Article by K.M. Spires, Lady of the Hall, of Hridgar Folk – reprinted with permission. Although written for a Heathen audience, PNC believes this article to be of value to Pagan and other polytheist parents.
Very few modern Heathens can honestly claim they were born and raised in the religion. At some point, the majority of us made the conscious decision to become Heathen, even though we knew how we would be viewed by the general population. We didn’t care, we were following our hearts and doing what we knew was right. Most of us would do the same all over again.
The same can’t be said for our children. They’ve grown up praying to the gods, their ancestors, and gifting the spirits of the land. They take it for granted. They’ve probably never set foot in a church, barring the occasional wedding or funeral. They eagerly await Yule and Ostara every year. They are clueless when someone mentions Noah’s ark, but yell, “Hail Thor!” every time they hear thunder.
As much as it warms our hearts that our kids have the opportunity to grow up in our folkway, we can’t forget that they live in a far different world than we do. They have some very perilous territory to navigate, and holding beliefs that are different from the majority make it that much harder.
I’m referring, of course, to grade school.
Most of us remember all too well what it was like to be a kid. How was ‘the fat kid’ in class treated? How about the kid whose dad was in jail? What about the quiet, smart kid that liked to sit under a tree and read during recess rather than play on the swings? Perhaps you were one of the ‘different’ kids, and can remember firsthand how insecure classmates treated anyone that broke the mold.
If you’re raising your child Heathen, you’ve placed them in that group of children that stand apart. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but know going in that your kids are going to encounter problems. They’ll be called ‘weird,’ ‘freak,’ or the ever-popular ‘devil-worshipper.’
Then again, having an ‘alternative’ religion may not be a big deal where you live. Perhaps you’re from a place where many different cultures have settled close together, like a metropolitan area or a military base. These places, where children of varied religious backgrounds learn to play and get along together, aren’t common. Most of the country still holds Christian values.
So, about me; my qualifications to give advice on this matter are that I’m the mother of two proud Heathelings, and I live on the very buckle of the bible belt. My son Michael is almost eleven, my daughter Sami just turned nine, and both have been Heathen since before they were born. As proud as they are, that same source of pride has caused them many issues. It’s painful to see what they go through, just for being non-Christian.
Some Heathens have decided to raise their children without religion, as is their right. Maybe they’re married to someone who doesn’t share their beliefs, so this was the only fair solution. They figure their child will come to the folkway naturally in time, if that’s their choice. I understand and respect that logic, but everyone should know that plan may not work, for reasons I’ll get into in a bit.
If you plan to, or are actively raising your child as a Heathen, then this essay is for you. I’ll share some of the problems my husband and I have encountered and how we’ve dealt with them, in the hopes it will help other Heathen parents.
1. How are kids supposed to deal with family members who don’t understand their religion?
This isn’t much of an issue in my family, but I understand that it may be so for other Heathens. We are fortunate, in that my husband’s family is extremely supportive and my family (with the exception of my sister) is completely out of the picture. You and your child may have grandparents, uncles, cousins, whatever, that don’t share or agree with your religious choices.
If your family doesn’t know you’re Heathen and you plan to raise your child in the religion, you might as well hop out of the pagan closet now because your kids will out you. Hopefully, you have people that will support your lifestyle. I realize not everyone is so lucky.
So, to help your kids understand why Aunt Annie doesn’t talk to you anymore, you might try our approach. I’ve taught my kids that we have family, then we have relatives. It’s along the same lines of innagard and utgard. Family isn’t about blood; family is the people who always have your back. Family shares your goals and beliefs. To family, your happiness is just as important, if not more important, than their own. You can be yourself around family because, even if you disagree, your family will always love you. My kindred is my family.
‘Relative’ is a throw-away title. It refers to the people with whom you share a common ancestor, but that’s all. You may even avoid spending time with them because tension and drama seems to plague your every interaction. You might hide your purse if they say they’re coming over. You have nothing in common, you can’t get along, they don’t support your life choices, and therefore they are entitled to nothing from you. These people are related to you, but they are not family. They’re relatives.
2. Whenever possible, have your kids interact with other Heathen kids.
I really can’t stress the importance of this strongly enough. Human beings are social creatures and there is nothing quite so demoralizing as the belief that you’re all alone in anything. Sure, it’s cool that your family is on the same page, but the feeling you get around the greater Heathen community is indescribable.
Your kids will feel it too. Heathen kids click when they get together; I’ve seen it many, many times. Don’t deny your kids this opportunity. Attend as many Heathen gatherings as a family that you can, and don’t be reluctant to travel. It’s worth it.
3. Your child’s school will just assume they’re Christian and act accordingly.
This is something we’ve encountered a lot. Also, it starts early. The year our son started kindergarten, his teacher asked the kids to make a nativity scene out of construction paper. I was shocked, since separation of church and state was something I’d always taken for granted.
As luck would have it, even though Michael was only five years old at the time, he told his teacher that he wasn’t comfortable making a nativity because he didn’t go to church. This stunned her. Apparently, in over twenty years of teaching, my son was the first non-Christian she’d ever encountered. She asked though if he was allowed to make a Christmas tree, to which he said, “Well, I can make a Yule tree.” So he was separated from the rest of the kids and made to do something completely different. His little Yule tree (which was absolutely beautiful, by the way) was placed on the wall with the nativities, which called undo attention to him and confused his friends.
This was the first incident, but it certainly has not been the last. In first grade, my daughter brought home a pinprick angel. This year, one of Michael’s teachers prays aloud in class and expects the children to join in. Every year, the school has a big Christmas pageant for which the music teacher has the kids practice all month long. They used to send permission slips home for the parents to sign, but this is no longer the case for reasons that remain a mystery. I’ve always denied permission, but found out later that my kids were made to practice anyway. To not do so would have affected their music grade.
This can get very frustrating, especially when you have to re-explain the situation…Every. Single. Year. There are several approaches to dealing with this, but keep in mind that you don’t go to school with your child. They’re the ones that have to live with the consequences of your actions if you decide to make a big stink about something. Maybe it’s your personal crusade to get rid of any and all forms of religion for your child’s class and future generations. Congratulations on your enthusiasm, but unless you have a large kindred with lots of children that happens to live nearby, you’ll probably be fighting that battle on your own. Even with the law and right on your side, church-goers will likely rise up against you once they catch word of what you’re trying to do.
Is it worth it? That’s for you to decide.
An alternative approach is to not invest so much time and energy into a battle that is likely to get your house egged. Make sure your child has the tools to deal with the situation, since they’re the really important ones. Put things in perspective for them, instead of making a big ordeal over something unlikely to change. When Sami brought home her pinprick angel, I gushed about how she’d made such a pretty little Disir.
If you want to keep things simple, all you have to do is talk to your children’s teachers and let them know from the door that your child isn’t Christian. You don’t have to go into the specifics, it’s really none of their business what religion your family practices. Just let them know what you are and aren’t okay with your child doing. More importantly, make sure your child knows they don’t have to sing Christian songs or make Christian-centric art just because their teacher tells them to. They’ll probably worry about getting in trouble, but make it clear to your child and their teachers that if there’s ever an issue, they can and should call you at any time.
4. Your kids are going to lose friends because they’re Heathen.
There’s really no way to sugarcoat this one.
I have the unique perspective of having been raised by unwavering Christians, so I can see why Christian kids have trouble accepting that your Heatheling doesn’t share their faith. I went to church at least once a week, and one of the most basic tenants is that all the other gods are fake and everyone that believes in them is going to burn in hell. That’s why it’s hard for me to get too mad at these kids; they’re just repeating what they’ve been taught. Most of the time, they’re not even trying to be mean. They’re trying to ‘warn’ my kids that something really bad will happen to them if they don’t start praying to Jesus. Teaching a child to not discriminate against someone based on religion is difficult when they’re also being taught that everyone that doesn’t believe the same things they do is evil and doomed. It’s a paradox most kids can’t wrap their heads around, so they err on the side of caution that will keep them out of a lake of fire.
My children, having not been raised in a fear-based religion, find these kids pretty annoying. The dire warnings fall on deaf ears, which frustrates the child trying to ‘save’ my kids. Michael and Sami have both had friends try to force them into praying with them. My kids refused, so they and the children in question didn’t remain friends for very long.
Don’t worry, there is hope, though I had to turn to my kindred brother on this one. He was raised without a set religion, he holds a degree in psychology, and in a (more or less) direct quote, he said, “It is important to keep in mind that, from a human growth and development standpoint, the mind does not develop the capacity for abstract thought until the teenage years. This means that children through grade and middle school are very concrete in their thought processes. The intricacies of belief and spirituality will be largely lost on them until they begin fermenting their identities, which happens in high school and college. However, they absorb traditions and morals like a sponge during the formative years. This is the time to teach them the value of our families and our deeds. The folkways need to be warm and inviting for them, since teens rebel against that which they find oppressive. Some degree of rebellion is to be expected. This is natural, as well as the knowledge that the folkways are a safe haven in the turmoil of teenage angst. Younger children may not fully grasp or understand spirituality, but they are keenly aware of the values and traditions of their families.”—Eric Sjerven, Gothi of Hridgar
Unfortunately, your kids are going to run into jerks their entire life. We can all attest to that. Make sure they understand that every friend they make is not automatically part of their inner circle. I’m sure a lot of us have been burned by letting someone untrustworthy get too close, but it’s just one of life’s harsher lessons. I advise you to tell your children that playing with someone is all well and good, but family business is to remain family business.
Good friends are few and far between. That’s why they’re so precious.
5. Kids your child doesn’t get along with will use the fact they’re Heathen to turn others against them.
Again, this is something I wish wasn’t true.
One day, I picked my kids up from school and my daughter approached the car with a sad look on her face. This is unlike her, so I asked her what had happened. She told me that a former friend of hers had told all of Sami’s friends that she didn’t go to church or believe in God. This girl, who we’ll call D, did it because my daughter is very popular and Sami refused to play with her anymore. It worked, in the sense Sami’s friends spent the rest of the day telling her that she was going to hell, if not refusing to play with her altogether.
This upset me greatly, but that’s what it’s like to be a parent; your child’s pain is always worse than your own. I was furious, but if I had used that anger to fuel my reaction then I would have caused more harm than good.
D lives in our neighborhood, so I went to talk to her mother. In a completely rational manner, I explained what had happened that day. One thing I’ve come to discover is that it’s not necessarily the parents that instill prejudice in their kids; more often than not, this is what they’ve learned in church. I’ve found that once we talk to the bully in question’s parents, they’re horrified by their child’s behavior. Anyway, D’s mother assured me that she’d talk to D and that it would never happen again.
The next morning I had to go to the school and talk to my daughter’s teacher, as well as D’s teacher. Sami was afraid to go back to class because of what had happened, and her teacher had to convince her that she wouldn’t let something like that happen again. Then, and only then, would my poor baby let go of my arm.
I illustrate this incident because it’s one of the very few times I’ve intervened on their behalf. It’s not that I don’t want to get involved; my motherly instinct is to follow my kids around and pepper-spray everyone that looks at them cross-eyed. However, if I fight all of their battles for them, they’ll never learn to stand up for themselves or for what they believe in.
Yes, there are kids at school and in our neighborhood that make mean remarks because my kids are Heathen. Over the years, Michael and Sami have learned to blow these other kids off. It’s not an easy lesson for them, and sometimes it’s very lonely, but it makes me proud that the strength of their convictions is such that these kids no longer have the power to hurt my children.
Earlier this year, Sami was minding her own business, playing a game in gym class. D and another girl Sami barely knew confronted her over her religion. Sami looked at them, shrugged, then said, “I’m Heathen and proud. So what?”
6. Intolerance isn’t a one-way street.
Okay, look…let’s be honest with ourselves, here. I don’t think I’m out of line when I say that Christianity and Heathenry don’t like one another very much. We may not want to admit it aloud, but we all know it’s true. This can be attested to by the fact that the most surefire way to insult a Heathen is to tell them, “You’re acting/sound like a Christian.” Hey, the reversal is also true. I’m sure you’ve noticed that the only people to refer to someone as Heathen in a complimentary manner are other Heathens.
We all know how Northern Europe was converted, and the story isn’t pretty. It’s just one more reason so many of us harbor at least a degree of bitterness toward the Christian church. We’ve all been told how wrong we are, and how we’re going to hell. I know of a few of my folk who tried to have a reasonable philosophical debate with a Christian only to have their points ‘shot down’ by the Christian worldview. Even if we don’t voice that resentment aloud, our kids are picking up on it like tiny sponges. I fully admit that I’m just as guilty of this as anyone else. One of my biggest peeves is when someone asks about my religion, I say Heathen, and they laugh like I made a joke.
I don’t know of any Heathen that’s actively raising their child to hate Christians, but we all have to be very careful of what we say around them. Even our facial expressions send cues to our kids. Religious intolerance is like racism and homophobia; it’s a learned behavior. If we keep the cycle of hatred going, it will never end. Chances are that it could snowball into something huge and ugly again, and no one wants that.
You can’t combat intolerance with more intolerance. You have to go the opposite direction, and teach your kids how to put up with the mundane little annoyances. It’s not easy, but after a while it will get to be second nature to let the snide commentary of those that don’t understand who we are or why we do what we do go in one ear and out the other. When you hear your kid say something hateful about Christians, don’t let it slide. My husband and I usually go with something along the lines of, “Christians have a right to believe what they believe, just like Heathens do. Don’t let what they say bother you.”
Try to refrain from adding, “Otherwise, we’re no better than they are.”
7. Don’t get in your kids’ faces when something happens, even if your intent is to help.
Like I said, I know the aggravation that comes from someone hurting your child. Maybe you even feel a bit of guilt for having put them in that position in the first place. The thing to remember is that your words and actions affect your child far more deeply than those of anyone else. Try to approach difficult situations from a place of reason.
I know, that’s easier said than done.
This goes beyond bullying. For example, let’s go back to my son’s history teacher. When Michael told me that not only did his teacher pray in class, but she expected the kids to join her, I was appalled. I demanded to know exactly what was said, how often it happened, where the Hel she got off, etc.
Where I went wrong was confronting him, because that automatically put Michael on the defensive. Suddenly, his mother was angry, and no kid wants to make his mother angry. He was afraid that I was mad at him. He also didn’t want his teacher, who he otherwise really liked, to get in trouble.
When I calmed down, I apologized and told him this wasn’t his fault. I asked him what he did when she prayed. He said he bowed his head and closed his eyes, but he didn’t pray along. I asked if he ever prayed to his own gods/ancestors/vaetirr when asked to pray. He shrugged and said sometimes, mostly he just waited for her to be done. I asked if he ever said “Amen.” He said no, because he had no idea what that meant. I asked him what he would do if she ever asked him to pray aloud. He said he would refuse.
Basically, Michael already had it under control.
As Heathens, we hate it when people try to impress their faith upon us. In my opinion, to make a big deal about this issue would’ve become a reversal of that same imposition. It’s not like we would change this teacher’s beliefs if an official complaint was lodged against her. Instead, we might cost a good teacher her job, when that same teacher talks endlessly about how much she loves the children she works with.
So, we let it go.
8. If your kids want to keep their beliefs to themselves, try not to take it personally.
This year, my son has begun the phase where he doesn’t want to tell people he’s Heathen. Michael doesn’t deny it when asked, but he doesn’t advertise it, either. He’ll usually tell the interested party it’s none of their business. He’s asked us to not tell his teachers that we’re Heathen, and he’s good friends with a couple of kids that are clueless as to his religious beliefs.
I am doing my best to be understanding about the situation. How open a person wants to be about their religion is a personal choice. Most adults will wear a hammer, a tee shirt, or talk openly about events we’ve attended. It’s different for kids. At my son’s age, all they really want is to fit in.
I’m not particularly worried about this phase, because my son still participates in our religious ceremonies and has a blast at Heathen get-togethers. He’s always been a quiet kid, but he participates in Symbel and has been talking more amongst kindred about any questions he has regarding the religion. He also assures me that he will never stop being Heathen, so that makes his mother very happy.
In summation, keeping your cool and understanding are the key elements to getting through this part of your child’s upbringing. Raising a Heathen kid in a Christian society can be tricky, but nothing worth doing is ever easy.
KM Spires is a practicing heathen for over ten years and married to the chieftain of the Hridgar Folk, of East Texas. She’s a full time wife and mother, as well as an independent author. Her novels are both available on Amazon.com, with more to come soon. You can keep up with the latest developments through her Facebook Fan page.