How do we support parents in their journey with children? How do we allow way to open in a leading?
Harriet Heath is the founder of the Quaker Parenting Initiative. This small non-profit offers retreats, literature, virtual support groups and a one-on-one presence to the Quaker parents of children of all ages.
I want to begin with something of a love letter, or a letter of appreciation, to Harriet Heath.
Harriet reminds me of a kind pediatrician I had, probably briefly, as a young child. The doctor was like something from classic Sesame Street, with the big bold hair and stiff polyester turtle necks of the era, towering height, chunky jewelry and a swagger — I don’t know how else to describe it — that accompanied her toothy, ready smile. Harriet may not resemble this woman physically (Harriet is petite and conservative in appearance), but the doctor always took me seriously, she talked with me and not to me, and Harriet has the same way about her when I have seen her engage young children. She has the same way about her as she engages with adults too. In the photo above you can see Harriet leading a workshop I attended with other parents while a baby plays under her flip chat…and all manner of things are well. Everyone is being respected.
I remember being about four years old and thinking to myself in my inner language of the time, about the doctor, “now here is an adult who thinks I am a competent, serious person: maybe I am one.” Maybe, through all the struggles I have had with those who would like me to think otherwise, the people all of us encounter and some of us are more vulnerable to, it is this woman’s message and that of other adults like her, that has buoyed me and made me in some way in the same image, that has made me into a community minded adult. People like that doctor, I am convinced, are the building blocks of any real community. When it was time to move from the town where she was my doctor she took from her neck a large pendant of a metal turtle, with a huge blue-green stone of some kind, and re-figured it on the brass chain that had fallen low on her chest so that the chain was now a leash for the turtle. I had always loved that necklace. And I loved her. And she took the time to notice. She gave it to me as a pet. I drug the metal and stone turtle along behind me, it bouncing to a fro, from its back to its stomach to its side, a symbol of childhood competence and my place in the community. I will always remember this seemingly confident, generous, deeply kind adult. I tell Harriet this and she laughs.
The reason why Harriet reminds me of this pediatrician is her kindly and confident belief in the competency of parents and children. “Parents know their children best” she says repeatedly. But this is not an attitude grounded in some kind of impoverished reluctance to engage, which is what I sometimes associate with statements like that, as they are often said with a shrug. No, Harriet believes deeply that the community must support parents and children and a large part of that support is working with parents to help us understand what our values are and to parent from that place. Harriet, like the doctor from my childhood is generous. In Harriet’s world view there are clearly adults and clearly children and clearly a community and we are connected through our explicit and implicit values and, in Quaker community, through our responsibility to one another in love. She calls this her “rebellion against Dr. Spock”. This is because Spock put forward a method, a one size fits all prescription, for how to raise a child and she rejects that wholly.
But it is more than a rebellion. Have you known Friends who rebel so responsibly as to sincerely devote their lives to finding another, wiser, way? What Harriet represents is not a lack of engagement — that immaturity often following the rejection of the politics, religion or other world view of our origin — but a real taking of our place as adults in the lives of children. It just so happens that our taking our place as adults in the lives of children does not take away the personhood of children or the sanctity of the special relationship between parents and children, as the traditional view of responsible adulthood often does. It grows both. In Harriet’s world view we are called to connection and autonomy, to give and receive respect, to make space for The Light. This is what makes her a Quaker minister.
Harriet, a PhD psychologist and Friend, has founded an organization called the Quaker Parenting Initiative (QPI). It has its start in the 1960s-80s and is recently an organization with multiple cohorts of parents, facilitators, a web site and Facebook group, all devoted to supporting Quaker parents in our work. My husband, Erik, and I recently, to our great pleasure, attended the QPI retreat at Woolman Hill, in Massachusetts. Erik is a recent parent type, since when he married me I came with children. The retreat was invaluable.
Here is a brief video of Harriet recalling the history of QPI as she and it developed:
The other thing that strikes me about Harriet’s story, as you maybe noticed in the video clip, is that along the way, as she pioneered, so did the Quaker community. Her yearly meeting supported her and Quaker foundations supported her and Friends came forward and learned how to take up the ministry with her as facilitators. This was a many decades long journey with much discernment and labor from many people. Harriet, the author of two books on Quaker child-rearing and a founder of QPI, has been able to work inside of our community. This is the way of Friends.
How we recognize and support the gifts of our most active ministers? Do we seek out our ministers and give to them as generously of our time, love and material resources as we can to be co-creators of our community?
What are the values that our parenting is based upon as Friends? What is it that we are trying to communicate with our children as we attend both to the mundane and in extraordinary circumstances? Who can we go to for support as we face the challenges and joys of parenting?
How do we show respect for the autonomy of one another while maintaining a strong sense of and commitment to community? How do we show this respect to ourselves, individuals, partners, families, vulnerable Friends, weighty Friends, committees in our meeting and the meeting as a whole? Is that respect and commitment shown differently in different circumstances? What are the values we are communicating to one another as we live in community?
Visit QPI’s website at: http://quakerparenting.org/
QPI’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Quaker-Parenting-Initiative-
Harriet’s recent book about Quaker Parenting can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Quaker-Parenting-Beliefs-Testimonies-Practices
A brief bio of Harriet and her work for the National Parenting Education Network: http://npen.org/about-npen/bios/harriet-heath/
An essay on the recent QPI Retreat from New England Yearly Meeting: https://neym.org/news/quaker-parenting-initiative-begins-new-chapter
The Quaker Parenting Initiative has two virtual parent discussion series scheduled to begin this month, on April 16th and April 18th. Each section meets via Zoom for 2 hours once a week, over 5 weeks. For more information on QPI or to sign up for a QPI group visit the quakerparenting.org web site or contact Harriet Heath by email or call 413-230-6568.