How Do We Include Kids in Ritual Without Making Adults Run Screaming?
by L. Lisa Harris
Ask a group of ritual facilitators what their philosophy on children in ritual is, and at best you’ll get as many different opinions as there are people in the room. At worst, you will have pushed a hot button that operates an opener attached to a huge can of worms. This topic is near the top of my “ways to start an argument at a pagan gathering” list. I’ve seen this issue turn a harmless candle-making party and ritual planning session into a virtual war zone, and don’t even get me started on what it can do to an e-mail list.
Groups that put on large public rituals, those who work in small family coven structures and every sized group in between all eventually face this issue. Public ritual comes to most people’s minds first when they think about controversy over kids in circle. But even in small covens, where all of the members consider themselves a family and parents or “aunties and uncles” to the children of other circle members, disagreements as to if and when children should be in circle do crop up.
One of the many issues that parents who want to include their children in ritual can run into is what circle members wear (or don’t wear). Bob, a member of a “medium-sized traditional coven” is concerned about the legal ramifications involved in having children present in a group that works skyclad.
“There are certain considerations when allowing children in ritual,” he said. “For instance, being skyclad in front of a child can get a person charged with sexual abuse in many states.” Just because a child is taught that nudity is perfectly normal and not necessarily sexual, it doesn’t mean that society as a whole and the judicial system will see it that way. If a small child casually mentions seeing “Uncle John’s wee-wee” to a teacher or member of the medical profession, the parents are likely to receive a visit from Child Protective Services.
A greater danger arises when the parents of a child are separated or divorced. Even if there is no ritual nudity, a parent who wants full custody can claim that what goes on in ritual is damaging to the child. Seeing someone hold a blade to Mommy’s throat and issue a challenge to her when she enters a circle, or even witnessing a light ritual scourging, can not only be frightening to a child, these things are also not going to look good if a complaint is filed by an ex-spouse with an axe to grind.
Some small groups prefer that ritual be a place for adults only. “Circle is a place for women to relax and take a break from their daily parenting responsibilities and nurture themselves,” said Luna, who facilitates a women’s circle. She doesn’t want new mothers to be left out of circle but has very clear rules regarding the presence of children. “Babies at the breast are welcome in our women’s circle, but once a child is old enough to be left with family or a sitter, we expect that mothers will come alone. They need to be able to bond with other women and to have time that is theirs alone.”
Sage, a father of two, feels strongly that children should be included in circle. “It is vital that we teach our traditions to our children, or they will be left open to conversion by more aggressive religions and there will be no one to carry on after us.” His partner Oana agrees: “We have a responsibility to provide for the spiritual education of our children. Christian churches have Sunday school, so why is it wrong for us to teach our religion to our kids?”
When it comes to public ritual, not everyone has or understands children, and many people have very different ideas as to what is appropriate behavior and how much parental discipline is called for. Stardancer, a mother of three, feels “watching children joyfully play in a circle is a beautiful sight. We don’t want to suppress their natural energy, it can be quite infectious.” Kim, who is married and “childless by choice” does not agree. “Poorly supervised kids in ritual distract everyone else, and they don’t learn or experience anything. Don’t get me wrong, I like kids, but ritual should be a sacred space that is not filled with running around and yelling.” She doesn’t place the blame for disruptive behavior on the kids. “It’s ludicrous to expect a 3-year-old to stand quietly in a circle or to understand what’s going on.”
Some groups don’t allow anyone under the age of 18 at any event. “Our circles can get a little wild and crazy sometimes, and the owner of the place where we meet doesn’t want to worry about having minors around,” said Wolfehawk, a member of a small group that hosts open events. Other groups restrict the age of the children to middle-school-age or older and specify which events are appropriate for kids. Freya, a Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans member, said, “We let older kids par-ticipate in most of our rituals, with the excep-tion of Samhain, as it tends to be a bit too intense. Although middle school seems to be a good cut-off point, it’s not always that easy. Reaching a chronological age or grade in school is not always a good indicator as to how a child will behave in circle. I’ve seen very young children pay attention and be respectful, while older kids in middle school have behaved atrociously. It’s really all about the individual level of maturity and how the child has been allowed to behave in public by their parents.”
A few groups have experimented with various forms of paid and shared childcare. “The problem with the concept of co-op child care is that one or two parents get stuck with all the kids all the time while the parents that tend to have the most badly behaved kids just dump them off and go have fun,” advised Morgan, a solitary witch and mother of two. “Sooner or later, you get tired of doing all the work and missing out on the festivities and ritual workings.”
Some groups that have considered hiring a babysitter to provide paid childcare have run into liability concerns. They are afraid that if a child gets hurt when childcare is being paid for at an event they sponsor that the group members will get sued. Anne, an attorney, advised, “The fear of lawsuits for an injury or allegation of abuse is very real, particularly if someone is providing care without a license. People will sue over anything, and you never know what a jury will do. Liability releases aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.” Another problem with paid childcare is the policy that most pagan groups have of not turning anyone away due to inability to pay. Either you give some people free childcare and not others, or you allow some parents to bypass childcare. Either way, someone is going to feel that it’s unfair.
Yet another possible solution is making all kids under a certain age check into childcare and requiring all parents to work a shift. This concept did not go over well with me at all when one local group suggested it about a year and a half ago. My daughter, 11 years old at the time, was still in elementary school and would have been required to check in as a kid. I have trained her as a witch, taught her circle etiquette and even given her small roles in ritual at the Unitarian Universalist Association of Tacoma (UUAT). She generally behaves better than many adults in circle, and I most certainly was not going to “reward” her hard work and good behavior by allowing her to be labeled and treated as a “child.” My rule is that if a young person has continually behaved like a responsible adult in circle, then he or she deserves to be treated as such. In addition to my objection to what I considered an insult to the maturity of my daughter, an older, well-behaved young woman, I didn’t feel that I should be required to baby-sit the children of parents who couldn’t be bothered to teach their children manners or to supervise them.
Several local groups have had great success with separate rituals specially designed for kids. I was at a Mabon event earlier this year where just such a ritual was put on. The quarters were marked with colorful balloons, and the adult leaders led the children in a merry dance to lively music. I overheard several adults say, “I wish I was a kid, so that I could be in that ritual.” In this case, the children’s ritual, along with other kid’s activities, was held before the adult ritual, which still left the issue of what to do with the kids during the adult ritual.
One of the major obstacles to successfully including children in ritual with adults is the lack of a standard of behavior. What one adult interprets as children freely expressing themselves is often viewed by other adults as a lack of parenting. “I have to ask myself, do these parents let their children behave like this in school, restaurants or in other peoples’ homes?” said Laura, a mother of a 7-year-old daughter whom she is raising in a goddess tradition.
David, whose children are grown, has had negative experiences at public festivals where children were not supervised by their parents. He said, “I was at one outdoor festival where a very expensive drum was ruined by kids whose parents were nowhere in sight. There was a band of unsupervised kids running around all over the place banging on the drums and playing with things on the altars. It was like their parents just walked off and figured that the community would take care of their kids for them.”
I am one who feels very strongly that we should include our children in our rituals when possible. I tried for almost three years to bill events at the UUAT as child-friendly and trust that parents would ensure reasonable behavior from their children. It became increasing apparent to me that this was not going to work. After several complaints from adults who felt that ritual was disrupted and after having to clean up several messes left by unsupervised kids, the Gaia’s Grove earth-spirituality group had to implement a set of rules for at UUAT events. The following statement is available at the check-in table, is posted on our Web site under the heading “parents please read” and is also addressed in pre-ritual discussion:
We love our children.
We want them to be part of our community and events.
We design our rituals to be child/family friendly.
Due to past damage to chairs, carpet and other UUAT property, and to ensure that all ritual guests get the most out of their experience, we must now abide by the following rules.
- Children must physically be with a parent or adult guardian at all times.
- Children must respect altars, drums and personal item as hands-off.
- Children must not climb on stacked chairs.
- Children must not walk on the furniture.
- Children may not run nor roughhouse in the building.
- Children in circle should participate in the circle, not play with other children and/or disrupt the person/people who are speaking.
- Children may play in the nursery downstairs WITH ADULT SUPERVISION. The nursery must be picked up afterward.
- The circle guardian will gladly cut parents with fussy kids in and out of the circle as necessary.
Even with the new rules in place, it seems that some parents are just not sure exactly where the line of “disrupting the ritual” gets crossed. I found that often the parents with the most disruptive children were oblivious and did not think their kids were a problem, while the parents with well-behaved kids, who weren’t quite perfect, stressed out trying to make them behave well. We decided to enlist the help of a circle guardian who gently and discreetly offers assistance to parents whose kids are pushing the limits of being disruptive. After Gaia’s Grove implemented the rule, a handful of people decided not to bring their kids anymore, which is too bad. The ones that still bring their kids are making a concerted effort to help them to respect the ritual and others in the circle.
The challenge to groups of any size is to balance the needs and desires of parents and communities to involve children in ritual with the needs of adults who don’t want their ritual experience disrupted. It is ultimately up to parents to decide if their children’s behavior is appropriate for the circle they are bringing them to, but it is also vital that ritual facilitators address this issue and make expectations and behavioral standards clear in a supportive, yet firm, manner.