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During a normal day at his after school care, my son and his friends were horsing around in the gym like any normal group of rowdy boys. He was in second grade at the time, (he's in fourth grade now) which meant that he and his friends were starting to introduce each other to new games they've played.
One of his friends mentioned that he wanted to play a game that he learned at church. I am not at all clear on the gist of the game, but it had something to do with the children pretending to be angels (or something to that effect.) Confused, my son looked at his friend and said the worst thing he could have to a child who was raised in religion.
"Angels aren't real," he said.
Well, you can imagine what happened next. His friends immediately began arguing with him over the existence of heavenly angels, of which they have absolutely no perspective from which to make an informed decision. Granted, my son had no perspective on the matter either, but to me his view was the healthy one.
Nevertheless, due to the escalation of the young men's debate over the existence of tufted, biblical ethereal guardians, he and his friends were summarily escorted to the school’s office, where they all sat and waited for their parents to arrive. And that's where I unknowingly approached a mild confrontation with my first overtly Christian educator.
Before I continue, I should mention that it would be a vast understatement to say that my son struggled with his behavior during second grade. My wife and I became very well known in the front office, as did my boy. So now you should understand it when I tell you that I’m quite sure when he saw me coming through the foyer of his elementary school, he honestly thought his entire world was about to collapse.
I passed through the foyer and entered the office. I could see my poor son huddled in the corner… the felon awaiting his fate. Even though the first thing that went through my mind was, "What has he done this time," all of that passed when I made eye contact with him. The weight of his eyes seemed so heavy that it was as if holding up his own chin was impossible. I immediately felt so much pity for him. “The poor kid,” I thought. “When is he going to catch a break?”
I was subsequently approached by one of the after school teachers, whose appearance led me to believe that she had been crying. “Great”, I thought, “this is going to be bad.”
She approached me immediately. "Mr. Mathys, your son and a couple of his friends got into a very serious argument during a game they were playing in the gym. We had to bring them to the office to separate them."
"Okay," I said, thinking that this was obviously the best thing for everyone. Give all the kids a chance to cool off. I asked, "Did he hit anyone else or something like that?"
"No," she answered. "But..." She paused for a bit, appearing to me to be searching for the right way to tell me something.
And then... there it was. Tears.
"What in the world did he do?" I asked, frustrated.
At this point she was weeping as if her cat had been run over by a bus. "He told his little friends that angels aren't real. Then they started yelling at one another," she said, her voice crackling. "One of his friends said that they were yelling at him because he said that God isn't real either."
There was so much heartache, so much anguish, and so much emotion spilling out of this woman; all over the angry arguments of a seven year-old child.
I immediately became upset and a little angry with her emotional display. As politely as I could muster, I asked his teacher if we could move our conversation into the nurse's office since it appeared that the entire office had filled with other parents who found themselves helplessly eavesdropping on our conversation. (Seriously, who could blame them?)
I closed the door, and as gently as I could, reminded his teacher that my son is a seven year-old child. I do not expect him to have come to any definite conclusions about the existence of angels, or god, or anything else that she obviously held dear. And neither should she.
I then asked her if she cried when the other kids involved were picked up by their parents. She told me the truth, explaining that what the other boys said wasn't as upsetting to her as what my son had said. Of course, that's when I had to take a deep breath and keep myself from blowing a fuse. I made it clear to her that I thought it was inappropriate for her to be bawling like this. It sent the wrong message to my son, and I won't have it.
She nodded her head, and told me, “I am sorry. I’m just very emotional and sometimes it boils over.” I accepted her apology and opened the door. She and I left the nurse’s office without saying much else. I checked my son out of school and made my way home.
I presented this situation because I believe it is a unique circumstance of a child being bullied with religion using two different methods. The first is obvious: direct confrontation between classmates where a larger group of kids converges on an individual. The second type of bullying, however, is not nearly as obvious.
My wife and I didn't pursue the confrontational bulling since we felt the after school teachers handled it appropriately. The religious boys were explicitly told that at their elementary school, it is unacceptable for one group of kids to harass another child, no matter how he or she might be different from the rest. All of them were told that no bullying, whatsoever, will be tolerated. (My thanks goes out to the school administration and the after school teachers for staying consistent.)
This brings us to the second type of bullying in this situation: psychological bullying. Whether she realized it or not, her repetitive tears and emotional outbursts made my son feel as if he had done something wrong by stating his viewpoint. She put him into a situation where he had to sit in an invisible cage and watch her weep over what he said. He knew it was wrong to make another person cry, so of course he blamed himself for disappointing her. Not to mention his maturity level was nowhere near ready to deal with this kind of emotional pressure. Furthermore, a child should be able to say something as innocuous as, “There are no such things as angels,” or, “I don’t believe in god,” without his world crumbling from beneath him. I wonder… would she have reacted the same way had my son argued with his counterparts that there was no Santa Claus or Easter Bunny?
To me, this is a perfect example how adults can easily manipulate the mind of a child. That constant display of grief, while he sat alone in a corner, was putting direct psychological pressure on my seven year-old son. She was quietly and cruelly manipulating him into believing that what he said was far worse than any of the other boys. Quite simply, it was an adult bullying a child.
So, after digesting and analyzing my scenario, I suppose my final question in this scenario is this: Could I have prepared myself to be able to handle his teacher any differently?
I suppose my initial response to that question is... of course! I honestly believe that I can (and should) always learn something from my experiences. This, in turn, makes it unavoidable for me to second-guess my initial reactions to people, especially situations like this where I feel like I lecture another person. When an uncomfortable confrontation arises and I regret that I got that frustrated with someone else, it's sensible for me to conclude that I probably could have been more prepared for this situation.
For example, when I saw his teacher crying, I was completely caught off guard with how deeply the words of a seven year-old would affect an adult. I never would have dreamed that his words could have caused an adult that much anguish. Perhaps I should have. If I was better prepared for this kind of reaction, I'm quite sure I wouldn't have reacted with such barefaced frustration. I probably wouldn’t have asked her if she cried around the other parents because now that I have time to look back on the confrontation like an adult, what she said to the other parents is really none of my concern. A far better solution to this confrontation would have been to politely remind her that there are kids of all faiths in this elementary school, as well as some with no faith. And I’m sure she would agree that each and every one of them deserves the same love and respect that they would grant to a child of Christian parents.
Even though I do not blame my son or the other two boys that were involved in this incident, I do approach this as an opportunity to learn from my actions and also so that someone else might be better prepared if a similar situation arises with his or her child. Now that I have the luxury of hindsight, my advice for couples with young schoolchildren is to get yourself prepared for the inevitable confrontation. Children hear, and process, far more than most people would ever imagine, and in time the topics that you discuss with your spouse or significant other will most assuredly dance across the lips of your child. (And boy, did mine came far, far earlier than I would have ever guessed.)
NEXT: For They Know Not What They Do