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.
I’m fairly certain that when I envisioned the time that I would start talking to M about my beliefs–or, probably more accurately, non-beliefs–about how our world came to be, my source of moral codes to live by, and what happens after we die, I am pretty sure it did not involve going through the day’s mail and seeing the flyer for the Rockettes’ Radio City Christmas Spectacular.
But one cannot plan for these things I suppose. This is why so much parenting is improv.
Last year a bunch of my family (including us) went to see a performance of the Rockettes during the Christmas season. M really loved it and so did I. But one thing that took me aback during the show was the part near the end where it focuses on the birth of baby Jesus–I really didn’t like that part too much. Now, I know what you’re thinking: I didn’t like it because it involved religion and I’m an atheist. Nope, that’s not why. I didn’t like it because (in my humble yet artistically untrained opinion) it really slowed down the momentum of the show in a weird place, and, quite honestly, unexpectedly. I had no clue that that kind of religious content would be part of the show. Not that it would have persuaded me to not go see the show. I mean the whole point of Christmas–in the traditional, Christian sense–is the birth of Jesus. But I think that many of us could agree that these days, for too many people this is no longer what Christmas is about, and so I was simply expecting lots of glitter, high kicks and middle of the road holiday music.
The traditional celebration of Jesus’ birth is certainly not what Christmas is about for me personally. For me, it’s about family-based traditions in food, music and connecting with the winter season, and looking forward to that one time of year that we get together as a family for celebration, indulgence and embracing each other and all that we’ve done in the past year. Though putting it that way makes me realize that the only difference between Christmas and Thanksgiving is an evergreen tree, a smaller food hangover and some wrapped presents.
At one time Christmas did have a religious basis for me, or at least it was more religiously informed when I was a participating member of the Catholic church, but that stopped way back in 6th grade or so. So as a result, M’s Christmases have not (yet) had any religious ties. And that makes sense considering we don’t go to church as a family. I don’t go to church or temple or any other place of worship because I am a non-believer. I respect the rights of others who choose to go, but it’s not a place for me. If my husband chose to go again, I’d respect that. But presently he doesn’t go either. If you want to know why, you’d have to ask him since that is his own choice, a decision that is entirely separate from mine.
But as a result of all of this, other than a handful of baptisms and other ceremonies of friends and family that M has attended, her exposure to any kind of religion has been nonexistent. She is somewhat aware that some of her friends go to church on Sunday, but I’m pretty sure all that she thinks that is is some place where you go in a nice dress before you go out to breakfast.
Anyway, because we went to last year’s show,
we’re on the stupid mailing list the ticket sellers naturally assume we want to go again this year, so we received the glossy flyer in the mail. As M and I were thumbing through it and admiring the lovely ladies poised in their high kick pose, she got to the last page where there was a photograph of the baby Jesus scene from the show.
She asked, “Mommy, what’s that?”
I told her it was baby Jesus, hoping that she wasn’t going to probe any further because although I am not shy about my stance on gods, religion and many of the issues that flow therefrom, I was not particularly ready to talk about it at that moment in the front doorway next to a very recent patch of cat barf.
I dodged a bullet because she wanted to know what baby Jesus was sleeping in since it was a grainy photo. I told her it was a manger, kind of like an older version of a Pack-n-Play made out of straw and wood (Pack-n-Hay?). It satisfied her curiosity. Phew.
But then I realized that I need to get my elevator speech ready on this ASAP because she is at the age where she is going to have plenty questions about this. Fortunately, right now she is all too consumed by volcanoes and how mountains are made, but she’s only a few logical steps away from how the planet was made and why don’t we get dressed up on Sundays too?
Reading Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan (his blog is here) about a year ago certainly helped give me some insight about this issue, though I think I soon need to read his other book, Raising Freethinkers to round out my abilities to navigate this arena. But it’s much more than reading a book for some pointers. I have to remember that she is growing up with extended family who are practicing members of an organized religion, so there is a fine balance between imparting my understanding of the way the world is, her father’s (which is slightly different) and the rest of our families’, all while remaining respectful and non-judgmental. And considering that it’s not really a topic that is openly discussed among our extended family and friends, it already feels slightly awkward.
I have to remember that she’s attending preschool with other children who are members of organized religions that are different from the one of her extended family (Roman Catholic on all sides), and that sometimes I cannot fully predict when issues of religion might appear in my absence. Case in point: one of her classmates graciously brought in some Challah bread in celebration of Rosh Hashana last week. I think it’s wonderful that she is part of a rich fabric of cultures, religions and backgrounds among her peers—really, I do!–but it’s not like there’s an atheist day where I can send her in with a Bundt cake. These kinds of things will start to stand out more and more, and I am honestly not feeling too equipped to say the right thing given her age and attention span. At some point, if she asks, I am of course willing to expose her to whatever it is she wants to learn more about, even if it ultimately leads her to adopt viewpoints that are polar opposite from mine.
But right now I’m in that parenting sweet spot where I do have some control, or at least input, about these kinds of values. The problem though, insofar as I can see it, is that there is no doctrine or book or weekly sermon that I can point to to back me up in a way that is not academic. There are few social places (save for some Unitarian Universalist or Humanist Society groups) and no holidays where entire families gather to rally around the kinds of thoughts that I have, so sometimes it feels a bit lonely out here. So I have to riff a bit and it’s making me uncomfortable in a way that I had not anticipated. And maybe it’s just me, but I feel like I get the bulk of the deep, loaded questions instead of M’s dad. She asks me how babies are made and what will happen to the dead sparrow in our yard, and she asks her dad where her shoes are. Or at least it feels that way. And this is why she thought that all of the dirt in our entire backyard is made of dead people who are helping the new flowers grow (nothing like a four year old extrapolating one small example into one larger possible reality!)
Until this Rockettes flyer came along, I was happily drifting in the no man’s land of preschooler ignorance about big ticket items like religion. But I can see the hot seat on the very near horizon. And so I just want to give a shout out to the Rockettes for kicking me in the butt to get my spiel together so that I am ready next time.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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