One question that comes up fairly often is “Hey, why won’t groups work with me if I’m under 18?” (if you’re over 18, but under 21, there’s a few more options, discussed below.)
The answer’s a little complicated, because it involves several different issues.
Under United States law, parents have the right to determine their minor child’s religious education. While they can’t directly choose the child’s religion, they do have some legal options if someone is teaching their child a religion they don’t approve of. Most Pagan groups are small, the group leaders are working at other jobs, and they can’t afford even a successful legal battle (in terms of the time, energy, and money it would take) without doing serious damage to their own lives and to the group.
The law isn’t different for Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu groups. Christian groups have gotten in trouble for including children in Christian religious education without parental permission too (multiple times in the past few years.) However, larger religious communities do have more resources to deal with situation where there was no religious education involved (a social event, for example.) Pagan groups therefore tend to err on the side of caution.
For that reason, ethical groups that are open to working with children or teens will generally require the participation or active permission of the parents. Sometimes this is a permission form and a conversation. Sometimes this is asking them to be present during activities (even if they don’t directly participate themselves.) Sometimes it’s some other combination. However, many smaller groups have other reasons to focus on a practice that’s not a good fit for teens (even very mature teens).
These can affect everything from scheduling to transportation to preferred time for rituals. For example, a teenager may want Friday or Saturday nights to spend with friends (or to go to school events), while adults may be more comfortable giving up a weekend evening a few times a month. A teen may not be able to get to the group meeting site easily on their own and rely on a parent’s schedule, which can be tricky. (And a college student may not be in the area over the summer, holidays, or other breaks in the academic schedule.)
As I say, “It’s hard to have a relationship with people who aren’t there.” In a group where close interaction and trust are part of the shared practice, having people miss group events regularly can really be a problem.
A small coven or focused group may have adults in it who are grieving the death of a partner, dealing with the end of a major relationship, or confronting issues about sexuality, sexual health or abuse. They may even be dealing with parenting frustrations or concerns. It may be hard for some adults in this situation to feel comfortable sharing information about or doing ritual work that involves these issues if teenagers are present. (I have a hard time because I’ve worked with teenagers most of my professional life: it’s hard for me to relax and talk about the stuff I wouldn’t talk about at work.)
Likewise, a teen may simply not feel very interested in rituals focusing on some aspects (for example, crossing from being a mother to being a crone, ritual work around professional choices or situations, etc.)
Stage of life:
In many ways, the job of a teenager is to learn about the world, and start figuring out how they want to fit into it. Making a substantial commitment of time and energy to a particular religious path – and especially to a religious group – may not fit very well with that. Many Pagan teachers feel that the teen years should be a time when people can try things out, and when they can devote most of their time and energy to things like schoolwork, college, or starting a career.
In addition, in a small group, training and learning about the group even to a basic level, can take a year or more. This may not be a good fit for a teenager whose extracurricular schedule is changing regularly, or who is getting ready to go to college, or many other wonderful changes in their life.
Nature of the work:
Some paths (like traditional Wicca) are a major commitment: initiation involves life-affecting oaths. In these paths, it’s common to require students to be able to live independently, and to devote the time and energy needed for formal study. Most people don’t reach this point until sometime after they’re 21 or older, even if they’re otherwise extremely emotionally and intellectually mature for their age.
Some groups have practices which are, at best, problematic in a group that includes minors, even though the practices themselves are fine for adults legally able to give consent. Some groups work skyclad or naked (read more about that here). Others include at least some meditations or other things in training that might be uncomfortable or inappropriate for minors to do with adults (thinking about mature relationship issues, for example, or sexual ethics.)
Although there certainly are serious teenage students of magic and Paganism, many teenagers get interested in it for a month or two, and then lose interest and go on to other things. This can be immensely frustrating to a teacher who invests time in getting to know a student or figuring out what will work best for them. The ‘lose interest’ rate for adults can be over 50% – for teenagers, it’s often much higher (around 85-90%)
Patterns of learning:
Teenage brains and adult brains are a bit different – and this affects all sorts of things that are important in learning. Teenagers have a lot of strengths, and they’re used to learning, but the learning methods used in mainstream education, and the experiential learning common in many Pagan paths often don’t fit together very well. It can be really confusing to go from one to the other. In addition, established teachers may have designed their teaching methods to fit adult learning styles well, but not be sure how to adapt them best for teenagers.
So, what can you do?
In general, I suggest:
- Get good at being self-aware. The better you are at keeping track of your life, valuing your strengths and working on places you can improve, the better off you are.
- Learn about related topics – mythology, history, your local plants and animals and geology, cooking, gardening – all these things can help you build a very rich spiritual life now and in the future.
- Practice doing things well. Good work in witchcraft involves being able to understand what you’re doing and why. Learning to do things well sets up great habits for that. Where are you tempted to take shortcuts that affect the long-term goals you want to meet?
- Explore. Arts, sciences, creative work, practical skills. Pay attention to what draws you in, what keeps coming back around in your life. Do more of that, as you can, or figure out why it keeps showing up.
If you have the chance to go to public Pagan events (and your parents are okay with it), they can also be a great way to start learning more about what interests you and what doesn’t. Participating in online forums that welcome teens can be a good thing to do, too. However, remember that while you live with your parents, doing stuff they find extremely uncomfortable probably isn’t in your best interest.
If you’re in college, look for a college Pagan group at your school or a nearby school, or a local group that welcomes college students. They’ll be able to work with your schedule, the fact you may not be in town for some months of the year, and other practical issues in a way that an adult-focused group might have a harder time with. Once you’re settled down after graduation, you’ll have lots of options to find a small group and get involved.
[last edit October 28, 2011]