There’s been some discussion on ADF’s Facebook page about how to include children in public rituals. Many people with more experience have already offered some excellent advice. I absolutely have to point you towards Rev. Melissa Hill’s article on the topic. My daughter is now a toddler, and Northern Rivers is only a little older than her. We were founded just before my pregnancy, and our protogrove has grown up with the intent to be family friendly. Now we’re about four years old, and in addition to my tot, we have different members who have a six-year-old and a six-month-old. We also have regulars with kids between nearly 2 and 10, with an occasional teenager. We’ve actually gained regulars because of how family-friendly we are. I won’t say that we are experts at including children in public rituals. Plenty of other groves have been doing it for longer*, but it’s part of ADF’s fabric. My tradition was founded with the intent to offer public rituals, and since much of the public includes children…well, there you go! Considering that my job is in the educational sector, I also take it very seriously. The Druids of old were teachers, after all, and including the next generation of tree-hugging dirt-worshipers is valuable, in my humble opinion. Even if they do as I did, and convert to something else, I think providing a foundation is important.
Here is a humble list of suggestions given in the form of our Nine Virtues.
- Wisdom – First of all, please keep in mind that, once more, we are still learning ourselves. Also remember that all children are different, so there is no one-size-fits-all approach. In addition, all parents and parental situations are different. I come from a place of privilege in that my husband is always there to watch my daughter, allowing me to lead most of Northern Rivers rituals, and to engage in the headspace I need for spiritual activities. Listen to your own wisdom. What are you able to do as a guardian? What does your child really need at this time?Aso, a discussion of wisdom would not be complete without mentioning safety. Most ADF rituals involve active fire since it’s a central part of our cosmology. Northern Rivers always includes a bit about fire safety in our pre-ritual briefings. Whether it’s bonfires, candles, or incense, young children are supposed to stay with their parents and only approach fires while holding a hand. We always warn before pouring spirits into a bonfire. (Kids often get excited about this since it makes the fire go poof!) Finally, as an adult, model your own wisdom as you engage with fire and other ritual elements.
- Vision – A grove or protogrove must first strive towards being family-friendly in order to start that journey. Even if you don’t have children but hope to one day, start thinking about what kind of environment you’d like to create for your own children. Actively engage with the rest of your group when planning liturgy. Plan your bylaws with kids in mind. Encourage and support other parents in your group when they express needs or want to try something different that could engage kiddos. Don’t forget the adults in the process, though. Open rituals are for everyone, so take adult concerns seriously too. Perhaps plan some adult-only events once in awhile for “deeper” work such as trance or group initiations. (Hint: a group Pinterest board can be a great way to brainstorm activities for future events. Here’s Northern Rivers’ group board.)
- Courage – Related to vision, don’t be afraid to try new things. Northern Rivers experimented with having potluck before ritual so that we did the bulk of our cleaning before, then we could leave a little earlier. This meant kids could go to bed sooner. While this worked for Bealtaine, which was a day-long event in conjunction with the Kripalu Yoga and Wellness Center’s Labyrinth Walk Day, a majority of the group (including parents of young children) decided that they would rather do potlucks after ritual. Hey, we had to try it first!It’s also important for the group to have courage when dealing with behavioral issues. Our work towards creating a family-friendly space has been largely successful, but there were a couple of stressful times when we had to put our collective feet down because of major behavioral issues. The result was that the voting members created a policy on including children. You can see it here. I will be the first to admit that this meant a couple people could not return because they didn’t have baby sitters during rituals. That made me sad, however we had to consider the needs of the many in the group. Sometimes being a grove organizer is hard, but that’s a post for another time…
- Piety – Encourage the kids who attend to join the adults in keeping the old ways! We don’t have an alternative play activity during our rituals. They are meant for everyone who comes. Many of the traditions are already kid-friendly. For Imbolc, the kids carried in the Brighid doll while we sang. Our protogrove tradition for the Spring Equinox is drumming to wake up the Nature Spirits; kids love it. Maypole for Bealtaine, of course, but be prepared for chaos and imperfection. Embrace it.My number one piece of advice for parents who want to bring their kids to our rituals is to start including their kids in their home practice. In my twelve or so years of experience I’ve observed that children who are brought up Pagan are better-behaved at group rituals because they are used to it. They know there are quiet times. My toddler can do age-appropriate meditation (very short, focusing on breathing and using imagination). It prepares kids for larger activities. Depending on the age, they wont be able to engage in the same way as adults, but they start to understand what it means to give offerings. Bee loves to give offerings to Nature Spirits, the Ancestors, and Brighid, for example. She gets excited about it. The six-year-old in our group loves to help her mother give offerings. She pours while her mother speaks. Older kids are ready for smaller ritual parts, and teens may be ready to take some major roles. Include kids in your piety, show trust in the older kids, and they will get excited to attend ritual.
- Integrity – Going back to the other virtues, you have to know what is best for everyone. You must strike a balance, but it starts with you and your own values as a parent and/or group leader. Look to the virtues. What do you need? What do the children need? What does your own child need? What do the adults in the group need? Compromise must happen to meet those needs, but work to maintain that balance. If something (or someone) makes you or the group uncomfortable or unable to engage with activities, have the integrity (and wisdom and courage) to speak up about it. Sometimes it means making some very hard decisions. If your child has special needs, then be honest with the group. A couple regulars have been very up-front about their kids having autism, for example. We have much to learn and I hope that we can continue to improve and meet their needs as best as we can, but we can’t start that journey until other parents are honest about it. If you, as a guardian, decide that a group is not working for your child, please have the integrity to tell the group why. You may not be able to return to the group, but they could learn from your perspective, at least.Though you can’t please everyone all the time, trust your instincts and do what works for the collective, young and old, most of the time.
- Perseverance –
When Northern Rivers first started, child attendance was sporadic. Facebook RSVPs are not always accurate. I would plan activities for kids, then those families wouldn’t come! It’s totally frustrating, but I valued having the activities, so I kept planning them, though simplified. Coloring pages may not be educationally valuable or creative, but it’s easy to have them and a pack of washable crayons on hand no matter what! Now that members are parents, we always have something, even if it’s bringing a basket of dinosaurs for them to play with while we talk about a book. Once you continually have children in attendance, don’t forget that kids will be kids. Not every ritual or activity will engage all kids. I’ve planned what I thought were fun things only to have most decide they’d rather kick a soccer around instead. I didn’t let that stop me from trying other things. (And now my husband always brings a soccer during the green half of the year and is prepared to kick it with the kids so there is adult supervision.) Keep trying, and stick to your vision. Support other parents when they or their kids have a bad day.
- Moderation – Returning to the idea of balance, remember the adults. Perhaps a ritual totally directed to pre-schoolers is nice once in a blue-moon, but that will not appeal to most adults every High Day. (I’ve heard of some larger groups having a pre-school appropriate ritual before or after the main ritual, but smaller groups will likely struggle with that due to the amount of prep required.) Instead, approach your rituals the way good teachers approach lessons. There should be variation. Don’t rely on too much talking and listening. Encourage group participation with chanting and “call and response” of important phrases (“Let the gates be open!” “Nature Spirits, be with us!”). Include movement, even simple gestures such as raising arms or waving spirals over the Triple Hallows. I’ve started to include movement in our Two Powers meditations. Basically, I incorporate simple yoga moves but leave it really open-ended so people who prefer to sit can participate**. We bring drums, sticks, and egg shakers to our circles so that everyone, young and old, can make music in addition to or instead of chanting. In that way, we have small periods of quiet/listening, and then small periods of movement and noise. We encourage everyone to make praise offerings at a certain time, and allow people to express themselves according to their own styles (as long as it’s respectful to everyone and the Earth). Before rituals, we try to mix up our workshops. Sometimes we have social time, sometimes we have guided discussions about Druidic topics, sometimes we practice new chants, do seasonal arts and crafts… This year, we did an egg hunt for the Spring Equinox. We play games and swim for Lughnasadh. It does require planning, so delegate, delegate, delegate! I could go on and on, but I hope you get the idea. I’ve found that I get burnt out if I am planning the ritual and the activities before. In the end, just strive so that everyone can engage with the ritual in some way.
- Hospitality- When advertising your events, emphasize that you strive to be family-friendly. Make sure that your rituals are in safe locations. Some groups feel able to offer open rites at their homes, and that can be nice if the home is already childproof. However, our group has decided that we don’t want strangers in our homes out of safety concerns, hence why we rent space at the Yoga Center. We’ve found that many people are comfortable attending a public place that also has some privacy, and it gives us a neutral area in which to meet with prospective members who may one day come to our private gatherings at our homes. In the meantime, the yoga center is mostly accessible (their stone circle is not easy to get to with a wheel chair), is heated in the winter, has a kitchen, and a bathroom. In our pre-ritual briefings, I always make sure parents know that they can come and go from the ritual space as they or their children need. In the winter months, we have our rituals inside because it’s just easier (and safer) for the little ones and their parents. It can get downright bitter in Northern NY. We also make sure everyone knows our events are pro-breastfeeding as we are also pro-good health, pro-the Earth, pro-positive sexuality, and pro-positive body image. It just makes sense and is part of our collective integrity. If, for some reason, your group is not comfortable with open breastfeeding, at least make sure you have a quiet room for mothers that is not a bathroom.Also make sure that everyone looks out for the group to maintain the safe space. I don’t know about you, but Northern Rivers Protogrove is a spiritual family. I definitely don’t want to leave my kids with a stranger, and we don’t have a babysitting area during our rituals so everyone is included, but we all keep watch. Other adults will step up if a kid approaches the fire and the parent isn’t close or looking. We will intervene if a guest acts inappropriately around children. Many of us who are full members are such close friends, that we will hold babies for bathroom breaks, or lead an alternative activity during workshops that is near enough for comfort. As I mentioned, we have a policy for children and the behaviors we do and do not accept. Reciprocity is a two-way street. If kids and parents can’t return our kindness (not to mention the hospitality of the property we rent), they have to stay home until they are mature enough to celebrate with us.Oh, and don’t forget that kids love to snack. Having healthy munchies around in addition to potluck fare for later can go a long way towards improved behavior! Hungry kids are cranky kids. (Works for adults too!)
- Fertility- No, I’m not going to tell you to start making babies to populate your groves. I am going to encourage creativity (fertility of the mind) to engage with the children who will inevitably find their way into your groves. Returning to vision, don’t be afraid to try new things. Sometimes the best ideas come out of perceived failures (such as our ever “imperfect” Maypoles that are laugh-out-loud fun for everyone in attendance all the same). Sometimes they just happen, like my spontaneous but fun “ring-around-the-Maypole” dance which is sure to become a tradition. Hold true to your virtues, and your family friendly protogrove will grow!
Best of luck in making your own groups family-friendly. If you have any other ideas, please share them in the comments.
* The first grove I belonged to, Muin Mound Grove, always had children in attendance. Seeing their successful inclusion showed me that it could be done long before I was ready to have kids myself.
** Yet another post for another time!