Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.
My son is in second grade and is coming under pressure from his friends. They are badgering him saying he is going to go to hell because he doesn’t believe in God. I know this won’t be the last time someone tries to force their religious views on him. And as a parent I want him to learn ways to handle it.
Unfortunately, giving logical arguments doesn’t work for 7 year olds. “I see no evidence” doesn’t work in an age where Santa Claus and tooth fairies make perfect sense.
Do you have any suggestions for a child to handle this situation?
As I said, my goal would be for him to have the right tools to handle this on his own. However, if that doesn’t work then I will speak to the other kids parents.
One final note… I live in Texas. So sadly, short of suing, the school system will be of little help.
I can understand that as a parent you want your child to grow up being able to handle things on his own, but I think this might be more than most seven-year-olds should be expected to deal with alone, so you should assess it carefully.
Most people who grow up self-confident have drawn upon on two different kinds of foundation experiences in their childhood. One is the experience of having the backup and support of loved ones, especially their parents. As children, they knew that they would not be entirely alone in a struggle if they got beyond their depth. As they grew older, they gradually shifted to the second foundation of self-confidence, the repeated experience of being able to deal with a situation without help. If they have had only one of those two kinds of foundations, then as adults they might not handle challenging situations with the skill and flexibility that they would if they had had both.
There are no standard guidelines to help you determine if you should intervene and how you might intervene in this, because there are so many variables. Just a few of the variables include the following: Your son might be finding these incidents very upsetting, or he might be shrugging them off. The religious kids might be only casually expressing their training in spiritual conceit, or they might be really bearing down on him. These friends might be simply working out what topics should be discussed and what should not, or they might be stringently requiring your son to conform to their religious views in order to be accepted as their friend.
One thing you can probably assume is that the kids who are doing the religious badgering are drawing their self-confidence from that first foundation I mentioned. They are most likely assuming, correctly or not, that their parents and community will support them in what they are doing.
Seven years old is a time of rapid developmental and cognitive growth. If your son’s friends are just a few months older than him, they can have an advantage in developmental self-confidence as well as the confidence from assuming that they have parental backup, and the confidence from simply outnumbering him.
So you should assess these variables as best you can, especially letting your son tell you if and how much this situation distresses him. Make it easy for him to tell you honestly, without trying to please you with the answer that he thinks you would prefer to hear. Make sure that he knows you believe in his worthiness and that his well-being matters to you enough for you to help him when and if he is overwhelmed.
Whether or not you decide that it is time to intervene with the other kids’ parents and/or with the school administration, you should prepare for that contingency now, by documenting everything. Create a notebook where you write down every incident with the date, time, place, the names of the individuals involved, things that were done and said, and the effect that it had on your son.
If you decide to speak to the badgering kids’ parents, be ready to face whatever social fallout might come from that. They might be mature adults who don’t want their kids behaving that way, or they might be oversized versions of the playground bullies that their kids are. Bringing your documentation will have a powerful effect on whoever you end up talking to. They will see that you take this seriously, and that you expect them to do the same.
You say that because you are in Texas, the school system will be of little help. It certainly will be of no help if you assume that, and you do not approach them at all. I don’t think that you want to inadvertently teach your son to accept defeat by default. Only if you give the school administration an honest chance to do the right thing will you know how helpful or unhelpful they will be.
If you speak to the school Principal and/or teachers, let them see you writing down everything that they are saying to you. This will give them a clear message that you expect results rather than giving you placating platitudes or disdainful dismissals. You don’t necessarily have to mention potential lawsuits, because your documenting clearly implies that possibility. Demonstrating that you are determined and prepared can often be enough to shake people out of their complacency or apathy.
In the meantime, you could talk to your son about what he might try on his own, but I cannot promise that the couple of suggestions I offer below will help. Perhaps the readers here will have suggestions based on their own experiences.
I think it would be a mistake for him argue with the other kids about their beliefs. That would probably just worsen things. His efforts should be about trying to alter the relationship between them, rather than alter the beliefs. He can get into debates about metaphysics and epistemology when he’s in high school and college.
Start with the shrug-off. Suggest that when they try the you’re-going-to-hell routine, he should say with a shrug and a friendly tone, “I don’t care about that stuff. Let’s play baseball.” It disarms the taunt or challenge because it seems to have no effect on him, and it suggests a positive alternative thing for him and the other kids to do.
Another one might be the focus on friendship. He could say something like, “It’s more fun to be friends. Let’s play baseball.”
There are no guarantees that any response will work, because so much depends on whatever is driving the other kids. I think a combination of what your son tries and what you try on his behalf might be the best approach. The exact mixture of those will have to be an experiment.
The last thing I’ll suggest is probably the first thing you should try. Encourage him and even help him to find other friends who don’t badger him like that. There may be a great many religiously intolerant people in your area, but they’re not all like that. Your son only needs to find a handful of more easygoing kids who are not mimicking their parents’ obsession with conformity and the extortion racket that is faith under threat of torture.
Please write again to let me know how things turn out. We can all benefit from your experiences of what works and what does not. I wish you and your son the best.