Can I tolerate my son’s religious education?


My family lives in an urban environment with failing schools. The schools in our city were so bad that the state seized control of them a generation ago and has never let go. The state, amazingly enough, did nothing to improve the poor test scores and today the schools in our area struggle to meet No Child Left Behind requirements and are, frankly, awful.

The result of the poor public schools has been a massive flight of children to private schools – at least, those children whose parents can afford them. Most of the schools break down into two types: secular schools (Montessori or similar) or Catholic. No other private organizations has the community presence to set up any substantial schools (i.e. there are no Baptist or French or Jewish schools). Starting in high school the options become a little better – some of the public city high schools are good enough to compete with the private high schools.

But the problem remains that the schools at the pre-K to 8th grade level fall into one of these three categories: failing, unsafe public schools, dramatically expensive specialty schools and moderately expensive Catholic schools. When I say dramatic, I mean dramatic (feel like paying $1000+ per month for half-day kindergarten?) and moderate is only moderate by Northeastern standards ($600-$700 per month for a full day of day care).

I have posted a number of times on my opinions of the benefits of stay-at-home parents. But a few months ago Bubelah and I decided to send Little Buddy to a day care program for about 3 hours per day. We saw our neighbors’ kids who were a little older bored and lacking social stimulation with nannies and stay-at-home moms, and we decided he would benefit from the socialization that he could get from a short day at a day care facility. With Bubelah pregnant, it also gave her time to rest. After about three days of unhappiness and adjustment, he quickly adapted and now seems to love his teachers and the activities that are possible with other children, although he would still probably be happier at home.

We sent him to Catholic day care.
Neither of us is Catholic, but this day care program met our requirements; other parents loved it, it was clean, safe, relatively nearby, and affordable for us. The secular schools generally wouldn’t even accept children who were less than three, so that wasn’t an option; even if they had been they were so expensive and so hard to get into they wouldn’t have been an option for us. The day care Little Buddy goes to is run by an order of nuns and although most of the teachers are not themselves nuns, they are Catholic and the school makes NO pretense at the religion-free environment I knew from public schools (which is ironic, since I went to schools in the Deep South – times have changed).

I am not particularly religious. I have been at both extremes; I was very religious in my evangelical Christian church in my 20s but a series of events drove me to militant atheism over the years. I have since returned to a fairly gentle agnosticism which I suspect is similiar to Unitarian/Universalism and I restrict my “exercise of religion” to an internal debate and discussion. I think anyone who wants to exercise their religious beliefs – or education – is more than free to do so in these United States. The free expression of religion has saved us from so many of the horrible conflicts that have wracked so many other countries throughout the years. Imagine Catholic Maryland fighting Protestant Virginia. I am happy to see everyone do their own thing and leave me the hell out of it.

Yet it has become very clear to me that my son – at the very early age of 2 – is picking up words and phrases and associations that are not in line with what I believe and most certainly not in line with what my wife believes. My son can already clearly identify, unprompted, aspects of the Catholic faith – which led him to proclaim to me once “Papa, look – baby Jesus!” And do not misunderstand me – I would be equally uneasy if he was identifying with Jewish or evangelical Christian or even atheistic thought. I don’t like the thought of any indoctrination at this age.

But what I really wonder is “will it matter?”
My mother was raised in an solidly, uncompromisingly evangelical home, and she’s a “big holidays” churchgoer now, if that. I was intensely religious for many years in my 20s and now I am not; no one person or event changed my mind. Should I worry about the exposure to religion? Is it the overreaction of an overactive, liberal-slash-libertarian mind? I don’t believe anyone in the school is pushing religion at this age, but the symbols and the presence of the religious artifacts and songs and so on are certainly exercising some effect on my son’s mind.

Perhaps I should just let it go. The teachers are very kind, the school is pleasant, my son loves the arts and crafts and playtime with other kids. Bubelah has benefited from a rest in the mornings during her pregnancy. I don’t remember anything from age 2 myself; perhaps it’s pointless to worry. But in an era where television and computers and information are crushing our brains into perfect data-gathering machines from a young age, every small bit of data begins to appear relevant. He’ll keep going, but I’ll keep worrying.

(photo by peasap)

29 Replies to “Can I tolerate my son’s religious education?”

  1. I have to throw my vote with Bsen.

    Our son attended a Catholic school and we had no problems. (we are a Muslim family). Maybe problem is not a right word, as only good came out of the arrangement.

    And since you have listed a compelling list of positives for the school, it may be worth letting this go and for you to stop worrying too much.


  2. This is only my opinion — and I don’t have any kids — so feel free to discount it, but here goes…: I’d say, let it go FOR NOW.

    I’m 29 now. When I think back to the most formative events/processes in my life, I think back to conversations with my parents about politics, or love, or “how to be a better person” starting around the age of 6 or 8 onwards. Frankly, I have no idea what happened before then. I know that I may have been exposed to some holding hands and praying, etc., and I had to go through enough religious education (Christian, as it happens) as a teenager to successfully turn me off religious practice, but keep an interest in reading the Bible and other religious texts in my own time (culturally, I’m Hindu).

    I think conversations with parents are crucial. You get to transmit your way of thinking in a way that no teacher, coach, or outside agent possibly can. It’s an inheritance of sorts, and one that I’m very proud of in my own case. But to get back to the point, I don’t think Catholic daycare is going to do anything, as long as the daycare itself is good and safe.

  3. Since I have no children, I can only reflect on my own childhood. My parents tried to raise me with some religion (attending church & Sunday school), but it never really stuck. I was the kid that harassed the pastor about fossil records (yeah, I was a weird one) at age 6 (I really liked dinosaur books). If kids are encouraged to think independently, they will find what they like….my sister really liked religion because she used to pray to god for boys to like her….

  4. Interesting post.

    I wouldn’t worry about it – I have a friend who converted to be a Catholic so her daughter could get into a French-immersion school (it’s big up here). I would do the same.

    I totally agree that putting a toddler in day care for part time is the best thing for the kid – unfortunately that’s not an opinion shared by my wife for now he just goes to drop-in centres when I take him.


  5. My husband and I were both brought up in pretty religious families (mine Catholic and his Methodist). We actually prefer for our daughter (who is only 6 months old right now) to have some sort of religious education early on in her life. Husband is agnostic and I consider myself “spiritual” but our backgrounds allow us to understand and debate religion with intelligence. My mom is now a Baptist minister, so it comes in handy. And it will allow our daughter to make her own decisions with some background later on.

    Sort of, “know thy enemy.” 😉

  6. Welcome to the world of difficult decisions that all parents must make. Yes, let it go. I’m not sure it matters even in later childhood and the teen years, based on my own experiences and observations of others. It may end up as part of your value system as an adult, but the values themselves (sans the religious expression of them) are almost overwhelmingly positive.

    Of course, you can also do what other parents do, and choose a new place to live based primarily on the school district. Because your career seems somewhat portable, have you considered that option?

  7. I’m afraid I’m going to have to take a contrarian view here. Everything we know about early childhood development tells us that the first few years of life are extremely important in later development. I don’t remember my first few years of life, but I know enough about what happened in that period to know that many of my current traits and problems were influenced by those early experiences, both inside and outside the home. So yes, the early introduction to Catholicism is probably going to have *some* impact on how your son views religion and the world, especially if you’re not teaching him something different about religion at home. He won’t necessarily become a Catholic, but this exposure will probably inform his future thought on religion and become something to accept/rebel against, even if it’s only on an unconscious level.

    If I was in this situation I guess I’d try to teach him about my views (as much as possible with a 2-year-old)–point out that not everyone believes in baby Jesus, that sort of thing. The Catholic school may be the best choice for now, but if you don’t want him too influenced by Catholic theology it’s probably not the best choice for his long-term education.

  8. A drop in centre is like a daycare except the parent has to stick around. There are activities for the kids, snack time, songs etc. It is actually pretty fun.


  9. I think the question is – does he also get exposure to other religious, spiritual, philosophical, or ethical beliefs? I found that was critical in terms of my being able to sort out my own spiritual pathway. Even small ways, like reading him books from other belief systems, can help keep his mind open. And as long as you are always willing to discuss everything with your own mind open, I think you don’t have to worry about indoctrination.

    From my own experience – I think one of the best parts of my education was going to Jesuit university. The type of Catholicism matters too.

  10. Yikes, I wouldn’t know what I’d do. I like to think that your son will grow up to learn to make his own decisions much like how his father has over the years. However, I think that many people have biases from a young age.

    Maybe you can use a sports analogy. Would you send him to a New England Patriots school? Nah, that’s not relevant as the sports teams, at their most basic level, are the same.

  11. Very little innoculates against being religious later in life more than a Catholic education! Especially if you’re not the only non-Catholic there, which I assume he isn’t? Most of my NY friends send their kids to Catholic school and very few of them are left footers. They just use it as a jumping off point to talk about cousin Mahmood’s religious beliefs or whatever. Although I am a catholic, albeit a tremendously lapsed one, I’m one of those who thinks knowing bible stories etc is a big part of knowing general western culture, and a good thing.

  12. Even though right now I would suspect that he won’t even remember anything… As far as in the future I would I would freely expose him to all religion. It makes you smarter, more globally aware, more empathetic, and not only that but it tends to make you very pluralistic (or even agnostic or universal unitarianist). In a country STILL with people who can’t accept that they probably think their religion is right most likely because they simply grew up where they did, I think it’s important to expose children to religion freely.

  13. At the pre-school age, it’s not that important in the great scheme of things. He’s going to find out who baby Jesus is eventually anyway. It also seems to have prompted you to consider what you do want, so that’s good.

    As he gets older, I’d say that it depends entirely on whether everyone else in school is Catholic. If they are, then it will be hardcore indoctrination (which many/most people later leave behind anyway). If not, it’ll be fine. Religious studies is after all an academic discipline.

  14. I’d say it does matter, but it’s not a bad thing. All in all those religious schools do stay within a guideline and since your coming from you must slightly know what he’ll be taught.
    I do believe he is too young to start actually being converted and he will probably grow up to be a free thinker if his father and mother are so.
    IMO I don’t think it would have any negative effect on your child and if it’s a good environment for him then go for it.

  15. Let him keep going souinds beneifically personally and economical to me. You might worry about his religion absorbtion but really, it’s not a big deal as long as the parent is open-minded to the child. I grew up in a Mormon family but by the time I was 5 we had stopped going to church, throguh presumably, we all still were Mormon. My dad never made any forceful impression on believing in any religion or idealogy. In fact he made it a point for me to discover whjat I believe on my own.
    Yes he would say he hoped I chose a form of Christianity cause that is what he primarily believed in, but ultimatly he realized you cannot force someone to be something that they are not. You can’t force them to believe in viewpoints that are not theirs, least not forever.

    The worse thing that could happen is your child becoming Catholic. Which, they’re pretty cool cats at times (Jews are the coolest.) I’m suddenly feeling like I’m full of prejudice. OH NO.

    lol Nah kidding kidding. But I seriously love Jewish ancient history.
    Off topic.

    Have a good one Brip Blap

  16. My parents sent me to religious day care and school from when I was 3 till when I was 13 because they thought public institutions were full of violence and didn’t pay enough attention to kids. I didn’t enter the public school system until high school. During that time, I attended about 5 different institutions (not all the same religion).

    So, from personal experience, I would say that what I learned in school didn’t have any impact on my way of thinking until about 7th grade. Ironically, it wasn’t until I was in (public) high school that I started giving serious consideration to religion, and the people I met during college had the most influence on my personal beliefs.

    You should keep on sending your kid to that day care place. He’ll probably get more attention there and thus be a happier kid, regardless of what he’s exposed to.

  17. Echoing all above me, I would say that it’s no big deal. If you’re concerned that your kid is becoming indoctrinated, well, you’re his father! You can counteract that.

  18. Thanks everyone! That’s an interesting reaction, because I get the general impression that everyone’s saying “don’t worry.” I tend not to worry THAT much. It shocked me the first couple of times I heard my son repeat things like that, but then again he talks to Elmo, too, so his judgment is suspect.

    I think Working Rachel had a very good point, which is that we should teach him about our beliefs to counter any strong indoctrination and that leads to a VERY important point: my wife and I have NO strong beliefs FOR or AGAINST religion. My wife, a product of the Soviet Union, has a vague distrust of religion that has been built in since birth by the state. I was turned off by my immersion in my mid-20s. But both of us have since come around to a belief in the New Thought movement, which is most jokingly summarized as believing in The Force.

    That is not exactly a burning passion belief to counter Catholic education, is it? But I’m OK with it. I need to make my own beliefs more apparent to myself first before I start worrying about what anyone else is picking up, probably.

    I really do appreciate the great feedback – I hope everyone else thinks it is as interesting as I do to hear everyone’s opinions!

  19. My boys went kindergarten through 6th grade at a Catholic school. We then switched them to public school, so they could start middle school with the rest of the kids. Our choice for the religious school was due to a poor quality elementary school in our neighborhood. Not particularly for the religious education. But I have to say it was an excellent experience. There was such a sense of family and community in this school. They were also able to focus on a lot of things public schools aren’t always able to address. For example – character, morals, and values. It was a nice support system to what we as parents were trying to teach at home. Hubby & I are Christians – but also have a huge respect and thirst for knowledge of all the world’s religions… (I don’t think God has one particular zip code). O.K. drifting off point there – so fast forward… the boys are 20 & 23 years old now. Neither one identifies themselves as Catholic & neither one attends a church. But both have a strong belief in a higher power. And they do tell me that they are happy we had them go to that school. So long story short – I think the positives outweigh the negatives at a religious school, especially balanced with good communication with the parents.

    Personally I think your point on “You having to figure out what you believe,” is the relevant thing. Having kids kind of force us to define ourselves clearly… otherwise we turn into the “Do as I say – Not as I do,” type of parents…

    You’ll be fine & your son will too… it’s all about the love! If he is surrounded with love – he’s a blessed little guy!!!

  20. Interesting topic, and one that my husband and I have discussed too. We tend to have pretty broad religious views ourselves, so we’ve decided that a little religious education from a sect that we aren’t a part of would be okay as long as the core values are the same. For example, I would object to my kid learning that hitting someone is okay. But not if he’s told, “Jesus teaches us not to hit other people.” And we can discuss the nuances at home. I actually think some exposure to religion is a good thing, so that by itself doesn’t bother me. I think that as long as you and your wife emphasize the values aspect, and teach your son that people have different beliefs, everything will be fine. Good luck!

  21. Excellent discussion.

    If I could add one more thing – Steve and Bebelah: once the new baby comes along, little Buddy’s future religious beliefs are not going to be a high priority. 🙂


  22. I went to a catholic school and we’re not even christian!

    I think I turned out better for the high quality education I received. I think religion is a good addition to have to your overall education. If you’re dumber than a box of rocks, it doesn’t matter which religion you follow.

  23. I gues syou have to decide whether you can afford the more expensive schooling that is not Catholic or whether you want to risk being in a school with a worse education record. In your situation I woudl go for the Catholic school too. I was brought up as a Christian, stopped believing at 9, started again at 11 for a few years and then stopped again. I went to sunday school and church until I was about 6. My school taught Religious Education and we had religious assembilies once a week. I feel that it has been very useful having a knowledge of Christinity even though I choose not to believe in it. It means that when I attend church for weddings etc I knw the hyms and understand what is goig to happen. I also have evidence to back up my arguements for not believing in God. I think it is fair that children are taught about religion so that they can choose themselves what to believe in and this is a way that they will get that education.

  24. Initially, you should find out how much demand there is for day care centers in the area where you want to start the business. After satisfying yourself that you’ll have enough customers you then need to consider.

  25. I’m another of those who is of the opinion of I won’t worry. I grew up Catholic in Catholic schools from age 3 through college minus Kindergarden. (For some reason the local catholic schools didn’t have it back then and my college was not focused on religion but was founded by the good old Jesuits) I am not an overly religious person but basically call myself one step above agnostic. However, two areas of “religion” that I find valuable from my education. What I remember most about my religion classes were the moral lessons not the ones of doctrine. #2 religion is allowed to be a part of the discussion. Why is this important? My father was a public school history teacher and one of the comments he had about his job that always struck me was the fact that he felt he could never really bring religion into the argument at all. I’m not saying teach the bible but he always felt he couldn’t bring it up at all. (For example, talking about the Death penality without being able to bring in if it’s morally wrong on religious grounds.) Also at least with Catholic Schools a lot of it depends on the school. In 11th Grade for church history class I did a report on the worst popes in history, someone else on how the church used to ban books for stupid reasons, etc. If you are worried about how “catholic” his education will be if you keep in catholic schools ask his future teachers for lesson plans and/or borrow the textbooks they should give you a good fell for what is being taught and if it “disagrees” with your beliefs.

  26. From the age of two I was told about Santa Claus both by my parents, and children’s TV shows. I knew that he wore a red outfit, lived somewhere up north and that he would distribute presents each xmas if I had been good. I even knew some of the spiritual chants such as jingle bells and I remember wearing special head gear as part of the ritual too (some kind of red pointy hat). However, at the age of six I was getting disillusioned about the whole thing. Santa had never brought me anything but toothpaste, school bags, and other boring “gifts” regardless of how good I had been. Being somewhat precocious, this led me to believe that maybe Santa wasn’t keeping an eye on me or worse .. maybe someone just made it up to make me behave nicely and perhaps Santa didn’t even exist. I think the other kids caught on as well. Later on in school, I was taught about God, who lived in a nice place called Heaven and that one would go there if one had been good. There were songs to sing and also special headgear to wear. I figured by analogy that this was just Santa for grown-ups, so it was hard for me to take the teaching seriously. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, …

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