When my seven-year-old son Michael* was in kindergarten, his table-mate asked him if he believed in God, to which he replied he did not. We have explained to him on many occasions that his beliefs about god(s) need to be his own. We are not fans of indoctrination, of any kind. He may have non-theist parents but that doesn’t mean he has to think whatever we think. We’re not raising robots that need programming, we’re raising adventurers who need a tool kit.
Michael told me that his classmate looked at him with shock and horror that he didn’t believe in God, the student then disrupted the class and announced loudly to his teacher that “[Michael] didn’t believe in god and has to believe in god!” Fortunately, his teacher handled it well by sharing that different people have different beliefs and that’s okay.
A few months later in that same kindergarten class, another classmate told Michael that he needed Jesus in his heart. He handled it like a champ and asked the kid how Jesus got in his heart because that’s physically impossible; he’s a very literal guy. He then asked his classmate if he had actually ever seen Jesus in real life. Of course, the student hadn’t, but said he lives in the sky with God.
Michael began sharing that he thought Jesus was like Santa Clause, just pretend, a connection he didn’t get from my husband or I but it did make made us smile. The student eventually told the teacher that my boy indeed said Jesus wasn’t real, and she intervened. She pulled our son aside and asked him to no longer talk about Jesus, and when the other kids are talking about Jesus and God, that he should just shrug his shoulders if he doesn’t agree.
Hell with that. I was livid. You don’t tell my son to sit in silence while other kids are pushing their religions on him. While other kids are saying there is something wrong with him because he doesn’t do their religion the appropriate response isn’t “shut-up and listen.” Whether intentional or not, this is the kind of social coercion that affords Christian culture pride of place in our society.
Sure, Michael should learn to find ideal and respectful times to share his thoughts but he shouldn’t be told to just shrug his shoulders when the conversation comes up. We penned a letter to his teacher, a nice calm letter, and let her know that we instructed our son to absolutely unequivocally NOT shrug his shoulders if he finds himself in a situation like the aforementioned. We were not rude, but we let her know that our son’s beliefs and questions are every bit as valid as any other student—as long as he’s not disrupting the class, he has the right to talk about them.
We know the story Michael told us was true, because his teacher sent us an email that was verbatim what he had told us had transpired. In the email we gleaned that she was “telling” on our kid for the things he said and was likely trying to get him in trouble. I’m sure she was surprised by our response, and her reply to that letter was short and succinct: “Got it.”
As a secular parent, I recognize how difficult it is to be different than your peers. Trying to “fit in” is a typical struggle in learning to navigate the social waters in life. We live in a large suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, which is fairly conservative like most mid-western suburbs. My son is too young to completely recognize that he’s different in many ways—adopted, biracial, and has parents who are openly secular. As his mother, I think this makes him incredibly special, but I know it may bring him special challenges in the future.
Last week, my boys were invited to their first Oasis related birthday party. Moments after the invite, it dawned on me how incredible this occurrence was. Most secular families don’t have a frequent and kid friendly way to connect with other families who value critical thinking and skepticism. Though simplistic, this simple birthday invitation illustrated the kind of network communities like Oasis afford you. We humans are hardwired for connection and our kids are no exception. If you starve a plant for sunlight, you’ll never see how beautifully it might shine.
(*Name changed for anonymity.)