Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Children in Paganism

This past Samhain, my family and I went up to New Hampshire to attend a festival thrown by the Spiral Scouts of Peterborough. The Spiral Scouts are a sort of Boy/Girl Scout group for non-monotheistic children, and the event, to be held in the Unitarian Church, was geared toward all ages, with crafts, music, drumming, a costume contest, storytelling, and ritual. We figured it was the perfect opportunity to plug into the local Pagan community and meet some other families with children that we can build relationships with.

We succeeded; but I have to say we were also a little disappointed. There were clearly over a hundred people in attendance, but only a dozen of them were children. Four of those were mine.

No Children's Crusade

Now, I'm not saying that we pagans need to get out there and start being fruitful and multiplying and such. No pagan doctrine that I'm aware of contains such an injunction and I think most people would agree that childhood indoctrination is not the best way to fill out the rank-and-file in any case. Most pagans today are adults who have found this path through their own wanderings, and this is probably ideal. Given the choice between a community of people who have arrived at their faith through a process of reflection and personal growth, versus a community of people who simply remain pagan because it's how they were brought up and it's what they're used to, I'll take the former every time.

Still, it's a shame that children make up such a small percentage of the pagan population. We've found that our children have enriched our pagan practice and experience in completely unexpected ways. Children invigorate and vitalize pagan faith.


Children seem to be born with an innate reverence for nature, which fits right in with pagan belief. They fill their pockets with acorns, oddly shaped rocks, bits of fluff and feathers, and young blossoms -- they can feel the raw magic sparking off such things. They can easily sense the quiet awe of a forest, and they are most at ease when surrounded by natural materials -- cotton and wool clothing, wooden toys, silk drapes.

They are naturally attracted to seasonal holidays and ritual. They can feel the long, slow, majestic change of the seasons, and they are excited to celebrate their passing. They join in eagerly when an adult thanks the earth, the trees, and the sky, because they can sense the connection viscerally. They love repitition of familiar things, whether it's a short verse of thanks to the sun as the candles are lit for dinner, or decorating a tree every Winter Solstice. The rituals of paganism are the rhythms of childhood. (You can read about some of the rituals we've done with our children here and here.)

And children seem like born polytheists. The world of nearly every child, even those of monotheistic parents, is populated with spirits and guides and gods of all kinds. Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and Jack Frost (to pick few American favorites) are just the tip of the iceberg. My oldest daughter spotted fairies four times on her own while we were still waffling between Zen, agnosticism, and atheism, and one of her best school friends, whose parents are Christian, sees them even more frequently. And all children feel the power and presence lurking in odd corners and nooks in the house... places where adults rarely go, where darkness and silence are allowed to gather. The children can sense the goblins as well as the gnomes.

Teaching Children, Children Teaching.

If you are not pagan, then maybe these facts about children seem like just quirky things that children do. Isn't it cute? (Or, in the case of monsters under the bed, When will they grow out of it?) As they grow up, they have to be gently led away from these beliefs. They must be carefully taught that the trees are not guardians, just large plants; that the sun is no loving father, but a deadly inferno of plasma; that the Earth is not a mother figure, but simply the stage upon which the human play is set. All the love and reverence children have for these things must be somehow transferred to whatever is revered in your religion.

But if you are pagan, you can see clearly that your children don't need to be taught your religion; they are already living it. They may not know the names of all the gods, or the specifics of the rituals, but they can already feel what's important. All you have to do is fill in the details.

So I encourage all pagans -- if you don't have any children in your life, go find some. Target especially children below the age of seven. Take them to your sacred spaces -- walk with them in the woods, stand by the sea, or just sit in your backyard. They will find powerful natural talismans -- stones, feathers, nuts -- and bring them to you. Watch where they linger, and you will know the fair folk are living nearby. Listen to their talk, and you will catch echoes of what Spirit is whispering in their ears. You may not be able to hear the Earth singing her love song to you, but they can.


Update: Cosette at Pandora's Bazaar has a great post about the inherent paganism in humanity, and the universality of pagan symbols.


Hrafnkell said...

Great post, Jeff! As you say, children are natural polytheists and I agree with what Cosette said the other day at Pandora's Bazaar that people are naturally "Pagan" and have to be taught to be monotheists.

My son talks to the dísir in his room at night. He can do this because nobody has told him he can't, nobody has told him that they don't exist. Sadly, we adults have been reprogrammed and we have to unlearn decades of indoctrination.

I just want to say again, excellent post, Jeff. Thank you for putting these thoughts into words for us. I look forward to more.

Jeff Lilly said...

Thanks! I'm really glad you enjoyed it.

I completely agree with your sentiments, of course. Paganism (in all its forms) is the natural religion of humanity. Bernulf, if you're reading: this is the most basic reason why I think eventually Christianity will return to its shamanistic roots.

For my wife and I, walking this path has been more like remembering than learning.

Bernulf said...

Of course I'm reading :-)

For my wife and I, walking this path has been more like remembering than learning.

What an awesome, awesome way to look at things! And if I remember back to my childhood days, I can attest to just about every point you made in your post.

Children would naturally be closer to a primal state than an adult who had undergone 20 years or more of social indoctrination. And I can see also from recent church trends that a much greater effort is being made to adapt church services to attract the young, using some methods that can be argued as more resembling more primal traditions, rather than traditional Christianity...this might add even more weight to your theory. In fact, I wrote a post about this not too long ago :-)

Sojourner said...

I have noticed this in children. Although I don't plan on having any children of my own, I do have several "God children."

I love taking them out to hike and to different area parks. I find it fascinating that they will often ignore the playground equipment and instead play within their natural surrounding. They simply have more fun!

I was reading a book by Carl Rogers (a psychologist) in which he mentioned something that I think fits with this phenomenon. It is the concept of creativity and imagination. Rogers believes that we need to be able to create to feel human, but sometimes we are told that certain types of creativity is taboo.

Kids tend to have that natural ability of being able to create their own reality. It's only later that adults start crushing their beliefs, not to be mean, but because it is part of the adult reality of the day.

Good post, Jeff!

Angela-Eloise said...

What a wonderful post! I thought this sentence in particular was just beautiful:

You may not be able to hear the Earth singing her love song to you, but they can.

I don't have any children but I've always had a healthy respect for their intelligence and innate magical tendencies. It's such a shame when, as Sojourner says, those creative impulses get crushed by society's demands that we become "normal" adults.

Thanks Jeff.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. I say this all the time: we are born pagan and have to be taught not to be. I don't have kids myself, but am lucky to have several kids around me. We have three in my coven, all wonderfully pagan. My sister has three kids and is raising them in her Catholic faith. And boy, do I see the difference!

Jeff Lilly said...

Thanks for all your kind thoughts! It's great to hear that you've had the same experiences with children that I have. What a gift they are! Like I said, I hope that the number of children in paganism will grow.

The hypothesis that paganism is in some sense "inherent" has support from cognitive science and linguistics, too, which I didn't go into here. My wife and I have a lot of background in those areas, and it's been amazing to us to see everything dovetail the way it has. It'll all be up on druidjournal.net eventually, and I look forward to getting your feedback on it! :-)

Jenna said...

Amazing post. I am planning on being a parent someday soon, and I am also Pagan. I always wonder how exactly I am to teach my children Paganism in a society that is fundamentally afraid or turned off by the concept. Your post just shows that I don't need to teach... they already know.