Volume 5 Number 3
by Kent Annan
“The figure at the top expresses joy and freedom that is every child’s right. The Year of the Child theme beneath it supports [the child], allows it to see farther and reach higher, rising above any risks and dangers that may be present. The star connotes Christ’s nativity. The child is also a ‘star person’….”
The Presbyterian Church (USA)’s logo for its Year of the Child (July 2000–May 2001), described above, illustrates why Princeton Seminary’s Center of Continuing Education, in cooperation with Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey, sponsored a conference in March titled “Whoever Welcomes This Child: Advocacy for Children in the Church and World,” which was supported in part by a grant from the Griffith Theological Research Foundation at Columbia Theological Seminary.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, fellow at the Center for the Study of Values in Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, founder and chair of the National Parenting Association, and mother of four (ages 3, 16, 20, and 23), kicked off the event with a keynote address to approximately sixty people that challenged the way American society cares for its parents—and thereby its children. The title of her most recent book, The War against Parents, coauthored with Cornel West, makes her take on the current climate clear.
What war? Hewlett began her lecture showing slides of art done by children—art that shows how hard many find childhood today. She then vividly recounted the stories of parents struggling to get by. Ranging from bad to horrific, she told of how families are squeezed by the pressures of violence in the culture, by the time crunch (“there are now six million American families where two adults hold four jobs to keep the show on the road”), by the lack of money, by the lack of special seating on buses and subways for pregnant women or parents with small children, etc. Parents, who have a difficult role under the best of circumstances, feel like they are under attack from all sides. “It’s not surprising that parents are incredibly demoralized in America today,” she says. “They feel beset by the economy, by government, and by that box sitting in their living room which, after all, is informing the values of their children.
“So the time is right to forge a collaboration between a parent’s movement and religion,” says Hewlett, who attends a Unitarian church.
She thinks churches can offer two crucial elements to this parenting movement that seeks to improve the conditions of parents throughout the country: spiritual language and involvement in social activism. “[Parents] need a way of enriching the meaning of the task at hand because it’s so very hard to be a good parent in this market-driven society,” she says of this task that, “to do well,” costs parents an average of seventeen hours per week and $250,000 by the time a child reaches age eighteen. Churches understand “the joy and significance of developing a human soul”; parents need this encouragement and the parenting movement needs this “spiritual heft.” Churches can also help profoundly by motivating their many members to social activism on behalf of parents—such as, for example, getting behind the “ultimate nonpartisan struggle” of ensuring paid parental leave for all parents.
Why would churches want a parent’s movement? “It enables religious communities to come through with what they all…promise”—to love and care for children and their parents, says Hewlett. Families in the pews desperately need this support and encouragement, and this issue is “enormously relevant” to them. The second reason, like the first, is that supporting parents, both in and outside the church, is a needed ministry, especially by “those less privileged in the surrounding community.”
“Hewlett turned my thoughts around,” said Mary Anne Fowlkes, professor of childhood education at Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Virginia, who had traveled from Virginia for the conference. “She was very provocative. I sat there kind of numb. I teach children’s ministry, and I try to provide separate opportunities for parents and children. But maybe we need to be working with churches to bring children and parents together.”
The conference’s second day began with worship led by Freda Gardner, moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s 211th General Assembly and professor emerita at Princeton Seminary. Wearing a Year of the Child stole, Gardner led about twenty-five attendees in a confession of sin that included: “We confess that in our rush for results and answers, we forget to listen to the children, the young people, and the parents struggling in poverty and violent communities.”
Her sermon, “Come As a Child,” wove together Christ’s calling children to himself, adults’ responsibility for children, and the message that adults, too, are called to approach Christ as children. She spoke of the grace and clarity that children, with an insightful word or an unexpected act, bring to the world—as when a young child looked at a woman crouching and laying her hand on the head of a dirty, disheveled man who had fallen on the sidewalk and said, “That’s Jesus, right?” She also told of how children struggle, reciting a litany of heartrending statistics—every twenty-five seconds a baby is born in America to an unwed mother, every three minutes a child is arrested for drug abuse, every four hours a child or young person under the age of twenty commits suicide. “Dare we come as those children come [to Jesus]?” she asked. “As they are…wise, wistful, damaged, anxious, ashamed? Unless you come as one of these….”
After the sermon a bowl of crayons, pieces of chalk, pencils, Band-Aids, pennies, and pens was passed around. Each person took one and then held up the appropriate item when a certain prayer was said: while a prayer was said for teachers, those holding chalk raised their pieces; Band-Aids were lifted when sick children (and parents worrying because of no healthcare) were prayed for.
Worship was followed by morning and afternoon workshops: “Children in Worship,” “The Spiritual Life of Children and Families,” “Welcoming the Grieving Child,” “Working with Preschool Children,” and “Preteens: Who Are They and How Do We Minister to Them?”
Brad Wigger, associate professor of Christian education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, led “The Spiritual Life of Children and Families.” He explained: “People think of spirituality as peace, calm, serenity. Now enter children. Once you have a baby, it’s a mess. Order is disrupted.”
So what happens when the spiritual ideal of the desert fathers and mothers caught up in the raptures of uninterrupted meditation gets lost under the pile of diapers, empty baby food jars, and Tonka trucks?
Closing his workshop that included stories, discussion, and a video by Robert Coles, Wigger suggested that the answer may come from new practices as well as from a new understanding of the spiritual ideal. “What elements are in a church bulletin?” he asked. Then he suggested that those same elements—of gathering, praise, confession and forgiveness, fellowship, prayer, Scripture, music, etc.—can be part of family life.
This doesn’t necessarily mean adding more tasks for parents to do. It may just mean families need to “think more symbolically about home life” to understand how God is at work in the chaos. Wigger’s invitation was “to reimagine our everyday lives liturgically.” For example, the benediction occurs when parents says “God bless you” as their child falls asleep. Or a “good morning” song can serve as a call to worship. Prayer and Scripture reading can happen at the end of a family dinner.
The spiritual life is worth talking about at home, he said in closing, even though “most parents are more scared to talk about God than about sex.”
Carol Wehrheim, PTS visiting lecturer in Christian education, member and sixth-grade teacher at Nassau Presbyterian Church, and the Association of Presbyterian Church Educator’s Educator of the Year for 2001, taught the workshop on preteens, a group needing instruction in both issues.
Her workshop was a lively exchange among twelve people “who were curious and questioning about who these middle schoolers are.” Clearly there is much anxiety about the preteen years—on the part of kids, parents, and those who work with kids. But Wehrheim’s research has made her hopeful: “There are three important groups in the lives of preteens: peers, parents, and other adult friends. The church has the wonderful opportunity to provide number three!”
During these crucial years, says Wehrheim (citing author Laura Sessions Stepp), preteens have three key questions: First, am I competent? Second, am I loved and am I loving? Third, am I normal? “How they answer these questions at this time,” she says, “echoes throughout their lives.”
The importance of childhood and parenthood echoed throughout the conference.
© Copyright 2001 Princeton Theological Seminary