As parents dealing with school-based religious instruction (RI), we can be forced into conversations with our children about religious beliefs, often much earlier than we would like. Below are some tips from parents that may help you deal with RI:
Talk to other parents and opt-out!
Firstly let’s address opting out. Many parents worry that this will mean that their child will be singled out, treated differently and potentially bullied. This is a realistic concern, however this brings us to our first tip – talking to other parents about RI (religious instruction).
You can support each other and get to know others who are opting out. That way you know your child will not be alone. An added bonus is that if at any time you feel like advocating for the removal of RI from your school, you know other parents who are ready to help you.
Any Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness families at the school will likely be opting their children out as well.
Make opt out time fun!
Children know that if they go to RI they will play games and get given treats. Often lollies are given out near the end of a session, and these are flaunted in front of opted out children who aren’t allowed any because they “don’t do Bible”. If you know this is happening at your child’s school, perhaps pop a treat in their lunchbox on RI days so they don’t feel so left out. Some parents collect their child during RI and take them for a hot chocolate – after all, school is closed at that time! Find out what your school specifically provides for the opt-out children, because it can be dismal. Whatever you do, the idea is to try to make opt-out time appealing, so they don’t feel left out of the fun.
After they’ve been in religious instruction:
How you talk to your child depends very much on their age and stage of development.
Keep it simple – it’s usually the youngest ones that have RI.
We would recommend an approach that allows children to learn that people can have different beliefs about the world, how the universe began, and about how to be a good person.
You can help your child to understand that they do not have to believe what they heard in RI class – that was just a visiting lady/man talking about what they believe.
Emphasise that it is okay to believe something a bit different.
Let them know that they can be good, kind and honest without having to believe what they heard in RI.
That nothing bad will happen to them.
This can be confusing for them, as they expect the adults in their classrooms to be teachers. All we can suggest is that you persevere.
For the older children we suggest:
Perhaps getting them thinking a bit about what they’ve been told. Talking about different beliefs, just generally, can be one way to introduce your child to the idea that there is more than just what they’ve been told at school. You could consider taking your child to different places of worship as a sort of field trip to show them that our community is diverse. Introduce your child to the different religious ideas around the world, e.g. The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins – great for all ages.
What if your child comes home upset by something they’ve been told in RI?
Sometimes children do get upset by things they’ve heard in RI. For example:
- That if they don’t believe they will go to Hell.
- That a person’s disability may be punishment for their parents’ sin.
- Or just talking about death can be unsettling for young children.
You know your child best, and letting them know that they are safe, that their family is safe, until they are reassured can take time. Teaching them about how people have different beliefs can help.
If your child comes home upset like this, opting out is a priority to make sure they aren’t exposed to more of the same. It is really important that you report the incident to the school Board of Trustees. They need to know so they can take action, either to rein in or remove the Religious Instruction.
If you don’t get a satisfactory response from the school, the next thing to do is to make a complaint to the Ministry of Education.
You can also go to the Human Rights Commission. They will offer mediation between you and the school.
For more info about your options and support, you can follow our Facebook page TeachNotPreach (NZ), and join the parent Facebook page, Secular Education Network (NZ).
Children with Special Needs:
Children on the autistic spectrum will often take weeks to settle, with some parents reporting upsetting ideas their children have heard recurring a year or more down the line. It might be worth writing a couple of ‘social stories’ for your child – one about how to cope with the school day with RI, and another on how different people can believe different things. These can then be read with your child when they are calm and relaxed, as a way of mentally practising how to cope in future.
Carol Gray’s Comic Strip Conversations provides a good visual means of communicating with kids on the ASD spectrum.
If your child has been bullied for having different beliefs:
Like any bullying, this is not okay. Let the school know that they have this problem. It is up to the Board to consider the impacts of having the beliefs of one religious group promoted in the classroom, and without parents telling them about religious bullying they will likely assume that it is fine. Put it in writing to the school so that it is on record, and the Board can consider it when they review the RI programme.
When school staff pressure your child to attend:
This absolutely should not be happening. Whether it is directed at you as the parent, or to your child, it is an abuse of their role as a teacher in a secular state school. We would recommend making notes of the interaction and writing a letter to the Principal, in the first instance, and the Board of Trustees if necessary.
If you can, talk to other parents and find out what their experiences are. A group letter may be required if it is a recurring problem.
- Talk to other parents and support each other.
- Opt-out, but make it fun!
- Find out what the school does for opt-outs.
- Talk to your child about people having different beliefs. They can be ‘good without god’ or believe differently, and they will be okay!
- Children on the autistic spectrum can find RI particularly difficult. Consider social stories.
- Join the parent Facebook group for support.
- Get complaining! The best order is;
- Board of Trustees
- Ministry of Education
- Human Rights Commission
- Recommended Books:
- The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins
- Comic Strip Conversations by Carol Gray
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