After a good friend pointed out an inconsistency to me, I edited this post slightly to make my point in a way that does not try to single out a small handful of people I know or make inaccurate or speculative generalizations. The change is in the 4th paragraph. -KMP 12/12/12
So, as you know from this post, M switched preschools in mid-September. When we toured the school before enrolling, we were informed that the school has a very minor religious component to it once a week, comprised of the kids singing songs about Jesus and hearing stories of the overriding message of love, peace and joy that he championed. Despite our household non-religious leanings, we loved the school for its overall approach to fostering a learning and play-based environment, among other things (read: FABULOUS teachers!). So much so that we essentially overlooked the religious part. I mean, we knew what we were getting ourselves into when making the conscious decision to enroll at a school that had a portion of its curriculum at a polar opposite of our perspective. Indeed, our other options at that late stage were quite limited. Nonetheless, we were excited to enroll and hoped for the best. Besides, it’s only for one school year.
Now that M’s got a solid 3 months under her belt, I thought I’d share our experience so far.
I guess the most striking thing to me, at this point, was how much I was preoccupied and tentative about what M would be potentially hearing from the school, rather than the friends and families that also attend. To put it bluntly, I completely missed the mark at how much other folks involved at the school would openly integrate God or Jesus into conversation, or how much religion plays a part in their non-school lives.
Before enrolling here, aside from three very discrete exceptions within my circle of friends, colleagues and family, the balance of my personal exposure to people who self-identify as “religious” or some specific, faith-based equivalent (i.e. Jewish, Catholic, etc.) is that I have observed that they attend church on one or two of the major holidays (at best), and maybe participate in some of the sacraments like baptism. Moreover, this majority certainly does not weave threads of any religious participation or beliefs into conversation, and most disclose one way or another (either explicitly or implicitly) that they do not attend religious services, retreats or classes on a regular basis. Does this mean that they do not go or otherwise participate on some level? Of course not, and I don’t purport to know the ins and outs of people’s personal lives. But certainly given my leanings, it means that any daily discourse or exposure regarding religion has otherwise been nonexistent for me.
Sure, our prior school was a secular/corporate one, with extended hours and geared towards families that need a variety of drop-off times/schedules, so it was a completely different animal. You barely saw other parents due to varied drop-off times, let alone had time to learn about their philosophical worldview. In hindsight, I took that ability to fit in seamlessly for granted.
Because now, even though we were told that there are some families that are not Christian at the school, I am fairly certain that I am one of the few, if not the only person, that does not believe in a god of any kind. Moreover, this assumption of a lowest common denominator (that is, that everyone at the school must at least be aligned with some sort of god-based religion even if it is not Christianity) seems to be understandably pervasive among the families. This has made some social situations sticky for me.
Here’s a recent example. I was in the parking lot with one of the other parents from M’s class and we were talking about Kindergarten for next year and what schools the girls will end up at. We are choosing to stick with the neighborhood public school for M. They live in another part of our city where their neighborhood school doesn’t quite cut the mustard and so they will be entering the school lottery, with M’s prospective school being their number one choice. I said something to the effect of “oh, well I hope that it works out that our girls are in the same school!” (they play together often during the day, and I know M would appreciate a familiar face next year given her hesitancy about the school environment to being with). Then this parent replied with something along the lines of “Well, it’s in God’s hands now. It’s his plan where she will end up.”
Now, part of me thinks to myself, that’s fine if she wants to think that is how the order of the world works. But then another (larger) part of me thinks that I should somehow be dispelling the notion that I agree with this sentiment, not because I want to pick fights or tell her I think she is wrong, but because I don’t want to lead her on or have her think that I have been lying to her all this time (we Atheists get a bad enough rap already, so I don’t want to add “liars” to the list!). I mean, we were having an otherwise pleasant conversation (which, as I talk about below, is so refreshing after where we came from) why go and inject some vitriol into it? Is it necessary? And if so, for whom? Me? Her? I haven’t really figured this out yet.
These questions play out in similar fashion when the Christmas play or a teacher/parent committee meeting begins with a prayer. I know the director of the school is aware of our point of view, and by this time, I would be surprised if the teachers haven’t heard of it through the rumor mill, but I’m fairly certain that among the flock of parents, they are still unaware that there is a wolf among them (OK, that analogy isn’t quite perfect, but you get my drift). From what I understand from my husband, some kind of similar religious overtone was also present at least at one birthday party conversation that he was part of (I did not attend that one).
I’m not sure how much effort to put into getting my side out there, and I think I just need to take each encounter as it comes. I think my approach might be different if I were going to be part of this school for more than a year (I’d probably make it known fairly early on where I stand), but then again some of these kids and their families will become part of the public school system like us. When exactly is the most appropriate time to pull the rug out? My gut tells me now, as the moment or mood may arise. But sometimes I think it will be on secular, public school ground because there might be more of “my kind” (read: safety in numbers) there, not to mention then M might not be left to deal with the possible aftermath all on her own as the grapevine heats up about us. I’ll have to report back on this one if/when it even plays out over the next few months.
In general, I haven’t said much about all of the songs that M is singing around the house (more so this month because of Christmas and the fact that they just had their Christmas school show). Never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d have a child singing “risen savior” at the top of her lungs or asking us to pray to the Christmas tree with her to wish for things (for her baby cousin, of course!). So far, I haven’t commented too much about it. For M personally, I can see the allure:
1) she loves to sing,
2) there’s been much ado about “baby Jesus” this month (she LOVES baby dolls and plays with them endlessly…that’s probably even an understatement), and
3) she likes that kind of group/community feeling of doing something fun (like singing about babies) together
It’s all also triggered about a bajillion questions from her about exactly who and/or what Jesus, God, Joseph, Mary and the host of related characters and principles mean. That part, I love. I want her to ask questions. And we can see her starting to figure out, or at least sift through, all of this information and what it all might (or might not) mean. We’ve told her that she can make her own decisions, and that it can take her whole lifetime or not, that she can continue to change her mind about it or not, that she can think differently from us or not — we will love her no matter how it all shakes out for her.
But despite having remained relatively unspoken about my perspective (I did just lay it all out there for one other mom whom I’ve come to know a little better during some recent playdates…she was cool with it all, thankfully), I have been unable to bite my tongue completely. I choose these moments wisely because, again, there is an ultra fine line between me basically telling M what to think (i.e. the way I think) and also her being an age where she could potentially respond to her peers in a way that might come across as being disrespectful or repeating things that her parents say at home (“my mom says…”).
Here is one that I didn’t let slide so easily. One of M’s classmates told her that birthmarks are a sign that God kissed you when you were born. Hey, if that is something that other families want to tell their children to make them feel better about themselves if they have a birthmark or else to make them feel an affinity towards someone else who might have one, I wholly appreciate that approach. As parents, we all do that kind of thing occasionally on some level or another to smooth over rough patches and raise self-esteem. But this particular statement seemed like a good one to incorporate an overriding viewpoint that is based on my appreciation of science, reason and chance. (Plus, I was having a hard time understanding how, even if I was someone who believed in God, you could work this out for those who do not have birthmarks…are they not so lucky? Seems arbitrary, unfair, and also somewhat inconsistent with what is otherwise taught about God.)
Now, all of this said, I have to say that I am so entirely happy with our decision to come to this school. The level of goodwill and charitable outreach is remarkable. I don’t just mean in the sense of giving to those less fortunate, but also with each other on a daily basis. One thing I am entirely pleased by is the sense of community at this school, even among complete strangers. I think the fact that most of the kids are dropped off and picked up within the same 15 minute window (as opposed to over the course of two hours) lends itself nicely to that. At M’s old school I barely got to know more than 2 parents over the course of 4+ years because 1) everyone was always in a rush in the morning before work or after the end of a long day to pick up their kid and get home for dinner and 2) the schedules of the children were so completely varied that you often had days where you didn’t see any other drop-off/pick-up happening while you were doing yours. It doesn’t make for forming friendships, and it was something that always bothered me. Everyone was always in such a hurry. Our kids would swap spit on the teething toys but no one would stop for five minutes to get to know you.
But here, I have met so many other parents in just a short amount of time. Playdates have surfaced almost on their own, and it’s like you already know the other parents when you are hanging out at the birthday parties–no awkward small talk. And a strong majority of these are working parents or have a younger gaggle of children in tow — yet somehow they find the time to be cordial and thoughtfully engaged.
More so, the teachers and the director of this school have gone light years ahead of what my expectations were in helping us and M work out some things that she was (and, to a lesser degree, still is) going through socially and emotionally at the school. I alluded to this a bit with my last book review, and I will be sure to make it the subject of my next post. But suffice it to say that I can only hope that we find even a fraction of that level of care and commitment to young kids when we head on to Kindergarten next year.
Although I think that the power of suggestion is strong at M’s age, I don’t think this one year will have any lasting, or at least unchangeable, effects on her. Her tendency to dive deeply into what’s in front of her plays out in many other contexts as well–case in point: she had otherwise forgotten about her Max and Ruby dolls until having seen a Christmas special with them, and now, of course, that is what she wants to play with. These immersions are usually transient, and so I’m not really concerned that we will need any kind of deprogramming down the road. That said, given that the power of suggestion on such a young mind lasts for many more years before fully autonomous thinking occurs, we will likely not enroll at any other religiously affiliated schools for the foreseeable future, barring any unforeseen circumstances. While I do want her to be religiously literate in a cultural sense, it is clear to me that my initial thoughts about picking them up from various extraneous sources will not always be an elegant solution because I largely cannot control, much less really know, what is actually being said in my absence. That makes me very uncomfortable, more so than I initially thought it would when I first embraced the idea of her learning about alternative viewpoints here. Not that I think we made a mistake (because I don’t), but more so that I didn’t fully appreciate the cumulative ways that religion would ultimately come up in her school life here. As we navigate expanding her understanding of the world and everyone’s point of view, I think we need to have a different game plan that takes place closer to home.
All in all, we undoubtedly made the right choice. I say this with total confidence and peace with the decision, even if it means that our soundtrack for the remaining months is M telling it on a mountain.
Copyright (c) 2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz.