What Should We Teach Our Children About Our Religion?

By Maggie Mountain Lion

What should we teach our children about our religion? Very little, in my opinion. I think we should put our emphasis on guiding their spiritual growth, which is not the same thing at all. If we give them a thoroughly ethical and multicultural environment to grow in, I believe we can trust them to make their own meaningful decisions about religion--just as we did ourselves.

My own early Christian religious education involved me in rituals and formulas which I did not understand at all. I liked the flowers, the lights, and the music. I liked the special holy smell, a combination of beeswax, incense, and old, slightly damp books. The first prayer I ever remember learning was a rhyme which ended with the words:

"Pity my simplicity,
And suffer me to come to thee. Amen."

What on earth is that supposed to mean to a four-year-old? The word "suffer" confused me, and I worried that not understanding it was somehow naughty.

I remember, too, a large picture of Jesus in the Sunday School, illustrating the text "Suffer the little children to come unto me." That word, again! In the picture, he was blond and blue-eyed and wore a long white nightie. He didn't look like anybody I knew.

The grownups I knew agreed that "turning the other cheek" was a "nice idea," but it would not work in everyday life. Besides, there was a war on. What I learned was that religion was something that nice people did on Sundays and other special occasions; that the people who did it were more "respectable" than those who did not; that clergymen were wimps; and that none of it had much to do with "real" life.

I think Pagans have to demonstrate by the way we live that real life is very much about the service of the Gods and about something very close to what Christian contemplatives call "practicing the presence of God." When we teach our children and grandchildren, we need to emphasize that everything is sacred and that there are powerful ethical consequences to that sacredness.

The Native elders where I live teach that everything is based upon respect. First is self-respect. Respect for others flows naturally from it, and then follows respect for the earth and all our relations. But a child cannot learn respect unless we demonstrate it. When I remember the way children were treated in the time and place in which I grew up, I cringe at the ignorance displayed by some of the adults in my life, not just some family members, but teachers too--people who should have known better. People trivialized my feelings, laughed at my ideas, and put me on show. They truly believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. At school, public humiliation was part of the punishment. Children who had learning difficulties were punished for being stupid, which effectively reinforced their belief that they really were stupid and therefore unable to learn. These same adults would then pronounce: "The trouble with children nowadays is that they have no respect."

The world is in a sorry state, no doubt, but some things have improved. The teachers I know care passionately about their students. They spend a great deal of their own time and money to improve their pedagogical skills. They take for granted that before they can teach anything, they must first reinforce self- esteem. That's why it is such a pity that some parents are applying pressure to school boards to open back-to-basics schools, without all this "modern left-wing propaganda." The students who would graduate from them would be admirably equipped to function in the society of the 1950s.

For all the research done on "learning styles," one thing is certain: we teach by our example. We have to "walk our talk." It is quite true that we teach what we most need to learn, and that by teaching, we enter into a relationship with the person we teach and with the subject matter. It works best if it is a relationship based on respect. You cannot take the lid off a child's head and spoon knowledge into it. The child must be willing to receive it, to assimilate it, and eventually to own it, so that it becomes her own knowledge, which she shares with you. This willingness implies consent, and makes the child's participation in learning active instead of passive.

I have always been fascinated by the roots of words, thanks to a remarkably gifted teacher from my high school days: Miss Taylor, who taught French and who enjoyed making connections between French and German and Latin and English, reinforcing these connections with amusing anecdotes about her travels. We laughed a lot in her classes, and to this day I can remember certain words in each of these languages because I can remember the moment I first heard them from her. If you dig down to the roots of words, said Miss Taylor, you can see what they meant originally and trace their development.

"Teach" comes from a Latin root which means "tell." The lecturing style is one of the many ways of teaching--appropriate for some kinds of knowledge, especially when you remember that the word 'tale' is also related. "Educate," on the other hand, comes from e-duco, which means "lead out" or "educe." The technique of educing information from the student by means of questions which lead him through a process of logical thought is well illustrated in one of the dialogues of Plato in which Socrates takes an illiterate slave boy through the process of figuring out properties of geometric figures.

What is nowadays called "hands-on" teaching is part of the process in which a student can claim knowledge as his own. The First Nations people have a particular kind of hands-on teaching which I was lucky enough to experience at first hand. In the course of my job, I was called upon to supervise a group of teenage boys working in a woodworking shop. Panic! They all behaved responsibly in the teacher's absence, but when he got back I expressed my concerns in language even he could not misunderstand. "How can I supervise them when I have never used power tools in my life? How can I know when they are using them properly and when they are not?"

The teacher's solution to this problem was masterly. One of the boys was learning-disabled and very shy. He rarely spoke a word. The teacher got this boy to teach me how to use the shop. The boy used the method his grandfather had used to teach him how to hunt and fish. He showed me one step and had me repeat it. Then on to the next step, and so on. If I made a mistake he shook his head and patiently showed me again. If I got it right, he smiled. In the end, I had a corner shelf which I display proudly in my home; the boy had his own learning reinforced and received a huge boost to his self-esteem into the bargain.

My point is that all knowledge may be taught using essentially the same techniques. What works for academic education will work equally well in the home, whether you are teaching your children to bake cookies or to serve the Gods. In a loving and respectful environment, children open up like flowers to the sun, and the experience is joyful for them and for you.

Love and Joy: if you lay this firm foundation, you can relax and trust that whatever paths your children choose to explore when they grow older, they will "follow their own bliss," as Joseph Campbell put it. This is surely what we are here for and the most fundamental of all human rights.

Children's response to their environment changes as they grow older and accumulate knowledge and experience. Infants have to accept whatever happens to them. The best they can do is yell loudly if they are not happy, and gurgle if they are. The '"terrible twos" have discovered the word "no," and with it the realization that they have power to change things and to make things happen. Quite early, as intellect develops, children begin to ask "why?" It can be quite wearing, but I think it is vitally important to listen respectfully to a child's questions and to answer them as honestly and as simply as we can. The old way discouraged this, and even adults are discouraged from asking questions in certain areas, notably religion. There's a comic passage in Charles Dickens' Great Expectations in which Pip asks about the prison ships and is told that bad people are put in them. Then he wants to know why they are bad. His grownup sister raps him sharply on the head with her wedding ring for emphasis as she says, "It all begins with asking questions."

If the foundation of First Nations teaching is respect, then the cornerstone is balance. We share with the Plains peoples the concept of the Sacred Circle, or Medicine Wheel, oriented to the four directions. The Cheyenne (that I know of; probably others too) use this model to teach children about themselves and their world. One of the many symbolisms that the circle's four quarters represent is the symbolism of body, mind, will, and heart--with spirit at the center. If your circle is true, these elements will be perfectly balanced. Why not encourage your child to draw a circle, or to make a medicine shield, to hang on the wall over his bed? You can draw his attention to it every night as you tuck him in, and remind him of its significance in terms that he can understand.

Children have very deep feelings, which must be taken seriously and respected. They will not share with us when they are older if we trivialize what is important to them when they are small. We know there is no monster in the bedroom closet, but the fear of the monster is very real, and must never be laughed at. We could talk about the monster, and perhaps tell a story of a similar experience from our own childhood. What did we do about it? What does your child want to do about the monster in the closet? Let's ask him. He might decide he wants you to leave the light on. You could hold his hand tightly while he looks into the closet and confronts his fear--but only if he feels ready. Perhaps he would like you to help him visualize a circle of light around his bed, which monsters cannot cross. Or together you could make a talisman to hang in the closet, while chanting something like "Avaunt, monster. Go away and never come back. So mote it be." What does he think the talisman should be made of? By taking his fear seriously you have taught him that you respect his feelings, and empowered him to take action in dealing with them. Not a bad night's work.

Grief, too, must always be acknowledged, and allowed time and space. My children staged elaborate funerals for their deceased pets. I wonder what the archaeologists will think if they dig up our back yard a thousand years hence. It was a way of coming to terms with death in general and ultimately, of course, with their own mortality, although I think very young children experience far more anxiety about the possibility of parents dying, and any event such as the death of a pet that can lead into a discussion of this anxiety is useful.

If the emotion is anger, then we should acknowledge the cause of it. "I'd be mad, too, if that had happened to me. What do you want to do about it?" Here is your big chance to talk about appropriate and inappropriate ways of expressing anger and putting things right. I strongly believe that it is helpful to teach children the doctrine of Karma, as the Wicca understand it. Although I am not big on teaching them dogma, I make an exception for this one because it is such a useful approach to many ethical problems. We hope they will learn to do what is right simply because it is right, but at an earlier stage of their development the notion of consequences is helpful.

If a child loses her temper, she is told she is a "naughty girl." How many times did you hear that big boys don't cry? But what sort of person would not experience anger if confronted with injustice? And who would want to be around a man who never feels grief about anything? How much better to acknowledge the existence of all our emotions, and learn how to control them and express them in appropriate ways, instead of letting them control us.

The principal difference between a child's mind and that of an adult is a lack of time to accumulate knowledge and experience. They are fully human in every way, and they are every bit as intelligent as we are. We should be careful not to insult their intelligence, but also to respect the innocence that will fade as they gain experience. It is important to listen carefully to the question, and to be sure you are answering what they asked, and not what you think they asked. One of the children came home from school one day and asked, "Daddy, where did I come from?"

Oh, boy, thought Daddy, this is it. "Sit down, son. It's time you and I had a little talk..."

After he had blundered his way through the facts of life, he asked the question he should have asked first:

"Was that what you wanted to know?"

"Not really, said his son. "It's just that there's a new kid in our class, and he came from Toronto, and I was just wondering where I came from."

It is also important to be able to say "I don't know", and even more important to add, "Let's find out." Sometimes there are no simple answers, and this must be acknowledged too. Exploring together is one of the ways that teaching and learning can become one of the great joys of life. If the child remembers the joy, she is more likely to continue learning throughout life.

The best tool you have is the child's own sense of wonder. For children, everything is indeed "full of gods," as Thales put it. To provide logical and scientific explanations for the marvels that surround them does not explain away the mystery. On the contrary, it should augment it. The way all of nature fits into a pattern, an elegant dance of life and death and renewal, inspires awe, and this sense of awe is at the beginning of all religion.

Another of my teachers told me of a childhood experience so potent that she never forgot it. Her father woke her in the middle of the night, bundled her up warmly and, without a word, took her outside to see the stars. It was a clear, frosty night of no Moon. In memory, it seems that was the first time she was ever aware of the stars--a powerful and numinous experience. To experience them as if for the first time was a kind of initiation, a transforming experience, a sudden revelation that this child was involved in a creation of great beauty and power. A specially good display of Northern Lights would be a good opportunity to share this kind of experience with your children, or wild weather on a lonely beach, when you feel as if you are truly on the edge of the world. I would recommend keeping silence--a good discipline in itself, for both parent and child. Resist the desire to make the point. Let the child absorb the wonder, and then be ready to listen and explain and discuss later, when the child comes to you. In addition to all the scientific data, don't forget to ask, "How did it make you feel?"

Celestial events have a huge impact on us, and do wonders for our sense of scale, but we have no control over them. This is where the "perfect trust" comes in--trust of the Gods, trust as an act of will.

It is important also to find experiences in which a child can participate. If you have a garden, encourage your children to help you with it, and perhaps let them have a small patch of their very own. With care, their little garden can produce flowers and things to eat. With neglect, they will learn about responsibility and consequences. Let them see that they can have an effect on their environment, for good or ill. Let them observe and participate in the cycle of growth, death and renewal. Perhaps you know appropriate little songs you can sing together while you are working in the garden--"Inch by inch" is a good one. If you have no garden, you can still sprout beans in a glass jar, or grow a windowbox of herbs.

Companion animals have a beneficial effect on our mental health. Here, again, there is a combination of learnings going on at the same time. The child learns to admire and respect beings of other species and the wonder of the creation, and also the essential lesson of responsibility and consequences. Which of us does not remember the first time we saw newborn kittens or puppies, or perhaps the birth itself?

One of my children brought home some caterpillars in a jar. We found an old, cracked fish tank in the back of the garage, and a scrap of window screening big enough to cover the top. We went back to the bush where he had found the caterpillars and collected fresh twigs and leaves. Over the space of a few weeks we watched the caterpillars eat enormous amounts of greenery ("See? I told you eating green vegetables makes you grow big and strong!") and eventually transform themselves into pupae. After that there were disappointing days when nothing seemed to be happening.

"They're all dead, Mum. We should throw them out."

"No, no, let's be patient. Let's wait and see."

Sure enough, one bright sunny day, the butterflies emerged from their long sleep, stretched their wings and flew away. We all felt exhilarated by our participation in this miraculous event--no less miraculous, to my mind, because it happens every time. There was plenty of material here to draw inferences about human life, spiritual life, the love and wisdom of the Gods, respect for all our relations, not forgetting a dawning interest in biology.

We had a more sobering experience with a frog named Sam. We used that same fish tank to watch frogspawn change into tadpoles. The mortality rate was high, and only one of them made it to full frogdom. I said we must take him back to the pond where we had found him and let him go free. We carried him in a jam jar, and just as we were going to release him into the pool which had lots of rocky crevices and weeds in it, one of the boys decided to put him into a wide-open, clear pond instead. Five minutes later he came running to me, in tears.

"A big fish ate Sam," he sobbed.

Nature isn't all kittens and butterflies, and it is necessary to learn that it has a shadow side, too. This kind of experiential learning, which can begin at a very early age, is an important step on the spiritual path.

(...and if this particular cute kitten jumps on to my desk and scatters my notes one more time, I shall spifflicate him!)

So far, I have been talking about education in general, and a generic brand of Paganism. I think these considerations have to come first. As children grow older they will be ready for a little basic theology, but wait. No need to rush things. Take your cue from them. When they ask questions, have your answers prepared. They will always learn more from example than from precept, and they will watch you with their bright eyes as you greet the Moon and the Sun and honor the sacred images in your home. They will learn from you, if they learn from anyone, that religion is not something we take out of mothballs for special occasions--something we do because it is "nice" and "respectable"--but the context in which we live every aspect of our lives.

Together as a family, we celebrate the Wheel of the Year; not only by observing the seasons of nature and the garden, but also by our family festivals. I agree with Ceisiwr Serith that children do not belong in a circle of initiates, but the observances of Thanksgiving and Samhain, Yule and Ostara are for families. Ours are just a little different from most. It is true that the Christmas tree has its roots in our Pagan past--so much the better--but it is still a symbol we share with our non-Pagan friends. It is good to point out the similarities as well as the differences. There is an opportunity here to talk about different religious beliefs and practices, the need for tolerance, and respect for everyone's right to religious freedom. Three-year-old Willow, whose parents are Pagan, was taken by her anxious grandmother to a service at the Kingdom Hall.

"Why does everyone sit in straight lines, Grandma?" she asked, her attention attracted by a very powerful symbol. "We sit in circles."

You should be saying brief and simple prayers with your little ones, morning and evening, as well as grace before meals. Small children love routine and repetition, and will be quick to point out to you every error and omission. Later, you can encourage them to make up their own prayers and chants, and empower them by using their inventions yourself. They might also like to make a shrine in their own room, or add something to the family altar: a special shell found on a trip to the beach, perhaps, or a pine cone, or a feather.

Try orienting your home to the four directions, as far as possible. It would be perfect to have a fireplace on a south wall, the bathroom in the west, and bedroom windows facing the sunrise. But you can arrange shells on a west-facing window ledge, or hang a seascape on a west wall. These are constant reminders of our place in the circle of the world, and an easy way to draw the children's attention to it.

One word of caution, though: I feel very strongly that nothing should be taught about spellcraft until you are very sure that your child is mature enough and balanced enough to grasp the ethics involved and to resist the urge to display her power. This is something most of us have trouble with at some time, and the burden of guilt which a youngster might have to bear is not worth it. Besides, what on earth would the school counselors think?

Most of us feel that the so-called rites of passage are important for children, but I suspect that they are more important to the grownups. If you are planning a ceremony to celebrate an important event in the child's life, be sure the child himself wants to do it. It sometimes happens that parents get carried away in planning a menstruation ritual, for example, thinking to liberate their daughters from the wretchedness that was associated with menarche in their time, only to find that there has been an equal and opposite reaction to that expression of feminism among very young women, who do not wish to discuss the subject, even with Mum--perhaps especially not with Mum. Rites of passage are supposed to have a spiritual effect on the participants. They are not for the benefit of anyone else. They should be very personal, and the child should share in composing them and preparing for them. You will need to discuss who gets invited, and whether it would be appropriate to invite friends from school who belong to non-Pagan families. Do we include their parents in the invitation, and how do we explain what we are doing?

When my niece was married, I was very impressed by the remarks the United Church minister addressed to the congregation. Marriage is a ceremony of transformation, he said, and the rite acknowledges that the transformation had already begun in the hearts of the bride and groom. Aphrodite is the Goddess not merely of eroticism, but of the transforming power of love. Here was a point at which our two religions could talk to one another.

There has been some discussion, in this regard, about the ritual of Wiccaning. For many of us, on the lam from monotheistic religion, Wiccaning is associated with baptism. There is an essential difference, however. A Wiccaning is not an induction into the Craft, but a welcoming and blessing of the child into the world. The sponsors promise

"...to be a friend...to aid and guard, to watch over and love until...he shall be ready to choose his own path."

There is a huge distinction here from the baptism of infants, who are carried to church when they are very young indeed. A sponsor makes solemn promises on behalf of and in the name of the infant, who is then held accountable for keeping those promises in adult life. The child is then ritually cleansed of "original sin." This is a baldly magical act, based on magical thinking--and it is coercive magic. Let us be very sure none of this finds its way into our rites of passage or any other spiritual activities we share with our children.

So far we have dealt with the issues of responsibility and consequences in hands-on contexts. As your children grow older, the thorny subject of ethics needs to be addressed, over and over again, at different levels of maturity and understanding. I cherish a story about a high school teacher who was very proud of an ethics course he developed. One day he was greeted in the street by a former pupil, who told him:

"I really enjoyed that course on ethics we done. I got a lot out of it. But I failed the practical."

Many people confuse ethics and religion, as though they were the same thing, which they are not (although of course they overlap). A political party here in British Columbia included in its constitution a commitment to "traditional Christian values." A Jewish member of the party not unnaturally took issue with this language. It was explained to him that of course no one was suggesting that a Jew could not be ethical, but that the standard of ethics for everyone was set and established by Christianity. He resigned.

There are discouragingly large numbers of people who really believe this, and simply don't get it when you try to tell them that decent behavior is the expected norm for everybody. Our social responsibility and our personal self-esteem require it, no matter what our religious beliefs or lack of them. From the conviction that Christianity invented morality comes the corollary belief that specifically Christian ethics are the only right ones, with no room for disagreement or interpretation.

As our children grow older, we need to discuss controversial issues with them in a respectful manner, giving serious attention to their opinions, and gently guiding them to examine the grounds on which they hold those opinions. Shouting them down when they disagree with something you hold sacred will alienate, not convince, them.

A good technique is to ask questions: "Why do you think so? Where did you find that information? What would happen if you carried that course of action to its logical conclusion? How would you feel if it happened to you? Is anyone being harmed?"

Ideally, we should guide our children to the point where they do what they believe to be right not from fear of being caught, but simply because that's the way self-respecting persons behave. It is important to avoid making them feel like wretched sinners who are helpless to improve without divine intervention; or to hold over them the image of the Ultimate Authority ("Just wait till your father gets home").

When I was at school, I knew a very nice boy who came from an extremely strict family. Michael didn't smoke, or drink, or go out with girls. He relieved the pressure by playing a berserker style of rugby. In his first year at university--mere months after escaping from a home in which the rules were so strict--he was jailed for getting very drunk and throwing a policeman off a bridge into the river. He was not a bad person; he just had no idea how to discipline himself.

A friend who grew up in a household where physical punishment was meted out for every small transgression learned two things from the experience: first, don't get caught; and second, violence is the way grownups deal with problems.

The results are all around us, and on the television news every evening. Even so, the prescription offered for this alarming state of affairs is a return to "traditional values:" more of the same! This is not morality, it is coercion. The discipline we should teach our children, by our example, is self-discipline, the only kind that really works. It takes patience and consistency, over a very long period of time, no matter how tired we are; and it's hard. There is no instant formula. But when you get it right--or even only partly right--the rewards are enormous.

The home is not the only influence. As soon as a child is old enough to go to someone else's birthday party, he or she is exposed to another family's way of doing things. It seems to be a common reaction for people--adults as well as children--to see another way of doing things as "wrong." I was different: I thought everything about our house was ordinary, and other people's houses were exciting. I always wanted to try someone else's way of doing things. When I was seventeen, and fresh from my first trip overseas, I insisted on setting the table in the French way. My mother would change everything back again. At last, exasperated, she said, "When you have your own home you can set the table any way you like, but in my house you will do it my way!" I thought she was being very unreasonable and narrow-minded. Fortunately, we got it out of our system over the issue of setting the table and did not need to get into any arguments of a seriously cosmic nature.

Children will observe what goes on in other people's homes and ask you questions about them. Here is a wonderful opportunity to set an example of tolerance. If you do not know why the people next door wear unusual clothes or eat exotic food or have pictures of unfamiliar Gods on their walls, make it your business to find out. Get to know the parents of your child's friends and ask them politely about their different customs. If you go about it the right way, people are not likely to be offended by your curiosity. However, brace yourself for the possibility of being chewed out for your ignorance of the only right way of doing things--just in case.

If your children attend a school whose student body has a good ethnic mix, make a point of being active in the PTA, volunteer as a teacher's aide, talk to the teachers about celebrating United Nations Day or finding some other way to expose the children to an awareness of ethnic richness and human rights.

Make sure your home contains a rich selection of books and visual materials. If you find story books that you approve of to share with your children at bedtime, they will probably crowd out less desirable books. You have the right not to have offensive stuff in your home, whether it comes in through the door or through the electronic media. This is not censorship, but choice. When the children get older, be prepared to discuss calmly and intelligently why you dislike the lyrics of some rap music, or why you don't want them to watch violent programs on television. Ask them what they enjoy about it, how they would feel if it happened to them, if they think it is okay for the "good guys" to beat up the "bad guys." Later, use such opportunities to discuss the concepts of presumption of innocence and due process of law. This ties in neatly with history lessons. Seize the chance to impress on them that innocent people are sometimes lynched, and that in the Burning Times, the law presumed guilt; it was up to the accused to prove innocence.

Recently, there have been initiatives to ban certain older works of literature--by "liberals," I'm sorry to say--because they portray women or Jews or African-Americans in a pejorative way. I disagree. By all means let your daughters and your sons, too, watch The Taming of the Shrew, and use it to lead into a discussion of the reasons why there is a Women's Movement. Many of the young women I talk to simply do not believe me when I try to tell them about the status of women before about 1850. They think I make it up. The Merchant of Venice has come in for condemnation because of the villainy of its principal character, who is a Jew; but the text admits of an interpretation that shows how the hostile attitudes of the Christian characters have embittered him. I have seen the part of Shylock played by a Jewish actor who, in an interview, said he was impressed by what Shakespeare understood about Jews. In a production by a Jewish director, the Kaddish was sung offstage for Jessica, who elopes with a Christian, in a very moving scene. Understanding the attitudes that prevailed in earlier times is essential to understanding the history of ideas, and the ideas of our own culture. I would also like to add that I think children should be taught the Bible as literature, if only because so much of the culture of our society assumes a familiarity with it. By all means include the Koran and other scriptures also. If comparative religion is not offered as a course at your local high school, perhaps you should do some research and develop a course yourself. In this way, you will learn too, and one of the important things you will learn is precisely why you are a Pagan and what is important to you.

Your children may be invited to a friend's wedding or bar mitzvah, or some other religious ceremony. Be sure they understand that this is an honor and remind them that appropriate behavior demonstrates respect for the religious objects and feelings present at the occasion. Every Pagan has been hurt by insults to what is sacred to us, and we must be careful not to inflict such a hurt on anyone else. This is a good way for people to share their religious practices without anyone assuming that any coercion is going on.

The day may come when you will have to come to terms with a child's wish to practice a different religion from yours. You probably did this to your parents, and your right to do so is also your child's right. If you can manage it gracefully and with respect, it need not result in a family rift. If you truly believe that "all the Gods are one" and that "all paths lead to the center," then it follows that you must respect your child's choice. It does not mean that you have failed. Problems might arise if they joined an exclusive and intolerant religion that encouraged them to repudiate your bad influence. All you can do in a case like that is to keep reminding them you exist, by means of birthday presents and so on, scrupulously respecting their wishes about what they want their children to be taught. In time they may mellow out and cease to see your religion as a threat. And grandchildren, too, grow up eventually and claim the right to make their own choices.

I was approached at a Wiccan gathering by a beautiful young woman who had the same name as myself--Margaret. She was seventeen, and I got quite dewy-eyed about being seventeen and being called Margaret. She confided that she wanted to become a Witch, but her parents simply did not understand. She did not seem to be a rebel type--no purple hair or safety pins through the eyelids--but a very sweet, intelligent, ordinary sort of girl. I told her that most of us were required to go through a waiting period as a sort of first test of our resolve. That we should not be surprised that her mother believed all the worst things about the Craft, and wanted to protect her precious daughter. And that, if she did not antagonize and frighten her mother, the time would come when she could get what she wanted and still have a good relationship with her parents. I don't know if she took my advice. Children rebel; it's human nature. If everyone had dutifully accepted what the elders told them, we would still be living in the treetops. Rebellion in adolescents is not something we should be alarmed about--on the contrary, I think we should start to worry if we see no signs of it, but we need to let them know that we have noticed.

When I was visiting a wise friend one day, her teenage son wandered into the room.

"You need a haircut, said my friend. "You hair looks terrible."

He ignored her. A few minutes later he reappeared.

"When are you going to get your haircut?" she demanded. "I can't stand how untidy it is."

He smiled quietly to himself. After he had gone I remarked that I was surprised my friend would mind about his hair.

"I don't," she said, "but he's rebelling, you see, and if I don't notice, he'll have to think of something else."

Teenagers will keep pushing the limits to be sure they know where they are. They need limits, and if you are too permissive you can make them feel insecure and uncared for. The name of this game is "Hey, Mum and Dad! Look at me!" They need to feel that we are taking them seriously. We must always notice, and try to strike a balance between being too strict and too lenient. This is the area in which I made the most mistakes with my own children. I have had lots of time to think about what I should have done. Elders are not wise because they did everything perfectly, but because they learned from their mistakes. I recommend sharing this particular insight with your teenagers. Don't pretend to be perfect--they know better!

Conservative parents are not the only ones whose children feel the need to rebel. The offspring of wildly unconventional parents may rebel by wearing suits and ties, getting degrees in business administration, and going to church. Be prepared.

Parents are weird by definition, and most teenagers go through a phase of being embarrassed by us. My mother has a very unusual laugh, of which my brother and I were deeply ashamed. We thought she sounded like poor, mad Mrs. Rochester in the movie version of Jane Eyre. One day, when Mum was getting ready to go to a school function, my brother blurted out, "Remember, Mum, don't let them hear your madwoman's laugh."

Teenagers sometimes get along better with grandparents than with parents. In some cultures, including those of many First Nations, the responsibility for raising the children is often laid on the grandparents, which is one reason why these cultures tended to be stable and conservative and unable to deal well with the radical changes we imposed.

To have a parent who is a Witch may be a source of deep shame for some youngsters. Just when you feel it is safe to tell them the "W word," when they are old enough not to blab it at school, they are also old enough to hear the usual negative garbage which passes for what "everybody knows" about Witches. Confusion and guilt about your weirdness may manifest in a refusal to hear anything you try to say to them, and even to make a point of joining a mainstream congregation, as Aleister Crowley did to shock his strict evangelical parents.

When one of my children was going through a difficult time, experiencing feelings he could not articulate, the school principal suggested I send him to spend the summer at a Bible camp. When I refused, he said, "There's nothing that could possibly do him any harm."

Probably he was right, but the experience would certainly have added to the boy's stress in attempting to come to terms with the weirdness of his wayward mother. I could not help wondering how the principal would have reacted if I had suggested taking him to a Pagan festival, at which there would be "nothing that could possibly do him any harm."

At that period of my life I was single and unemployed. I had a lover who was good and kind and wonderful, but not "respectable." I was afraid that if "they" found out I was a Witch on top of everything else, my right to keep the children might be challenged. I walked a tightrope, and I still do. Now that I have a job I enjoy, I am afraid of losing it. I go around cunningly disguised as a nice, normal, middle-aged lady.

I work in a high school (as support staff, not as a teacher) and so I am in daily contact with adolescents. My favorite time of the day is the noon hour, when students come to hang out with me. They talk about neutral things at first, sounding me out, gradually introducing more serious and controversial subjects when they feel they can trust me. This can be tricky. Some of the students find me comfortable and non-threatening. Some think that I am too old to know about anything that matters, and if I ever did know, I must have forgotten by now. Some think I am crazy but harmless, and a few are making shrewd guesses that get very close to blowing my cover.

They ask me if I think marijuana should be legalized, if I think Dungeons and Dragons is satanic, if I think masturbation is sinful, if I am aware that Witchcraft is a religion (Yes, I've heard that!). I try to be scrupulously honest in my conversations with the students. This is my way of showing my respect for them. Young people recognize a phony a mile away. I try to steer the discussion in the general direction of freedom of conscience, multiculturalism, asking oneself if what one is doing is likely to harm anyone--all those nice, politically correct concepts that everyone is supposed to agree with and some of the parents emphatically do not. I have never discussed religion with any of the students, and if I get hauled up before the Inquisition (which we never expect) I can say so on oath--for all the good it will do.

The principal of a local elementary school asked me to read Tarot for a fund-raising Fun Night. I dressed up as "Madame Maggie, gypsy fortune-teller," to try to get across the idea that this is not the same person who is around their kids on a daily basis. I have done this now for three consecutive years, and it's very popular. I have non-stop lineups of children and their parents. I try to respect the oracle, and to be honest with the querents--and pray that the Tower does not come up. (It did, once, for a little boy. He looked at me with enormous sad eyes and said, "My mum and dad are splitting up.") Last year the local Native band asked me to do my act at their Hallowe'en party. There I was, a Witch, reading Tarot cards for a crowd of Native kids dressed up as witches and spooks. I enjoyed the irony of the situation.

This is a way in which I hope to gain acceptance of my weirdness in the community at large. All the same, I know I am taking risks. I wish I could be completely open with them, but most of them are simply not ready for it. Neither am I!

Do you remember the furor that arose when sex education was first introduced into schools? Without it, adolescents got information from each other (or misinformation; some of it was amazing!). They experimented, often with disastrous results. The same thing happens occasionally to youngsters who are attracted by occultism and can't get any factual information about it. Just telling normal, rebellious teens that it is "bad" only reinforces their desire to try it. When their experiments go awry the community is more convinced than ever that the occult is evil. With this in mind, one enlightened member of our school staff has placed books on Witchcraft in the school library--Scott Cunningham, Marion Weinstein, the Campanellis. I think the students are disappointed; the Craft is not nearly as racy as they had imagined!

Like occultism, the will is also misunderstood in our culture. "Strong-willed" or "self-willed" is an epithet often applied to "naughty children", as it was to me. I was taught to subordinate my self-will to the will of God, or the head honcho who represented him. It was not until I entered the Craft that the education of this part of me began. My Craft teacher talked about the True Will, and when I asked him what he meant by that, he said, "Imagine that you have just come from the doctor's office, and you have been given six months to live. What would you do with those six months?"

"That's easy," I told him. "I'd move to the country, and have a garden, and write."

"Then why aren't you doing it?"

It took more than a decade, but here I am, doing it. (Hey, Dad, look at me!) By exercising my own will, and doing what I want to do, I am growing as a person, and harming none. Now I am trying to give this knowledge, belatedly, to my adult children. Perhaps their generation will get it right.

On reflection, I think the single most important thing we can give our children is the knowledge that we love them, just the way they are. I think if you get that bit right, everything else will work out. By love, I don't mean sentimentality, or lavish gifts, or any other kind of indulgence. Love is not warm fuzzies, it's an act of will. Love is driving across town at midnight because someone missed the bus. Love is holding someone whose best friend stole her boyfriend, without saying "I told you so." Love is listening, patiently and respectfully. "Perfect love and perfect trust" is not just something we say in circle; it's a rule of life.

In a time of transition, with prophecies of millennial doom all around us, our values and assumptions are challenged. The modern Craft movement is one response to this challenge. There are two possible ways of dealing with it (unless you count trying to ignore it as a way). The first is to react by scuttling back into our nice, safe cave with the shadows on the wall, sticking to the old tried-and-true, back to basics. The other is to welcome the challenge, like a warrior, as an opportunity to make changes. This involves an awesome responsibility to be scrupulously honest about our motives, and to be willing to accept any and all of the consequences of our choices. We cannot all be in the front lines, but we can influence and inspire the next generation by our teaching and, above all, by our example of respect and balance.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, Keepers of the Earth: Native Americn Stories and Environmental Activities for Children (Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum, 1988).

Margie McArthur, WiccaCraft for Families (Custer, Washington: Phoenix, 1994).


Maggie Mountain Lion is a Witch who goes around disguised as an ordinary person in a small community where about three quarters of the population are First Nations people. Her large family is all now grown up, so she has time, at last, to pause and reflect, and agonize about what she should have done.

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