Classroom morality

Since I’ve been asked by a number of people, I’m going to share exactly why I don’t believe that “Christian” morals should be taught in schools and what I think is the only option available to us in light of those reasons.

Last week, before reading to my kids, I commented on how much I love looking at the Christmas lights.  My son said, “You can’t love things, only people.”  Puzzled, since this is terminology we often use in our house, I asked him about it.  He confirmed that it was his teacher who told him that.

While I don’t entirely disagree (though I would say it’s a matter of semantics), I found myself irritated that his teacher thought it was her place to tell children something that amounts to her opinion.  If what she meant was that she would prefer the students to be more creative in their language, then she should have said that instead.  How my son interpreted her words was that he should never use the word “love” unless speaking of another person.

What bothers me most about it is that he is nine and very susceptible to impression by the other adults in his life.  We’ve seen that before—on more than one occasion, he returned from church telling us that girls were not as good as boys and that girls could only do certain things.  It’s also happened before at school, such as the time he came home from second grade repeating an urban legend his teacher informed the class was true.  As his parents, we can try to correct these messages at home, but in the case of church, it required removing him from that context before he trusted what we were telling him.

On the surface, that may sound like a good thing.  After all, if kids are listening to their teachers, then perhaps that gives teachers the chance to present messages about what is appropriate or healthy for their age.  Could we get children to stop playing violent video games or watching adult-themed television programs?  Could we prevent adolescents from absorbing sexually-charged messages?  Possibly.

I don’t want to do that.  As I mentioned, not one of the things our son brought to us was something we actually wanted him to be taught.  I do not want our kids to learn any one teacher’s version of morality.  That can easily head into dangerous territory.  Suppose a teacher wants to instruct the students that homosexuality is immoral?  Some parents would agree, but many would not; it would be particularly damaging for students who themselves are gay, or who have parents, friends, and siblings who are.  Suppose a teacher wants the students to learn that women should submit to men in their authority?  That might actually lead to problems among students and an increase in boys harassing girls.  What if a teacher were to suggest to students that they should not read books by Lewis, Tolkien, or Rowling because they contain magic?  That would limit a child’s choice of what to read.

Those may sound far-fetched, but I absolutely know teachers who believe all of those things.  It would be quite a task for a school district or a principal to create rules about which moral values could be taught and which couldn’t.  Although we may not agree with the way other people parent their children, it’s not a teacher’s job to override those decisions

What schools can do is influence the students’ actual behavior toward each other.  Students can be expected to show basic decency and respect toward one another.  Students failing to demonstrate that attitude can and should be disciplined, without resorting to victim-blaming/shaming tactics such as “social skills” classes for those who are bullied (inherent in such classes is the notion that if a child behaves “normally,” he or she will not be picked on).  Teachers can and should be encouraged to show enthusiasm for their work and for the very idea of learning.  (Although I mentioned a negative example about my son’s teacher, one thing I do like about her is how much she obviously loves both learning and teaching.)  Adults within the school can reinforce the message that there are safe, caring people the students can turn to when they need help.

I am pleased to say that I send my child to a district where this is frequently true.  Are they perfect?  No, of course not.  But more often than not, they have it right.  I am sorry that not all districts are like that; the one in which I grew up was not.  However, I don’t believe that asking teachers to promote certain values would have addressed my situation.  In fact, given what I remember, it likely would have increased my suffering.

As parents, we also have a responsibility.  While we cannot parent another child in place of his or her own family, we can choose with whom our children spend time.  We can make a point of addressing situations in which our children are victimized and demand change.  We can find like-minded parents and stick together.

For many people, the local school is the only option.  They can’t afford private schools, and homeschooling may not be feasible.  But allowing teachers (or principals) to encourage specific morals isn’t the answer.  The problem is far too complex for such a solution.  For my part, I’m going to do the best I can as a parent and hope that it’s enough.

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