the main schedule, and notes or addendums being used to show where the younger people will be) and in the way we talk about and organize ourselves (with special committees and working groups for the programs for younger people, but no corresponding special committee or working group for the programs for older people, since that part of the work is done by whatever group is in charge of the program as a whole).
The second common answer to the question, “Why do we physically separate our age groups?” is considerably more meaty and, in my opinion, more meaningful. It has to do with the argument that setting up gatherings for young people only allows young people’s voices to be heard and their concerns addressed. This is a lot like the separate women’s business meetings in the early days of Quakerism. Back then, segregating women allowed women to have a voice in a way that they could not have if men and women met together, simply because both men and women were trained by the culture they lived in to believe that, and behave as though, women’s voices were less important than men’s. Physically separating the women allowed the women to speak without being squished, intentionally or unintentionally, by either the men or by the women’s own hesitation to speak up in mixed-gender groups.
There’s a lot of value in this argument. A number of times, teens have actually told me, “You can’t have that meeting with all the ages together…none of the teens will talk because it’s too intimidating.” And when teens tell me this, I try to listen and respond accordingly.
With young adults, though, my usual reaction is to try to push them—“You are as much a part of this body as the older Friends are, and your voice should be present in exactly the same way.” Is it genuinely harder for younger adults to speak up in mixed age groups because of the cultural barriers we have to overcome? Yes. Are we speaking through a veil of others’ assumptions about our groundedness, our level of experience, and our ability to understand the situation at hand? Absolutely. But that’s never going to change if we don’t show up in mixed-age groups and keep speaking.
What I try to bear in mind about the women’s meetings analogy is three-fold.
First, the women’s meetings would never have been necessary if Friends’ perspectives weren’t influenced by the culture around them—a culture that said that women were “less than.” Friends might have recognized and stated that Christ could speak through women as readily as through men, but they also recognized their own limitations in being able to reflect that truth in their behavior. Similarly, we must recognize and state that Christ can speak through young people as readily as through older people, and we must recognize our own limitations in being able to reflect that truth in our behavior.
Second, the women’s meetings didn’t last forever. At a certain point in our history, we collectively recognized that we were ready to desegregate our women and our men, and we did so. This did not actually mean that we had all fully gotten to the point of recognizing women and men as absolute equals despite the culture in which we lived (although we sometimes pretend that we’re there, and we’re not). But it did mean that we recognized that we had gotten to the point where segregating the women and the men was causing more harm than good for the body as a whole.
Because—and this is the third point—being segregated in any fashion does cause all of us harm. Sometimes segregation is temporarily necessary for the sake of moving toward genuine equality, but I don’t believe it’s ever the best permanent state. When we are not physically in the same spaces, we don’t know each other. We miss opportunities to hear each other. We miss opportunities to love each other.
Being segregated also means that we have to provide some kind of way for each group to have an official voice in the whole. In the days of the women’s and men’s meetings—and this is just one example—women wrote and approved travel minutes and then sent them to the men’s meetings for final approval. In one yearly meeting I know, the adult yearly meeting recognizes the young adult group, the high school group, and the middle school group as other yearly meetings that are gathered at the same time, and those yearly meetings can send minutes to the gathered adult body.
In one way, that approach is great. Younger Friends have actual, official channels by which to be heard. In many other yearly meetings, no such official channels exist (or, if they do, they are little-known), so younger Friends either have no way to be heard or don’t know that they have a way to be heard. But in another way, we have to acknowledge that as long as the younger groups have to submit minutes to the older groups—and not the other way around—we are reinforcing the idea that the older group is dominant and the younger groups are “less than.”
Just to recap, because this has gotten long: although age segregation sometimes has real benefits, there are also a number of ways in which physical segregation of age groups is a barrier to multiage inclusion. It reinforces patterns in which older Friends make the decisions for all Friends without input from the younger age groups; it allows us to tell ourselves that by segregating the age groups we’re doing our younger people a favor; it prevents us from knowing one another across the generations; and it perpetuates the idea among all age groups that young people are “less than.” Age segregation also leads to siloing, which leads to younger Friends struggling to gain the necessary knowledge base to participate fully in the adult body when they come of age.
Culture Flip #10: Aiming for multi-age inclusion around 50% of the time, including integration both ways (younger Friends in traditionally older Friends spaces/activities, older Friends in traditionally younger Friends spaces/activities); providing meaningful support to make full participation possible in both directions
What does this look like in a monthly meeting?
I’m not prepared to advocate for an end to all age segregation among Friends. We aren’t ready for that. We don’t have the skills—not the younger Friends, and not the older Friends. Trying to be together across all ages all the time immediately would, I suspect, lead to resentment on all sides.
However, I suspect we’re ready to take some steps in that direction. What would happen if we set a goal to be completely age-integrated 50% of the time? Individual monthly meetings could figure out which 50% that would be. Age-ages worship two Sundays per month? All-ages Meeting for Business every other month? Monthly post-meeting child-led all-ages playtime? Monthly teen-led all-ages worship sharing or discussion? Could half of the meeting’s committees be completely age-integrated?
We have to do this skillfully, though. Age integration without support is symbolic at best and harmful at worst.
In a recent gathering, I asked the question, “What would a seven-year-old need to be present in business meeting and to be able to be a full participant?”
We made the following list:
– Coloring book
– Pillows on the floor
– Permission to move around
– Periodic breaks
– A whisper buddy (somebody to explain things as the meeting went along)
– Priority calling-on (so that, if five people were wanting to speak, the seven-year-old could go first so that she didn’t forget what she needed to say)
This does not strike me as insurmountable. And frankly, I’d be grateful as a thirty-four-year-old for a few of those accommodations myself.
Then I asked the question, “What would a seventy-year-old need to be present in a finger-painting activity and to be able to be a full participant?” Because we don’t tend to ask this question, and really, it’s no less relevant to multiage inclusion. Failing to ask it implies that older people are fully capable of functioning in younger-person spaces, which is not always true, and this leads to a lot of hesitation on the part of many older Friends to even try to enter traditionally-younger-person spaces. It also implies that age integration only needs to go one way, which places a considerable burden on the already-less-empowered younger people.
This is the list we made, in terms of support for the older Friend in the finger-painting space:
– Clear instructions or ideas on what to paint (because many adults are uncomfortable with being asked to create art without specific guidance)
– A chair and table that is comfortable for an adult body
– A room that isn’t too loud or chaotic
– An assigned young person “buddy” (so that it’s easier to know how to connect with the younger Friends in the room)
– Permission to use a brush or sponge if that is easier than finger-painting
And these accommodations, too, do not strike me as insurmountable. Our young people can understand things like, “It’s hard for some older Friends when everybody talks at once, so it will be very helpful if we take turns talking.” We might have to repeat this a number of times, but we can get there.
To reemphasize something I’ve already hinted at—age integration does not and cannot mean just younger people moving into traditionally-older-person spaces, even if we’re prepared to adapt and provide support. Doing it that way implies that “normal” is what the older people do and that we make special allowances and adaptations for younger people because they aren’t capable of what’s “normal.” And this is the whole point of flipping our culture; it’s about redefining “normal” as something that’s inclusive, not exclusive. When we age-integrate our spaces in both directions, meaning older-in-younger as well as younger-in-older, we redefine “normal” as what all of us do, and we define age integration as all of us learning how to participate in all the parts of normal, and all of us learning how to help each other do that.
We can reflect this attitude in many different ways. A good starting point—something that’s relevant to many meetings—is the reporting back that we do after times when we are age-segregated. Why do we ask for a report of what First Day School has been doing but then fail to have an adult person stand up and report on what happened in Meeting for Worship? Why do we ask our young people to write separate epistles and read them to the body when the epistle of the older people is represented as being from the entire body to the entire world?