The school year is about to begin. Parents and school districts are making decisions about what is best for children in the midst of a pandemic, anxiously weighing health risks against social and mental health benefits, deciding between distance learning and in-person, socially distanced learning. We are facing these same kinds of decisions in our Quaker meetings, as we yearn for social connection and consider our options. As we consider our adult needs and capacities, let’s also remember to ask ourselves: What are we doing to stay connected with our Quaker children and families? How are we attentive to their spiritual needs?
I suggest we begin by taking a look at our adult obligations to provide spiritual nurture for children, and then we can think about practical ways to apply those principles in our current environment. Though some meetings may be able to offer robust religious education programs for children and youth, I am happy to report that there are some relatively simple options available to all of us and that we can start small.
Pacific Yearly Meeting’s Faith and Practice urges us to take responsibility for the spiritual care of our children. We are reminded that children come as blessings to our community, and that they bring special spiritual gifts, such as wonder, play, and resiliency. We are to be attentive to the needs of children and families, listening with deep respect and making sure that they know that they have a valuable place in the meeting community. All adults should find ways to be involved in the lives of children and families. We are advised to “recognize and honor the Divine Light within children and treat them with the dignity and respect that is due to all people.”
One thing to keep in mind is that children come to meeting with the same needs as adults. They want to be with people who love them and whom they love. They want to have fun. They have a sense of wonder and a yearning to nurture it. They want to be known, acknowledged, and seen. They want to wrestle with the big questions of life. They want to be in an environment where it is safe to explore, to have deep feelings, and to say what they think. They want to be valued. When they are young, it is our duty as adults to encourage their growth, to ask questions and provide support. As they get older, youth will be more vocal about their curiosity around our adult feelings, values, and traditions.
When we were able to meet together in person, we saw the children when they came to meeting; we heard First Day School reports; we shared snacks and social time together. We may have worked together on projects, fundraisers for Friends organizations, meals for the homeless, attended meeting retreats, or participated in social justice demonstrations. All of these occasions provided us with opportunities to have conversations with children, listening to their ideas and sharing our own values and commitments. It is through these sorts of informal interactions that children understand that they are valued participants in the meeting.
We know that children pick up what we value, how we behave, and how we make choices. We hear from Friends who were raised in our yearly meeting that they learned about Quaker values and decision-making processes just by being present at the committee meetings, meeting events, and fellowship gatherings that their parents attended. One Friend has observed that it’s by attending the Memorial Meeting for Worship at Annual Session that our children learn how to be Quakers. Our lives, our shared and offered experiences, do speak to our children.
The good news is that – with some effort – we can continue these informal exchanges, even when we can’t meet in person. We can continue to be connected with children and families in our meetings by calling, sending cards and letters, creating focused online gatherings, and hosting socially-distanced in-person gatherings. As we do these things, we can pay attention to the passions and interests of our children, taking them seriously. We can make space for them to speak and then listen with the same attention that we would give adults who tell us what is happening in their lives or are in discernment about what to do next. We can try to see them clearly, to name and appreciate their gifts, to acknowledge their connection with Spirit, and to help them gain the vocabulary to express what is happening in their spiritual lives. We can share our own spiritual lives. As we develop trusting relationships with our young people, they may ask us for our support or guidance.
These trusting relationships outside the family circle are always important, but maybe even more so now, when interactions outside of the home are so reduced. Children always need adults other than their parents to talk to. I have been privileged to work with children and youth for many years, and have observed over and over again the sense of relief that our young people feel when they gather together with other Quaker youth and caring adults. Their lives are stressful, they are under a lot of pressure to conform to a different set of values when they are at school (particularly high school), and there is a palpable sense of feeling understood and accepted when they come together as Friends.
Most of us who work with Quaker children and youth feel a strong need to pass on our Quaker values to our children, along with some knowledge of our historical and religious foundations, our practices, and our commitment to be in community with one another as we search for God’s guidance.
Although our meetings generally try to provide frameworks for the active ongoing participation of children and families in our meetings, many meetings struggle to create consistent programs for various age groups and wildly varying attendance. Pacific Yearly Meeting’s State of the Meeting reports over the past several years indicate that, although the number of families with children is increasing in a few of our meetings, most of our meetings are aging and are experiencing a decline in the number of young people. Meetings often lack the critical mass of children needed to hold a thriving children’s program.
So, what can meetings do to reach out to families and children? Since we are in a new era of meeting remotely, and we have the technology to gather across great distances, we have an opportunity to try things that are new and different.
Here’s a list of ideas – both serious ones and lighter ones. This list is just a start, and I invite you to join the conversation and share your own ideas on Western Friend’s conversation page here: https://westernfriend.discussion.community/
New visitors often appear at Quaker meetings during times of social turmoil and anxiety. In this digital world, people find us through our websites and Facebook pages. But I have studied many of these pages and have found very few of them are clearly welcoming. Words like “welcome” and “we invite you” are great to include on your meeting’s home page. Clear and current information about your meeting’s children’s program is essential.
These can be socially distanced events outside, like nature walks and bike rides, or online events such as game nights, story-telling, and potlucks (bring your own).
PacYM has begun hosting meetings monthly for parents to provide each other mutual support. Find details online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/ideas-supporting-quaker-children-and-families
Find details online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/ideas-supporting-quaker-children-and-families
Westchester Monthly Meeting (PhYM), for example, hosts children’s meetings with a short lesson during the half hour before general worship. Lesson materials can carry over into worship if children decide to stay.
Some grandparents are already reading with grandchildren over Zoom. Why not read to children from the meeting?
Take daily self-portraits showing the “theme for each day,” then choose one to share during introductions the following First Day. Find details online at: https://westernfriend.org/media/ideas-supporting-quaker-children-and-families
Select a children’s film with a theme that involves a big topic (racism, gender identity, bullying, death, divorce, moral dilemma, etc.) and set up a time on your Zoom account for participants to watch and discuss. If you are able, host a film outside with a projector. Netflix also has a watch party feature that allows others to watch a film together. Bring your own popcorn!
Grass Valley Friends Meeting, for example, has Family Worship every fifth Sunday. The first 20 minutes included a story or two, followed by 20 minutes of singing, and 20 minutes of silent worship.
Since March, PacYM has hosted lightly programmed Zoom hangout sessions that take place monthly with teens and a Friendly Responsible Adult Presence.
Orange Grove and Santa Cruz Meetings, for example, have socially distanced garden projects underway. Other Friends have held intergenerational projects to harvest tree fruits, which they donate to people in need.
Send a book to each child from the meeting. Sign it and let them know you are thinking about them.
This could be a virtual tea or ice cream social, everyone bringing their own treats, and centering on the children. It could be a time to acknowledge milestones.
Kits of materials supporting First Day School lessons can be sent out to children. Examples include coloring pages and cut-out figures for enacting lesson scenes.
An experienced quilter distributes squares and instructions to all participants, who decorate the squares. The quilter collects the finished squares and binds them together into a quilt, which the meeting auctions off. Children decide which organization will benefit from the proceeds.
We have been sheltering in place for over five months. It’s pretty clear we won’t be “going back to normal” soon. So, Let’s look for and embrace new ways to gather and to bring new life to our meetings and our children’s programs. ~~~
Barbara Babin is a member of Redwood Forest Friends Meeting in Santa Rosa, CA. She is a retired elementary school teacher and principal, and has been involved in Monthly, Quarterly, and Yearly Meeting children and teen programs for thirty-five years. She currently serves on PacYM’s Youth Programs Coordinating Committee.