By Janene Cates Putman
Janene writes: “Cindy Wang Brandt is an author, podcaster, and speaker on progressive faith and its related issues. She’s the founder of a popular Facebook group, Raising Children Unfundamentalist, which offers practical advice and encouragement to parents. Our interview focused on her book, Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy and Kindness, which will be released on February 26, 2019 (y’all will want to get this book!). It was an absolute delight to talk to her, and I’m excited to share her brilliance and thoughtfulness!
“This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. My questions below are in bold and identified by my initials, JCP. Cindy Wang Brandt’s responses are identified by her initials, CWB.”
JCP: Cindy, will you let our readers know a little bit about your background and how you came to write your new book. Parenting Forward?
CWB: I call myself a missionary convert. I grew up in a non-religious home here in Taiwan, which is where I’m recording from. In Taiwan, we have a school for missionary children and my parents decided to send me there because they felt it would provide a better education for me. My critical identity formation years were then spent in a very conservative evangelical environment that set me on the path towards Christian College and seminary in the United States, and eventually into full-time missions. My daughter was a year old when we moved overseas to be missionaries. I had embraced my life’s calling to be a lifelong missionary, raising my children to be good, godly kids. We were going to live this grand life, this grand adventure for God’s glory. And, let’s just say, that’s not what happened.
A lot of people use the term deconstruction for what follows; I call it faith-shifting, from my friend Kathy Escobar’s book (Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart).
JCP: I love that term. You used it in your book, and it really spoke to me.
CWB: I like it, too, but I’m starting to rethink that phrase as well. I think for a lot of us, what we’re actually doing is searching for meaning. And we’re trying to live the best life that we can, whatever that means. And for me, the path I took changed from conservative evangelicalism to more on the left. I realized that so much of that path is really my trying to find what is most healthy and what is most authentic for myself. And for that I needed to unlearn a lot of what I had learned in my evangelical environment. My Facebook group, Raising Children Unfundamentalist, is about that: how do we navigate these intense changes in our faith-shifting while we’re parenting, which is really about passing on values to our kids? My book, Parenting Forward, is the result of these kinds of conversations: how can we navigate our own faith-shifting while at the same time asking what are the most wholesome, holistic values for human flourishing for our kids and for the world that our kids are going to grow up in?
JCP: Did becoming a mother prompt your faith-shift?
CWB: I mean, I think the beautiful thing about parenting is it gives you an opportunity to kind of relive your own childhood as you watch your child; and so yes, it motivates you toward deep healing because you want to heal in order not to pass on that baggage to your kids. However, I wouldn’t say that my kids prompted my faith deconstruction, but I would say that my kids are huge motivation for me to confront the healing that I need to do from some of the trauma of my faith formation.
JCP: For me, I think becoming a grandmother really spurred a lot of my personal deconstruction. I grew up in an extremely conservative evangelical environment. Your Facebook group is absolutely fantastic and, even though my children are grown, I get so much from it. It gives me such hope and joy to see young women like you who are raising kids, as you say in your book, “with justice for justice.” That is life giving. That is world-changing work.
CWB: So my book is divided into two parts: how to raise children with justice and how to raise children for justice. The first half, “with justice,” explores what it means to parent children with kindness, respect, and equality. It’s a lot about giving children agency in every area of their lives: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Then the second half of the book is how we can partner with our children to act justly and do justice in the world. The reality is, when children are treated with kindness, they will demand that from the world. It’s what they’ll know; it’s their default. We shouldn’t expect it to be instinctual, though. And so I hope the book provides useful tools to help us uncover some of the biases as we push for progress alongside our children.
JCP: Absolutely. Chapter Four is about healthy spirituality. Tell us, Cindy, how can parenting within our own faith-shifting be a gift and an advantage as you say in Parenting Forward?
CWB: I love that you asked this question! It is one of my favorite things to talk about because I do think it creates such a gift and an advantage. I’ve talked to many people who fell into fundamentalism in their teen years; they weren’t raised fundamentalist, but ended up going to youth group or whatever, and their parents didn’t grow up in it so they thought it was no big deal. These parents were pleased to know their kids weren’t drinking and doing drugs and thought it must be harmless.
Well, those of us who grew up in fundamentalism know that actually it’s not; you can’t assume it’s harmless because there are actually predators, and there’s also the nefarious indoctrination that happens outside the purview of parents. That’s one thing that I would say is an advantage—we kind of know the red flags, and we’re going to be more aware of some of the traps of fundamentalism and how to protect from them. We know how to empower our children to think critically through some of the influences in their lives.
I think that parents who have faith-shifted have gone through this really intense process of clarifying our values. You have to know what values that you’re rejecting in order to deconstruct — that’s just part of the process. I think that’s such an advantage because you know what you care about most, and that makes parenting just a bit more clear.
And the last thing I would say that parents who have deconstructed or faith-shifted have developed is resilience. Faith deconstruction is not just about a cognitive and academic exercise of changing beliefs; it’s also about extricating yourself from your identity and from your community. And so you’ve been through a lot, and when you struggle, you gain resilience. And so that’s the third thing I would say is a gift and advantage of parents, you are so resilient, and you can give that gift to your children and have them know what it’s like to struggle and to be able to survive something that’s been hard in your life.
JCP: You talked earlier about children having their own agency. How can we assist our children in developing their spirituality using their own agency? You know, the fundamentalist tradition that we grew up in would say that you begin a “personal relationship with Jesus” through your own decision, whether you’re a child or adult. You as an individual must make the decision for yourself. How is the agency you’re talking about in the book different from that?
CWB: The fundamentalists do say that it’s from your own agency that you have a personal relationship with Jesus. I would say that if it’s under the threat of hell, then it’s not; it is not from the child’s own agency. It’s from a place of fear. I think it’s helpful to recognize and acknowledge that children are active spiritual agents from the moment they take their first breath. They have direct access to spirituality in their own intuition, their own observations, their own questions, and of course, their interacting with the world as well. That’s not to say that we as parents can’t try to influence them and be a part of their spiritual formation. But we have to recognize that they have the full right, the full human right, to ask their own questions, to believe their own beliefs. And I think our job as parents is to ensure that they don’t have that right taken away from them. That’s the problem I have with fundamentalism: it shuts down children’s inherent spirituality and worth by preaching that they can’t be trusted, that they have to be told that they will go to hell unless they say this prayer or do this or that. And the worst part about it is that they do it in the name of love.
JCP: You said in Parenting Forward that your “natural spirituality was subsumed by fear.” I’m guessing that’s what you’re talking about. We want to give our children a spirituality that compels rather than coerces. How do we do that?
CWB: I think we do it by, first of all, modeling. I just think that we should always give our children freedom. They can always choose, and we kind of stay in our own lane. I suggest that instead of teaching our children faith propositions, we tell them our faith story. I think we can tell the story of our faith journey, of our relationship with God, or spirituality or transcendence of our experiences and offer that as a tool for our children. Then they can choose to take it or not. More often than not, I think that if we love our children in a way that’s healthy, that is life-giving and empowering to them, it’s a far bigger influence than one that is coercive. That coercive kind of love is influential in the short term, but it doesn’t take root in their hearts. I think the kind of influence that truly takes root in your children’s hearts is when you love them, and you give them power, and they can have that agency to decide for themselves.
JCP: Let’s move on to Chapter Six, gender equality. This is one of our core values here at Christian Feminism Today. You say in your book that “to raise children into gender equality, we must first and continuously search for the ways of inequality and uproot as necessary.” What does this process look like in your family?
CWB: I think inequality is like poison in the air. It’s so steeped in our culture and society that we think it’s normal, and we breathe it without being conscious of it. So, I picture teaching about equality like injecting a color dye into the air that makes that poison visible. It doesn’t take it away, but we can recognize where and when and how we’re breathing the poison and how we can protect ourselves and others from it. Our family started out conservative evangelical, and I fell pretty hard into traditional gender roles. We got married young and I wanted to have babies as soon as possible because I believed that my ultimate meaning in life came from being a mother. So, I did that. And when I had my babies, I believed I had to be their primary caretaker. But as I’ve gone through faith deconstruction (which really feels like such a negative term, when the reality is that it empowered me), I became empowered through that process. I slowly began to claim my gifts and that feeling that I do have a gift to offer the world outside my home. And it was a slow shift as we made decisions to rearrange our family. But I think we’ve made that switch to egalitarianism. I don’t know if my kids are particularly conscious of it because, first of all, it was gradual and also, they were younger. I think now they can see that my husband and I are sharing our gifts equally, and sharing the household tasks that we have, and that we’re just being ourselves. And so I’m hoping that that is a good model for my kids.
And finally, we develop vocabulary. We talk about feminism; we talk about patriarchy; we name these things. It’s kind of like injecting the color dye into the poison so that we can talk about it and give our kids those tools to develop conversations and understand the way the system works so that they know how to resist it.
JCP: You say in Parenting Forward that we need to “let our daughters be angry.” What do you mean by that?
CWB: I think anger is a legitimate human emotion that everyone should have the right to express, but the patriarchy in our world disproportionately chastises women and girls for being angry. I think we have to counter that teaching and actually encourage our girls to be angry. Anger is good. It can be destructive, but it often brings to the surface what’s really bothering our children. By giving them a voice, we can kind of dredge up those issues so that we can address them. I think all children deserve this. And our girls definitely deserve that. Right?
JCP: Yes, I agree. I had to go to therapy in my 40s to figure out how to be angry in a way that was healthy for me. Our girls and our boys need to learn how to be angry in a constructive way.
JCP: You reference a blog on your website that says, “Just as it is important to teach children to respect authority, it’s equally important to impact our children to fight against authority.” As you know, this goes totally against the fundamentalist position that we were raised in because you obey—period. Your parents say it and you obey immediately. You don’t talk back, you don’t ask questions. Thankfully, my parents were not like that. They allowed us to ask questions and to discuss, but that’s not what the parenting goals for that tradition teach. How can we facilitate that impact for our children?
CWB: As parents, we are our children’s first authority figures. I think you let them resist you. I talk to my children about why I think they shouldn’t do something. For example, I don’t think it’s a great idea to eat a ton of ice cream right before bedtime. So I give suggestions but I always make room for them to disagree and to give their counter-arguments. This isn’t just future training for them to buck the status quo in a world that’s going to infringe upon their rights, which I hope it is. But it’s also because I know I’m not a perfect parent. We can’t always know the right thing to say, because our children are dynamic and unique individuals. And there will never be unilateral rules that apply and work on every kid all the time. So we have to let them push back with their individuality and tell us what is working for them. Maybe some kids are totally fine with having ice cream before bedtime, and they’ll go to sleep and it doesn’t hurt them. I don’t know that; I’m not living in their bodies. This is not to say that we don’t offer suggestions and guidance and instruction. I think so often people who practice gentle parenting are misunderstood as very permissive—that we just let our kids do whatever. It’s not that; it’s about the power dynamic. I think you have to think of it like this —that you’re on the same team together and not saying, “I’m going to push my power over you.” And so we work together to work out solutions. Let your kids practice knowing how to express their opinions with your help. Help them resist you; help them tell you that you’re wrong and be okay with that. Because sometimes we are wrong.
This also gives us a lot of insight into our children. When they have that freedom to discuss, we can find out what bothers them in a way that couldn’t happen if we were just saying, “Do what I say.”
CWB: Our children are not robots; they’re full human beings with a range of emotions. It’s okay to have a rule that applies this time but doesn’t apply the next time because they’re growing all the time. We all know how incredibly fast children change physically—sometimes they’ll shoot up an inch overnight. So imagine what’s happening internally, how much they’re changing all the time.
JCP: Let’s talk about chapter eight, radical inclusion. I appreciate the story you tell about your trans brother and the journey that you’ve gone on together. What does your trans brother teach your family?
CWB: My brother is our cheat sheet. I’m almost embarrassed by the unfair advantage I have in parenting my kids for inclusion because it’s so effortless. It’s effortless for me to help my kids understand that LGBT people are just people. They’re like their uncle who is kind and compassionate, but also quirky and flawed. He’s human, just like everyone else in our family. And it’s a no-brainer for my kids. I think this is true for many kids in this generation because of increasing representation and media and more people who live out of the closet. But unfortunately, as I said in the book, we still have to stay vigilant. And I do teach my kids about the rampant homophobia and transphobia in the world. Because, again, it’s that poison in the air. And unless we make it visible, then we’re helpless to resist against it.
JCP: You’ve talked about children as our “radical hope.” Hope is my favorite word – everything has to do with hope. Without the benefit of hope, I can’t love properly. There are so many ways that hope plays into my life. And I would love to hear why you say that children are our “radical hope.”
CWB: When I say that, I mean it both literally and figuratively. Literally, children are saving us. If you look at the Parkland teens, I mean, they have single-handedly changed the conversation on gun control. This has never happened before. Since Sandy Hook, it just seemed impossible to change the tide of that conversation. But I feel like they’ve done it. In 2018, they made a significant shift in public consciousness. Naomi Wadler, who was 11 years old, gave that amazing speech about gun control. You have kids suing the government about oil because it’s going to directly impact the kind of environment they’re growing up in. These children are taking the future into their own hands and demanding change. They are actually saving us by their activism.
But our children are also our radical hope figuratively. Like I said earlier, they compel us to raise ourselves. They give us that motivation and that hope for a better world, to heal ourselves, to clarify our values. And also, when we work with children, they inject so much joy! Children are whimsical and funny and so refreshing. That, I think, is such a necessary ingredient when we are doing the work of justice, because it can get so dark and heavy. I feel like whenever I have a bad day, or I feel burnt out, spending time with babies or toddlers, seems to be great therapy. I mean, I don’t want to say that we should consume children for that, but I think we include them in the things we do. They sustain us and it keeps us going. They are one of the best reasons for us to want to create better futures.
JCP: I’ve participated in all three Women’s Marches here in the United States and one of the joys of the day is seeing the little children, boys and girls, with their mothers, or with their fathers, or with their grandparents, and they’re already bringing such joy and hope and making their voices heard. I think that is what you do in Parenting Forward, encourage us as parents to empower our children to use their voices.
CWB: I think that’s something that is missing in a lot of these movements. I don’t feel like people give parents enough credit and an important enough of a role. Parents are critical to every social justice movement, because they have kids and children are radical, radical hope. And so I really would love to see some activist movements highlight parents—recruiting them and letting parents know they are going to be a very effective strategy in moving some of these movements forward.
JCP: Last question. What’s one question you’d love to answer that you never get asked?
CWB: That’s such a great question! I enjoyed thinking about that one! And my answer isn’t so much a question as a bit of a shout out. It’s funny, because a lot of people ask me about my brother, because he’s trans, and that’s totally fine and he’s fine with it. He’s happy to help educate people and bring awareness to trans issues. And sometimes people will ask me questions about my husband, especially about my faith-shifting, whether or not he was on board with it. And of course, they ask me about my kids and my parents because I talk about parenting, but no one’s asked me about my sister, who also exists in my family. She’s a big part of my life and we are good friends. And she’s a wonderful aunt to my kids. So I just want to give a big shout out to my sister. Her name is Ann. But my kids call her Ayi, because it means “aunt” in Chinese. Shout out to Ayi. We appreciate you!
JCP: Oh, that’s great, Cindy! I love that!
CWB: It’s wonderful. I love having a sister!
JCP: I do, too! This time of chatting with you has been lovely, Cindy. I’ve been so excited about this interview! I loved reading your book and have loved talking to you. I follow RCU (Raising Children Unfundamentalist) on Facebook and just adore what you’re doing. You’re doing holy work— you are impacting both current and future generations. And I could not love that more. Cindy, thank you!
CWB: Thank you so much. This was really nice. It’s so lovely to meet you.
Kathy Escobar’s book, Faith-Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe Is Coming Apart.