Help! My Son’s Public School Teacher Wants to "Share Christ’s Love." Can I Stop Her?

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 3 2013 2:27 PM

One Classroom Under God

In a live chat, Prudie counsels a parent whose children feel pressured at school to become Christian.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at prudence@slate.com.)

See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. The fun is over, back to school and work!

Q. Proselytizing in the Classroom: My son's elementary teacher sent a note to all the parents last week. The email included a link to her website. Included on the site was a note stating that she couldn't wait to share Christ's love with the children. We are a religious minority in this community and, living in the Deep South, I deal with this kind of thing every single year, whether it's school-sponsored Bible study, the choir concert that includes Christmas songs almost exclusively, or my middle-school-aged daughter feeling like she has to become a Christian because the other kids at lunch tell her she's going to hell if she doesn't. Do you have any suggestions for handling these issues without causing my children to be ostracized or suffer retribution from the teachers?

A: It sounds as if your kids go to public school, so there's something wrong with teachers who don't understand their job description means keeping their explicit religious beliefs out of the classroom. Let's hope the teacher means that Christ's love animates her feelings about her students, not that she intends to proselytize. But as you say, the religious assumptions of those around you are so pervasive that bringing a complaint might not do much except make school more unpleasant for your kids. If your concerns are mostly about afterschool Bible study or Christmas carols, I think you have to just shrug this off. When the annual Christmas concert comes around you can tell your children you know it's not your holiday, but it's a lovely one for those who celebrate it with beautiful music and you're all going to just enjoy. Mostly you need to be teaching your children why you love your religion, showing them the joy and sustenance it brings you, and instructing that you will treat those of different faiths with the respect you wish all of them treated you. Being in middle school is for many kids a kind of torture at best, and being told you're going to hell must only add to the fun. But unless your daughter finds her treatment intolerable, you have to help give her some tools to deal with this: "Thanks for thinking about my soul. But my family is happy to be Jewish/Muslim/Hindu."

Dear Prudence: Insensitive Stepsons

Q. Update From the Uncle of the Bride: I am the uncle who wrote to you earlier about my niece who's engaged to my secret biological son. Before reading yours and commenters' responses, I was going to tell my niece, but now I've decided to let the issue rest and remain a secret. I realized that at their age, they've surely done the deed with one another, what many would consider the gross part, and there's no putting that back in the box. And I know the older women get, the harder it is to find a good husband, not a geezer or a divorced man with a bunch of kids (her words!). She's always wanted to settle down and have a big family (tick tick tick), so why ruin what is possibly her one good shot? Since I never had a family of my own, she's is the closest to a daughter I will ever have, and I just want her to be happy. You're right, a one-off cousin marriage isn't going to contaminate the gene pool as it does in subpopulations where this is practiced routinely and over generations. Thanks for your help.

A: Thanks for this update. I am happy to hear you've decided to bury this secret. (I was interested to read that the commenters seemed split about 50-50 over telling.) I think keeping quiet will help this couple feel doing the deed is the fun part, not the gross part.

And since you mention the commenters, I have something they brought up to bring up with you: How is it you're so certain that you in fact are the young man's father?

Q. Parenting: I am a 22-year-old student living 800 miles from my hometown. I have an 8-year-old sister, to whom I was a third parent for most of her life while our parents worked and Mom cared for my terminally-ill grandfather. My sister is one of the most important things in my life. My mother didn't raise me well, but I thought she was better now. During a long visit, I saw she wasn't. She stood over Lil Sis and shouted at her about individual math problems until Sis broke down in tears of frustration. Then Mom went from calm to angry in seconds, and made comments like "Do you WANT to be a little brat? DO YOU? People will never want to be your friend." The loving/angry cycle was scary and sad to watch. Mom already resents the parental relationship I have with Sis. We have a rocky relationship—we disagree on politics and religion, she feels I've "spit on her values," and I'm gay but chose not to come out to them so I can be in Sis' life. Dad sees the problem but won't help. I don't think CPS can do much here, and a home visit I fear would just make Mom angrier. She could be a good parent, but she has a lot of issues. The aforementioned grandfather physically, emotionally, and verbally abused her. She's cruel and negative to herself, but won't seek therapy. I can't be a parent to Sis anymore, and I can't watch this. What do I do?

A: As you so vividly portray, this is one of those destructive messes for which there's no easy answer, and the pain gets passed on generation to generation. You are entitled to and deserve your own happy life away from this shredding mother, but you rightly feel an obligation to your vulnerable sister. First of all, be in your sister's life. Having witnessed this awful scene, you should tell your sister that it broke your heart to see your mother treat her the same awful way you were treated. You can tell your sister your mother was wrong in what she said, that she is a troubled person, and that sadly she sometimes strikes out and says hurtful things to the people she should be most loving to. Let your sister know she can call you anytime. Try to figure out a way to set up a private time for you two to talk regularly without your mother overhearing. Come home for holidays and spend time alone with your sister. You also need to try to have a private conversation with your father. As bad as the abusive parent is, I also hold in contempt the so-called "decent" parent who allows the abuse to go on because it's just too unpleasant to deal with the volatile spouse. You need to impress upon your father the fact that your sister's mental health is in the balance here. There's no guarantee she will emerge as strong as you, and that if he doesn't feel capable of stopping your mother's attacks, he can insist that the entire family go togethr and get some outside help.

I agree with you that CPS will likely see a physically well-cared for child and your mother can probably make the case that occasionally she raises her voice—just like any other parent. But call 211, a referral service sponsored by the United Way and describe what's going on and see what they recommend. They could say call CPS, or they may put you in touch with private organizations that offer parenting classes, or nurturing for your sister. How painful it must be to see the ugliest scenes of your childhood played out again on your sweet little sister.

Q. Re: From Proselytizing in the Classroom: Thanks for your suggestion. We're atheists, so the suggestion to share the wonderful things about my faith with the children is a bit more complicated, but we do talk about science a lot.

A: Ha on me! One commenter suggested that if the situation becomes too difficult for your children you could contact Americans United for the Separation of Church and State (www.au.org). But if it's not intolerable, the best way to deal with this is by learning how to be in a culture with deeply held believes that are different from yours. Religion doesn't belong in public school classrooms. But making a federal case of its every intrusion will only make it more difficult for your children.

Q. Just Friends? I know this is a topic of age-old debate, but can a man and woman really just be friends? I've spent a lot of time with a guy friend over the past eight months and we've become very close. Our time together has led to physical intimacy a handful of times, but mostly just companionship and a bond that always seemed different from those I've had with other close male friends. Because of the confusing nature of our relationship, I was recently forced to clarify things. His response indicated he wasn't traditionally a faithful person and that he cared too much about me to put me in that situation. I can respect that, although I'm a bit disappointed, and we both indicated we'd like to continue spending time together. My question is: Is this realistic? I've already noticed some distance between us, which breaks my heart on some level. I understand that I've opened Pandora's box by having a "real" conversation about the state of things, but if he cared about me before and still does, shouldn't we be able to remain close? Always appreciate your POV on matters like this.

A: You don't need me to direct you to search the phrase, "Friends with benefits." Your question isn't really global, you just want to know if you can convert this guy you really like and are occasionally sleeping with into a boyfriend. I'm sure you heard violin music when he made a sincere face and told you he cares for you way too much to let you think you're going to be anything more than a special type of buddy. If you're looking for a real romance, stop sleeping with this guy because your emotions are too high and you're only going to get more disappointed. Yes, a man and a woman can be friends. But I don't think you can be just be friends with him.

Q. Openness About Alcoholism: My fiancé recently got into an accident after drinking and got arrested for a DUI. This was by far the worst thing that has ever happened after drinking, and through this he recognized he is an alcoholic and is now in recovery and treatment to maintain long-term sobriety. This has been stressful for us with our wedding in October, but we will get through it. My main concern now is that my parents do not want to tell my grandparents (who came to stay with them from abroad for the wedding), saying it will make them very upset and anxious, and that they may not accept him and our marriage if they find out. I feel that they need to know for us to have an honest relationship, and this secret is eating me up inside (my fiancé also feels that way, but says he will leave it up to me and my family). I understand that they may not attend our wedding if they find out, and I will be very sad if that happens, but I would rather that than feeling like we are frauds hiding something and knowing they might not be happy for us if they knew the truth. What do you think?

A: I think you need to postpone the wedding. Your fiancé is an alcoholic who could have killed a lot of people. If it took being arrested for him—and you—to recognize he has a problem, then you both have a problem with his drinking. I know your dress is bought, the catering menu is planned, the deposit has been paid, but look at what you're planning to do. You are planning to marry someone with a serious substance abuse problem who will have had virtually no sobriety behind him when you two tie the knot. That is not a good way to start a marriage. I agree with you that this problem has been hidden for way too long. I think you should talk about this with your family, at an Al Anon meeting, and in therapy with your fiancé. Just imagine what a fool you will feel if your groom decides that your wedding day is no time to forgo champagne and starts drinking to celebrate the start of your new life together.

Q. Re: Proselytizing: I live in the South, too, and even though we are Christian, I feel that statements of religious doctrine are inappropriate in public schools. When I feel a teacher has crossed the line, I don't hesitate to contact school administration. I instruct the administrator to make sure the teacher doesn't know whose mom complained, because I don't want my kids to be singled out. Part of the reason I do this to make sure my children aren't made to feel bad if their beliefs differ from their teachers, but the other reason is that I empathize with people like the letter writer, and don't ever want their children to feel like they don't belong at a public school.

A: Good policy. But I think the original letter writer has to make a distinction between Christmas carols and a discussion of creationism in science class.

Q. Parental support: My son and daughter-in-law decided to have an abortion and confided in me for moral support. Outwardly, I have said everything I need to support their decision, but inwardly I feel resentful and aggrieved. I know rationally this is their decision and it's not my place to judge. But I keep thinking about the grandchild that "could have been" and find myself jealous of grandparents out with young children. I had my only son after a long period of fertility issues so I also find myself angry at the two of them for not appreciating what a gift it was to conceive a baby, even though I know I shouldn't be thinking this. Some days I am so upset I make excuses not to see them, for fear I will say something hurtful to them which I will regret forever. How can I get over this?

A: Say something hurtful to a therapist. I can totally understand your pain at this news. But you already appreciate that you can only lose by weighing in on your sense of anger, anguish, and loss. You haven't said why they decided not to proceed, but your berating them will only create a chasm between you. You don't indicate your son and daughter-in-law never intend to have children, so I hope that you will become a grandmother one day. Whether or not you ever do, preserving the quality of your relationship with this couple is paramount. So find a professional, go for the number of sessions you need, and work this out.

Our commenting guidelines can be found here.