The number of elementary school children who get bullied for religious reasons in a given year is probably relatively low. But it does happen. Even in progressive areas.
At an ethnically and religiously diverse elementary school here in Southern California, for instance, two kindergarten boys were pulled into the principal’s office last spring because they’d been taunting a Jewish classmate — calling him “the devil.” One of the boys didn’t even know what a devil was but said his friend “seemed to know what he was talking about” so he went along with it. The first kid, unfortunately, was much more aware of what he was talking about, having picked up the charming behavior at home. Just before the end of school, he repeated the “devil” comment and spit on the Jewish child.
So yeah, it happens. And, even when it doesn’t escalate into spitting, it’s still heartbreaking. That’s why, just in time for Back-to-School Week (for my kid at least!), I wanted to share some tips for how to deal with hell talk at school.
1. Don’t panic.
This is pretty much the mantra of this blog, and it’s a good one to remember here. Your kid is going to have to wade through a load of shit in elementary school, which will only prepare her for the bigger load of shit she’ll have to wade through in middle school until the shit piles so high, it spills over into your life during adolescence. Best to learn to chill out now. Bourbon helps.
2. Remember: Hell is a nasty word, but it’s just a word.
We tend to give hell a lot more weight than it’s really worth. That’s not to say it’s okay to tell someone they’re going to hell, but it helps to put it in perspective. Sally is told she’s “ugly” because she wears glasses or has freckles. Johnny is a “sissy” because he can’t throw a ball. Mary is “retarded” because she has a stutter. Timmy is going to “hell” because he doesn’t believe in God. Each insult is just as mean and hurtful as the next — and, also, just as untrue.
3. Consider the source.
Not all hell talk is created equal. One thrown in passing by an unassuming child (like the time my daughter was told that kids who don’t believe in God go to “a very, very bad school”) is not the same as the anti-Semetic onslaught suffered by the kindergartener in the story above. Some incidents may require no action from you (See No. 4), but if you believe they do — call for a meeting with the teacher or principal. It may be time for a sit-down with the other kid’s family — or to suggest some religious tolerance instruction in school. (Consider this post by blogger Steph Bazzle on Parenting Beyond Belief. Her 8-year-old son came home from school after a fellow classmate told him he was headed “down there.” Bazzle ended up writing an e-mail to the principal, teacher and guidance counselor. Not a freak-out e-mail, but a heads-up e-mail. Their response? The principal called her immediately, genuinely concerned. And the school guidance counselor scheduled a tolerance course for every grade in the school. Can’t ask for better than that.)
4. Follow your kid’s lead.
While we parents love to impose our sage advice on our kids, sometimes the best thing to do is listen and encourage. When we steer our kids too much, or expend a lot of energy trying to fix their problems, we often send the message that they can’t possible fix these problems themselves. If your child dealt with the H-bomb without becoming abusive to “the bomber,” she deserve major kudos. Maybe she told the teacher. Maybe she defended herself. Maybe she did absolutely nothing. Whatever it was, tell her she did a bang-up job. “Good for you!” you might say. “I love how you handled that.” Or the old reliable: “I’m proud of you.”
5. Appeal to logic.
Take your kid outside. Look up at the sky. Stomp on the ground a little. Look at some pictures of space and the Grand Canyon. Then talk about this “hell” of which people speak. If it exists, where is it? A great centerpiece to any religiously complex conversation is: “Does that make sense to you?” For example: “If someone is a nice person, and only does good things for other people, do you think that person will go to some horrible place after he or she dies? Does that make sense to you?”
6. Separate the hell-talkers from the religious masses.
A great many religious people — particularly modern, progressive types — have done away with this old-fashioned notion of hell altogether; either they believe that only truly evil people go to hell, or they’ve abandoned the belief altogether. And even among those who do believe in hell, most are not particularly worried about whether you are going there; they’re far more worried about whether they are going there. The point is, not all religious people believe your kid is going to hell; it’s important your kid knows that.
7. Use it as a learning opportunity.
Hell is a super-interesting field of study, for kids who are old enough to explore it without getting nightmares. (Eight or nine, maybe?) And treating it as just that — a field of study — helps remove some of its power. Look up hell on Wikipedia. Read about how each religion imagines hell, and how they differ; many religions have no concept of hell at all. You might talk to your child about how hell is depicted in songs, movies, artworks, literature and video games. And you might explain that many people think of hell as a condition of one’s own mind; when you do hurtful, amoral things, you must then suffer the guilt and remorse and regret that goes with those decisions.
For many of us, that’s a fate worse than anything the devil could do.