Quaker children are angels. Sometimes.

I've been working with the junior high class at the big local meeting for a few months now, and it was recently time to decide whether or not to come back and do it again for another trimester.

This week, we had combined the high-schoolers, the junior high and the 3-5th graders to work on the Christmas pageant. It was chaos, but it was a loving chaos. The high-schoolers were patient with the little ones, even when they painted over things they should have painted around. There was affectionate horsing around between kids who were related and kids who weren't. A teenager pulled up to the piano and played. Another pulled up some folding chairs and took a nap. But when it was time to wrap things up, the backdrop, complete with a peace-sign wearing cobra, unicorn, and spitting llama, was carefully taken downstairs to dry and the kids set the room up for the potluck without complaint. Okay, so some of my junior high kids complained a little that I woke the sleeping teenager up gently instead to letting them pull the chair out from under his head, but mostly they were really good. Wild, unruly, the-camel's-teeth-don't-really-need-to-be-bloody angels (no-really-I'm-serious-do-not-paint-blood-on-the-camel's-teeth).

There are ways in which Quaker kids are special. You can get 7th graders to talk about their doubts about God. You can tell a teenager to coordinate twenty younger kids in a painting project and not have anyone throw a tantrum. There's something about they way that we treat our kids that makes them more responsible than other kids their age. Sometimes.

Sometimes, they're more reluctant to quietly accept orders from adults. They're prone to making their own decisions about sex and drugs and can really make a mess out of things that way. They tend to be less motivated and fairly indecisive when it comes to careers. When you raise children to value simplicity and an inner spiritual life, they tend to be uncommitted to the labor market. Quaker boys seem especially unmotivated to say, finish college, do their own laundry, stop smoking pot and get a real job.

I remember teaching my younger brothers the story of Jonah and the whale. My youngest brother amused himself for quite some time by making vomiting noises, but in between the fits of giggles, we were able to talk about the story on a deeper level than the question-and-answer, were-you-really-paying-attention regurgitation that most kids expect to have to do when talking to grownups.

When I was working with a group of Methodist children, they were much calmer. They sat down when and where I asked them to, but could not wrap their minds around the open-ended questions I would ask them about the parables I was teaching them. I would get blank stares if I asked for their opinions, or for how the story might be applicable to their lives.

One of my friends, who got kicked out of Catholic Sunday school for asking too many questions, was taken aback when I was telling her about the lesson I lead where we talked about what the kids thought about god (the answer: reincarnation, probably real; God, probably not real). When it comes to matters of faith, I'm of the opinion that giving kids the ability to think about what they believe and learning about what other people believe gives them the opportunity to stay open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit a while longer than the didactic methods favored by other Christian denominations. Does this mean that we end up with some non-theists who believe in reincarnation and care more about the environment than the Spirit? Sure. But we don't end up with a large number of young adults who hate organized religion. I'd like to believe that this leaves them more open to the movement of the Spirit within as they grow older. I believe that we are drawn into the Community of Believers in God's time and the best way be can prepare our children for that is to keep them open to the ideas that God might exist and have a plan for them.

One of the things that I value most about my Quaker education was that I got to talk, really talk, to a number of adults about their faith and their faith in practice. Taking the time to be one of those grownups for a new generation of young Quakers is important to me. It's not a strong leading, it's not a long term commitment. It's something that I can do to give back to a Society which has given so much to me.

While I often come home from First Day School exhausted and mumbling incoherently about heathens, I've decided to go ahead and teach the junior high class again next semester. The curriculum, as set by the Meeting, covers the parables of Jesus next trimester and I'm looking forward to introducing them to the back half of the Bible. Maybe I'll even be able to share enough of my faith that they'll be able to realize someday that Evangelical and Christian aren't mutually inclusive terms. I could tell them that, of course, but they wouldn't listen. They're Quaker kids and they'll need to figure it out for themselves in their own time.

Yes, you have have snack now.

Elizabeth Bathurst


RichardM said...

Very nice. (Though there are a couple of typos you might want to edit out.)

I'm a bit more concerned by the somewhat underdeveloped sense of individual responsibility I see in some Quaker kids. The emphasis on social responsibility--peace, justice, equality etc.--sometimes gets so much emphasis that more "old-fashioned" values like working hard, paying your bills, self-control and delaying gratification get lost. And one inevitably makes a mess of things--and hurts others as well as yourself--when these virtues go undeveloped. Of course Methodists and other more traditional Christians do a bit better in developing these old-fashioned virtues. Except, when they fail they fail spectacularly. A Baptist kid who rejects self-control, and this is no small number of them, winds up being quite a loose cannon.

Anonymous said...

You write like your Daddy!!!!!
a very sincere complement!!!!

Lurking luddite

Johan said...

Did you really mean to say, "Maybe I'll even be able to share enough of my faith that they'll be able to realize someday that Evangelical and Christian aren't mutually inclusive terms"? I could guess, but I'd rather check directly with you.

Thanks as always for good thinking!


Elizabeth Bathurst said...


I did mean to say that "Evangelical and Christian aren't mutually inclusive terms." Sometimes Evangelical Christians will claim that you aren't really a Christian if you aren't evangelical and the media tends to represent a sort of monolithic evangelical Christan, but it simply isn't true. It is possible to love Christ and try to live a Christian life without judging others for their sins and talking about hell. There's only so many times one can be accosted by Evangelical Christians without developing a serious distaste for their message. Much in the way that Islam is suffering from the actions of it's militant extremists, Christianity suffers the most, not from outward attacks, but from a natural reaction to seeing ill behavior and hypocrisy in those who make a big deal out of their religious identity. I am a Christian. I am not Evangelical. Therefore the terms are not mutually inclusive. Or mutually exclusive for that matter, but no one would really try to make that argument, would they?

Of course I write similarly to the man who taught me how. Now if only we could get the little raccoon to write, we'd be in business.

I think the making the distinction between social and personal responsibility is a good point. There's so much finger-pointing about how the rest of you aren't doing enough for my pet cause that loving-kindness, civility, and self-control can fall by the wayside. A good thing for us grown-ups to think about as well. You gotta know more than the dog.


Paul Carpenter said...

I'm not convinced that there's so much of a difference between Quaker kids and any other kids. I know what you mean, it's great that Quaker kids can talk about God or whatever, but I think the bad side is more reflective of this generation in general than Quaker kids specifically and the good side isn't exclusive Quaker kids either.

(for the record, this week I have done laundry, gone to lectures and not smoked any pot)

Anonymous said...

I loved reading this post. I have felt the same tenderness you express, but towards a different large meeting that tends to be more liberal and less disciplined than I might choose. I am glad that you will be teaching again and perhaps I will see you there again before too long. In Peace, Andrew

Elizabeth Bathurst said...


I have had a fair amount of contact with Quaker children as a child, as a teenager and as a young adult across three of the four major branches of the Society here in the States. My work with children both Quaker and non-Quaker is also not unsubstantial, although I have chosen not to make it my life's work. I do best when I can connect with people as individuals, something that I struggle with horribly when standing in front of too many faces all at once.

When I meet a Young Adult Friend, it is often clear to me before too long whether or not they were raised Quaker. (I make no assertion here that one makes a better Quaker than the other.) By the time a Friend is middle-aged, however, the distinction is generally lost to me. In my experience, the practice of raising a Quaker child is quite different. Yes, we are products of the age in which we live and of our generation. But we are also products of a distinctive culture, and we are flavored by that, some more than others. Friends have always been a peculiar people, and while our peculiarities may no longer be seen in our silly clothes heard in our silly speech, there are things which remain which set us apart from the World. Some are customs, traditions and patterns; stronger here and weaker there. These are only consequential as we reflect on how well they serve us. Some, and these are the far more important things, are the reflections of the Spirit as It works through us. Those moments when Quaker children are at their most angelic are the moments when they, whether they realize it or not, are minding the Light, just as we have tried to teach them to do.

And for the record, I've never smoked pot, though I'm hard pressed to think of someone else my age I know who hasn't. And I can honestly say that none of my Quaker friends has ever pressured me to try it, though many of my non-Quaker friends did. And mostly, my friends have stopped using it and other more harmful substances, and tend to express an admiration for my steadfastness in the matter.

Thanks. I look forward to seeing you again soon. A friendly face from back home can be such a comfort.


Nate Swift said...

Thank you for clarifying Johan's question. For anyone still confused the circle illustration should clear it up entirely: it would be like two overlapping circles, so that some of both evangelical and Christian would share space, but some of each would be outside the other circle. The extent of overlap is an interesting speculation too. Thank you for the post. I think, perhaps I need to be a little more active in questioning as I sit in on HS classes.
In his Love,

Robin M. said...

The Quaker mother of a Quaker young adult on the West Coast was recently saying much the same thing about Quaker boys. A local free weekly then had a cover story about the current mismatch between what they called "striver girls" and "slacker boys."

I wonder if it is related to the point we're at in postmodern child rearing, as a north american culture but especially among Friends. Feminism has helped young women and their parents to define the options for women in a much more positive light than in previous generations.

So far, we've done a good job of deconstructing masculine stereotypes without helping our young men construct a new ideal of what manhood should involve. Of course, there are exceptions, there are young men who are finding their way into responsible adulthood, but I think there is a gap right now.

I'm just starting to think about this in a theoretical way and in a practical mother-of-two-little-boys kind of way.

Elizabeth Bathurst said...

Once, my family was having pancakes and one of my parents (I don't remember which one) starting talking about how birth order is like pancakes. The first one comes out kind of muddled, because your pan wasn't hot enough, or the batter was too thick or whatever. You make some corrections and the next ones come out alright. And the last pancake is always a little funny looking because you sort of ran out of batter, or rushed it because you were ready to eat.

There are some striking differences in the way that I was raised in comparison to my brothers. My parents were ten years older (and somewhat wiser, I suppose) when they started over with my brothers. Sometimes it's hard for me to tell what differences were based on my family's financial situation, which were on gender, which were on the temperament of the individual child and which were on the "hey, that didn't work so well with the first pancake, let's try something a little different this time." Lately, at least, they been pretty pleased with how the first pancake turned out so they must not have made too many uncorrectable mistakes. We'll have to wait and see how the male pancakes turn out.

Joanna said...

I’m still struggling to understand the Quaker youth culture. I wasn’t raised Quaker; my mother was raised Baptist, and my brother and I went with her to Lutheran and Methodist churches until the year I turned sixteen, when we read John Woolman’s journal in the course of homeschooling and decided we had to find the Quakers. At first I remember being relieved that the adults at Meeting treated me as a person, not a Teenager--they didn’t talk slang to me, they didn’t look scared of me, and they included me readily in discussions of death,peace, Bible, ecology, economics, prayer... They encouraged the questions which my mother had encouraged at home, but which had usually been met in Sunday School with ‘We’re not talking about that.” Without their listening,m their stories, their queries, and the experience of gathered worship with them, I might never have found my way to the Catholic Worker farm where I’ve been called for the last 7 years. Being a teenager among Quaker adults in my Monthly Meeting was great.
I joined too late to be involved in Young Friends culture, and I tended to find the Young Adult Friends groups in various places frustrating--there seemed to be a lack of focus, of shared spiritual practice, of discipline. At larger Quaker gatherings I sometimes fail ed to connect at all with people of my age--at one gathering I was told that they usually met at night at bars and slept during the day-- and caught criticism (from older adults) for spending too much time with older people. And when we’ve been partly responsible for Quaker youth events I have found this a bit discouraging.
It seems to me that sometimes Quaker youth culture’s open-mindedness can be rather one-sided. It’s acceptable for youth to believe in reincarnation and not God; however, I often hear evangelical Christians described by Quakers, especially youth and youth workers, with a disgust that would probably be daunting to a young person who felt called in that direction. I have heard kids who were sexually active or using drugs commended for making their own decisions, and abstinence criticized sharply as a sign of fundamentalism, neurosis or immaturity.
‘ When you raise children to value simplicity and an inner spiritual life, they tend to be uncommitted to the labor market.’ sounds quite plausible--but I would think that simplicity would involve doing one’s own laundry, and some share of the other work required to sustain oneself, and not using drugs, and I would hope that spiritual life would lead into a desire to be of service in a practical, day-to-day way. And sometimes that doesn’t seem to happen...Quaker young people, like others, seem caught in our culture’s emphasis on consumption, freedom from responsibility and ‘self-actualization’, rather than committed work, love and apiritual practice.
I think it’s possible to combine open-mindednes and discipline, and that Quaker practice offers great tools for doing this. I just wonder if we get so caught up in not being fundamentalist that we lose sight of the other half of the balance.
Sorry this was so long. Feel free to cut it out. Thanks very much for the post.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post, Friend Elizabeth. I can agree with much of what you say regarding the fact that Quaker kids are "different." As one who was "raised Quaker" by a Jew and a Baptist who became convinced Friends after I was born, I always felt somewhat "apart" from my peers at school, but was very comfortable at Quaker youth conferences and with the group of similarly aged girls at my meeting (most of the Quaker boys were still basically boys, and therefore pretty icky).

Now, my husband and I are the Quaker parents to two girls, and I see a great deal of the same things that made me feel "different" happening to my kids. In school, they talk more comfortably with the adults than with the kids. In meeting, they basically own the place, and exhibit a sense of comfort and authority that many their age do not. I've started telling their teachers during conferences that being a Quaker kid is going to make them a bit "different" from the average kid, not because I'm seeking to make them stand out, but because I'm trying to protect them from some of the alienation I felt (I could never really understand why I felt so different). Time will tell whether they buy it, or whether they completely reject everything I've tried to do when they are older!

Anyway, thanks for this post.

Mia (Guilford '88)

Elizabeth Bathurst said...


I don't mind long comments; I posted yours in full.

I don't know what to make of the adults who are so determined to get us young people to hang out with each other. Sometimes they are thinking about the next generation of little Quaker angels that we are expected to produce. Sometimes they are worried that if we don't make friends our own age we'll get lonely and leave for another religious group with better young adult/teen programming. Sometimes, maybe, they just want to hang out with the other gray-haired Quakers and complain about those young people and their silly clothes/hair/music. Maybe they just don't want to waste time getting to know a young person who isn't going to stick around for one reason or another. I don't know.

Within my yearly meeting, I've been encouraged on occasion to make the Quaker babies. Mostly though, when I'm being encouraged to do age-specific activities, it's someone a bit older than I am trying to get me to take some sort of leadership role in organizing people my age -- sometimes to try to get some of my good quaker kid grease to rub off on their own wayward offspring.

While I enjoy the friendships that I began within the context of Quaker Youth culture, I have found that my spiritual development was far more affected by my interactions with Quaker adults. After all, they've been around longer, seen more, had more time to figure things out. Knowing that Alfred was refusing to take the painkillers that might have made his last months more comfortable because he didn't want to become addicted to them was the best anti-drug message I ever received (and he never mentioned it to me). Walking down to the branch with Dixie to see what the EPA was doing to the land now that David had died and the cows had been sold was one of the best lessons in "letting go and letting God" I've ever seen. The faith in practice of my elders has done far more for my spiritual development than getting to hang out with other Quaker kids. Which is part of the reason that I am feeling pretty good about being a grownup who is willing to spend a fair amount of time with some Quaker kids who are still figuring things out.


I never had a problem with boys being icky, at least not until I starting living with them. If there is one thing I would like Quaker parents to teach their sons it is the importance of regularly cleaning the bathroom.

But I do remember feeling that alienation as a Quaker kid who only had contact with other Quaker kids my age a couple of times a year. I was so convinced that when I got to Guilford that it was going to be so awesome. Turns out I was just weird and not really on the same page with most of my peers, even when they too had been raised Quaker. Then again, they weren't Conservative Friends. I left Guilford even more staunchly conservative than I went in, which I have to say I think is a very good thing. Even if it means that I don't get to be part of the pack.


Friendly Mama said...

You said, "I believe that we are drawn into the Community of Believers in God's time and the best way be can prepare our children for that is to keep them open to the ideas that God might exist and have a plan for them." This is what I believe, too and you expressed it beautifully!

I've written about my negative experiences with First Day School Quaker youth (and liberal homeschooling youth) in this blog:

and my very positive experience at a Quaker teen retreat here: http://friendlymama.blogspot.com/2007/09/teen-retreat.html

(sorry, I don't know how to create links in this format)

Thank you for sharing your experiences and observations. It's interesting to me, as the mother of 3 sons, whom I am raising in Friends Meeting, and as someone who has taught First Day School to hear the impressions of others who are spending time with Quaker kids.
Mary Linda

Julie said...

Just a few thoughts on some things you mentioned in your post...

"But we don't end up with a large number of young adults who hate organized religion."

Not necessarily so. I have often seen this loathing of "organized religion" passed on by [Liberal] Quaker parents (usually with their own baggage) to their children. It becomes a secondhand loathing, and I must admit I think it is odd.

In addition, [Liberal] Quakers, like other loosey-goosey (did I spell that right?) quasi-denominations that are practically allergic to imparting any sort of doctrine to their children, DO NOT RETAIN their children as they grow older. In fact, Liberal Quakers are more likely to lose their kids than keep them. (Unless of course you count keeping kids on membership rolls even though they never ever darken the doorway of a meeting as retention, which many meetings do). Statistics bear this out. It is my understanding that, generally speaking, the more inculcation that happens, the more likely a church body is to retain its youth. (By a "strict" church I mean one that does not hesitate to impart truth and has high expectations of personal accountability.)

"giving kids the ability to think about what they believe and learning about what other people believe gives them the opportunity to stay open to the leadings of the Holy Spirit a while longer"

It has been my experience that [Liberal] Quaker meetings do not tend to speak of the "Holy Spirit," but only of "the Spirit," detaching It from the Third Person of the Holy Trinity and sort of secularizing It. Almost as in, "the human spirit" or a "spirit of goodness." That kind of thing. And certainly talk of God or even of "the Spirit" is uncommonly spoken of to kids of any age, even in the vaguest sense. So if God-talk isn't even happening, I don't see how anybody can "stay open to the...Holy Spirit," a Holy Spirit most Q kids don't even have the most basic understanding of. Glad to hear your meeting is different, but I haven't found much God-talk with kids in any meeting I've ever been to.

One last thought in relation to the above quote: Just because you belong to a Christian Church that believes in imparting doctrine does NOT mean:

A. Kids are going to wind up hating "organized religion" as they grow older.
B. You do not think long and hard about what you are taught to believe...just the contrary. The whole point of learning doctrine is *TO* think about what you believe.
C. You are not open to the Holy Spirit. Again, just the contrary. The whole point of learning doctrine is to learn about God and how He works. How can you recognize God working in your life if you know absolutely nothing about Him?

You may find that you are surprised by what the kids your teaching DO listen to. And maybe they won't appear to be listening, and will appear to blow you off, but later on down the road something will have stuck in their mind. I myself didn't realize all that had stuck with me from growing up, when I thought I wasn't paying much attention.

Anecdotally, I heard a story recently about someone who was on the brink of committing suicide when he heard a little voice inside of his head from second grade. It was this little nun he had in Catholic school who had taught them that suicide was a sin...that we are never, ever to take our own lives. He didn't even think he was even listening way back then. Remembering that important truth saved this man's life. So go ahead and speak God's Truth. They just might be listening.

(For transparency sake, I'm traditional Catholic but spent 11 years among Liberal Quakers, and am married to one.)

Elizabeth Bathurst said...

When I say that the young people don't end up hating organized religion I am speaking from my own experience. Many of the people that I know who have left the Catholic Church in particular, but more structured Christian denominations as well come out vehemently hating the church they grew up in. They keep some too, and some end up at another church, but many leave in a rage. Sure we Quakers lose a lot of kids, more than I'm comfortable with, but we rarely lose them in rage. We lose them in disinterest.

Although my kids attend a very liberal meeting where God-talk isn't all that common, I use far more specific words when I talk about God. But the Holy Spirit is a powerful thing, capable of moving people before they are able to put God-words on it. At least that has been my own personal experience. It took me a long while to realize that that voice, that still small voice that was always with me was something sacred, because it had always been with me. I knew it was special and separate from me and important, but being able to call it the Light of Christ came much, much later. The words are far less important than the experience.

I'm going to have to respectfully disagree with your interpretation of how doctrine is taught. In every experience I've had where someone was trying to teach me their doctrine in Sunday Schools and what not, I was always asked to blindly accept and memorize what someone else thought. My own mother was once punished by the nuns for coloring Mary's veil the wrong shade of blue.

I have however never intended to imply that only Quakers can experience the Holy Spirit. I think that the Spirit works in us all. I also don't think that one needs to buy into a specific theology to experience the Spirit, because theology is just the words we use to try and describe the Truth. I think that only a hardening of ones heart is the only way one can really reject the Holy Spirit. The kind of rage that ex-Catholics often have towards the Church is surely a hardening of the heart. Quaker children rarely walk away with that hardening, even when they walk away atheists.