Lately, I’ve found myself wondering why there aren’t more spiritual ceremonies where children are welcome to attend. Why are children so often excluded from rituals that adults participate in? We wrote the book “The Magic Circle” in part because there was a notable hole in the social fabric of our community in this area. Parents and kids were looking to participate in ceremonies but there were few open to them.
I received the answer to this question recently when I acted as the ceremonialist for a ritual we did for the book launch in Calgary. The ceremony was simple but I realized, profound in ways I did not expect or plan for. The kids blew their wishes for the spring into rocks, asked the winter nature spirits to support them in making their wishes come true, and blew their fears into rocks that then went into salt water. We sang songs, coloured some animal pictures from the book and enjoyed each other’s company- a lovely afternoon.
When I found out that we were going to have some young kids there (ages 2 and 3), I knew I’d have to alter my original ceremony idea to include them at the developmental level they were at. The 2 year old had recently gained confidence speaking with adults he did not know and was full of questions and conversation. Needless to say, children that young cannot sit still for long and do not yet understand why it might be important to remain quiet while others speak. I’ve worked with children as a teacher long enough to know that this was not a case of kids misbehaving; rather it was simply a normal stage in their learning and psychological development at that particular age.
As we did the talking stick, I paused now and again when the 2 year old spoke persistently to me while others were sharing and holding the stick. I sensed that the adults in the room were uncomfortable with the fact that I was stopping to hold space for this young one when I’d clearly stated that the person holding the talking stick is meant to be the one talking while the rest of us listen to what they have to share.
I remembered in the face of this that children traditionally sit on the East of the Medicine Wheel as natural heyokahs. The role of a heyokah in First Nations teachings is one who is the contrarian; they look at everything from the 180-degree opposite point of view. This view is so honoured by First Nations people because they know that in doing things as we always do them- as convention states we must- we are bound to miss important information and make mistakes. Heyokahs stir things up in a space. It is their job to interrupt the “normal” order of things so the people can clearly see the foolishness of their ways and make the changes necessary to restore balance.
The little boy was our heyokah that afternoon. In earlier years, I might have tried to silence him or shut him down in favour of teaching social convention but I instead treated this as a teachable moment for the people in the space. I said, “Some ceremonies are held just for adults. However, when we have community ceremonies where all ages are involved, we allow space for people to move around and children to come and go, as they need to. In short, we make room for where they are in their personal journey as an act of inclusion.” I could sense more relaxation in the space. And at the 2 and 3 year-olds’ request, we sang more songs and danced like our totem animals might.
After the ceremony, the little boy’s mom came to see me and expressed her gratitude that I could make such a welcome space for her son. She told me that it was a relief to not feel like she needed to control him; she could just let him be. And she was also grateful that I didn’t shut him down after it had clearly taken him 2 years of his life to feel confident enough to speak out in a space.
Does this mean that we should not teach valuable and respectful skills such as listening, speaking in turn, and participating cooperatively in group activities? Not at all. It’s just that there is a time, place and a WAY to do that that honours where children are in their learning and values the essence of who they are. Children are not yet adults. It is unreasonable of us to expect a child so young to be able to do something that is not within their neurological capabilities. It’s our job as adults to guide and hold that space for them as they are learning and growing.
I am glad that I was able to honour him while also finding a way to juggle the needs of the other people in the group. I came away understanding that we as adults do not in general have a good relationship with heyokah medicine. It is more comfortable to stay within the rules and laws we know than to look at things from another perspective. Children require creativity, adaptability and unconditionality of us. I am committed to modeling that as a ceremonialist working with children. I intend to continue to create spaces where children are welcome to be part of spiritual ceremonies.