This is an issue that comes up a lot in secular families. (So much so that I’m not sure why I’ve not written about it sooner.) In so many areas of our country, religious organizations have cornered the preschool market. (I remember when I was school-shopping for my daughter, religious preschools outnumbered Montessori-based programs 5-to-1.)
Which brings me to a letter I received recently from a reader who lives in the Chattanooga area — not exactly the country’s secular epicenter. Not surprisingly, the most convenient, affordable and trustworthy preschool in her area is at a Baptist Church, which offers, as she puts it “pre-writing, Spanish and… Bible verse memorization.”
Here’s what she said:
I don’t feel this is going to ruin her, but I’m not sure I’m ready for the discussions being in this environment will bring (at her age). Also, I don’t know if I should mention my lack of religion with the teachers. Or if, because of that lack, I should even be taking advantage of this school. If I did mention it, would they try to proselytize my little daughter? The folks in this area are fervent about their religion.
So what do you think, folks? Anyone else been in the same boat? Any advice for this momma?
After doing some research into the matter myself, here is my two cents.
1. Find out if you need to be religious to attend.
You need not “out” yourself to find out the answer to this question. “Is your school open to children of different religions or of no religious affiliation?” is a question anyone could ask. Very likely, the answer is yes. And very likely, this isn’t the first time they’ve been asked. But if the school really is “for members only,” give it a pass. You don’t want to put your kid in a position to have to lie — and, anyway, openly discriminatory schools don’t deserve your support.
2. Get to know the school’s curriculum.
If the school is open to all children, then the next step is to find out exactly what their curriculum entails. Is it mostly secular with a few religious aspects thrown in — or is it the opposite? And what are those religious aspects? Is it simply Bible verse memorization? Or do the children pray, as well? Is hell a part of their teachings? (You want to avoid any surprises on that front!) Do they teach creationism? Do they teach that you must be [fill in the blank] in order to be a good person? If you’re still unsure, you might ask if you can sit in on a day or two of instruction before enrolling your child; this will give you a good sense of what to expect.
3. Give your honest assessment.
The more uncomfortable you are with the answers you received to the above questions, the more thought you need to give to your decision. You are the parent. You call the shots. Having someone else step in to tell your child things that you don’t believe to be true — as though they are definitely true — can and probably will rub you the wrong way at some point. So be sure the pros outweigh the cons. Yes, you may be short on other options, but maybe there’s something you haven’t thought of — homeschooling, for instance, or forming a preschool co-op with other secular parents. (Remember, if all secular parents put their kids in religious schools, there would never be any secular schools!)
4. Don’t freak out!
If you do decide a religious school this is the best option for your child — and you may! and that’s okay! — rest assured that it’s all going to turn out fine. Teachers, like most grandparents, only carry so much sway with children. If your kids are going to be indoctrinated, it’s going to be by you — not them.
5. Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Once enrolled, be sure to ask your child what she’s learning in school, particularly as it pertains to God or Jesus or Moses or whoever. Ask her what stories she’s hearing. Go over any religious material she brings home. And, remember, go into these conversations as a curious observer, not a private eye looking for secrets. If these conversations become too serious or stressful, your child will stop having them with you.
6. Double down on religious literacy.
For very small children—ages 3 to 5 —it’s probably enough just to mention that some people believe in God, and some people don’t. You might also say something like, “You go to a school that teaches about Jesus, but lots of other schools teach about different people,” or “It’s fun to learn about different religions. Right now you are learning about the Jewish religion.” Just letting little ones know that there are other “realities” out there may be enough. For older children — those in elementary school, make religious literacy a priority. Talk about what various religions believe and why they believe those things. The more your kid knows about all religions — as well as your own beliefs — the more capable they will be to suss out the truth for themselves.