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Dear Care and Feeding,
Our 4-year-old son will begin a pre-K program in the fall. Unfortunately, competition for spots has been way higher than we anticipated, and it looks like the only place we can get him into that we can afford is at a “non-denominational” preschool operated by a local church. Our family is atheist, though my husband and I were both raised in Christian households. This preschool doesn’t have overt religious teachings, but does celebrate the Christian holidays and has prayer time before meals. They also teach children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis, which seems VERY intense for preschoolers! What’s the best way to discuss with our son that some of what his school teaches isn’t in alignment with our own beliefs, while also leaving him free to explore his own?
— Family Fearing Indoctrination
Dear Fearing Indoctrination,
I actually feel your pain. Through a combination of unfortunate circumstances, my daughter spent several years in a school that did its best to instill values in her that we disagreed vehemently with. It wasn’t fun, and we were stuck. If you really are stuck too (but lucky you, it sounds like you’ll be stuck for only a year!), I recommend doing what we did. Cheerfully, regularly—the former may be hard, the latter easy—offer counterprogramming at home. Talk in his presence about what you believe and don’t, set the examples you want to set, and model the behavior you hope he will want to emulate. It’s not such a bad thing for a child to find out that not everyone thinks the way his parents do, that there many different ways to approach the world.
If he brings home something objectionable to you, parroting something a teacher has said with which you vehemently disagree, don’t blow your top. Counter it casually and with good humor. I learned to invoke the phrase, “Oh, that seems silly to me” (when, for example, my daughter informed me that she was obliged to use the honorifics “Miss” and “Mrs.” when addressing female teachers and other parents and when the school made the children sing the “Buckeye Battle Cry” as well as “The Star-Spangled Banner”). If your 4-year-old comes home talking God, there’s no reason not to say—lightly, conversationally—“You know, Mom/Dad and I don’t believe in God.” If he has questions, he’ll ask them. As with any challenging questions a child may have, it’s best to wait for them to bring them up.
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