Cultural Barrier #9: Isolation of parents (among Friends and in society in general)
Why is this a barrier to multiage inclusion?
I’m not a parent, but many people my age are, and I try to make a habit of listening to them. One of the things I hear most often is regret about isolation. In today’s society—at least, in the United States—parents and their young children (or teens) live in houses that usually hold only two generations, and in these houses, the parents and children are physically separated from their neighbors. It’s a far cry from how we lived a few thousand years ago, when we lived in caves with our neighbors just one fire over—or even a few hundred years ago, when children, parents, and grandparents often shared a single home. Parents are pretty much on their own. They might be connected to other parents by social media, by phone, and by story hour at the local library, but when the baby’s screaming at two o’clock in the morning—or when the teenager comes home after midnight and has been drinking—there’s no grandparent or neighbor physically present to lend a hand.
This is not significantly different when we look at the Religious Society of Friends. During Meeting for Worship, parents of young children often find themselves teaching First Day School or spending the time in childcare. In many meetings, parents of young children can’t participate in the business of the meeting, in committee work, or in adult religious education groups because childcare isn’t available. There are few or no opportunities for Quaker parents to talk about parenting with other Quaker parents. So in a way, the Quaker meeting becomes—rather than a source of spiritual nourishment and support—just one more thing for busy parents to try to fit into their schedules, either for the sake of their children’s spiritual nurture or simply because they have “always been Quakers.”
Parenting may be the single most difficult and most vital ministry to which a person can be called. Why don’t we treat it that way?
I often hear people say things like “if we nurture the parents, we nurture the kids.” That’s absolutely true, and it is a multi-age inclusion argument. I’m on board with that. But I’d also like us to remember that parents are not only extensions of their children. They themselves are valuable and whole presences in our communities, and they themselves deserve particular attention and nurture during the years when they’re doing the extremely difficult work – the ministry – of raising kids.
Culture Flip #9: Providing childcare at all meeting events without exception; prioritizing spiritual and practical nurture of parents
What does this look like in a monthly meeting?
I’d like to start with childcare. To me, we should never be asking the question, “Are we going to provide childcare?” Instead, I’d suggest the question, “How are we going to provide childcare?” Do we need to step up our donations so that we can hire a paid person to take on this role? Or do we need to set up some kind of rotation-based system so that we all provide childcare, so that parents do not have to fill this role themselves instead of participating in meeting activities? Or do we need to find a third option?
Sometimes Friends say: Childcare isn’t enough. There should be meaningful programming for children. Well, yes. Ideally, there should, and many meetings are working on this. But to me, using this statement as an argument against childcare is akin to saying, “The roof really needs to be replaced entirely, so we shouldn’t put a bucket under the leak.” Let’s start with doing everything we can right now, and we’ll move forward from there.
Sometimes Friends say: When I was young, I hired my own baby-sitter for my kids when I went to meeting functions, and that was fine. I’m genuinely grateful that these Friends were able to do that. For many, financially or logistically, it is not an option. It’s akin to saying, “There are buckets around someplace. If the roof is leaking on you, find a bucket. That’s what I’ve always done.” Possibly true, but not very welcoming or loving.
Sometimes Friends say: It’s just part of the natural cycle that parents can’t do as much when they have young children. We need to understand that people will sort of disappear from most meeting activities for awhile. They’ll come back when they can. There’s nothing we can do about the fact that parents are busy and tired. It’s true that parents are busy and tired. But there’s a difference between the parent who can’t come to a meeting function because she’s busy and tired and the parent who can’t come to a meeting function because there’s no one to care for her kids. One of those is out of our control; the other is not. It’s a cop-out to say that because we can’t solve every problem in its entirety, we can just sit back and accept the fact that things are hard. It’s like saying, “We can’t stop the rain, so we might as well not worry about the roof.”
So here’s my point – childcare should be assumed. No parent should ever have to ask, before coming to a Quaker function, “What will I do with my kids?” In those rare cases when childcare is not provided, Friends should expect to welcome the presence of young children in the room while the meeting or activity is happening, and we should be prepared for whatever noise or physical disruption that may come with that. Having soft toys, coloring books, snacks, and a few pillows in the room will probably help.
Childcare alone, though, isn’t enough. As I said earlier, parenting is a ministry—a vital and difficult one—and should be supported in the same ways that Friends ideally support other ministries. Parents need regular spiritual care. They need someone looking out for their temporal needs. And they need the opportunity to have time with their peers.
Spiritual care . . . do we provide interactive religious education opportunities for parents so that they may learn and grow? Do we pray for the parents in our meetings? Do we have and use queries about parenting as a ministry?
Temporal needs . . . do we check with parents and ask them how they are doing? Do we provide snacks at meeting events that are healthy and tasty for those who might be coming straight from dropping kids off at afternoon or weekend activities? Do we offer to watch someone’s children for a few hours so that they can take a nap? Do we notice and offer assistance when a parent seems to be struggling?
Time with their peers . . . do we give parents lots of opportunities to speak with other parents, either those currently raising children or those who have done so in the past? Are we open to parents expressing their frustrations? Do we listen, or are we quick to start giving advice? In my own yearly meeting, we’ve started establishing Quaker Family Meet-ups for clusters of several meetings. It’s a simple recipe—worship sharing for parents (who can attend with or without their kids), childcare in another space, and snacks for everybody. We’re also working on a series of evening conversations for parents through video conferencing.
How else can we Friends prioritize the nurture of parents?