Tag Archives: childhood

Childhood and divination

I first encountered divination as a child. It came about as a result of the novel The Way of Wyrd, which led my father to an interest in runes. A rune set followed, in a charming little bag. While the rest of my family soon lost interest in runes, I stayed keen, and I learned how to read them.

As an aside, The Way of Wyrd by Brian Bates has been an entry point into Paganism for a great many people over the years. And as a second aside, I had the rune set and book that I’ve since widely seen described as rather fantastical and not relevant to historical runes at all. Having read around on runes, I’ve ended up with an idiosyncratic way of reading, which works for me.

Divination can be a really appealing thing for children, both to experience it and as practitioners. I have done divination sessions in school contexts. It’s not easy reading a child’s future because they have so much potential. I had one very memorable child I read for where the whole cast was awful looking – which is the last thing you want to tell a child. I paused, drew breathe, looked at her, tried to find something appropriate to say… and then intuition struck.

“You’re going to be the sort of person who saves orphans or cares for sick animals or goes to war zones to rescue people, aren’t you?” I said.

She looked at me with big, serious eyes, and said yes, that was the sort of thing she was thinking of. I pointed out that this was a very hard kind of life, and she said she knew. It was a powerful moment, and I was struck then by her seriousness and courage. She’ll be an adult now, and I hope she’s doing well.

The difficulty with being a child doing divination is that you just don’t know enough about life to be confident about what you’re reading. I remember a reading I did as a young human for an adult friend of the family, and I could see there were some serious issues in her life and my feeling was that it was about the relationship she was in at the time, but I didn’t feel able to say what I thought and said some things about her workplace instead. I remember this, because I was entirely right about the relationship issues. 

The important thing to remember with divination is that the future isn’t fixed in stone. What we get from a reading is a sense of where things might be going and what the options are. It’s a tool, not pronouncements from some rigid destiny. That’s why there’s room for interpretation, and what we each bring to the interpretation process is really important. If you’re doing divination for yourself, then how you interpret is part of how you’re choosing things should be. It can be a really good tool for problem solving and helping you figure stuff out.

It’d be wary of putting a rune set or a tarot deck in the hands of a child. These are powerful tools and can be scarily accurate, in my experience.  It can however be a lot of fun learning about the many different forms of divination out there, and many of the simpler tools are fine to play with under supervision. The important thing is to never ask a question you don’t want to know the answer to. 

What I would recommend for children is oracle decks – you can get a feel for them fairly easily. Something with art the child likes, and an uplifting set of interpretations can be ideal. It’s a way of making a little magic in a day without doing anything overwhelming.

The Invisible Dog

When James was very small, one of his playmates was an invisible dog. The dog arrived in our lives before James was entirely verbal, but there were things about how he played that strongly suggested something dog-like in the equation sometimes. At about this time, a rather high profile Druid at an event asked me if I knew that my child had a dog and I was able to say that yes, I did know this.

As James became more verbal, I learned more about the dog. His name was Jesper, and he was a yellow dog with red ears. Now, if you know your folklore, you’ll be aware that a pale dog with red ears might be a fairy dog, or from the Welsh underworld, or part of The Wild Hunt. I knew this, but it was hardly the kind of folklore my barely verbal child had come into contact with. I treated the dog I could not see with total respect and no small amount of nervousness. I never saw him, but I did have a strong sense of dog-ness sometimes, and he never seemed hostile. Still, it’s quite a thing to have to wonder if you have a fairy dog hanging out in your home.

The funniest Jesper story involved he, James and I walking in a wood. Someone else’s dog approached us with great enthusiasm and barked at us a lot.

“Leave them alone,” the owner called out. “They don’t have a dog.”

James and I looked at each other because we were fairly sure that we did have a dog, and that this other dog could see him. It was an odd and memorable moment.

As James grew up, Jesper appeared less frequently and he’s not been around in quite some time. I have no idea what any of that was about, really. James was never inclined to try and make it mean something – it was just that there was an invisible dog in his life, and he really liked the invisible dog.

It would have been an easy opportunity to rubbish James’s perceptions and self expression and to make him feel uncomfortable about what he was sharing. I don’t have any way of knowing what he experienced, but Jesper was around for some years. He wasn’t an excuse for things James had done, or a way of trying to demand things, he was just an uncanny dog who hung out with us sometimes. Whatever else was going on, Jesper did not exist as a way for James to try and control or manipulate the world.

I tend to trust things more when they don’t make a great deal of sense. I think when things are tidy and easy to explain, they’re often what they appear to be. I think when we’re able to load things with meaning and significance it’s a good idea to be more wary of them. Things that just are, seem a lot more trustworthy to me, and so I never suggested to James that Jesper was silly or unwelcome, and when he was old enough to hear it, I told him the folklore about pale dogs with red ears. It’s interesting to note that he just found this really interesting and a bit exciting, and it in no way changed how he talked about the dog in his life.

(I’m sharing childhood stories about James with his permission, and I’m running with a theme of childhood experiences and magic).

The world is full of magic

As a child, I craved magic. There was a hunger in me for wonder, for awe and for something to take me beyond what I saw as the ordinariness of everyday life. Fantasy fiction featured a lot, alongside fairytales, folklore and mythology. I wanted actual talking animals, walking trees, women of flowers who turned into owls. Her especially.

I thought that maybe there was an age at which the magic would just turn up. A lot of fiction aimed at children suggests this, and as an adult I don’t think it’s a very helpful idea. There was no door in the back of the wardrobe – I checked, repeatedly. The Goblin King did not come and take me away, despite repeated requests. It felt like the magic was always somewhere else, somewhere out of my reach, promised but never given.

All too often, the ‘magic’ aimed at children is just a marketing strategy. There’s a lot of money tied up in buying the magic for the young humans, and not just around Christmas. And for every adult trying to sell you fake-magic there’s another one ready to crush the breath out of the magic you found for yourself. Trapped between the two, so many people grow up jaded, and disenchanted.

When I was a child, I had a cat who always knew when I was in trouble. She was a little black cat called Holly, and she would invariably turn up to comfort me when I was distressed. Now, cats are often sensitive creatures and will move towards people to comfort them in times of distress. Purr therapy is most assuredly a thing. Holly would do that for anyone who came into the house who needed cheering, and was reliably kind to angst-ridden teens. 

It went far beyond that, however. There were times when I stood at the window, looking out at my parent’s garden and crying, only to watch that little black cat appear. She spent a lot of her time out in the field, or the wood beyond it, far away so that she could not have heard me. But she’d known, somehow. She’d known when I needed her most, and came running to me, repeatedly. Her affectionate headbuts and purring comforted me more times than I can count. She might not have been able to talk out loud, but she spoke with her whole being.

It’s funny looking back at my childhood perceptions of things. I grew up with ghosts, but it bothered me that I could not shoot sparks out of my hands – although what I’d have done with that, I do not know. I wanted to see things other people could not see, and know things other people did not know. I think in essence I needed some justification for why I felt so at odds with the world, and with most of the people around me. Magical powers would have been a good explanation for why I never felt like I fitted or belonged.

There was one book which particularly helped me, though, and that was Paul Gallico’s The Man Who Was Magic. What stuck with me most from that book was a comment about how the cows were magicians, making grass into milk, and that the world is full of magic and transformation. It really is. Magic is everywhere, life itself is a wonder and a miracle, and you don’t need to be able to shoot sparks out of your fingers for it to be true.

I didn’t get to the sparks bit until I was a teen – it turns out I’m good at building static charges and in the right circumstances I can give people little electric shocks.

What is a child?

What we think a child is will inform how we treat them, how we teach them, and relate to them. What we think children are, and what we think childhood means is intrinsically wrapped up with what we think humans are.

There are those who see all children as innocent, and those for whom children are monstrous little barbarians who have to be humanised and civilized. Here the science is fairly clear. Children by nature have a pretty good sense of fair play (sorry, no links, but this stuff isn’t hard to find).  It appears that the more selfish and unpleasant behaviours are the learned ones, not the innate ones.

However, if we believe children are uncivilized monsters by nature, what we have to do to ‘break them in’ and tame them becomes an issue. This doesn’t tend to go with gentle, child-centred learning. It does tend to go with colonial mindsets and beliefs that ‘uncivilized’ people are inferior.

When it comes to education, it’s been popular to think that children are blank slates, or empty vessels and that filling the child with ideas is the job of the educator. This isn’t supported by the available evidence – children absorb impressions and ideas from the moment of arrival in the world and by the time they get to school they definitely aren’t empty vessels. They learn naturally through messing about and exploration – something the entire western approach to education ignores in favour of making them sit still and learn to do as they are told.

One of the most pernicious stories about childhood is that children do not know what they want or need and must have adults make those decisions for them. A child who is allowed to develop and hold opinions will have no trouble doing so. A child who is never allowed to learn through their own mistakes or evolve personal preferences won’t know how to do that. It’s not about what children are capable of, in this area, it’s about what they are allowed.

Do we think children need to be punished for mistakes, or educated to do better? Do we raise them to be questioning free thinkers, or do we want them to be quiet and obedient? Do we consider them capable of genuine malice? Do we look at their behaviour and ask where they have learned it? Do we think they should be sitting down quietly or do we think they belong outside? Do we assume they will automatically be natural in nature, or might they need some guidance?

It is so easy to project personal values and assumptions onto children. They aren’t well placed to resist. They are malleable and informed by their environments, so what adults decide is true and real for them can be imposed and made real, often. Treat a child like a monster, and you may well end up with a monster. Or a child who is anxious and can’t function properly. Treat a child like they can’t think for themselves and they won’t learn how to and you’ll get teenagers who cannot function. Treat a child like they can do things and they will – there’s a great deal of evidence from indigenous peoples around this one.

A child is not an empty thing waiting to be filled or shaped by adults. When we treat them like people, they have a much better time of it.

Self esteem and childhood

Most people develop their self esteem in childhood. A child who is loved, praised, supported and encouraged will have a sense of their own entitlement to exist. Many children however get their self esteem crushed early, or never get to develop much sense of self worth. Obviously, abusive families will damage their children, but there are other sources for this, too.

Many families don’t set out to harm the next generation, but pass on family truths, stories and patterns. They may think they are protecting a child by stopping them from getting unrealistic ideas, above their station. They may have a child who doesn’t fit the family narrative about what’s ok – a queer child, a left handed child, a neuro-divergent child, a child who is too quick, or too slow, or thinks too much or moves too much… Landing in a family that cannot understand your very nature does not make for a good start in life. There’s no malice here, but incomprehension can be pretty damaging.

I’ve met adults who were told at school they were stupid, or lazy, and didn’t get a dyslexia diagnoses until much later in life. I’ve met kids who were set back because no one realised they needed glasses. I’ve also met a lot of kids who had clearly learned some really unhelpful things at home – violent kids, and kids so spoiled they didn’t know how to deal well with anyone else. I’ve never met an ugly, useless or evil child, but I have met plenty of kids who were either treated that way, and thus growing into those roles, or learning problematic ways of being.

We’re learning from the moment we’re born, if not sooner. Every sound and movement from the beginning shapes our sense of the world and our ideas about who we are. Well meaning families can still produce children with no self confidence. Families who take against a child can do massive damage.

As an adult, there’s nothing you can do to go back and change your beginnings. Trying to talk about it with those who were there isn’t always helpful. But I think trying to understand the mechanics can be good. If your family didn’t allow you to grow up happily as yourself, trying to understand why they did that can be productive. It’s easy to end up with a short answer of ‘I wasn’t good enough’ but I invite you to consider whether you can imagine another human being who was not born good enough. If your shortcomings feel vague and hard to pin down, if you just, for some reason, didn’t seem to deserve love, or attention, support or praise then it probably wasn’t about you. It should have been about you, of course.

If you take out the assumption that there was something intrinsic in you to explain why you didn’t have a good experience of growing up, it becomes easier to see what was going on. It can be much easier to let go, when you can find a different perspective on this. It can be easier to forgive, where that’s appropriate, to recognise abuse, where that’s the size of it. The emotional neglect of a child is a form of abuse. It may be that your parents in turn were emotionally neglected and don’t even know where to start. Sometimes these things have their roots deep in our ancestry.

Tell yourself a new story, about how you were as inherently acceptable as any other child ever born, but your environment didn’t really work for you. Imagine what the right environment for you would have looked like. Consider how you can make that for yourself, now. Do some of the things that were missing. Find people who can play the roles you need people to play. Know that growing up feeling like a failure doesn’t make you a failure, and is not a truth about the sort of person you are.

The curious magic of childhood fear

If you breathe very quietly, they won’t hear you, and you will be safe. It is essential that you keep your eyes shut because even though you know this doesn’t work in other circumstances, if you can’t see them, they can’t see you. If you see them, they will become able to act. Keep still and pretend to be asleep, because then they will leave you alone. Don’t be tempted to get up and look under the bed, or in the wardrobe, because that’s how they get you. If you have to go to the loo, there will be a magic thing you can do to stay safe in transit. Hold your breath. Be back before the flush does that thing…

These rules are widely shared, and I was reminded of them the other night when a poet I didn’t know mentioned the whole not breathing too loudly thing. Where do these rules come from, and why do so many of us have them in childhood?

It’s something I remember fairly well. It wasn’t always an issue, but some nights… some nights it was important to get under the covers and not move a muscle. Some nights I did not feel at all alone in my room, and what was there felt hostile. And I find myself wondering what I knew as a child that I cannot explain as an adult.


Scaring small children

It used to be the case that fairy stories were dark and alarming things in which small children who did bloody stupid things could expect to be eaten by wolves, bears, witches and so forth. Yes, said the fairy stories, the world is a dangerous place full of things whose motives are different to yours, things that are hungry, grouchy things with pointy teeth. Go carefully, children. And it was a fair point, because death in childhood used to be really normal.

In the last hundred years or so, child mortality in the west has plummeted, and I suspect in response to this, fairy stories have become gentler. It’s ok kids, happily ever after awaits, with a handsome treasure and the frog of your choice. Interested in writing for small children, I’ve looked at what many of them are fed – brightly coloured, stylised creations with no bearing on reality. Stories in which nothing much happens, and nobody dies. Cute fluffy animals doing cute fluffy things.

Back when I was the parent of a young child, I cheated. We didn’t do unbearable fluff for bedtime. I took a leaf out of my father’s book. When I was about three, my Dad read me The Hobbit, and on we went from there. So I read my small son the entire Dark Materials trilogy, and anything else I thought would be interesting. He fell asleep during reads on a regular basis, cannot have had more than a passing grasp of the plot, but he loved Lyra and armoured bears, and all that came after. Now at 11, I have an emotionally well-adjusted child with a realistic understanding of how the world is, and a penchant for books. Right now, he’s reading Jekyll and Hyde.

The world is a scary place for small children, and always will be. There’s so much that makes no sense, and that cannot be explained to you. I remember being four and wanting to know what death meant and what happened afterwards, and no one could help me there. Many parents just won’t discuss sex, death, why strangers are a danger, what actually happens if you put your hand on the iron, and all those other things that regularly feature in your life as ‘stop’ ‘don’t’ and a grownup screaming at you. “You don’t need to worry about that,” is such a common solution to the alarm of small children. But the thing is, some of them do keep worrying.

I firmly believe that scary stories are good for small children. I’m not talking about traumatising them, but a bit of manageable alarm, a bit of feasible unnerving. It creates a safe space in which you can get fear out into the open. Name it, own it, understand it a bit. And don’t tidy it up with just stories that resolve into nothing to be afraid of after all. The world is a scary place, death and suffering are real. Small children are not stupid, and lying to them really doesn’t help. A child who is exposed to a few darker faerie stories is much better equipped than one who only gets princesses in frothy dresses.

We forget, as adults, that children don’t have as much empathy. They often enjoy violence and gruesome details, in part because it’s all a little bit unreal to them. Think about Tom and Jerry cartoons. I remember howling with mirth at those as a kid, while revisits as an adult have left me wondering what on earth amused me… just as my own child howls in laughter. Talking to teachers, I’ve very much had this impression confirmed – many kids like gory stuff. Horrible history sells.

It’s all about scares that you can live with. Learning to cope with being scared makes the world a more manageable place. It’s the same impulse that sends teenagers off in search of horror films where teenagers are eaten by monsters. I don’t have any of that for you today. What I do have is http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/baronmind/lil-eddie-edgar-allan-poe-for-kids A board book version of The Fall of the House of Usher, in which mildly alarming things happen and small children get a viable introduction to Poe. It may also be a sanity saver for parents who can’t take any more cute fluffy animals, or singing furniture and whose eyes are weary from an excess of bright colours. If you need a giggle, watch the video.

Tiger day

My tiger child is eleven today. In both clothes sizes and mind, he’s walking that edge now between childhood and teenager status. Just as when he first arrived, I have a keen sense, once again, that every day represents a small shift. He seems to be physically growing all the time as well, although on the plus side, the analogy stops well before we get to night feeding, being unable to talk, and throwing up all over the place. Like I said, we’re not quite at teen stage yet!

Yesterday, walking back from shopping he settled into step with me and took my hand. It doesn’t seem so very long ago that I was having to stoop down in order to hold his much smaller paw, while he learned to walk. For him, that’s pretty much a lifetime ago. I wonder how much longer we’ve got, before he is too cool, too grownup to be wandering around with his hand in mine. There may come a point, somewhere at the far end, when I am old and decrepit, and I am the one who needs to hold a hand for stability and road crossing.

As he goes forth into the wider world, encountering ever more influences, my scope (and willingness) to steer him will both reduce. The odds are, what he hasn’t learned by now in terms of values, he probably won’t learn any time soon. He’s been raised a Pagan child, not to conform to specific standards of behaviour, but to uphold certain virtues – to be honourable, compassionate, and respectful. He takes an interest in the world, and he cares about things. There comes a point, somewhere ahead when he takes a jump, leaves the nest, and holds responsibility for his life and choices. All I can do at that point is make sure there’s a safe space to come back to should he need it, and support, not judge as he gets to learn from his own mistakes. I can’t do it for him, and I don’t want to, his life is his own adventure.

I know a lot of people look at babies and small kids and express a desire that they stay that way forever. I’ve never thought about him in those terms. He was a person from the moment he arrived. He’s always had his own mind, his preferences, his own way of seeing the world and wanting to be in it, and I’ve never expected him to think and feel the way I do. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t, and that’s fine. From that day when he was born 11 years ago, I saw him as someone who would grow up to be an adult, someone who would need the skills, knowledge, insight and virtues to function as an independent person. I don’t think protecting children from what they need to know does them any good at all in the long term.

By the time he goes out into the world, he will be able to fend for himself in all things. He will know how to handle money, how to eat and deal with all the domestic practicalities. He will know to respect those jobs, and the people who do them. He will know how to take responsibility and how to make choices. I can give him a safe space in which to experiment, and take small risks, and hopefully that will be enough.

Looking at him now, he’s a brave, compassionate and thoughtful chap, who engages and delights people who come into contact with him. He knows how to give and how to hold boundaries, and I have every confidence that he will grow up to be a man I shall be exceedingly proud of.

End of an era

Today is the last day of primary school. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was buying his first uniform items and sewing in the name tags. Now he’s a remarkably grown up young fellow, poised to turn into a teenager sometime soon. I remember my own reluctance to give up childhood, soon replaced by a desperate desire to be properly grown up.

The boy has had an unusual sort of childhood, not least thanks to having spent 2 years living on a narrowboat. He’s experienced challenge and betrayal, and learned to negotiate some complex relationships with adults. There were times spent in places where he was an unhappy misfit, unwilling to compromise himself to fit in. And then, the joy of being in a place where his difference is embraced and nurtured. A school where teachers take pride in him, rather than wanting him to change. Accepted and supported he’s become more confident and relaxed, still very much the boy he always was, but now fearless about sharing it. Those deep, philosophical thoughts that he used only to share with me, he can now offer to his peers when the opportunity arises in class. He trusts them not to mock him, he trusts the adults around him to respect him, and to honour his choices and preferences. It’s made a world of difference, resulting in a far happier and far less anxious sort of boy.

I hope, when he’s older, that the last few years will colour his memories of childhood. He’s forgotten much of his early life, which may be as well. I hope he remembers sunny days on the towpath, with his cat. Garden rampages with local friends. Bowling and castles, epic train journeys, piloting the narrowboat and feeding the ducklings. The Wild Fowl and Wetland Trust has given him a glorious range of experiences and opportunities, and a very keen sense of what he wants to be as an adult. He’s handled salamanders, dismantled owl pellets, seen rare wild birds, and learned to tell one kind of duck from another.

In the last few years, the boy has become very tolerant of difference and diversity, conscious that he never knows what other people might have to deal with, or what secrets they might carry. He’s intolerant of bullying and cruelty, a firm believer in equality, and someone who wants fairness but also has a sense of how sadly short of it we are. He’s learned to be a fighter, a crusader, brave, bold and willing to take a stance for justice, be that around badger culls, the Canal & River Trust, or the environmental impact of cars. He stops to get caterpillars, and beetles out of the road, when it’s safe to do so.

And so we come to the end of primary school. The amazing year group he’s been part of will go to four different schools, inevitably losing touch to a degree. They are wild, courageous and extraordinary kids, and it has been a joy to get to know them a bit, and share in their triumphs. They give me hope. We’ve made a lot of friends here, some of whom we should be able to keep. And of course we will be back in the winter, to see the swans.

The end of an era also means the beginning of something new. We know the shape of it a bit, but the details remain mysterious, only to be discovered through living them. We stayed here, and lived on the boat so that the boy could stay in school. I have no doubt that was the right choice. It’s been a challenging way of life, but it has given us so much. We’ve been through some things, recovered from some things, and now it is time to gather up what we learned, and move forward. I have a few more reflective thoughts to work through over the coming days, and there is chaos to come.

The politics of childhood

Apparently UK education minister Michael Gove thinks children should have much longer school days and much shorter holidays to bring us in line with Hong Kong. He’s also a fan of rote learning and filling children’s heads with ‘facts’ – names and dates from history and the such. Childhood can be a loaded political issue. I note how much this Gove policy resembles the attitude of early Maoist China to children. That stemmed from a deliberate intention to break family units and make everyone more engaged with the state. So, what’s Gove’s agenda, you have to wonder?

What is childhood for? Obviously children need to grow up into functional adults. They need life skills too. I would argue that developing the ability to learn, reason, analyse, research, create, innovate and the such is the best education a child can have. The world changes all the time. The young person who can flex, learn and adapt is the one who can do best for themselves and their communities. Knowing historical dates and spurious statistics won’t do you any good in the real world.

The Victorians romanticised childhood, and did away with labour for children, taking them out of the workplace and putting them into schools. But, what is education for? Is it simply to keep children out of the way while parents work? Is school there to train the employees of the future, or should learning be more about developing rounded, functional people who are capable of thinking? I don’t think the latter precludes going on to be economically successful. I’d say there’s a case that it makes for a better, smarter, more flexible country having people educated that way. It doesn’t give you cogs for your machine, or people trained to serve and obey. I have to ask, what is the Tory agenda here? I think it’s all about serving the minority at the expense of the majority.

As a Pagan, I feel strongly about creatures being able to live freely in their natural habitats. I include humans in this. Humans are not meant to be battery farmed any more than chickens or pigs are. We too need fresh air, freedom to move, time to rest. Adults and children alike should not be pushed towards ever longer work hours just to serve the corporate machine. It is a morally wrong approach. Humanity does not exist to serve GDP.

As a parent, I want to spend time with my child. I want to talk with him, play with him, share life with him. I did not become a parent with a view to handing over my child to the state and hardly ever seeing him. I suspect I’m not alone in this. Back at the last election, the Tories talked about championing family life. Well, if you want family life, you have to have time for it, and longer school hours, longer work hours doesn’t achieve that. Tired people falling into bed do not have a family life. This is not a move towards a better work life balance.

Stressed, overworked, overtired humans who lack for social and emotional contact are more likely to become sick, depressed and dysfunctional. School is tiring for young humans whose bodies are growing and changing all the time. They need periods of rest, they need unstructured time to learn and grow properly. If we go the Gove route, we will not beget success. Instead we’ll be saving for a long term crisis in mental health and social cohesion.

Hard work should only exist where it furthers human causes. We are not here to make other people wealthy. We should not sacrifice our lives to the insane, dysfunctional and wrongheaded dictats of a ruling ‘elite’ that seems to have no grip on reality whatsoever. It looks like children are the next targets or their insane and toxic policies. We have to fight.