Circling Groups for Children
It is my experience that pagan parents usually have one of two choices when it comes to public (or private group) Sabbat and Esbat observations: Either leave their kids at home, or risk exposing them to some of the less desirable behaviors that are sometimes seen in the pagan community or the distaste of other pagan adults who do not approve of their presence- also distasteful. Many non-parents are concerned that children can’t handle some of the “heavier” themes of these groups, but many parents will agree that kids are in many cases far better equipped to deal with “mysteries” than adults. Children are closer to their spiritual center than adults. Children are natural dreamers. Any child that can sit still through a story can sit through a guided meditation and any child that can sit still in school can sit through a 30 minute ritual, assuming they want to. Drum circles, ecstatic dancing and processionals are a child’s delight. Why leave them out?
The sad fact is that many pagan adults (the younger ones get the rap for this, but my experience is that the older ones are just as guilty) see ritual time as party time. At a drum circle I was once approached by a drunken fool who leeringly informed me that I was so sexy when I was ecstatic dancing, he couldn’t stand it. My children and I have been kept awake at spiritual retreats by drunken whooping and other partying noise, quite unrelated to spirituality and I have heard embarrassing complaints about fellow convention goers from hotel staff. We went to a Pagan movie night once, and a couple had their hands down each other’s pants in full view of the entire room, including my teenagers. When I commented, I was told that I was puritanical and not a real witch. This is not the sort of ethics and morality I wish to instill in my children. Alas, what is a parent to do?
Of course, the answer to many problems in the Pagan community seems to be to form your own group. I am of the opinion that you should join an existing group if at all possible, but if it’s not possible, then you must do what you must. Find a friend or two that have similar outlook and create a family Circle. It’s not easy to create, and still harder to maintain, a Circle of any sort, but adding kids into the mix creates some special problems.
A problem may arise with differences of tradition. That is why I’m calling these groups Circles, rather than Covens. These are, and should be, all-path groups. We want our children to be exposed to spiritual things, but not necessarily indoctrinated. We want them to chose their own path. So, welcome all paths into your group and keep things as general as possible. The more specific you get, the more likely you are to alienate members of the group who don’t want their kids indoctrinated that way. Discuss plans for activities ahead of time, email each other your ritual formats so that traditional differences can be addressed ahead of time and encourage the parents of heads of households to take turns planning events so everyone can have a chance to focus on what’s important to them.
Lay down the rules from the beginning: Is this really a kids group, or is it a family group? Are members dropping their kids off, or hanging out and participating as a family? Is smoking permitted at gatherings? Where and under what circumstances? What about drinking and the use of illegal drugs? What about legal ritual hallucinogens? What about language? Behavior? Under what circumstance, if any, is flirtation okay? Is nudity permitted? Under what circumstances? Create a sexual harassment/misconduct policy. These boundaries must be clearly delineated. Make sure all members of the group are aware of these rules from day one. Write them down. If someone makes a minor infraction (such as unthinkingly bringing a six pack or inappropriately lighting a cigarette), don’t make a huge deal about it, just gently remind the group. Those who make severe or repeated infractions should be removed from the group and perhaps referred to law enforcement if it is warranted. Make sure everyone understand that this is a possibility.
Another reason to call your group a Circle instead of a coven is that you don’t want to limit the participation of your members to just this group. This group focuses on kids. There are adults involved too and they may wish to be involved in other activities with their own Covens or other groups that are separate from what you do. This should be encouraged.
There should be no central leadership in this group. Central leadership encourages teaching one tradition over another, and I don’t believe that that is appropriate for young seekers at this stage. Members of the group should take turns providing different services to the group. You can take turns hosting, leading, providing snacks, planning activities, etc. but don’t let one person do too much for too long. This causes burnout and resentment and that is the leading cause of many good groups going bad. It can also cause “holier than though syndrome”, which is another leading cause for groups falling apart. You will need someone to be in charge of keeping people contacted, (You’ll probably want to set up a Yahoo or Facebook group or similar for this.) but the entire management of the group should not fall on any individual’s shoulders.
Now that you’ve got your group, your rules and your lack of hierarchy sorted out, you’ll want to set up a ritual outline. This should be somewhat tradition-neutral. Doing things in a similar manner each time provides a sense of sacredness and also makes things more comfortable. It also provides a clear division of labor.
This is what the Sacred Hearth Circle does:
I like to gather into the Circle with a lot of clapping and singing, banging of drums, shaking of rattles and whatnot. Welcome each child individually and introduce anyone who is new.
2. Opening Prayer and Statement of Intent.
You don’t need to do this the same each time. You should take turns doing this part and each person should do it in the way that best suits them. This shows the kids that there are different ways of doing this. Later when they chose their own tradition, they will do what feels best for them, but for now they are exploring. You can make this part more kid friendly by simplifying the language and giving each child a part in the process. This shouldn’t last more than five minutes. I suggest lighting a candle saying something like “Welcome friends, we are here on this special day (identify occasion) to celebrate (whatever). Today we will be (doing what), in honor of (what). We invite the God/dess (God(s) to invite) to join with us here and to look with favor upon us.” Short and simple.
3. Guided meditation
The meditation should focus on the theme that has been decided for the group. Its purpose is to get everyone into the right frame of mind. It should be short. 3-5 minutes or even less. This serves as an introduction to the theme of the day and helps the kids settle down and focus. But if it goes on too long, it will have the opposite effect and the kids will lose it. Remember that kids don’t necessarily know how to do the “relax” thing before the meditation, so make sure that bit is included in your recitation. Many guided meditations you find on the net or where-ever assume that you already know to do the preliminary relaxation before beginning the guided part, so you may need to add it. You can start with a “grounding and centering” type visualization and then a story our journey like meditation that introduces the topic.
4. Craft or Activity and Story or Lesson
The craft should be related to the theme of the day. While the kids are working on it, you can talk to them about the theme by telling them a story or discussing how the craft relates to the theme. For example, you might go apple picking and you could tell them about harvest Gods and Goddesses while picking apples. Or you could tell the story of Persephone while planting bulbs, or you could talk about sacrifice while baking bread to be used as a harvest sacrifice. But don’t get too chatty if they’re doing something that requires focus or you’ll just come off as annoying.
Invite the kids to show off and explain their projects, ask questions, discuss the story, whatever is appropriate.
6. Closing prayer
The closing prayer should be simple and brief. The kids are going to lose it in a minute, especially if they’re tweens. You’ve already lost the teenagers. The 4-9 year olds are still enthralled and you can work more with them later. If you lit a candle during the opening prayer, you can now put it out saying: “Thank you [God/Goddess of the day or ancestors] for being with us here today as we share your story and explore your mysteries. We say goodbye to you now, but you are always in our hearts.” Simple, quick and the candle is a clear indicator for the kids of when the sacred time ends and begins.
Some Thoughts to Avoid Frustration
It is very helpful to have refreshments available throughout. Juice or water and some fruit or veggies and dip and some cookies can help prevent meltdowns.
One thing to keep in mind when doing circles for kids is that kids are crazy and unpredictable and things are not going to go as you plan. Keep it casual and don’t get upset if things go a little haywire. Just give the kids a few minutes to calm down and get yourself back on track.
Themes can be chosen according to the Sabbats or the names of the full moons, or the things that are going on in your community, or you may wish to do a God/Goddess of the month type of deal.
In addition to the more formal circles, you may wish to expand your Circle’s events to include social gatherings. Many people turn to their faith groups in times of need, and there is no reason your Circle should be any different. Vigils for sick children and parents, shared rites of passage, and mom’s and dad’s kid-free sanity nights (maybe you could take turns babysitting) are all appropriate. You can invite your group to birthday and graduation parties, to come see school plays, recitals and gigs. Your Circle should be your extended family and you should be there for each other.