I work in a quasi-military environment, with teens from the ages of 16-18. It is truly a job I never envisioned myself having, but it has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life so far. When I first applied for the job, I was afraid of working with teenagers. That seems silly, now. I was on the cusp of thirty, and I was one of those adults who would go out of their way to avoid teenagers. I believe it was because I remembered being an awkward, queer, teen and I expected the random teenagers I’d meet to sense that in me and initiate a bullying sequence – regardless of why I acted how I did or thought how I did, it was ignorant and unfair. Now I see something wonderful about teenagers: they’re in the process of intelligently and consciously figuring out who they are, and making choices about who they’ll be. There is a lot of anxiety to be had in that whole process because there is uncertainty. Am I making the right choices? Will people like me? Will my family support me? What happens if I change my mind?
Through my job, I found that I really enjoyed being around teenagers and helping them find out who they are. I really enjoyed being there for them and providing support. The kids I work with are labeled as being “at risk”, which just means that they’re not succeeding in their lives for one reason or another. The immediate thought is that they’re in trouble with the law, but that is a small percentage of the teens that I work with, in my specific program. A lot of them are struggling academically. Some of them are struggling socially. Most of them are struggling emotionally, in one way or another.
It is hard to make big decisions about your life, to succeed when you’re in a state of constant turmoil. I’ll be the first to tell you that these teens are not exceptions. All teens are struggling in some way as they find their footing in the world, even if it isn’t immediately visible to outsiders. The difference is that the ones who don’t end up in this particular program aren’t throwing up red flags – this may be because they have supportive family, they may be particularly good at throwing all their focus into academics so they don’t fall behind, or any other factor that results in them slipping under the radar. I’m also not saying that every single teen needs to go through the program I’m a part of, gods no.
What I am saying is that teenagers need a lot of support and patience from the adults around them. They need people to take a moment out of their day to sit with them and talk, to provide reassurance that they’re doing the whole growing up human thing right. They need support for the decisions that they’re capable of making, and some guidance through the ones that are more difficult. They need support when they come to you and say “this is who I am”. There also needs to be some understanding that “this is who I am” when you’re 16 may be different than “this is who I am” when you’re 18, 25, 37, so on. And there is nothing wrong with changing and developing as a person. We often put teens in this strange quandary of telling them they’re not old enough to know who they are as a person, but that they must make hard and fast decisions about their futures. It is a huge pressure and taking a moment to say “hey, I hear you, I support you, and it is all alright” can make a difference.
You may be wondering, at this point, what this has to do with being a Heathen. I’m not talking about the lore, I’m not talking about the gods or the runes… I’m talking about teenagers. I’m talking about teenagers and their needs from the adults around them because I see a lot of religious questioning and seeking within my job. I am not allowed to provide any kind of religious counsel or direction to the kids that I work with. They’re allowed to participate in voluntary religious activities. Most of the kids that I see are Christian, and they stick to Christianity throughout the six months that they’re with us. Some don’t believe in anything but want the free coffee and snacks that the church provides, so they “get their Jesus on” once a week. My work provides accommodations for other religions, too, and I have seen our Native American students taking the opportunity to go and burn sweet grass under the supervision of a staff member. We had a female student last cycle who was Wiccan and asked for permission to go out to a large stand of trees once a week.
The difference in the provisions provided for the Christian students and the non-Christian students is one of guidance. The Christian students can, of course, go to the local churches. The students practicing Native American or Pagan religions are kind of left to ‘minister’ to themselves. They don’t have the guidance and support of an adult in their religious services, which can lead to them feeling a little lost.
There’s also the chance that other students will bully or pressure them about their beliefs. That is what happened to the Wiccan who was in our program. A group of the other students found out about her religion and started to call her a witch, claiming that she was summoning demons in her room. They put an immense amount of pressure on her, to the point that she started to go to Church with them. I asked her what was up when I noticed her on the church roster, and she told me that she felt like she’d be left alone if she just went to the church. The bullying never really stopped, so it became more about going for the snacks and coffee. An understandable escape from the cafeteria style food they otherwise eat.
Because this student had no support from an adult in the community, and because she was facing so much bullying, I let her know that she wasn’t the lone pagan on site. I told her I was a Heathen and talked to her a bit about it in a non-counseling, non-recruiting, way. “This is what I believe, what do you believe?” I found that she was comfortable being called a Wiccan, though she had a lot of beliefs pulled from a lot of different directions. Again, not unusual for someone who is trying to find their way in the world. It seemed like she had had some support from her friends back home, and her mother to an extent that her mother was into New Age things. I really wanted to provide this girl with more information that I thought she’d find helpful in her process of learning things for herself, but that would have been overstepping my boundaries. Ultimately, I listened to her, and let her have the knowledge that there was an adult that she was actually interacting with face to face who was a pagan. I wasn’t just someone on the internet making claims, I was someone she saw and talked to every day. That can make an impact. There’s such a sense of unreality on the internet at times, that it can be really meaningful for teens to interact with someone in the flesh who has gone through something or believes in something like they do.
If I had met her outside of my work environment, things would have been a little different. I would have felt more comfortable talking to her in-depth about her beliefs. I would have been able to point her towards references, or at least teach her about how to find references for herself. I would have been able to physically hand her better reading material than Silver RavenWolf. I would have been able to provide support and guidance… but I’d do my best to avoid the impulse to steer her course. If she ultimately wanted to stay with Wicca, then that’s where she’d stay. If she wanted to go towards something more Kemetic, great. Heathenry? Great. I’d support her.
I often see an impulse to put Wicca down, or to kind of poo-poo it in one way or another. In part, I think this originates from the availability of Neo-Wicca material. You can find books on Non-initiatory Wiccan practices in Barnes & Noble. The same really can’t be said for our practices, though you might be far luckier than I. The word “Wicca” is one that you might come across easily in an internet search, or in the media. Far easier than things like “seiðr”. There is a kind of acknowledgment of Wicca in society at large insofar that it is recognized as being a religion. I can’t speak to how “accepted” it really is, but if you say you’re a pagan, there’s a good chance that someone is going to straight up assume you’re Wiccan. Maybe that is where some resentment comes from as well, the assumption that one must be a Wiccan if they are any variety of pagan, or that you must follow aspects of the Wiccan faith, like the Rede.
If a teen is exploring Wicca, I would curb the impulse to bash the religion. They’re taking tentative steps into learning about pagan religions by choosing something that is available and visible. If it is available and acknowledged by society at large, then it is “safer” and possibly more acceptable to peers and parents. This may also depend on the peer and the parent – as we know, there are some people out there who will scream Devil worship and throw a Bible at you because you own a cut prism that refracts rainbows.
Because information about Wicca is so visible and readily available, it may seem like it is the only option. This is something that is easy to engage with by pointing out other resources and giving someone keywords to search. Showing them the existence of communities and support within those communities is also going to be a factor in them leaving the comfort zone of Wicca and exploring other pagan belief systems. This moment of exploring and learning can be delicate, so I’m going to say it again: don’t be overly critical or harsh about the decisions they’ve already made. That just makes you look like the bad guy and discourages them from wanting to learn more about your faith, much less any other pagan religion. Alternatively, you’re providing a role model for that kind of behavior, and perpetuating an elitist attitude that doesn’t help when you’re trying to cultivate learning. Shouting out “fluffy bunny Wiccan!” closes a lot of doors that could prove useful down the road.
Teens (and younger children) are going to model the behavior of people that they look up to and respect. If you’re hoping to mentor a teen or guide them through their religious seeking, you’re going to have to make sure that you’re modeling the behavior you want to encourage in them. If you want to see them develop a love of learning, model critical thinking and the openness to new information – not a critical attitude (there’s a difference). If you want to see them have respect for others, and honor in their actions, you better be showing up with respect and honor for others. If you want them to “do the homework” then show them someone who is doing just that. Invite them to sit and read with you, to engage you in a discussion. And always, always listen to what they say and respect them as another person sitting there and talking with you. The ignorance of youth isn’t the same thing as willful ignorance – so many young people have a willingness to learn that is smashed out of them when they’re treated like it is their fault that they don’t know something, or that not knowing something means they’re stupid. Or, worse, that enjoying something makes them a bad or stupid person. A little bit of support goes a long way. “Thor and Loki aren’t brothers in the myths, but they do spend a lot of time together. Here, look at this one – Thor has to dress up as Freyja to get his hammer back” goes a lot further than “I hate Marvel, it is so stupid. Read the Eddas.” One engages and encourages a younger person to read, while the other seems to pass judgment on something they probably enjoy. Just being told to read the Eddas, then actually attempting to do that… you might think that the Norse gods are a bit boring and dry. But have someone guide you towards something that is a bit more humorous or entertaining about the myths? They’re going to seem like something more worth studying and looking into.
I think it would be a wonderful thing if we pulled together more resources specifically geared towards teens within our community so that we have something to offer the young people who find their way to heathenry. There is an accessibility issue, where a lot of the material is difficult to slog through and can feel like you need several degrees to get much of anything out of it. Making something more accessible not only helps adults who can’t endure the slog for any variety of reasons, but it helps those who are starting to learn and need some help on where to start. I don’t think we need to worry about making things “hip with the kids” so much as available and interesting for teens to engage with. They’ll make their own memes, we don’t need to worry about artificially constructing them for them in an effort to make teaching aids.
If you are a teen, and you’ve made it through this article this far – congratulations. I’m glad you were able to put up with me talking about your age group in such a broad format. While I’m specifically addressing you, I want to restate some things. It is 100% alright if you started off with Wicca and now you’re questioning. It is fine if you come on over to Heathenry (we have books for you, too) and it is fine if you end up deciding that Wicca is more your speed. If you change your mind in either direction later, that’s fine too. I really want to encourage you to find someone who can act as a mentor. You might not feel like you need it, but it can actually be really helpful to talk to someone who is older and who has been through some stuff that you haven’t had the chance to yet. The ideal mentor is someone who you feel really comfortable talking to about more than just one subject – so you can talk about religion with them, yeah, but you can also go to them if you need some guidance on something happening at school. Be aware of your boundaries, though. If anyone is doing or saying something that makes you uncomfortable, you are fully within your right to ask them to stop. If they don’t, cut ties and try not to feel guilty about it (someone is probably going to make you feel bad about dropping a ‘friend’). You have every right to protect yourself and maintain the boundaries you need to be happy and comfortable. One person is never the sole source of information, and if they’re making you feel like you absolutely HAVE to learn from JUST them… they probably have an ulterior motive you want to steer clear of. You should always feel comfortable branching out and doing your own research, engaging with other people, and thinking about stuff on your own. Try not to fall for anything that advocates hurting or degrading other people in any way. If it smells like racism, it is probably going to look like racism, too. You have a lot of time ahead of you, so don’t feel like you need to be an instant expert on anything. There’s no shame in learning.
When this article is published, I will be starting to train up for the next cycle of teens coming through the program. The training is always the same… how to communicate, how to respond in an emergency, proper protocol and any new variations to the policy that we need to be aware of. It is boring, it is tedious, but I’m excited about it because it means I am that much closer to meeting the new class. I am that much closer to meeting approximately 150 new teenagers and getting to know their lives, their worries, their hopes. I hope that I can be a good role model to them, and give them some support that they may otherwise be lacking. I hope that I can be at least one adult that they can count on.
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