Ask Richard: Seven-Year-Old Faces Religious Badgering at School March 12, 2012

Ask Richard: Seven-Year-Old Faces Religious Badgering at School

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Hi Richard,

My son is in second grade and is coming under pressure from his friends. They are badgering him saying he is going to go to hell because he doesn’t believe in God. I know this won’t be the last time someone tries to force their religious views on him. And as a parent I want him to learn ways to handle it.

Unfortunately, giving logical arguments doesn’t work for 7 year olds. “I see no evidence” doesn’t work in an age where Santa Claus and tooth fairies make perfect sense.

Do you have any suggestions for a child to handle this situation?

As I said, my goal would be for him to have the right tools to handle this on his own. However, if that doesn’t work then I will speak to the other kids parents.

One final note… I live in Texas. So sadly, short of suing, the school system will be of little help.

Kind regards,

Dear Kevin,

I can understand that as a parent you want your child to grow up being able to handle things on his own, but I think this might be more than most seven-year-olds should be expected to deal with alone, so you should assess it carefully.

Most people who grow up self-confident have drawn upon on two different kinds of foundation experiences in their childhood. One is the experience of having the backup and support of loved ones, especially their parents. As children, they knew that they would not be entirely alone in a struggle if they got beyond their depth. As they grew older, they gradually shifted to the second foundation of self-confidence, the repeated experience of being able to deal with a situation without help. If they have had only one of those two kinds of foundations, then as adults they might not handle challenging situations with the skill and flexibility that they would if they had had both.

There are no standard guidelines to help you determine if you should intervene and how you might intervene in this, because there are so many variables. Just a few of the variables include the following: Your son might be finding these incidents very upsetting, or he might be shrugging them off. The religious kids might be only casually expressing their training in spiritual conceit, or they might be really bearing down on him. These friends might be simply working out what topics should be discussed and what should not, or they might be stringently requiring your son to conform to their religious views in order to be accepted as their friend.

One thing you can probably assume is that the kids who are doing the religious badgering are drawing their self-confidence from that first foundation I mentioned. They are most likely assuming, correctly or not, that their parents and community will support them in what they are doing.

Seven years old is a time of rapid developmental and cognitive growth. If your son’s friends are just a few months older than him, they can have an advantage in developmental self-confidence as well as the confidence from assuming that they have parental backup, and the confidence from simply outnumbering him.

So you should assess these variables as best you can, especially letting your son tell you if and how much this situation distresses him. Make it easy for him to tell you honestly, without trying to please you with the answer that he thinks you would prefer to hear. Make sure that he knows you believe in his worthiness and that his well-being matters to you enough for you to help him when and if he is overwhelmed.

Whether or not you decide that it is time to intervene with the other kids’ parents and/or with the school administration, you should prepare for that contingency now, by documenting everything. Create a notebook where you write down every incident with the date, time, place, the names of the individuals involved, things that were done and said, and the effect that it had on your son.

If you decide to speak to the badgering kids’ parents, be ready to face whatever social fallout might come from that. They might be mature adults who don’t want their kids behaving that way, or they might be oversized versions of the playground bullies that their kids are. Bringing your documentation will have a powerful effect on whoever you end up talking to. They will see that you take this seriously, and that you expect them to do the same.

You say that because you are in Texas, the school system will be of little help. It certainly will be of no help if you assume that, and you do not approach them at all. I don’t think that you want to inadvertently teach your son to accept defeat by default. Only if you give the school administration an honest chance to do the right thing will you know how helpful or unhelpful they will be.

If you speak to the school Principal and/or teachers, let them see you writing down everything that they are saying to you. This will give them a clear message that you expect results rather than giving you placating platitudes or disdainful dismissals. You don’t necessarily have to mention potential lawsuits, because your documenting clearly implies that possibility. Demonstrating that you are determined and prepared can often be enough to shake people out of their complacency or apathy.

In the meantime, you could talk to your son about what he might try on his own, but I cannot promise that the couple of suggestions I offer below will help. Perhaps the readers here will have suggestions based on their own experiences.

I think it would be a mistake for him argue with the other kids about their beliefs. That would probably just worsen things. His efforts should be about trying to alter the relationship between them, rather than alter the beliefs. He can get into debates about metaphysics and epistemology when he’s in high school and college.

Start with the shrug-off. Suggest that when they try the you’re-going-to-hell routine, he should say with a shrug and a friendly tone, “I don’t care about that stuff. Let’s play baseball.” It disarms the taunt or challenge because it seems to have no effect on him, and it suggests a positive alternative thing for him and the other kids to do.

Another one might be the focus on friendship. He could say something like, “It’s more fun to be friends. Let’s play baseball.”

There are no guarantees that any response will work, because so much depends on whatever is driving the other kids. I think a combination of what your son tries and what you try on his behalf might be the best approach. The exact mixture of those will have to be an experiment.

The last thing I’ll suggest is probably the first thing you should try. Encourage him and even help him to find other friends who don’t badger him like that. There may be a great many religiously intolerant people in your area, but they’re not all like that. Your son only needs to find a handful of more easygoing kids who are not mimicking their parents’ obsession with conformity and the extortion racket that is faith under threat of torture.

Please write again to let me know how things turn out. We can all benefit from your experiences of what works and what does not. I wish you and your son the best.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • Gus Snarp

    I think one thing I would do in addition to all of that is simply to reassure him that there is no hell. I understand a desire to not just state these things as absolutes, but you’re right that saying “I see no evidence…” just doesn’t work with a seven year old. Since the subject has been broached by someone else, and since the point of hell is to inflict terror on children, I would not feel bad about telling him in no uncertain terms that there is no hell, just as I would tell him that an animatronic T-Rex at the museum cannot chase him or eat him, or that there are no monsters under his bed. I am just as certain of all three.

  • Karen

    I am an early childhood teacher and mother of two teens who were once very young atheists who survived minor badgering at school.  I empathize with your situation!  Richard has very good ideas. I especially like his ideas for how your son can deflect the comments by changing the subject to finding something fun to do, rather than have a religious discussion.  I would also add that the children who are doing the badgering, although confident in their beliefs, are likely afraid for your son.  They believe your son will go to hell and they have been taught that hell is real. They fear for your son being there.  Realizing this helps you understand where the kids are coming from.  On the other hand, it doesn’t make it okay for them to do this.  Documenting the incidents is good, and I would encourage you to approach the teacher first, before going to the administration.  Have a conference with the teacher and explain that students need to know that “different families do different things, and believe different things, and that’s okay”.   There are many good books about diversity (from hair color and body type to religion, different kinds of parents, etc.)  The teacher deserves a chance to fix this with the children first, before involving the administration.  The teacher may want to involve the school guidance counselor, too.  Often guidance counselors work with small groups of students to help them learn to navigate friendships respectfully.  I’m looking forward to hearing how this works out. 

  • My brother and I were badgered as young children because we didn’t go to church.  When kids told us we were going to hell we just simply said, “ok, thanks!” or “there’s no such thing”.  It subsided eventually when puberty kicked in and noticing the opposite sex was more entertaining than yelling at the atheist kids.

    My oldest son, who is 5 years old, has already experienced some of this badgering in Kindergarten (after he announced that he loved stories and myths about Medusa, Perseus, Zeus, and God one day during circle time).  He’s also been called “gay” because he’d rather jump rope than play basketball at recess.  Go figure. 

    To both these scenarios, dad and I have told him to just say, “I don’t like what you are saying to me. Please stop” and/or tell the teacher if they do not.  So far, the former method has been working.

  • “I bet you believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy too” worked pretty well for my friend’s second grader.

  • Anonymous

    Give kids more credit than that. I figured out that the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, Jesus and all the other imaginary constructs that adults shovel unto children were B.S. in first grade. Evidence played a major roll for me, as in there was none. The biggest problem is the other kids parents who probably force them into proselytizing without any justification save “you’ll go to hell if you don’t spread the word.” I would encourage the kid to ask his friends ‘why.’ Of course this will upset their parents but maybe that’s exactly what they need.

    When I was young, I kept my realizations to myself. I did this at the insistence of my parents who asked me not to ruin things for the other children. To my own kids I will say, “tell the others what is true and repeat no lies, be kind and always act out of love.”

  • Gus Snarp

    What’s disturbing about this is that these kids are learning this stuff somewhere. Much as  I think it’s equally absurd to teach kids to tell other kids they’re going to hell as to teach them to call another kid gay for wanting to jump rope, somehow I expect some kids to get that ridiculous evangelical upbringing, so I’m more disturbed that this kid has learned to call another kid gay for wanting to jump rope. At five years old. I’m often worried about how kids treat each other, and how they’ve learned to taunt other kids at such a young age, but fortunately my son hasn’t experienced anything that terrible yet. But if a another kindergartener called my son gay, I’d be talking to his parents before the sun went down.

    Odds are they’re probably the type who don’t want little kids exposed to the concept of homosexuality in school, which is why they taught them about it at home so they can use it as an insult.

    You sometimes hear people talk about how cruel kids can be, as if it’s some inherent trait of children. I don’t think it is. In the words of Oscar Hammerstein II,

    You’ve got to be taught
    To hate and fear,
    You’ve got to be taught
    From year to year,
    It’s got to be drummed
    In your dear little ear
    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

  • Lurker111

    JessicaR is close to the kiddie “nuclear option,” i.e., after being told they’re going to hell, a child could respond,  “Do you believe in Santa Claus?”

    And, at age 7, the other kid would say something like, “Sure!” or “Of course!”

    “Well, he’s fake, too.  Ask your mom or dad why they’re lying to you about him.  And if they’re lying to you about Santa, why shouldn’t they be lying to you about God?”

    Of course, the manure will hit the ventilator with this approach.  Not recommended.

    But interesting to consider in the abstract.

  • The lack of evidence was so obvious apropos god that I never believed. However, there was a boatload of evidence for the Easter Bunny and Santa. They both left me goodies while I slept the nights before Easter and Christmas. My parents said the fat guy and the bunny brought them, and I was too young to realize that parents lie to their children. They finally broke down and told me when I was seven and beginning to embarrass them.


    One of the very worst aspects of prayer in the public schools would be the almost unimaginable cruelty that would be inflicted on children who decline to participate. 

  • Anonymous

    Ha! The handwriting was a dead giveaway, no?

  • LutherW

     At that age I bet they hardly know what gay is. But their parents are probably the type that would rally against sex education in school fearing that it would teach about the gay, but warn them about any activities that girls might like lest they be this terrible gay thing they don’t dare talk about.

  • Gus Snarp

    I either need to be more sparing with my likes, or I need to be able to like things like this multiple times. This may be the single statement on any atheist blog post I have ever read that I most want to express my agreement with.

  • Gus Snarp

    Believing in Santa embarrassed your parents at seven? Why did they tell you about Santa in the first place if they were going to cut you off at seven? I don’t know what the average age is, but I would think seven is prime Santa age. I didn’t figure it out until I was eight or nine, and I kept playing along for fear of getting less presents for at least another couple of years.

  • Mudskipper5

    Speaking as a Mom whose son went through this same exact experience and tried multiple approaches, the one that worked (really worked!) was the deflection approach, similar to the “Shrug off” Richard mentions above, but with humor thrown in to fit my son’s personality.

    My kids all love Monty Python movies and my son, in second grade, already had a series of the quotes from The Holy Grail and Life of Brian (no, not the Meaning of Life!) memorized, ready to leap off of his tongue as needed.  So after trying logic (nope), denial (didn’t feel comfortable with that) and a “I can believe what I want to believe” approach (didn’t work either), he chose to use humor instead.

    The very next time he was approached by this little group of boys, asking him if he believed in God, etc., etc., etc., my son turned around and said, in his best British accent:

    “Can I have your liver?”

    Throughout the entire group, jaws dropped, there was a surprised pause, and then everyone started laughing, except for the kid who asked the question initially, who was trying to figure out when he lost control of the interrogation.  That’s all it took to deflect the conversation and they all ran off to play whatever boys wold play on the playground in second grade.  It took about three of these encounters, all of which ended with laughter and a grin on my son’s face, and the questions pretty much stopped.  The rude question had been ignored, my son hadn’t gotten upset, he had made people laugh, and they recognized that there would be no show from a believer putting a non-believer in their place.  Interest was lost and faded away.

    This all depends upon your child’s personality.  Monty Python worked for my kid.  There might be a similar approach out there that would work for your child.

  • Annie

    My daughter was 7 when a group of Christian kids surrounded her and yelled about all the “proof” of there being a god.  We speak very openly at home about many things, and atheism is one of them.  It turned out, in our case, that it quite possibly could have been my outspoken daughter who started the whole conversation.  Because of this, I would also recommend explaining to the child that we don’t have to share everything about ourselves with every person we meet.  It is OK to not talk about religion, in fact, it is probably a good policy in most cases, especially if you are seven.  My daughter is still very open about being an atheist, but she has learned that she doesn’t have to scream it from the rooftops. 

    And further along the lines of Richard’s suggestions, I also recommended my daughter diffuse the situation if it came up again:   Kid1:  “You don’t believe in god??”  Kid2:  “I know!  And you do.  Isn’t it cool that we are all different and we’re friends?”  This lets Kid1 see that it’s not a big deal for Kid2, and it also starts early the lesson that being different is not a deal breaker in friendships. 

    Good luck, and please let us know how it goes! 

  • My wife told me about a trip to the park with my son in which one boy she guessed about 5 was telling a bunch of older kids that Santa didn’t exist.  And then other parents started frantically trying to shut the kid up.  Which the kid took to mean that the other parents believed in Santa and needed correcting.  I wish I’d been there.  My son was young enough that he didn’t notice any of it.  He’s 5 now, and based on what he asks/says about the tooth fairy and Easter bunny, Santa doesn’t have long left, if he survives at all.

    As for the question at hand, I intend (when this comes up, I’m sure it will) to gauge his comfort level with my involvement.  And although there are time I will substitute my judgement for his, I think he should be part of the “What do we do” problem solving.

  • Just throwing it out there, but what about owning that badge? Give him a stack of Hellboy comics and say “well this guy’s from Hell, and he’s cool”. Or say “that’s where all the cool kids are going, anyway”. Could be more fun to turn it into a game?

  • As someone who was raised to believe in what I truly believe even if it was different from what my parents thought and someone who was openly Atheist from a pretty young age it always pains me to hear about kids (or people for that matter) doing this to each other.  As I grew up I was lucky enough to find friends of different religious and ethnic backgrounds who don’t measure our friendship by how different or similar our religious beliefs are.  I hope the best for this young man and his father and think your suggestion about maybe finding new less judgmental friends might be a good one.

  • Anonymous

    This about says it, at about 1:05.

  • Anonymous-Sam

    At that age, the parents–or should I say, the father–just point at girls and make a few misogynistic implications about how little boys who act like little girls get the shit slapped out of them by the fathers they should be emulating.

  • Why not say “there is no such thing as hell”?

  • You’d think that would be obvious! I get that there are some atheist parents who might take a more neutral approach with deities, but there is no excuse for letting small children think for one second that hell or devils are real things! They are not real, and atheist parents should tell their children in no uncertain terms that they were made up to scare people into believing.

  • Anonymous

    I just want to point out that this isn’t exclusively an atheist issue, it happens between denominations as well.  As a kid, I went to a southern baptist church while all the kids in my neighborhood were mormon.  One day, and I was probably about the same age as the kids described here, one of the kids told me I was going to hell.

    It was only one of those mormon kids that said that to me, but I have no doubt that there were others that thought it.  It never got quite as overt as what was described here, but as I grew older, I was definitely made to feel that I was not part of the local group of kids in my neighborhood… which definitely played no small part in driving me down the road towards rejecting religion in it’s entirety.

  • Guest

    Hi, I’m a pastor (as I duck to dodge the tomatos, ha ha) … I also think this is unfortunate. While I don’t think hell was made up to scare children, I don’t think little kids should be badgering other little kids like this. There’s a place for mature, thoughtful, even rigorous discussion about these things, but it’s not the elementary playground. (if anything the kids could share about God’s love, much more central to our faith) I would want to know if my son was doing this. But, unfortunately, I think I am different than a lot of Christians. I’m not scared of questions from atheists. I enjoy them. How am I ever going to grow in my faith if I don’t allow it to be challenged? Best of luck to you sir.

  • Jason Howell

    For what it’s worth, my daughter went through this last year (1st grade).  It only came up when one of the girls asked her what church she went to.  After telling the girl she didn’t go to church, it peaked everyone’s interest and they started asking her why.  She said “why would I?”  (great answer, I thought.)   When the kids started asking if she believed in god, she just said “I’m still thinking about it.”  That stopped them for a little while, but as you may have guessed, they came back after a few days and asked again.  This time she went with the “shrug it off” approach and just started talking about something different.  That seemed to work pretty well.

  • Erp

     We keep the tomatoes and onions for pot-roasting preachers. 

    So how do you think kids should share about ‘God’s love’?    I would probably put the emphasis on  treating their fellow students as they would want to be treated and leave evangelizing about God (or any other religious belief or lack thereof) out. 

  •  It’s all well and good for a parent to tell their kid that, and I think parents should do so, but it’s absolutely useless for a kid to tell a religious kid that. That’s advanced logic, to a 7 year old, and they’re not going to handle it, they’ll reject it as false (without evidence) and move on to the bullying.

  • MariaO

    Is there really any sevenyearolds that still beleive in the red man?? I really doubt that – I suspect if they seem to they only pretend to make their parents happy. I figured it out at three (and a half) and have never quite forgiven my parents for telling me that lie.

  • MariaO

    This sounds impossible. What kind of bubble did you live in? I figured it out the Xmas I was three and when I was six I took the bus downtown on my own for the first time, to buy secret presents for my parents. Did you not make or buy presents at eight?

    OK – I was a smart kid, that scared grownups outside the family (and was of course bullied by the morons of my own age).

  • Anonymous

    No one ever talked to me about it, but I was certainly bullied about religion from the time I started school (I wasn’t Mormon and almost all the other kids were).  I don’t really have any advice, but it fostered a great hatred of religion, ALL religion in me that I don’t think I’ll ever out grow.  Even atheists working interfaith sometimes bug the hell out of me.  I hope this little girl grows up to have a better outlook than I do.

  •  Interfaith bugs me too.

  •  I know you mean well, but “god’s love” doesn’t look like love to an outsider. It looks like a threat.

  • It’s not uncommon for children older than that to believe in Santa Claus. I vividly remember my third grade class having a big debate about his existence. We were all eight or nine years old.

  • Some call me… “Kevin”

    Hi all,


    I am “Kevin”… a good pseudonym I might just pick

    My apologies in advance for the long response…


    I wanted to thank some of the readers for your experience and
    advice.  I very much enjoyed Mudskipper5’s response with her son saying
    “Can I have your liver?”  Damn funny.


    And I especially want to thank Richard for taking the time to
    respond.  And more so, taking the time to share his advice to the masses.
     It is sad to see some of the stories and know what so many people go
    through.  It is good to have Richard’s and everyone else’s advice.


    To the pastor I say you are right in that you are very different
    from many (most?) Christians.  It would be great if others shared your open mindedness.  But I challenge your statement that children should only share God’s love “which is central to your faith”.  You can’t pick just the parts that are comfortable or easy to talk about.  If you are a literalist then the bible plainly states that regardless of how good of persons we are, my entire family deserves to be burned alive forever.  Literally.  Burned forever.  If you are not a bible literalist then you choose to pick pieces that feel right for you.  That is philosophy and not religion.  Which is rather like the way I live my life.  So I expect we are much alike and would have some vibrant conversations over a beer.  🙂


    I am happy to report that my son’s harassment has disappeared on
    its own for now.  I guess his friends felt it was time to drop that
    subject.  But I will talk with him about some of the suggestions given so
    he is prepared for the next time.  I think the “shrug
    off” method suggested by Richard is a good way to start.  


    Given that everyone on this site gets to hear mostly problems
    others are having… let me give you some good news from the bible belt.

    My son is in Boy Scouts.  [He wanted to join.  I
    explained what it was about and there might be some prayers occasionally.
     He was okay with it.]  I like a lot of things the Boy Scouts stands
    for, excluding the homophobia  and the religious aspects.  Other than
    that, it is a good organization.  (Please don’t take the opportunity to
    respond to this and attack the Boy Scouts.)  I let the scout leader know
    that we wouldn’t be praying and why.  As he looked at me as if I
    said my son has four legs, he assured me he had no problem with it.

    A few weeks ago I was at a den meeting where the den leaders
    weren’t able to make it.  It quickly turned into anarchy with 7 and 8 year
    olds screaming and getting close to a busy street.  So I went about
    cracking the whip and keeping the boys in line while still letting them have a
    good time.  The meeting started and was led by the den mothers.  I
    had to step in and assist because… well hell… have you ever dealt with ten
    boys running around like they were crazy before?  I kept them interested
    in how paper airplanes work and why one flies farther than another, etc.

    A couple of den mothers said “You are great with the boys.  You need
    to be a den leader.” to which I respond “I am an atheist.  You
    have to say an oath that includes a declaration you believe in God to be in a
    leadership position.”  Jaws drop.

    One of them said “What?  That doesn’t matter!  You
    should be a leader.  We need to talk to the troop leader.”

    I have to say I was astonished that in spite of them being taken
    aback by my statement I was an atheist, they wanted me to be a leader in their
    kid’s den.

    There are good people everywhere.

  • Thank you Kevin, I really need to hear stories like that from time to time. 

  • Mudskipper5


    When my oldest son (the same one with the “liver” comment) was in first grade, my husband and I decided to look into scouts.  We liked the social benefits, the opportunities, the community service, and the emphasis on camping/hiking and other outdoor activities.

    The obvious downside is the religious nature of the organization.  I had heard horror stories of religious activities in den and pack meetings.  While we don’t mind our children learning about other religions (in fact we encourage it), we didn’t want a situation where a den or pack leader was preaching to our son.

    Solution?  Become a den leader myself so I could shape the  experience directly and keep an eye on any religious issues that might arise.  Fortunately, I had a very good friend who was aware of my religious views who also had concerns over overt religious influence, and she and I teamed up to run the den together.  All religious requirements for rank are completed as independent homework, and we use those as an opportunity to explore different religions.

    I signed some papers when I registered as a leader, and I think you are right that there are some words in there about God, but didn’t have to say an oath out loud and publicly, and I would rather be involved in this aspect of my son’s life than make a stink of the wording of the registration form.  The pack was thrilled to have leaders, no questions of a religious nature were asked, and I am given free rein to run the meetings as I see fit.  It helps that our pack is affiliated with a public school instead of a church.  The only time I encounter an issue of prayer, frankly, is during resident camp, where there is a pre-meal prayer.  My son and I stand quietly and respectfully but feel no pressure to take part.  Every year, there is a “Scout Sunday” patch scouts can earn by attending their house of worship in their uniform, but no one in our den of 14 boys bothers taking part and we certainly feel no pressure to do the activity ourselves.  No, there isn’t an “Atheist Day”, but isn’t every day an Atheist Day?  🙂

    There is an issue of being involved with an organization that emphasizes religion as one of it’s core values and that outwardly speaks out against those who are non-religious and those who are gay.  But those downsides are easily balanced by the benefits to my son.  We can address the religious issue in family discussions and I feel that through my involvement, I’m influencing the organization in a positive way.  I encourage you to consider a leadership role for your son’s benefit and for yours.  Imagine if enough atheists take on leader positions in scouts, what a much better organization it would be.  Change from within.  They will never see it coming!

  • Ckgerber51

    I wish that the “shrug off” worked for us. My 10 year old daughter has been
    enduring regular commentary from fellow students on how painfully her family is
    going to burn, how she should pray for her parents who are wrong, having
    cross necklaces waved around her etc. etc.
    She is now so disgusted by “Christians” that I find myself (much to my distaste) feeling the need to defend the less offensive folks who belong to that group. I’ve  been reading this site – thanks to all for great suggestions.

  • AgTrotter

    I’m continually amazed at the myopic stupidity of atheists. Atheism is indeed a religion (more like a cult, actually), you people just don’t recognize it as such.

    Hmm, kind of sounds like willful ignorance mixed with bitterness. Go figure.

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