When the ‘Best’ School is a Religious School

By Wendy Thomas Russell | May 29, 2014 | 23 comments

Christian childrenThis 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.


  1. Mary B. says:

    I found your site through an article that was shared with me, that you recently wrote called “The case for having just one kid.” It really bolstered my spirits, as my husband and I have also decided to only have one (a daughter, now 6), and I, too, have felt the immense pressure to “diversify” as you put it (lol). Then I sought out your site, and noticed that you also focus on secular parenting. You now have a fan in me, as this is another parenting struggle we have had. Both my husband and I are secular. I identify as agnostic, he as atheist (both of us raised Catholic). Where we live currently, the public school system is sub-par. There are some excellent, top notch, secular private schools, but they are all way out of budget. The plethora of private religious schools (including the one I attended as a kid) are all affordable, and I know from experience they would provide a quality education. The only problem I really had was the religious indoctrination. I knew she’d be required to attend mass. I knew that while all of her classmates would be receiving the sacraments, she would likely have to abstain and then perhaps feel left out. In school peer acceptance is so vital for social health, and I know how easily something like this could turn into her being potentially rejected by mean peers. Ultimately, we’ve chosen to move to a better public school district. But we both struggled with this for quite some time.

    I’ve always been very open with her about religion. She and I have had lengthy discussions about God, Jesus, what “the cross” means, etc. She has had a lot of exposure to these symbols from other family, her peers, etc. She learned a Hanukkah song in school, and asked us this past year if we could celebrate Hanukkah, and so we did. And as a family we had fun learning the history of the holiday and the reasons behind the symbols. I’ve always told her that it is up to her what she chooses to believe. I teach her that many different people believe many different things, and in many ways, and that all beliefs deserve to be treated with respect. She knows that she can choose her own course in this regard, and I think it gives her a sense of empowerment. For now, she has chosen to believe in god. When she asks me if I believe in God, I say – honestly – “I don’t know.”

    Now if only I could tactfully let my mother-in-law know that she shouldn’t buy our daughter a nativity set (which she did this past Christmas). *sigh* haha

    I look forward to your book. Thank you!

  2. Crankypants says:

    Many many years ago it was said that going to a public school was a better education from a socialization standpoint. hose who attended private schools seeded to lack the necessary skills to interact with others as their k-12 experience was limited to just those who could afford private schools.

    Seems like the trend has gone full circle and parents are trying to get their children back into the private school setting (religious or other).

    From a communication standpoint, it is going to be interesting to see how kids of this generation brought up with computers and cell phones interact with others when they are in their 30’s and up.

    Quality of education?? No better than the teacher who is imparting the knowledge whether it is in a religious school or public school. And that (I will venture) Wendy has not addressed in her book and if so it will be a “crap shoot” on her part because you can’t tell; it is unknown.

    • Steven B says:

      This is response to the “crap shoot” comment. While it is true that the quality of education correlates with the teacher imparting the knowledge, the system that teacher must work within can and does have a huge impact on just how they are able to impart that knowledge. Public education isn’t what it used to be, and I doubt that it will ever get any better. Home schooling is where it is at IF you want the best for your child. If that isn’t feasible, then anything other that the present public school system is a wise course.

      –Steven B

      • Crankypants says:

        Like me I am sure you pay property taxes. In those taxes are dollars for public schools. I am sure federal dollars enter somewhere. So, if this is the case, shouldn’t taxpayers be more responsible and make sure their dollars are providing the best education?
        Reverting to home school or a religious school doesn’t solve the problem.

        By the way, the problems public school systems have now they have had in the past; those problems are just exacerbated by more children in the system and lack of discipline that used to be in the schools.

        Another thought, when you pay to put your child in a religious school, you will tolerate the way they run it. You don’t have the luxury of running to the school and complaining about things.

        • Steven B says:

          Au Contraire . . . if I don’t like the way an institution is operating and I wish to comment in trying to initiate a change I will always express my thoughts to whoever in that system has the power to do something about it–in this country, anyway. The fact that the public school system continues to be a joke seems to be proof positive that people in general are complacent to let the situation continue to fester. It would be great if that were not the case, but I just don’t have the confidence in the public at large to do much of anything. Look at how we continue to re-elect the same congressional representatives when we know that the house should be cleaned before we can see any improvement for the future. The inertia will prevail I am afraid. Until then, home and/or private schooling is the answer.

          • Chris says:

            Are there examples of real, peer-reviewed research to support claims that education system X is better than education system Y?

            How “better” is defined/measured is a major question, as is how generally applicable the results are, but surely such research has been done.

  3. Jennifer Newton says:

    Such a great topic, and one that I’m currently struggling with. In my area (Long Beach, CA) the majority of preschools are religious-based. So, I enrolled my daughter in a Lutheran one and was very open about how I felt about religion and the like. They were super-supportive of me and I continue to have open conversations with her teacher. However, now that she is getting to Elementary School age, we are looking to move her to a different, more secular school. So, now the search begins again and I don’t even know where to start…not to mention I hardly have the time to scour the greater Los Angeles and Orange County areas for a perfectly balanced good education that teaches theology as a subject like history instead of one religion as definite truth. But, obviously I’ll do it. So, any tips from any local parents would be greatly appreciated! Thanks as always for the great post Wendy!

  4. Beth says:

    I wanted to weigh in because my family was in the same boat. We sent both of our children (oldest now in kindergarten, youngest still in preschool) to a Lutheran preschool. It’s what we could afford, and it’s been a very loving environment. They have chapel once per week, and they do pray before snacks. Otherwise it’s teaching of the basics, abc’s and counting. We look at it as an opportunity for the kids to be exposed to religion in a limited way. The kids never really came home talking about God or Jesus too much, and when they did we answered simply that some people believe in God and some don’t. It’s been a smooth transition from preschool to kindergarten for our oldest who now understands that most of her friends are religious, and we aren’t. My point is that I would be cautious of a religious preschool, but it’s not necessarily a terrible thing. It can be used as a learning opportunity, and we never had to convert or go to church to use this fantastic resource. :) Good luck!

  5. Chris says:

    Another execellent one, Wendy, well done! A few random thoughts…

    We sent our daughter to a completely secular–and *wonderful*–preschool run out of the local Unitarian Universalist church. When religion was mentioned, it was always about education, not indoctrination. For us, perfect.

    Before we found that preschool, we briefly considered one run out of a nearby synagogues. The preschool is supposedly top-notch, and apparently light on indoctrination, but also light on religious eduction except for Judaism. We were looking for a more secular education, but honestly another real turnoff was all the holidays! Those first few months in the fall, it seemed like there was at least one holiday every week. Price was too high to justify. :-\

    Some friends of ours sent their daughter to the same preschool as my daughter, but she now attends a Catholic elementary school because the public schools in their part of town are kinda crap. The wife was baptized Catholic, but the church required the husband to convert in order for them to get cheaper tuition (and to bolster their numbers?). Boo. If I were to do a survey with a sample size of one–our friends’ daughter–I’d have to disagree with #4 above. Indoctrination is in full effect and it’s coming largely from the school…but maybe that’s just because it’s elementary school and not preschool.

    Anyway, based only on my experience, for any readers out there trying to find a more secular option, I’d have to recommend at least looking to see if there’s a Unitarian Universalist church near you with a secular preschool.


    • Thank you, Chris! I do think suspect that elementary schools are much more likely to attempt indoctrination than preschools (for a number of reasons). Shocked by your story about the conversion=cheaper tuition. Shouldn’t be, but am.

  6. Neil Namoro says:

    i believe i would be having the same problems when my kid would be old enough to go to school. i live in the philippines and it is predominantly catholic here. most, if not all, pre-schools here in manila are catholic/christian-based; hopefully i could find one that is not so heavy on indoctrination.

  7. Brooks Wolfe says:

    Another factor is the subsidies so many religious schools receive from their parent church, bringing down the tuition cost versus a stand-alone secular school. My local secular school is outstanding in its own right, which makes me willing to put up the money for tuition. My children love the school and are thriving, which helps as well.

    Unfortunately for my recruiting efforts, most of my friends and local business associates are not. They look at the Catholic school down the road, note that it’s one third the cost, and the decision is made. My arguments based upon the quality of education seem to fall on deaf ears. It seems many parents feel that any education is “good enough” in the primary years; perhaps they’re saving their money for a big college down the road. I feel the opposite: A child’s primary education, from day one of preschool up through the end of grade school, sets the tone for the rest of their lives. How could I skimp on that?

  8. Steven B says:

    This is a great topic and I was hoping to maybe learn which organizations had the best schools. So I am looking forward to hearing comments.

    My daughter home schools our 5 grandchildren and I am soooo thankful she is able to do that. A private school, even one sponsored by a religious organization would have to be miles and miles better than what this country offers as public education–it has become a joke and a very sad situation all around.

    If I had to pick one I would choose a 7th Day Adventist school, simply because they have the answer for health and nutrition. Adventists lives longer lives for a reason. One of the primary ones is that many Adventists don’t eat the SAD diet (standard American diet). Although I can’t swallow their faith, I am impressed with their lifestyle and have pretty much adopted it for myself, as have the rest of my family. Watch “Eating, Third Edition” and “Forks over Knives” and give a plant based diet some serious consideration.

    –Steven B

  9. Jennie Erwin says:

    Ugh, yes. Here in NW Iowa, it’s the same situation, with literally all the preschools located in church basements, or with Christian symbols in their names.
    I asked around a few places, but I just wasn’t interested in my child being exposed to prayer at every snack time, and bible verses every day. I was very open with the preschools when I was making the inquiries, explaining upfront that we are secular. And telling them at the end of the conversation exactly why our child wouldn’t be attending their preschool.
    So hubby and I homeschooled the preschool. It worked for us, because he was home with the baby anyway. We’ll have to make the same decision for the youngest, who is now 2, if hubby finds a job. There is now another option, it literally just opened a week ago, it’s a stand alone center, so hopefully it’s a touch more secular. We’ll see.

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Due out March 31, Relax, It's Just God: How and Why to Talk to Your Kids About Religion When You're Not Religious offers a well-researched look at a timely subject: secular parenting. With chapters on avoiding indoctrination, talking about death, vaccinating kids against intolerance, dealing with religious baggage, and getting along with religious relatives, the book offers a refreshingly compassionate approach to raising religiously literate, highly tolerant and critically thinking children capable of making up their own minds about what to believe. The book may be pre-ordered by visiting Brown Paper Press.

      Natural Wonderers is my new blog published by the Patheos faith network. An extension of my previous blog — Relax, It's Just God — Natural Wonderers offers stories and advice on raising curious, compassionate children in secular families.
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