Pagan Parenting: Altar Safety
K. W. Peak
Everything is in its place: small, cast iron cauldron for burning resins; candles; incense; oils; athame; bowls of crystals; dried herbs to offer to the deity you are honoring; ritual sword; altar stone; cords; long, flowing altar cloth. Sounds familiar to many of us. Now, close your eyes and breathe deep. Go into yourself and become a child. Now what do you see? Become an emergency room doctor. What do you see? Altars, though a big part of Pagan and many other religions can be a death trap to our little ones. Babies and toddlers explore much of their world by mouth. OK! OK! pretty much all of their world goes in their mouths. ALRIGHT- ALL of their world goes into their mouths. From toes to athame, teething biscuit to small crystals, everything is touched, looked at and then POP! In the hatch. Ask any emergency room physician and you will get lists miles long of all the odd things children have swallowed, shoved in noses, ears, or poked eyes with. Sit back and take a good long look at your altar. Forget it as a religious place, gaze at it from a safety standpoint. Bet you are appalled that such a dangerous place exists! So, now what? Time to childproof.
If you are lucky enough to live in a place with have enough room to devote a separate room to your workings, all you have to do is lock the door. Since kids are Houdinis, may I suggest putting a simple hook and eye at the top of the door or other easily installed latch way out of Tommy's reach. I know children who could manipulate keys at a young age or if you were me, had the dexterity at two years to take off the faceplates of outlets with a screwdriver to see how the inside of a wall socket worked (had to be a way around the outlet covers and begin the first of many grey parental hairs). If you are not so fortunate to have an extra room, pick up you altar after each use. Should this not be an option for you, consider changing what you have on it to safer items. Personally, I think the Goddess and God would prefer that you use some ingenuity as to what you work with than rush Timmy to the ER when he yanks that altar cloth and the cauldron cracks his skull hard!
Let's start with whatever you have your altar set on. Some people use an elaborate table while others use a simple TV tray style table. Whatever you use should be sturdy enough not to easily topple when tiny hands use it to pull up on. Next is the altar cloth. What a neat thing to tug on! Baby could easily yank an complete set up down in a matter of nanoseconds. Consider using a cloth that does not hang past the end of the table. If you are really handy, consider building a table or buying one at an unfinished furniture shop. Use stains, paints or even carving and wood burning to create you altar top. Granted, this method does not allow you to change cloths if you use a different one for the seasons or Sabbats; however, there is not drape for Megan to yank on.
What altar is complete without candles? The dangers of kids and matches and candles should be self explanatory. Yet each year, we hear dozens of tragedies of burns and house fires caused by a child playing with candles, lighters and matches. Do you need the candles or can you substitute something else? If you must use candles, consider using low, fat candles in deep holders with a lower center of gravity than tall tapers. If you use an open fire such as at Beltane or burning a Yule log, keep little people well back. Popping embers, unsteady feet and curious hands are all major concerns. Consider things like burning resins and incense in the same league as candles. Anything hot enough to ignite - even if only a smolder - is hot enough to burn skin and even your house. Just think of all the house fires you hear of caused by a poorly discarded cigarette? Cigarettes are not open flames yet they burn hot enough to ignite other materials. IF your must use open flame, keep a fire extinguisher in the room where you work - regardless of if you have children. This is just common sense safety.
Resins, oils and herbs, the scents can be intoxicating to smell not to mention their magickal properties. However, they can also be toxic. Many parenting magazines and books have lists of poisonous plants and substances. Bear in mind there lists are far from complete. They only cover the common plants and products. Consider all resins and oils toxic unless you know 100% different. Better safe than sorry. As for herbs, purchase at least two if not three COMPREHENSIVE herb guides. Looks for ones that list not only the herb's Latin classification but all the known common names and if it is toxic or what parts are toxic. I suggest several books so you can compile information as not all books list all herbs or all the information. If you are in doubt, consider it toxic. Look for nontoxic plants that compliment what you are doing and use them instead.
Bowls and plates to hold your offerings, dried herbs, salt, water, charcoal. How many of us use glass, stoneware, metal or crystal? How many of these are breakable? If it is not breakable, what will happen if it falls on a little foot or head? If you do not think an item is too heavy or breakable, do the "Foot, Fist, Mouth Test." Bare your foot, hold the container at shoulder height or higher and slam it on your foot at if it were being driven down by the force of a pulled cloth or groping hand. Now, finish your cursing (watch that language), get an ice pack and rethink whether or not that bowl was heavy. When you are finished, clean up any shards of glass, crystal or stoneware that may have appeared when the bowl bounced from foot to floor (if you slammed a metal cauldron, you are probably finished and should think about getting that swollen foot X-rayed). Do this without the benefit of gloves, squeeze each shard and eat at least one. Now find the bandages and pray your throat is not too seriously cut. Yes, I am being sarcastic here, yet many people forget that heavy is a relative term. Can you substitute plastic or wood? Many home stores such as Target, K-Mart, Wal-MART and IKEA carry a wide variety of colors and shapes.
Knives, scissors, swords - do I really have to explain the dangers of sharp things and small kids...? Gee, even some big kids I know should not have sharp objects. But for those who fail to put two and two together: small child + athame = cut. Even dull blades can slice, damage an eye, go through sheet rock walls and swords can be heavy. Can you substitute a plastic knife (thanks ed. for this one) to cut herbs (they can still cut ) or staff for casting your circle instead of that sword? Look for the "child safe" scissors carried at some craft stores and fabric shops. Never let a small child use sharp objects and older kids should be supervised.
Crystals, stones, small gazing balls, trinkets that help you focus or work all pose a choking hazard or could pierce a child's palate if shoved in the mouth. If in doubt as to an item's size, use the "Toilet Paper Roll Test." Take an empty toilet paper or paper towel roll and cut a three inch length. Now go along your altar and stuff questionable items into it. If an item fits into the tube in any direction, it will fit in the mouth (this goes for long pointy things that are longer than the tube but still the tube will slip around as well as small round things like glass balls). Cords, rope, hanging strings of bells all pose strangle risks. A good rule of thumb if it is longer than six inches, it could fit around an average child's neck.
As for anything else you may use that I forgot, if in doubt, pack it away until your child is older. And if you still do not believe what a child is capable of getting into or putting in themselves, talk to an emergency room doctor or a pediatrician. Talk to most parents of small children as well, you will probably hear phenomenal tales of erasers in ears, peas and bugs up noses, coins and pins in the stomachs and things you never thought possible.
Now step back and look at your altar since child proofing it. Chances are you have something that resembles a child's tea party table: plastic bowls, plates and cups with completely edible items, nothing small or breakable and nothing that could ignite. Is this really an altar? Yes. Remember, an altar is just an extenuation of you. An altar can be as simple as a quiet spot in the woods where your erect a stone cairn or as elaborate as a royal dinner table with multitudes of utensils, candelabras, silver and crystal. But whatever you use, safety must be first priority when children are involved. I repeat, I honestly think any Goddesses and Gods would want you to put the best interest of your child first. After all, the child was their gift to you.