Parenting Forward: A Conversation with Cindy Wang Brandt
When I started this site a few months ago, I found myself seeking out like-minded writers and thinkers on the web. I can’t remember exactly how I came across Cindy Wang Brandt’s work, but I’m so glad I did.
Cindy’s words might be of particular interest to anyone whose faith has undergone—or is currently undergoing—a radical shift. But anyone can learn from her wisdom about good religion, social justice, and what “parenting forward” looks like.
Congratulations on your upcoming book! It looks like Parenting Forward will expand on the ideas you discuss on your podcast. Could you walk us through some of the central tenets of “parenting forward”?
Thank you, I’m so excited about Parenting Forward the book! I didn’t set out to write a parenting book. In fact, I have always been a faith writer, viewing the world through the lens of faith and culture. I was raised in a conservative evangelical faith, and in the past ten years or more of my life, I’ve embarked on the journey of what is commonly known as “deconstruction,” meaning a re-examining of the faith values of my childhood and whether they hold up to be true.
As life happens, I did become a parent, and as this process of faith deconstruction and parenting coincided, it became a necessary task to explore whether the faith I was raised in was something worth passing on to my children. This is how Parenting Forward was birthed—asking the question: what does it mean for us to live as faithful people moving forward with the next generation? At the core of parenting conversations (the concept of parenting really is quite new in light of human history), is this: What does it mean to be human?
In my book, I dissect some of the ways the faith of my childhood disintegrated my personhood, so the book explores what it means to raise children with wholeness. How do we honor their physical, emotional, and spiritual autonomy?
The second half of my book reads more like a “social justice parenting guide.” Because human flourishing can only happen when we are also actively building a world where everyone has equal opportunity to thrive.
You’ve written a lot about what it means to be “exvangelical” and “unfundamentalist.” For folks who aren’t familiar, would you mind explaining what these terms mean and to what extent they are parts of your story?
Like I mentioned previously, I was raised in a conservative evangelical, fundamentalist environment. And to me, deconstruction and reconstruction of faith is the same work. We can’t address a problem unless we can first name it, so it has always been vital to me to be UNfundamentalist and EXvangelical, encapsulating the spirit of pushing AGAINST a particular system in order to resist it.
For a long time I couldn’t let go of my evangelical identity, not because I agreed with its tenets anymore, but because I felt certain it was fully integrated into my being. Indeed, our childhood faith has profound impact on the way our identities are formed and follows us into our patterns of behavior far into adulthood. This is, of course, the reason why I am so passionate about Parenting Forward, to help form a more healthy spirituality for the children of this generation.
A couple of critical incidents happened at the end of 2016 that finally pushed me over the edge to #EXvangelicalism. First, Donald Trump was elected, and second, the conservative evangelical school where I was employed tried to silence my voice on affirming LGBTQ folks, and I felt forced to resign. It seemed to be completely untenable to continue negotiating a public evangelical identity without it being tainted by the public image of the radical white evangelical support of Trump, whose behavior is truly deplorable. Furthermore, I can’t continue to claim evangelicalism for myself and keep getting pushed out of evangelical spaces. It just wasn’t working.
I have to say it’s been freeing to shed the label that names a movement that harmed me more than it helped. I still believe in healthy versions of faith and spirituality, but I am pretty sure at this point that evangelicalism, as a system, is not the way to access it.
Exvangelical is a phrase my friend Blake Chastain created for his podcast and community, and I’ve happily applied it to my own experience. I don’t want to speak for Blake, but as far as I know, exvangelical means our past has been significantly shaped by evangelicalism, but we’ve walked away from it. People choose different paths to walk away on (progressive Christianity, another religion, agnosticism/atheism, etc.) but the common ground is held in this past evangelical experience.
In an ideal scenario, what would religion look like and feel like?
Healthy religion provides a tradition, a story that helps us connect more deeply with being human and with each other to promote a common good. As it relates to parenting, I believe children are inherently spiritual: born with a sense of wonder, a connection to transcendence, a curiosity that compels them to live a life of meaning and purpose. Children have a basic need to be loved and to belong.
Religion, at its best, offers love and belonging unconditionally, and also a compelling moral narrative that sustains justice movements.
There are lots of definitions of spirituality out there; it means different things to different people. How would you define it? Do you think it’s worth giving children language to talk about spirituality? If so, what kind of language do you recommend?
I recently interviewed Barbara Brown Taylor for the Parenting Forward Podcast and she called it the “More-Than-Me,” which I thought was lovely. I would say spirituality is the sense that there is something bigger than us and profound meaning making in life.
Not only do I think it’s worth giving children language to talk about spirituality, I think it’s a matter of justice to offer our children spiritual autonomy—the right to exercise their inherent spirituality. I believe a robust spirituality helps children tune into their inner voice, provide a sense of grounding in a tumultuous world and time, and helps them connect meaningfully with others.
But I think there is a lot of range and diversity in the language we use. Just as there are thousands of languages in the world, there are different ways that may be unique to each family that you choose to offer your children. What’s important to remember is that healthy spirituality has the capacity to evolve, so it takes the pressure off of trying to find a “perfect” language. It’s more like a starting kit, to get children used to cultivating their spirituality with the tools you offer them, and as they grow into independence, they can then navigate using other tools out there in the world to exercise their unique spirituality.
Some examples of what that starting kit might look like: music, literature, organized religious rituals, mindfulness activities, scheduled time in nature.
How can we help our kids understand the importance of working toward social justice?
First, we have to treat children justly. Children exist as a marginalized people group in our world as it is today. We still have a long way to go to truly treating children with the human dignity we offer adults. Children who have been treated with justice will find it difficult to tolerate when they find others have not been offered similar freedoms.
Second, for children who hold privileges, whether it’s economic, racial, or gender identity/expression, it’s important to name the injustice, so that they don’t breathe the smog of toxicity without being able to resist it. For example, children of color need to understand the way white supremacy works, so that they can recognize micro-aggressions against them, which will help them from internalizing it and letting it impact their identity formation as inferior citizens. Same with girls calling out Patriarchy.
If parents struggle to do this with children, often it is because they have not learned it themselves (and there’s no shame in this, we are all learning, and our ignorance stems from not having learned it as children ourselves!) So put in the work of understanding systems of oppression, and then adapt to conversing with children in age-appropriate language.
Third, expose children to activists and heroes of justice movements. James Baldwin says, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Not only is it important to provide role models, it’s also important for children to be empowered by community—local, global, and intergenerational. This will help prevent “saviorism” in activism, help them know our work in justice is always stepping into a current that is already flowing.
Cindy Wang Brandt
Cindy Wang Brandt is an author, podcaster, and speaker. Her book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy and Kindness, will be published in February 2019. She’s the founder of popular facebook group, Raising Children Unfundamentalist. She writes about progressive faith at cindywords.com. You can find her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.