Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.
I’ll try to keep it short. My 10-year old daughter has started complaining about her being picked on in school because she does not subscribe to the majority religious views. I cannot blame the school for this, since it’s coming from her peers, not staff. I could only advise her to go away from the topic once it arises and avoid making any comments when other kids talk about their personal communications with god. She, however, is not mature enough to restrain herself from that. She sees the solution to the problem is us (our family) becoming Christians. I think she doesn’t mean actually believe, but only social concepts – going to church, participating in religious groups meetings, praying before eating and so on. I find it hypocritical and a waste of our time. She, however, thinks this would solve the problem of her fitting in and getting along and making friends. Maybe I’m wrong and in reality she is willing to subscribe to religious views, but this is not how it seems at this point. We live in the south and atheists are largely underrepresented here, and while I can understand her wish to fit in, I cannot see how this can be done without her ridiculous proposal. We’ve always told her that she is free to choose her beliefs and it’s also ok to be atheist, but obviously, that’s not what she sees, so her conclusion is that parents are wrong. I am willing to start looking for some youth atheist organization around here, but I don’t think there are any at this time. This may become less of a problem when our two younger kids approach this age, but I’m really lost now with the oldest one. We want her to be happy and find friends she could feel comfortable with, but we also want her to be honest with herself and free to feel and think what she wants. Any suggestions for us?
This problem is much more complicated than it might first appear on the surface, because a ten year-old is at a stage where some things need to be left for her to resolve on her own, while other things need parental intervention. It depends on the severity of the challenges that she’s facing. There are many variables, many “ifs” that are not clear in the letter that would effect the best response, and each response in turn has its own ifs.
But none of the best responses will include your pretending to be Christians.
First, there is the severity of the “picking on” that you mentioned:
If this ranges from a subtle, indignant cold shoulder up to a terse remark alluding that your daughter is not as good as or does not belong with the other kids, then I’d suggest that you continue what you’ve been trying, coaching your daughter to avoid the topic and to be discrete in her remarks, as well as simply looking for more open-hearted friends.
If the picking on is up to the nyah nyah nyah level of taunting and humiliation in front of bystanders, this can be very painful to the child, and then you might need to politely approach the parents of the little Christian tormenters, asking them to instruct their kids that this is not what Jesus would want. This intervention immediately opens up a host of possible complications because of the ifs around how tolerant or bigoted are the parents. Not all Christian parents, even in the South, would approve or defend their kids behaving unkindly in such a manner, but sadly, enough parents do to give this option its risks. There is also your own sense of confidence or risk about calling attention to your position on religion, and what social consequences, if any, you might be inviting.
If the picking on has reached the level of severe verbal abuse, threats, intimidation or physical acts, then the school administration and their resources would need to be involved. Again, the unknown variables complicate things, including the possibility of all the social consequences mentioned above, as well as teachers reacting negatively, and perhaps the most likely, an apathetic shrugging of the principal’s shoulders.
Secondly, there is the severity of your daughter’s remarks when her schoolmates talk about God, prayer or religion:
Is she only answering honestly when asked a direct question by her companions, or is she taking the initiative to contradict or challenge them? I’m not convinced that, as you say, she is not mature enough to restrain herself from making comments when other kids talk about their personal communications with God. I think an average ten year-old is very capable of learning when to keep her mouth shut. If she makes argumentative or antagonistic remarks, she’s going to have a conflict and lose friends, and she’s already witnessed that. Make it clear to her that how well she gets along with her friends is her responsibility, and it is not your responsibility to fix it unless the problem is getting severe, as described above.
Everyone has to find their own balance between speaking their mind and holding their tongue. There is no fixed, constant, inflexible position on that balance. A person’s age, resources, and the consequences inherent in each situation are just some of the factors that will tilt the balance one way or the other. Teach your daughter to be honest, and also teach her to be prudent. When we have to choose one over the other, we have to rely on our experience and judgment, rather than a prescribed formula. That’s tough for a ten year-old, so offer her your suggestions as you have been doing, but the choice still remains hers to make.
Explain to her in a ten year-old’s terms that she is experiencing one of the main ways that organized religion grows and reinforces its hegemony: social pressure to conform to at least the outward appearance of belief. Ask her if she would really want to be part of a group that forces her to lie and fake things in order to belong.
Then be prepared, because she might say “Yes.”
Your daughter is entering the stage where the herd instinct is very strong, a time when fitting in with a group is seen as more important than anything else. It’s a difficult time for kids who have differences that set them apart, and seeing their children’s distress, some parents can be very tempted to make all sorts of accommodations and concessions to help their child belong. Sometimes those concessions carry unfortunate lessons with them, such as:
- A group’s approval defines your goodness as a person.
- Giving in to a group’s expectations is more important than being true to your own principles.
- Excluding others is a way to be included.
- Faking things is a legitimate way to go through life.
Unfortunately, from many a child’s point of view, all that makes sense, but your daughter is very lucky to have parents who are not willing to teach her those lessons just for the expediency of reducing tension in the family.
While she is probably old enough to intellectually understand the difference between joining a religion for sincere belief and joining just to please others, she might not be mature enough yet to care about that difference. Nevertheless, make it clear to her that she cannot ask you to do the lying and faking, to do most of the outward conforming so that she will get the social acceptance she wants.
Looking for alternative social outlets for her that are more secular, even an atheist youth organization is a very good idea, but in your region that may be fruitless. In some parts of the country, religion permeates every social forum, like water seeping through solid rock.
Finally there is the stickiest of all the possible responses.
You said, “We’ve always told her that she is free to choose her beliefs and it’s also ok to be atheist.” She may want to start attending church, Sunday school or youth prayer meetings with other kids, under the supervision of one of her friend’s parents. That will involve some awkward meetings with those parents to see if you trust them, and to work out the understandings about you not accompanying her to these things.
Then you might have to face having a little Marjoe running around your home, spouting “Jesus this,” and “Jesus that,” and repeating who knows what she’ll be told about her atheist parents. You may be spending quite a lot of time sorting out how while she’s free to choose her beliefs, she’s not free to pester, badger or insult her parents with those beliefs. The division that is between you and her now may be tiny compared with how deep it could get. What a mess.
If you’re not willing to risk that, then you may have to just ride out the next few years, trying your best to reassure her that you love her and care about her even though you cannot perform this charade for her social standing. Reiterate that you’re on her side, and her schoolmates are the ones who are being divisive, intolerant and unloving.
Time is on your side.
Some kids by their nature are more compelled to do anything to fit in than other kids, and some groups by their nature are more demanding of conformity than other groups. Over time, with some drama and trauma along the way, the groups and the members sort each other out.
I wish you all the very best of good fortune and the best of outcomes over the next few challenging years.