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Tending to the Tending Years
a conversation with author and religious educator Jen Shattuck
In case you haven’t noticed by now, I love religious educators. Perhaps it is in part because I admired my sister, who taught first grade for over 35 years, and I highly regarded her creativity, her ability to guide others, and her insights into how humans - not just children, but adults too - learn and grow. Similarly, I find that our religious educators have perspectives on faith formation that aren’t just about our children but about all of us.
So I was excited to hear that one of my religious educator friends has a new book coming out, called The Tender Years: Understanding Your Child’s Earliest Rituals. As someone interested in ritual, I asked Jen if we could chat about her upcoming book. Here’s a bit of our conversation:
Kimberley: Tell me about your new book, The Tending Years.
Jen: The Tending Years was inspired by my work as a childcare provider for toddlers and preschoolers (or children ages 2 to 5.) I spent almost 20 years as a nanny and early childhood teacher before becoming a religious educator, and so I spent a lot of time working with parents that were stressed, overwhelmed, and struggling with behavior from their children that didn’t necessarily make sense to them. The preschool years are a notoriously difficult period for caregivers, and over time I began to wonder whether there’s a reason for this. If everyone is struggling, I thought, then the struggle must be a meaningful part of this developmental period.
Through my work as a religious educator, I came to understand the struggle in a spiritual context: we struggle because it’s during the preschool period that the children we love are shaping us into the caregivers they need us to be, inviting us to participate in the arduous, collaborative work of spiritual growth. In The Tending Years (named because the word tend comes from roots meaning both “to care for” and “to stretch”) I outline nine rituals in which the children we care for use their behavior to communicate their spiritual needs to us and challenge us to become the people who can meet them.
Kimberley: Can you give me an example of a ritual that you write about in the book?
Jen: The book is organized around the three main activities of a young child’s day: eating, playing, and resting. The first ritual I describe is the ritual of reunion, which happens around mealtimes. From the very beginning of life, we teach the children we love that mealtimes are not just about food—they’re actually about reuniting physically and emotionally with beloved caregivers after periods of separation like sleep. Think about feeding a baby: they’re getting the food they need to survive, but they’re also getting much more. To feed a baby is to snuggle them, smile at them, talk to them, etc. As their very first spiritual teachers, we show babies that to eat is actually to receive comfort and affirmation from those they love.
In the preschool years, when many caregivers are thinking about meals as tasks to be accomplished, children are continuing to think of them as periods of time in which we are meant to be reconnecting, and they’re telling us that through their mealtime behavior. To illustrate this, I use the example of the child who wants the red cup (and only the red cup!) at breakfast time. Many caregivers have been taught not to honor requests like these because they are demands, but I understand them less as demands and more as requests for symbols of care and affirmation. For many preschoolers, the presence of the correct cup at breakfast is a reminder that they are known and understood by their caregiver and that the caregiver is able to meet their spiritual need for connection. I hope that understanding the rituals that give rise to a behavior can help caregivers feel less stressed by the behavior and allow them to participate in the ritual in ways that feel good to everyone involved.
Kimberley: This is fascinating - because I’m making connections to how adults continue to have rituals, both in their personal lives, but also in their religious lives. There are ways in which changing the Order of Service, for example, feels as stressful as changing the color of the cup.
Jen: Yes, exactly! The desire for rituals that offer security, continuity, and affirmation in community spaces does not disappear in adulthood—it just takes on new forms. This is why rituals from our religious pasts still carry such significance, and why what we do in church matters so deeply on an emotional level. Adults can get just as attached to their rituals as children can, and it’s one of the things that I try to be cognizant of in my work as a religious professional.
Kimberley: This becomes a lesson, then, in how we make changes to those things people are holding on to; things may have the same function, but they don’t look familiar and may unconsciously signal - not danger exactly - but that something’s wrong.
Jen: Change can be disorienting, and it’s common for folks of all ages to have emotional responses to it. When I’m working in congregational spaces, I try to bring my understanding that there are going to be a number of people who are attached to each process we have, every element of liturgy, every tradition. The fact that people are attached doesn’t mean we can never make changes! It just means that when we make them, we try to do so with a mind toward continuing to meet the emotional needs of the people in the space, moving slowly so that people are able to acclimate themselves to whatever is shifting.
Kimberley: We could go on and on about this one topic alone, but I want to shift gears a bit. I know that part of your work as a religious educator involves serving in congregations. How does The Tending Years relate to what happens in Unitarian Universalist congregational spaces?
Jen: I think much of the information in the book is transferable to congregations. I specialize in early childhood RE, so the focus of my service is on meeting the needs of our very youngest congregants and those who care for them. In the churches where I currently work (I’m on staff at Sanctuary Boston and the Unitarian Church of Barnstable on Cape Cod), I’ve noticed that it’s families with very young children who are most likely to be seeking out our communities during the post-pandemic period, which is a wonderful thing.
Unfortunately, these caregivers often come into our spaces tired and overwhelmed. They often arrive expecting to be judged on the basis of their child’s behavior in worship or coffee hour. How can we tangibly and authentically communicate that they can bring their whole selves into our spaces? How can we show we understand their children’s spiritual needs? What can we provide to help and support caregivers when they’re with us? These questions feel urgent to me and I’m passionate about helping congregations answer them.
Kimberley: We often talk about welcoming with our anti-oppression lenses on, but this is an important one too. Too often we hurry the children to the nursery and don’t do much care for the caregivers other than hand them a hymnal and a cup of coffee. I hear over and over congregational leaders saying ‘we need more families’ but not putting in the structures to hold and support them. I wonder if shifting our perspective on these tending years would better guide us?
Jen: Working with young children and their caregivers in church spaces has shown me that every person who enters a UU community, no matter how old they are, is coming to get emotional needs met. They want to know that this is a place of belonging. They want to know that they are not alone in the struggles they have brought with them. They want our rituals to reflect and help them hold what is happening in their lives. Understanding this can help us build structures that offer the support that families are looking for during the tending years. Nursery care and coffee are a great start, and I’d love to be part of conversations about what it means to expand out from there!
Kimberley: This has been fascinating! I know we’ve only scratched the surface, but already I have a hundred things to think about (and more to write about). I am so grateful for your wisdom and willingness to share these ideas with us! Before we go, where can folks find you and your work?
Jen: People can find me on Facebook at Jen Anderson Shattuck and at jlshattuck.com!
Kimberley: The Tending Years will be available on September 5. Go buy the book!