“According to my 5-year-old,” the mom wrote, “one of her classmates grabbed her hand and forced her to pinkie promise that she would believe in God. My daughter now feels pressure to keep her promise.”
Like many parents, this mom wants her little girl to make up her own mind about what to believe— so she is loathe to pressure her in any particular direction. And yet here is a 5-year-old child trying to navigate an incredibly touchy subject — the intersection of belief and non-belief — on the kindergarten schoolyard.
What’s a parent to do?
First of all, as hard as it is to watch our kids struggling in the position of “outcast,” it’s really important that we encourage them to be honest and true to themselves whenever possible. Whether they are 5 or 15, they shouldn’t feel they have to lie about who they are, or feel ashamed for having different thoughts or feelings than other kids. Being unique is a good thing; standing up for yourself is a great thing.
If this comes up in your house, you might try role playing some various scenarios, providing kids with some potential talking points to help them through. Here are eight things secular kids can say to dispel or divert religious evangelism with their friends at school.
- “It’s okay to have different beliefs.” Some kids literally don’t know, because they haven’t been told, that it’s okay for people to have different beliefs about the world. Maybe your kid can help change that.
- “I’m still figuring out what I believe.” Even young children have beliefs about how the world works, but those beliefs will probably change multiple times before they reach adulthood. Remind kids that developing a worldview is a journey, and they have only just begun.
- “I can’t promise you that I will agree with your beliefs, but I can promise you I will listen to what you have to say.” When kids show they are interested in what their friends have to say — about anything, really, including religious beliefs — tensions have a way of cooling.
- “I don’t share your religion, but look at all the things we have in common.” For most secularists, it’s not about beliefs; it’s about values. And for children it’s even simpler. If they like the same toys or games or books, that’s goes a long way. (Longer, hopefully, than bigotry or irrational fear.)
- “The Golden Rule is that you should treat people the way you want to be treated. If you wouldn’t want me to tell you that your beliefs are wrong, you shouldn’t do that to me.” Sometimes even the most Christian of the Christians need to be reminded of Jesus’ most famous teaching; but remember, every major religion and worldview touts the ethic of reciprocity as being central to morality.
- “I’d rather not talk about that.” Talking about faith at school is something that kids can do, but that they don’t have to. A lot of people think beliefs about God are personal and private. Kids are well within their rights to just change the subject — or just walk away.
- “My parents say we can’t discuss religion at school.” One of the greatest gifts we give our kids is the ability to use us as excuses to get out of awkward/dangerous situations with their peers. “My mom will ground me if I drink alcohol” or “My dad won’t let me go to that party.” Invoke away, kids! Even roll your eyes at us, if you want. That’s what we’re here for.
- “This feels like bullying to me.” Thankfully, “bullying” is a word that most kids are extremely attuned to these days. Schools are doing an increasingly good job teaching kids to notice bullies, report bullies and stand up against bullies. Putting another child’s evangelism in that context may send the message that their actions are hurting someone; it also lets them know that they could face consequences from an adult. And, hopefully, if all else fails, they will.