31 May 2007

Children in Meeting

My 7-year-old has recently decided to come into worship with me instead of going to First Day school. Last week, his 11-year-old brother (who has occasionally joined us in worship) also sat in worship with us.

My boys are half to a third of the First Day school class. I let the teacher know that they were going to join us in Meeting. I felt a bit bad about taking her students away from her, but I also want my children to experience worship for themselves. Worship, after all, is central to the experience of being a Quaker.

I feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea of First Day school (and also with teen programs that meet during worship). Our culture is always pushing children off to one side instead of letting them participate fully in community life. Children are warehoused in schools and kids' programs with other children their age while the adult world gets on with the business of living.

Throughout most of human history (and, if the behavior of our ape cousins is anything to go by, all of our primate history before that), children have spent most of their time in the mixed-age world of family and community. Only in the last century have children been removed from the larger community and sent to spend most of their time in groups of their age mates.

I don't think this is a good way to raise children. Children need relationships with people of all ages. They need to have contact with babies, with children of different ages, and with adults of all ages. Children can't easily learn the social skills they need from a bunch of children their own age; they need older children and adults to help bring them along.

The flip side of this is that children view the adult world as alien. Having been excluded from most of adult life, they don't apply themselves to learning what adults do. They apply themselves to learning how to get around schools, playgrounds, sport teams, and the other activities they are asked to do.

So, when a Meeting raises its children in First Day schools and teen programs, we're not bringing them into the adult Meeting community. We're preparing a place for children to be while their parents do boring adult stuff.

There's a need for this place, especially for very young children. Forcing children to sit through worship will probably not make kids want to grow up to be adult Quakers. Parents need to know that their children are safe during worship.

There are also other ways for children to connect to the Meeting community. Meeting activities for all ages allow kids to make friends with adults in Meeting. When Friends visit one another's homes, children have the opportunity to connect with people in a deeper way.

Children can also get a taste of worship when their First Day school class joins the adults for the first or last part of worship. First Day school activities and children's programs at Meeting retreats and quarterly and yearly meetings can also help them learn about what the adults do.

Still, I think that we could devote more thought to our children's spiritual development and on how to bring them into our Meetings.

My own inner guidance on this (and, where my children are concerned, my inner guide can be loud and insistent) is to encourage my children in every step that brings them deeper into Meeting. If my 7-year-old wants to sit in worship with me, my inner guide tells me to focus on the opportunity to parent him through Meeting. Yes, my own worship probably won't be as deep if I'm parenting an active boy at the same time. My son, however, will be gaining valuable early experience of worship. He'll start to get a sense of what Friends do in silence, and of the sorts of issues that are important to adult Friends.

It's difficult to both create a separate space for children and still welcome them into adult spaces. In my heart, I hold the truth that our children grow up to be adults, and that they need to explore the adult world as they are ready to do so. The things that adults do are neither so complicated nor so boring that children cannot experience them in small doses.


Liz Opp said...


I have come across similar concerns and sentiments especially among Conservative Friends. The topic is becoming more relevant to the worship group I'm in as well, as the children among us grow older--meaning, older than 2 years old!

I also wish to say that as a childless adult, having the kids be a part of greeting, worship, and fellowship has been highly significant for me too. I experience an inward certainty that the foundation of our relationship is being formed right here, right now, and that I am growing alongside the youngest of Friends among us.

When they are in their pre-teens and teens, and I am in my mid-to-late 50s, we will not fear one another; we will simply know one another in that which is eternal.

Thankfully, there are still opportunities for the adults to interact directly with the children in the worship group, and it has been those opportunities that have helped me grow out of my "infant phobia" that I used to have!

I still am not ready to change dirty, stinky diapers, but I've become willing to engage in pre-verbal babbling and making eye contact with the youngest of the bunch... something I didn't used to do.

Liz Opp, The Good Raised Up

forrest said...

Very cogent & true. I hope more parents will do this.

What I don't like to see is children forced to sit in meeting without realizing why they would want to--Even a ten minute token period was too much for one family I know, because the kids felt it only as pointless oppression. (This family also took in a homeless woman, a wonderful act except they had precise expectations of how she was going to "get better" by their standards. Oy, were they sorry! I've been thinking about that sort of human influence lately, put a few thoughts about it at A Quaker Watering Hole where you, too, may want to jump in?)

QuakerK said...


Our meeting has recently wrestled with this. We've moved the childrens' attendance in meeting for worship from the beginning to the end of meeting for worship, in the hopes that they can join in the worship of a more centered meeting, and therefore better understand what Quaker worship is about. We also used a first day school curriculum for the first few weeks which was about meeting for worship. It's worked OK, though I'm not sure if my kids (ages 4 and 7) view meeting for worship has an enlightening time yet.

Another possibility is to have young people on committees. We have one of our teens on the religious education committee, and another on the peace and social concerns committee.



Anna said...

this is a good post, on a subject I too am concerned with. As a child growing up in a Quaker Meeting I never liked First Day school and was the first of my siblings to make the decision the sit in worship.
My feelings on the subject are this; I think First Day school can be important since too many Friends, born into Meetings, grow to adulthood without a good understanding of Quakerism's history, practice, or theology. I also understand how important it is for young Friends in small Meetings, who feel isolated from the larger community, to meet and bond with members of their own age group.
On the other hand Quakerism has a tendency to segregate by age much more then we should. In my meeting children go to First Day school until they leave for college. Some Quarterly and Yearly Meetings have "Youth Meeting for Business" that meets at the same time as the "Adult Meeting Business" effectively excluding the youth from attending business meeting.

I think we need to be careful. We walk a fine line here and hope we don't loose because of it.

Peace and Joy,

Honey said...

We have a children's meeting every month. Children from as young as two up to sixteen attend. No one would ever stop the children from joning the adults meeting, but you are right they are never specifically invited. Except at the end, when we take the children into the circle and sit on the floor, each young child rushes to the knees of their parent and we become part of a very centered meeting. We hold an unprogrammed meeting, silence for one hour is broken by ministry. The children feel on rare occassions get to witness such ministry and it is very powerful. I believe they all yearn to be part of the bigger meeting but I feel it is something only they with perhaps guidance from their parents can decide when the time is right. Your boys sound marvellous. How did they do, and what did they say afterwards?