Altars for Children
Written by Kristin Madden, author of Pagan Parenting and Pagan Homeschooling
We all have our altars, whether they are formal tabletop altars, talismans hung on a doorknob, Medicine pouches, or a subtle arrangement of crystals and feathers on a shelf somewhere. Altars serve as focal points for magic and as physical anchors for our deities and spirit allies. They are the places we go to meditate and to make offerings to our gods. But where do our children go for these things? Do they even need them?
Certainly, our children are protected by their spirit allies and the guardians of the family from the day they are born. But as they grow up, they deserve a concrete means of working with and honoring these beings. The creation and maintenance of personal altars provide the opportunity for our children to fully experience open communication from spirit guides and begin to integrate those energies. Through this process, they develop the abilities they need to become healthy, happy people and create magic in their own lives.
Furthermore, a parent’s ability to recognize a child’s altars increases the understanding and bonding between parent and child. When we can perceive those objects that are truly special to our children, we come to more deeply understand who they are and how they interact with the Other worlds. We also reduce the risk that we will inadvertently disrespect a child’s sacred objects.
It is important to understand that children view the world in a much different manner than most adults do. A stuffed lion or toy Pokémon may bring through the same energies for a child that a Thor’s Hammer or statue of Cernunnos may for an adult. Similarly, a picture of a parent or a favorite doll may symbolize love and safety much like an adult may use a statue of a Mother Goddess. These may become particularly important to the younger child at bedtime and this is when many children need to have their special stuffed animals and dolls present on their beds.
These objects resonate with our children. They may embody the energy of a spirit guide, providing a physical anchor for that guide in a child’s presence. They may become friends and allies on their own and offer the child a healthy outlet with which to work through dramas and difficulties. These objects are our children’s first recognizable friends and protectors, other than family members. As such, they deserve a place of honor. For a child, the place of honor is often the place of closeness at night. Therefore, parents should be encouraged to view a child’s bed as a type of early altar. Most pagan parents will initially create altars for their infants. Again, these may not fit into a limited view of what an altar is. We will hang amulets on doorknobs and bedposts. We put up specific posters and decorations in our children’s rooms. We also may place special stones or sacred objects in the room of a young child. Each of these is a form of altar and should be respected as such.
Children tend to require far less “stuff” on their formal altars than adults do. That is, until they get the idea of what an altar can be and want to put all of their favorite things on top of them. Children’s altars are frequently more freeform than those of adults. Furthermore, children are often more likely to be willing to change the objects on their altars as needed, depending wholly on what feels right at the time.
This flexibility is particularly important in the altars of children simply because they change so quickly. Experiences like learning language, increased physical control, school, and puberty alter their personal energy. Therefore, their spiritual needs are also changing. While they may be aware of a lifelong spirit ally, they may go through a series of spirit guides or deities over the course of several years.
As parents, it is in everyone’s best interests to go with the flow in this area. Allow their innate creativity to spring forth and you give them a great gift. You offer them the ability to trust in themselves and to maintain that instinctive access we are all born with that connects us to something greater than this current identity.
Many families have a special home altar to honor each family member as well as the guardians of the place and the family. It is important that this family altar not be off-limits to any member of the family. In doing so, you chance blocking a connection to the altar and the energies it can bring through. With young children, this may require some flexibility and the creative use of non-breakable objects.
As your children get older, a personal altar can become a very special part of their lives. Not only does it allow them a sacred space to communicate with their own guides, but it also allows for the early development of responsibility and self-confidence. This is where your child will learn to take care of very special things and, in turn, to respect other people’s belongings.
Altars can be a very beneficial part of a pagan upbringing. Through the utilization of personal and family altars, we teach our children that they need not go through another person to access the Divine. They can function as priests and priestesses themselves, in a way, by communicating directly with the gods, fairies, and other spirits.
As these altars become more complex, the element of responsibility is more intricately involved. A three-year old may have a special feather or stone on his altar, while a ten-year old may have a breakable statue or smudge fan. A teen or pre-teen may be trusted with candles and incense on their own. This gradual increase in trust and responsibility parallels the formal and informal training our children receive in many areas of life. If handled with honor and respect, this can contribute significantly to their self-esteem and the maintenance of innate magical abilities.
Children tend to learn best through example. When they see us walking in balance and honor, they generally do the same. When ritual or other actions create an energy that they can recognize as special and powerful, they like to attempt to recreate that. This includes everything from casting a circle to meditating before an altar. It may be enacted as part game but on some level it is very serious. While we may keep it light-hearted and play along, it is important that we acknowledge the experimentation and desire behind the fun.
Fun is a vital element in life, not only for our children, but also for us if we are honest about it. Pagans are not big on repression and limitation. We are extremely serious about our spirituality but it also needs to make us happy. We deserve to feel fulfilled and joyful in our rites. So do our children, and encouraging the fun associated with learning the spiritual path of their families can strengthen their bonds to us and to our chosen path. It also makes learning easier for everyone.
Trust in yourself and your kids and you may be surprised at the deeply intuitive and truly magical things your children will come up with. In the process, you are likely to gain a whole new understanding of yourself, your children, and your religion through this exploration. The creation of altars for children and families is a great way to begin this journey.
Kristin Madden is the author of several books on paganism, shamanism, and parenting. She is a homeschooling mom that was raised in a shamanic home and has had ongoing experience with Eastern and Western mystic paths since 1972. She is the Dean of Ardantane’s School of Shamanic Studies. A Druid and tutor in the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids, Kristin is also a member of the Druid College of Healing.