In thinking on the last post and the centers Nicholas Haney brought up in God-centric?, is that one of the centers that tends to get left by the wayside in the larger polytheist and Pagan blogs is family, and in specific how we raise our kids in our religions. It is something that has been on mind for a while. There’s a host of questions I will tackle here that I hope will generate deeper dialogue in the Pagan and polytheist blogs and communities. I believe these are really important questions, tied not just to the center of family, but to the health and well-being of all the centers. Without children, all we have are new converts to sustain the traditions and religions. In my view, that is a lot of people coming to understand a whole new way of being, whereas kids raised polytheist do not have that learning curve, or the need to decolonize, or remove as much of the dominant culture’s mindset.
Before I get to the questions, however, I think it is important to tackle some of the reasons that I have heard, in person and online, for why people do not raise their children in our religious traditions. Chief among them is some variation of “I don’t want to force my kid to follow my religion” or “I don’t want to indoctrinate my child.” I will be honest, these reasons make me want to pull out my hair. The definition of indoctrination is:
to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs
Raising our children in our religion(s) is simply not indoctrination. Teaching them about our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, is not indoctrination. Unless you are actively denying your child the ability to question concepts and people in the religion, not allowing them to explore the religion, or are actively denying your child’s ability to consider other points of view, you are not indoctrinating your child. You are, rather, raising your child in the religion. There is a gulf of difference between teaching a child “This is what the sagas say about Thor and these are my experiences with Him,” or “This is how we worship together as a family,” and “This is the only way to worship Thor” or “Only our way is the true way to worship Thor.” Now, that is not to say that a given family will not have traditions, taboos specific to them, or certain ways they worship, but to entirely cut a child off from alternative views, and stunts the religious growth of a child. My taboos are just that: mine. We do not have taboos on offerings as a family. What we do have are basic expectations of respect in religious space, how offerings that have been expended are disposed of, regular times for prayer, and guidelines and rules on handling altars, statues of our Gods, and various tools that may be on the altars. For instance, on our Gods’ altar our son can dispose of the liquid (usually water, but sometimes beer or mead) offerings we make to Them. He does not touch the offerings to Gods he does not have an active relationship with. Sylverleaf makes regular offerings to Frigga on this altar that our son is not to touch, as that is between her and Frigga. He is not allowed to touch the swords or the hammer on the altar without permission and an adult present.
How do we bring children into our religions? Is it from birth? If not from birth, when do they begin to learn, and what can they learn at what age? How do we help our children understand religious phenomena? If one has a very active religious life, how does one relate to a child that simply does not? Vice versa?
The answers I have to these questions are lived by our son. We brought our son into our religion by doing a baby blessing as soon as he was born, asking the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits to watch over him. He was there as we prayed at our altar when we first brought him home, and has been raised with us praying and making offerings ever since. Had we waited we would probably have started teaching him about our religion around age 3-5. He has been raised with the prayers we make before he goes to school and before he goes to bed, and at each and every meal. He is living polytheism. He has been raised with a Dad who takes time out to explain religious concepts on his level, and who is not shy about being very blunt that “the Runes ask for blood in Gebo, and this is something you are not ready for yet, if you ever do pick Them up.” He knows that if and when he does, it will be his choice and he will be able to make it on his own.
I firmly believe in raising children in our religions. Without our children learning our religion, and co-religionists teaching their religion, there is no way for the religions to continue. Teaching kids only a little bit about the Gods, Ancestors, and spirits, and not making daily prayers, devotion, etc. is giving a little soil to the seed and expecting a tree to grow to its full height. Not teaching one’s children at all about the Gods is denying soil to a tree entirely. Without a firm grounding in religion, the soil is loose and is blown away in the wind, or swept aside in the rain. If we desire good religious communities that will last beyond us, we need to raise the children in our communities. Indeed, we must do far better by them than has been done by us.
So how do I relate to our son when I have a very active religious life? Some of the explanations we work with him on are helped along because we have taught our son how to interpret the Holy Powers’ messages, whether he has a reading done, asks Them to work with him through his intuition, or look for omens. A good chunk of this work has been to encourage him to trust his intuition, to admit when his signal clarity is not where it needs to be, and to ask for help when he needs it. He is encouraged to admit when he does not know. We regularly talk on our religion, on the religious work I do, how it feels, and how it affects me. I bring my son along when I do certain religious work, such as tending the graveyards I have been called to do, teaching him how to respectfully make offerings at the gate, to ask permission from the Dead before tending Their graves, and why we leave offerings of tobacco, or why I blow smoke on graves when I smoke a pipe as we clean.
The biggest link between all the religious work I do, and explaining it to our son, and in some cases involving our son, is the concept of Gebo: gift-for-a-gift. Reciprocity. That word opens up the larger world of animism and polytheism because it places us not at the center, but in relationships with all things, all Beings. It is why we leave or make offerings to the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, landvaettir, housevaettir, and so on. It is that recognition and/or fulfillment of reciprocity. It is sometimes asking for help, which may be a form of reciprocity in and of itself. Bringing our son to rituals, performing them with him, helping him develop as a polytheist, in and of itself is a form of reciprocity with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, as it ensures that the religion, and the Gebo engendered between the Holy Powers and ourselves, and our communities does not die with us. It allows us to pass on the maegen and hamingja of these relationships between our communities, and the generations that follow on with, and after us.
Helping our children develop their own understanding of the Gods, their intuition, and communication with Them is, to us, part and parcel of raising a child in a polytheist home. It is the hope that when they raise their own family they will have a well-developed understanding of how to understand the Gods even if they never engage in ecstatic spiritual techniques or do trance work. Sylverleaf, for instance, does not do much in the way of ecstatic work at all. It is simply not a part of her religious life. A simple divination technique she uses when she asks Frigga questions is to hold two of Her sacred keys in her hands, and the hand which is heavier is the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. If there are more complex questions she may ask me to read the Runes. If she needs to get answers from her Ancestors, she may work with an oracle deck dedicated to Them. Having two very different parents in this regard gives our son more models of polytheist life to understand, recognize, and live himself. Raising our children as polytheists, then, is more than simply teaching and explaining. It is modeling good Gebo, and the ways we do things by actively living in relationship with our Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir. We are living examples to our children.
What age should we bring our children into animism or polytheism? It is my belief that it is never too early nor too late to begin a lived animist/polytheist life. Regardless of our age or the age of our children, sharing our religion is an important bond that we share between our communities, our families, and our generations. It is the lattice-work that makes a strong bridge between the Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another.
In speaking with Sylverleaf on this, she has said it has been far harder for her to keep with regular prayers and offerings in contrast to me because she was raised in a largely non-religious household. Lacking a background in any religion made it that much harder for her when she did find the Gods and became a Pagan, as she had no models to follow except those in books, and no community to speak of for quite a long time. Living a religion does have a learning curve, and she hit this hard because until we met she did not have regular time for prayer, any rote prayers to draw upon, or regular times for making offerings. In talking this over coffee and pancakes, it hit me that she was denied a lot of things that I took for granted in my religious studies as a child. For one, pondering the nature of God was probably something very hard to tackle in a home that either did not think much on God or thought the subject of God was a non-starter where conversation was concerned. I was able to talk with priests who were more than happy to answer whatever questions I threw at them, digging into the meat of theology with me and explaining as best they could their understanding of Scripture, the nature of God, and where we fit into the Catholic cosmology. That grounding is absent when religion is not lived. The hunger of curiosity cannot be sated when the entire subject of religion is off the table. It also cannot be sated when the religious community one belongs to has a piss-poor grounding in its own theology, as she discovered her youth ministers had, during the short time she attended a church. This is why our children need not only parents grounded in good relationships with their Gods, Ancestors, and vaettir, but communities, and their leaders, priests, spiritual specialists, etc. need this too. We cannot support the centers of our communities without them all doing the necessary work of living the religion.