Under 18

September, 2009

Kids are a problem.  No, no, I’m not talking about the trials of parenthood; I’m referring to the problem of teaching minors about Paganism.  Though there aren’t any laws that specifically say to teach somebody’s child about a religion is unlawful, there exist community and cultural customs that condemn the teaching if it is done without parental permission.  In the case of Paganism, the problem is just as big as it would be if a Jewish family was to find their child being taught Islam… maybe bigger.  The problem is complex and I don’t intend to cover every facet here, but I will put forth some ideas about it in the hope that it will stir the cauldron a little and cause some discussion.The age of majority in the USA is generally considered to be eighteen for most everything.  When a person reaches that age, they can be held legally responsible for their public and private decisions.  That is, they can legally be bound by contracts, sued in a court of law, hold a driver’s license, get married, join the armed services, be able to vote, and generally be treated as an adult in most social and legal things.  If anyone of that age or older comes to us and asks for teaching or initiation, there isn’t anything that can be done by parents or relatives to legally prevent it.  But if they are under that age, there are a lot of legal avenues a parent or guardian can pursue to make it a problem for anyone who accepts the child for studentship without parental permission.

Beside the possible legal trouble, a parent who doesn’t understand our spirituality is often afraid of it and will react in a violent way when they find out we have been teaching their child about ‘witchcraft.’  It doesn’t matter what we might call our brand of spirituality, what most parents will immediately think is that ‘devil worshipers’ are indoctrinating their child!  No amount of quiet reasoning will work against their panic, and the facts have nothing to do with their perceptions.  In case you forgot: perception is reality.  The determination and ferocity of a parent who believes their child is in danger should never be underestimated.  And even if you have parental permission, you should still be aware of how your teachings might be misinterpreted by society and attract the unwanted attentions of any number of governmental groups.  This can be true even if the child you are teaching is your own!

There is a great deal of information that can be passed on to the next generation but you should be conscious of four considerations whenever you go about teaching anyone about our faith:

  1. WHAT is being taught?  There is more to a myth besides a fun story, for instance.  The traditions and lore of any faith group reflect its values and perspectives as well as customs and culture.  Information about any aspect of magic or spirituality always contains a subtext that you need to explore fully before trying try to pass it on.
  2. WHO is being taught?  Information that would be appropriate for a person who is 20 is not likely to be suitable for a youngster of 10.  A child probably won’t be interested in the complexities of western religious and political history.  Similarly, an adult isn’t likely to want to draw pictures of Isis for an hour.  And, in case you didn’t know, boys learn differently than girls.  They pick up information and use it in different ways, even if it is the same information.  It is not just a cultural prejudice; male and female brains work differently.  And, as any parent of teenagers will confirm, there sometimes isn’t any way to figure out how a pubescent child will react to anything!  Even they don’t have a clue.  There’s a good reason that the most common answer to the perennial question, “What were you thinking?” is a blank look and a mumbled, “I don’t know.” They really don’t.
  3. HOW is it being taught?  You can teach the information about incense making by the book.  But to get down and dirty with the actual making of a particular compound, to use it for an actual purpose, or to present it to others with, “I made this,” will make the learning more powerful and meaningful by far.  Learning is more than memorizing information; it’s about making a change in the learner.
  4. WHY is it being taught?  There must be a purpose and a plan to your teaching.  Simply to spout information is not the same as teaching.  Information needs to be related to real life as well as everything else that the student has or will encounter.  Any teacher worth their salt will transcend their own agendas and look to the needs and visions of their students.  If you teach because you think it will make you look important, you will only be seen that way by yourself.  Think back to the teachers in your life that have had the most impact on you and you will see the truth of this.

Our ideas and ways of looking at life are especially appealing to people in their late teens.  Our freedom of spirit and joy of living are much like their own youthful enthusiasm.  And, at least on the surface, our belief in magic seems to answer their wish for simple solutions to the complex problems they are becoming aware of all around them.  We will always have those who think of magic as a quick fix for all the ills in the world. They come with stars in their eyes, blinded to the fact that all true magic workers are hard workers.  Their naivety might be a source of amusement but it also makes them extremely vulnerable.  They so much want to believe there are easy ways to overcome large problems they will do almost anything to prove themselves ‘worthy’ of such fantastical powers.  Instead of allowing them to be victimized, we need to find ways of educating them about the real powers of magic.  Simply trying to burst their bubble of fantasy will not work.  They will reject our discouraging words and go looking for someone who will reinforce their dreams.  We must translate their visions into actions that allow them to find their own truths and powers.  Putting them to work on real projects, giving them an opportunity to figure out how to make something work and make a change is the greatest teacher of all.  Yes, they will make mistakes; who doesn’t?  But let’s be frank, isn’t that the way we learned?  Celebrate their successes and don’t ever be too busy to offer help.

Because we don’t have ‘all the answers’ written down, our beliefs are centered on individual experiences.  We call them ‘the mysteries’ because that best describes the role these have for us.  We ‘solve’ these mysteries by living the moment and discovering who and what we are in relation to the reality of our experiences.

Providing opportunities for the young to encounter their own mysteries needs to be tailored to the abilities of the student.  Most school systems use a three-tiered structure for teaching youngsters.  The youngest group usually covers from age six to eleven or twelve.  The next learning group is the so-called ‘tweens,’ ages twelve to fifteen.  Last, there is the sixteen to eighteen group.  There are sound reasons behind splitting up the learning in this way.  Each age group learns in different ways.

The brain functions of the youngest group are nothing like the oldest.  Though they absorb prodigious amounts of information at an astounding pace, the information is in its least complex form.  Very little associative thinking goes on in this age group.  For instance, a child in this group might easily learn the names for every town in their state but not be able to understand a map.  Complex relationships between one thing and another are difficult for them to understand.  That’s why stories for this age group are written in such black-and-white terms; heroes are all-good and villains are all-bad.  No explanation is necessary about why the kiss from a charming prince is required to awaken Sleeping Beauty, it simply does.  As any parent who has had a child go through this age knows, explaining why a certain rule is established doesn’t mean anything to these kids.  That’s why, “Because I said so,” really is the best explanation in many cases.  Teaching this group about Paganism requires information that is not subtle:  Pan is the god of wild things… period.  The more you explain, in some cases, the less they will understand.

The middle group, the ‘tweens,’  is in the transitional stage from one method of learning to the other.  Their comfort zone in learning is still back with the black and white, childhood model.  But their world is steadily growing and they’re becoming more independent every day.  Relationships are now more apparent and reasons are becoming necessary to explain them.  This is the age of reason for these people so what is taught to them needs to be accompanied with more in-depth information.  Motivations behind actions and beliefs begin to play an increasingly important role in their understanding and they will question boundaries and limitations more.  Because their bodies are going through an accelerated growth time, they will often physically test themselves against many of these limitations and dare the universe to slap them down.

The oldest group is making its entrance into adulthood and the methods by which they learn are pretty much the same for the rest of their life.  Associative or relational thinking has become more comfortable and its value to the student has been steadily growing for several years by now.  From here on, the student will question relative value structures, relying less on quantitative and more on qualitative information.  Though their decision-making abilities are relatively immature, they nevertheless feel the need for independence and freedom to act.  Lessons must relate to this urge or the importance of the information will not be perceived.  Now, not only does the information about Pan being a god of wild things become a part of their overall consideration, but background information that makes Pan a more interesting and complete god-form must accompany it.

Our rituals allow the primary school child to enjoy the fantasy and wonder of our beliefs.  For the middle school aged, they also teach something about the complexities of those beliefs.  For the young adults, the fullness of meaning is a feast for their minds and hearts.  It is the same demarcation as the teaching levels.

Teaching about our beliefs is quite different from exercising them on circle.  Nothing we do, with the exception of where we meet and with whom, is a secret.  When you teach others about our beliefs, our lore and practices, you should be mindful of how your words will be interpreted.  Your students or audience need to understand what is meant, not just hear the words.  For instance, “to make a spell,” will undoubtedly be interpreted as some sort of supernatural hocus-pocus by any who are not aware of the processes involved.  Far better you should forego the term and explain the process.  Then you can tell them that that process is called spell craft.  The same goes for many other words and phrases we commonly use in Paganism.  All specialized knowledge has its jargon and we aren’t any exception.  Educating others requires us to explain things without the confusion of language that can be easily misinterpreted.

Teaching others is also a way of learning.  Every teacher is a student and every student is a teacher.  The Pagan faiths have grown and will continue to grow because its people have had the courage to teach and train others.  It is one way we can help our faith group become better, both because we will refine our own knowledge and because we will gain new perspectives with each person who comes to us.  We must take this challenge seriously and never allow charlatans or abusers to rule over people whom the gods have sent our way.