From the earliest days of running a shamanic program for children in London, UK, (The Time Travellers), the most heart-breaking scenario (occurring at regular intervals) has been: a child wants to join and explore some of the most ancient spiritual techniques and wisdom known to humankind - but his /her parents (or carers) won't let them because on some level they have internalised the Christian prohibition of "speaking to spirits" and fear of magic.
I have had profound soul struggles over this issue because on some level I believe it ought to be the right of any child to have a spiritual toolkit and to explore different spiritual perspectives, especially powerful ancient ones - not just the religion or cosmology imposed by parents.
Having said that everyday life just does not work like this because religion and spirituality are such emotive issues and (thankfully) there is a lot of diversion in any multi-cultural society. So ultimately the question I will attempt to answer in this piece is: how can we keep magic alive with children whose parents can or will not feed and encourage this while honouring different perspectives and religions?!
Western culture is profoundly coloured by Christian beliefs and dogma, even if the majority of families in our society do not attend church or call themselves practicing Christians in any sense.
As a teacher of Norse shamanism I am intrigued by the period in which Iceland and Scandinavia converted to Christianity. This did not happen out of any great desire for the new religion but as a strategic response to economical and political pressures from the Continent:
The Tale of Hall (from around the year 1000) shows this and more. He allowed the Christian missionary Thangbrand to baptize him on condition that archangel Michael became his "fylgja" (guardian spirit). This shows the exact moment in time where the Fylgja changed (shape shifted) to the Christian concept of a guardian angel.This is where a fork in the road occurred that still influences daily life today.
Studies in Comparative Religion show that when new gods arrive on the scene, older gods and goddesses are often demonized and (almost literally!) pushed underground. In Scandinavia this is how Satan came to "live at" Valhalla - originally Odinn's Hall of the Slain, the destination in the Afterlife for the brave warriors who died an honorable (glorious) death on the battle field.
Another way of telling the same story is that to say this tale shows how and why Odin, Freyja, Thor, Frigg (and many other Norse gods) were "dethroned" and thrown on the compost heap. However, being the timeless powerful beings they are they shape shifted and found ways of "staying around" (e.g. in the names of places and rivers, the names of wild flowers, in grimoires - books of magic - and in folklore remedies).
The Church Fathers actively used fear as a social tool to divorce people from the pantheons of ancient gods and goddesses and the ancient Heathen ways in all corners of Europe.
Sometimes we need remember (and somehow try to imagine!!) that before Christianity there was no division into absolute good (one almighty God) and absolute bad (the Devil). The ancient gods and goddesses were passionate beings who often mirrored the characteristics and conflicts of human beings and their exploits appear in myths conveying archetypal timeless truths for millennia.
With the arrival of Christianity a massive split occurred (around 900 - 1000 CE in most places in Europe) and this was followed (between roughly 1550 - 1700) by what some call The Scientific Revolution. The magical thinking that reigned supreme in medieval times (where everything was seen as part of a larger whole and manifestation of Gods will and trees were seen as "the thoughts of God") was dropped and Europe switched to the linear scientific mode of perceiving reality we still operate today. This all began with Nicholas Copernicus who asserted a sun-centered (not earth-centred) cosmos. Next Isaac Newton discovered the basic laws of (what became) physics and the notion of a Mechanical Universe - an Universe that runs like clockwork has (largely) prevailed since.
(Some authors have said that science is just another collection of stories - no more or less true than the myths of, say, the Kalahari Desert Bushmen!)
So... we lost our vibrant native gods and goddesses. Magic was demonized (by the Church) so gradually we lost magic and magical thinking too. - And today we still habitually rob very young children of this - even though children are very obviously born as magical beings (pick up almost any picture book for children!)
During the Reformation (from about 1450 to 1750) Europe saw a period of witch hunts, witch trials and ,mass executions. This created an immense fear that many of us still hold (mostly unconsciously, without questioning it) somewhere in our ancestral field and bodies. Our family soul holds the memory of this (most people I work with have at least one ancestor who died this way). and lives in fear of a repeat of this. I see this all the time in shamanic healing sessions with people and am called to do the necessary spiritual work of unraveling and transmuting. (This is why I have called this piece "Burning Questions").
To cycle back to our focus on children in the 21st century: today many parents will not give permission for their children to explore shamanism or magical work because "talking to spirits is not allowed, dangerous or sinful"). In the air hangs a faint sulphurous notion of a wicked witch (me!) pulling out a Ouija board and putting children at risk of spirit possession as well as endangering their mortal soul.
This divide even runs through my own family of birth I have just published a book about using shamanism creatively with children while my youngest brother is a science teacher and committed atheist who deliberately gives his children no spiritual education or toolkit of any description. His children (aged 10 and 9) were not even allowed to attend the funeral of their great grandmother earlier this year. They were kept out of church and parked my mother's house (i.e. the other grandmother's place) for the day. This presents the loss of a major spiritual opportunity in my "book" - but there you go. My parents gave their three children a traditional Roman Catholic upbringing. Putting things bluntly they ended up with "one shaman and two atheists".
I receive desperate emails from grandparents (and other concerned adults) asking me: "What can you do when the parents of (grand) children will NOT encourage magic or provide soul food for their children?
Well, quite a lot I would say....
I have formulated some "rules of engagement" and guidance based on years of shamanic work with children and families:
Parents set the moral and spiritual climate in which children grow up. This needs to be respected at all times. And remember: there will be a reason on the level of "soul alchemy" why any child chooses a particular set of parents or other set-up in this lifetime.
It is NOT the role of a grandparent/aunt/uncle/godmother or well-meaning neighbour to "stir up trouble" or offer a "spiritually more evolved perspective". FULL STOP!!!
Having got that completely straight - you have many creative options....
- You can still feed and encourage the magic that young children naturally possess - not "peddle" an established Shamanic/Bhuddhist etc. perspective BUT...
Few parents (of any religious persuasion or background) will object to their child
* knowing the names of plants and which ones can be used safely to make herbal teas
* writing stories inspired by the shapes of clouds
* listening to ancient fairy tales or stories from grandpa/grandma's own childhood when some things were done differently from today
* a child lying on their back in the grass listening to the sounds the trees make as the wind moves through them, or the music in the surf on the beach. (Now can we imitate those sounds and play around with them?!)
* Grandma (etc.) feeding their child's imagination in a respectful way (there is a reason why myths and ancient fairy tales go strong for generations and centuries! Tell some of those old stories as story telling is something many crazy-busy modern parents "skimp on", skipping pages or putting on a DVD instead).
* Organizing one memorable day where everything happens upside down and back to front! (And of course we start the day with cake and ice-cream for breakfast!) Earlier and tribal cultures have always operated such Festivals of Reversal (of the established order). Think of Saturnalia or the medieval European tradition of The Boy Bishop.
Following on from this: when speaking to child(ren) in this situation, use phrases such as: "In my imagination...", or "I once had a dream where...." (rather than saying "the spirits of the land" or "the trees" are telling us...")
The same thing goes for spirit allies. Don't say "Shamanism teaches that every person has a power animal". The parents may prefer "guardian angels" Saints, or "The Holy Ghost" or no spirit allies at all. (Think back for a moment to what I told you about Iceland around the year 1000!)
Instead, talk to a child with an open heart and mind. It is perfectly OK to talk about their favourite animal. Why is it your favourite? What qualities do you like about this animal? Could we plan a small safari to the sea-shore/forest/wildlife park (or other destination) to see this animal and draw it? Buying the child a cuddly version of a favourite animal to sleep with won't bother anyone, neither will "horsing around" having wild fun imitating the animal.
When a child asks (and some will!!) some pointed questions or shares experiences "I sometimes see angels or fairies but I can't talk to Mum and Dad about that" (I myself was such a child!) - tread with extreme care but say, very mildly, that some people DO believe that fairies exists and that angels watch over us (after all many books have been written on the subject. Visit any library, or bookshop! Go to a museum and look at truly beautiful paintings of angels...) Say that as the child grows older it will probably see the world a bit differently from their parents (and this is how our world changes evolves. It is natural!)
Say, again gently, that all human beings have to learn this lesson sooner or later: that we can only share certain things with certain people - not everything with everyone, sometimes not even with our parents...
Make it clear that the child always has a non-judgmental ear in you. That it is safe to share absolutely anything without being criticized. Just STAY CLEAR of pushing a belief system different from the parents "on" a child. There is a fat red line there! Never ever say "your parents are wrong". It is the journey of the child to eventually work out where they stand on the worldview and belief system absorbed from their parents. This is not your task!
Gently and respectfully keep possibilities alive. The same child will believe different things at different ages. Over time you will observe a "rational period", a "peer pressure and fear of ridicule period" and so forth, in any child you have a long-term relationship with. But the greatest gift you can give a young person is to be a true mentor for them: share life wisdom, allow them space for exploring and thinking outside the box, give them a space where secrets are safe. (Caveat: if they tell you they are self harming or in danger in any other way you MUST tell their parents and tell the child why you are doing this . As an adult you have this duty of care and responsibility for the childn's welfare!)
Another thing you can do is encouraging the child to plan thoughtful surprises for others:
I have drawn a tiger for you! (What may remain unspoken is: "We both know that there is no point talking to you about power animals or spirit allies but I often see a tiger with you and you will love having the picture up in your kitchen!"
I picked these flowers for you! ( I know intuitively that their plant spirit medicine is exactly right for you but you don't need to know that to put them in a vase and enjoy looking at them).
You could practice the ancient custom of sleeping with certain flowers under your pillow and sharing dreams the next day. Talk about dreams anyway, the way tribal peoples always have done - this can be a fun part of sleepover. (Grandpa has time to listen to my dreams! He does not need to rush me off to school. Amazing!) The same goes for making a fire, climbing a tree, making your own herbal tea, writing a poem in which magical events occur.
There are hundreds (probably thousands) things you can do to feed the soul of a magical child without crossing any lines or setting up any conflicts. These things are not "full blown shamanism or paganism" but they address the thirst for magic in a child and may just create a small reservoir the child can draw on times of difficulty, or in later life when they gain spiritual freedom.
Children are natural born shamans and so are many grandparents. They have trained in the School of Life and lived long enough to know that miracles are more common than we think and that scientists or medical doctors do not hold the monopoly on "truth" or "reality".
Grandparents see the portals between world too. They understand why it is important to jump across the cracks in the pavement - or fall through them like Alice in Wonderland fell through the rabbit hole...
And if you are really looking for ideas for magical projects to do with children - check out my first book as it is full of tried and tested material! The tile is Natural Born Shamans: A Spiritual Toolkit For Life (Using shamanism creatively with young people of all ages)
Imelda Almqvist, Sweden, written for my publisher's website in August 2016 - updated version offered on this website May 2020