Our child’s preschool teacher espouses religious views. What can we do? – Lifotravel

Q: We are a secular family, burdened by a history of one parent having suffered abuse as a child in the name of being a good “religious” family. Our 4-year-old is at a private preschool that is supposed to be secular, but my kid keeps coming home with lessons from a new teacher about a specific religion, including some teachings that are antithetical to our values (e.g., valuing boys more than girls). I’ve tried to coach my kid to say things like “I know you believe that, but not everyone believes that” and “Can we talk about something else?” but I’m not sure that’s working — this is a 4-year-old, after all. They’re not really able to redirect a teacher’s intended lesson and also not the best at distinguishing between believing a teacher on something like how plants grow or the importance of sharing vs. religious teachings. Child care is scarce and we loved this place before this started. What are we supposed to do?

A: You’re in a bit of a pickle, huh? It is frustrating when a school states it is secular and then a teacher goes against this stance. I would like to say it is rare, but it is not unheard of to find stories of teachers, administrators and other school personnel who find ways to discreetly or openly speak on religious issues in schools and facilities where such issues are not part of the curriculum. All this to say: You are not alone, and it will probably happen again.

Let’s start with the easiest answer here (for me). When it comes to coaching your 4-year-old in their responses to teachers, we can pretty much drop that for now. Developmentally, your child isn’t old enough to remember all of your talking points and then regurgitate them to the teacher at the exact time they are meant to. This is difficult for most adults! Also, the last thing most preschoolers want to do is go against their teacher. Young children are deeply attached to the adults in their lives, and trying to get your child to shut down their teacher risks losing an important relationship. Not to mention, while the religious trauma (that is awful, I am sorry) and choice of values are yours, these values are still getting imprinted on your child. A 4-year-old is aware of and interested in death, but God, god or just life on Earth (or elsewhere) may still be a bit out of their wheelhouse, and so your child cannot fight back against the teacher with values that are still a bit murky for them.

So, stop coaching them and instead ask your child how those religious stories make them feel. Maybe they think they are cool or weird or funny or dumb, or maybe they don’t like that the teacher is telling them these stories. In any case, by carefully listening, you will get a better sense of how your child feels about what is happening, rather than staying in anger and reaction. When your child brings up the “boys are better than girls” idea, what do you want to say? You could say, “Well, some people may believe that, but in this house, we value every human to be equal, no matter how they show up.” You can fill your house with books that promote your values (equality being chief among them), and while it is the teacher’s right to believe their own ideas, your family sees it differently. Remember, talk is cheap to a 4-year-old, so the best way to transmit your values is for your child to see you live them and involve your child in them.

As for what else you want to do about the teacher, well, you have some tough choices to make. On the one hand, you have been loving the place, but on the other hand, this teacher is going against some important values for you. Child care is scarce in your area, but the religious talk is pushing on a significant wound for your family. I don’t know what you should do, but a pro/con list needs to be made. It would be flippant for me to suggest just pulling the child and leaving; I don’t know what your financial situation is, not to mention that you have already stated that you don’t have many options. Nor can I simply say, “Just suck it up and stay, it’ll be fine.” If your family feels traumatized by the messages coming from this teacher, it can feel fairly untenable to stay in that environment.

As you create this list, please weigh the possibilities of what would happen if you spoke to the teacher about this. I don’t know, but the teacher could be open to keeping their beliefs to themself, and all it would take is a simple and clear request from you. (I would be amazed if that is how easy it is, but you never know.) Conversely, the teacher could be deeply offended and not only keep up the religious talk but also treat your child differently. I would like to believe that an adult wouldn’t behave this way, but adults manage to disappoint on a daily basis. You could also go over the teacher’s head and complain to the head of the school, but that can be perceived as an act of war for many teachers. If you decide to speak to the teacher, choose your language carefully, not to protect the teacher but to shield your child.

No matter how you slice it, this is not easy, but please trust in your relationship with your child and how your values impact them. Many, many children are raised in environments that don’t share their family values, and not only do they make it, but they are often stronger for it. Yes, we would prefer that schools uphold their own standards, but trust in your parenting and values. They matter a great deal. Good luck.

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