Participation and Respect for Quaker Children: ‘Respecting the Rights of Children & Young People’
Human rights standards apply equally to Quaker children and young people. In considering our Friends who are under the age of eighteen years, it is important to look at all the rights contained in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the rights which I want particularly to raise here are the rights to participation in our religious and cultural life (Articles 14 and 31), to participate in decision-making (Article 12) and, in the following subsection, the right to be protected from harm (Article19). Many improvements to children’s status depend on these particular rights.
The first Yearly Meeting Business Session in which children participated as equals was an Open Session of Regional Meeting Children’s Committees in 1984. This occasion created the opening for the Junior Young Friends to ask that their spoken ministry “be accepted in the light of a gathered meeting and not commented on by adults”. This is a very important reflection on their status. The main outcome was that Australia Yearly Meeting recommended to Regional Meetings that “Queries on children should be read out loud in Regional Meeting at least quarterly to keep the corporate responsibility for the children of the
Regional Meeting before us.” Did any meetings do this for long?
At Australia Yearly meeting 1998, Young Friends and Junior Young Friends explained their expectation of respect and participation, in more detail:
…we would like older Quakers to know that often we feel what we say in Meeting is treated with disrespect. This disrespect either looks like what we have said is inappropriate and is ignored, or that we are gushed over and we feel patronised. …We speak because the Spirit moves us. …We don’t want to stop you from thanking us for our contribution, but we’d like you to address the content rather than the age of the speaker. Some of the older Young Friends no longer feel this disrespect,
however some of us remember it…
The Yearly Meeting responded rather paternalistically by suggesting a system of mentors for Young Friends “to assist them in understanding what is going on” in business sessions. This has not been taken up. However, in a 2000 Summer School Workshop, Young Friends demonstrated some powerful ways to strengthen friendship and trust between younger and older Friends. They reported that the workshop made a “reaffirmation that older F/friends believe in us and want us.” Since that Yearly Meeting, Young Friends have been able to nominate two representatives to any Yearly Meeting committee and any usual requirement about membership of the Society is waived for them.
When adults show they are really willing to listen, children and young people take very seriously the opportunity to state their views and experiences. Sandy Parker (Victoria Regional Meeting) has found that Junior Young Friends epistles “value and affirm the mutuality” of relationships with adults. He goes on to explain some goals:
Participation and partnership …involves working in such a way that the traditional power balance between generations shifts in favour of young people taking up more responsibility, and in consequence developing personally, socially and spiritually…It is not an abdication of responsibility, rather it is a change from a relationship of dependence to one of partnership… It is a way of relating that demands our full acceptance of their autonomy, independence and individuality.
Australia Yearly Meeting re-established the Yearly Meeting Children’s Committee in 1987, to “foster the flow of ideas between Regional Meetings to encourage the more effective involvement of children and young people in Meetings” and to “encourage the formation of links between individual adults and children in the Society.” This Committee created a surge of initiatives between 1987-97: it adopted Penn Friends in 1988 to encourage correspondence between younger and older Friends, released a guide to planning children’s meetings and produced the leaflet we still use on Children and Quaker Meetings. Then it developed guidelines for the children’s programs at Australia Yearly Meetings and restored a Young Friends’ page to the Australian Friend. In 1994, it enabled all children’s meetings to connect meaningfully with the Friends World Committee for Consultation Triennial Gathering by making a ‘Rainbow of Hope’ banner which was displayed at the Triennial (New Mexico, 1994) and then sent to various Friends’ communities around the world. It also prompted Australia Yearly Meeting to put the issue of child participation on the Triennial agenda.
…In 1996, Elise Boulding of Intermountain Yearly Meeting (USA) gave the Backhouse Lecture, Our Children, Our Partners in which she strongly encouraged Friends to respect the views and ideas of the children and young people in our meetings, and to involve them in committees and planning events. Elise Boulding pointed out that an egalitarian relationship with children and young people is much more than nurturing, teaching and providing safety, and she called on all Friends “to involve every child and every teenager in the full range of Quaker activity.”
In 1997, Australia Yearly Meeting included a worship session for ‘Friends of all ages’ and requested that this be included in the programs of future Yearly Meetings but this has not happened. There was a burst of interest in family Meetings for Worship but this faded quickly as individual Friends expressed their dislike of semi-programmed worship. Some Children’s Committees invite adult Friends to participate in “the Children’s Meeting”, but actual participation is close to nil, because people do not want to miss the “big Meeting”. Children’s experience of corporate worship is limited to ten minutes, sometimes less, at the end of ‘big meeting’ and taking part in the shaking of hands. Sometimes Friends are moved to give a summary of earlier ministry with the children in mind and this is often welcomed by older Friends as well as being helpful to children. Some meetings encourage children to speak about their own activity in the notices. But it seems to me that our Meetings, corporately, are not taking children’s need to experience worship and their real spiritual 23 experiences at all seriously, and see nothing in the sharing for ourselves! The plain fact is that we have not been able to sustain the joint adventure which Elise Boulding advocated and which would lead us into rich new spiritual experiences.
Some older Friends see this as a natural cycle, outside our control. When the number of children coming regularly to meeting declines, gatherings of the whole community get confined to special annual ‘family’ events or camps. The consequence of declining child participation in Meetings for Worship and Children’s Meetings is that parents with young children give up attending Quaker meetings as a family. Some turn to the churches for Sunday School and family services which their children find more interesting and more fun. Then it becomes more or less impossible to interest teenagers in Quaker meeting unless they are already friends with others of their own age group who attend.
Meantime Quaker practices are ever-increasingly focussed on serving the spiritual struggles, emotional neediness and social concerns of adults – serious business! Many of our members have no sense of connection with children and do not feel they have anything to share with them. Adults, on the other hand, give no place to fun and community singing in our spiritual practices. This is a spiritual loss to ourselves as well as to children.
It seems to me that some programmed and semi-programmed worship, in which our children participate as equals, would open us to new experiences of wonder, simple truths and joy. Let us give time to joyful, light-hearted ways to worship, for in these we will find healing and renewed humility. Let us also give as much respect to children’s spiritual insights and discoveries as we give to those of older Friends.
Protecting Quaker Children from Harm
Quaker children are vulnerable to many things in their childhood, just as all children are. They are also just as likely to suffer distress and a sense of helplessness over things happening to their friends and peers. The sorts of suffering experienced in childhood have not changed over the centuries. They include physical and mental abuse, sexual exploitation, domestic violence, bullying, separation from, and loss of, loved ones. What has changed is that we understand much better the long-term impact of unhealed childhood trauma and grief. Children are also now more likely to know what is going on around them and to be much better informed about services to help them.
But we cannot and must not leave all this to the general community services. Quaker children need to be protected and supported about their experiences, in the context of our faith and worship. When we do not address these issues, Quakerism has little relevance to the children’s reality. Yet corporately we have turned away from our children and young people because their realities will discomfort our own. It is the same dilemma as that which faced Friends in the 18th century and we are responding with a new sort of quietism. But the response today is entirely different for it excludes children rather than focussing on .
The best source of advice on how to communicate better and make openings between the generations is young people themselves. A ‘Share and Tell’ on the issue of sexual harassment and assault among Friends was held at Australia Yearly Meeting 1998. This was attended by sixteen Friends, most of whom knew of instances of harassment either within Australia Yearly Meeting or involving Friends. A Young Friend reported that Young Friends’ camp 1998 was free of drugs and sexual activity. However, she would have appreciated some preparation for what she experienced at her first Young Friends’ camp…
The worst thing about private violence and abuse is the damage it does to the victim’s and the perpetrator’s ability to feel and listen to the Spirit within. This injury is far above and beyond any physical damage. Interpersonal violence is an attack on God’s presence. Early Friends rejected violence because of their sacred duty to greet and nurture that of God in everyone. Today, with all our knowledge and our reasons for caution, we can and, I believe, must ask the Spirit for guidance, in both our worship and our social witness, on how to care for those who are suffering, or have suffered, violence and sexual exploitation.
from AYM website Quakersaustralia.info – under publications Backhouse Lectures