Scaring the hell out of kids?

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
13 Feb 2009

Following the recent incident at Landscore Primary School in Crediton, where a young girl upset a classmate by saying she’d "go to hell" if she didn’t believe in God (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8652), some campaigners are predictably rushing in to claim that Christians are being ‘persecuted’.

They say that by challenging the girl’s remark the school is trying to stop pupils talking about their beliefs. I think that is both an unhelpful overreaction and a severe misrepresentation of a much more complex situation.

It is right that children should be able to talk freely to their peers, and in an educational environment, about beliefs or any other topics of concern. The school involved is clear about this. But it also recognises another, balancing duty to parents, pupils, staff and community alike. That of ensuring an atmosphere in which children can learn and play together without feeling threatened.

Does this include allowing a six-year-old to be frightened with the prospect of “going to hell”? I think not. And I am more than a little puzzled that a Christian parent apparently sees nothing wrong here, either. The Christian message does indeed warn about hatred and enmity separating us from God, but its overriding message is one of faith and hope – not fear and menace.

Teachers have a professional duty to take sensitive action over remarks that are received as intimidating by those in their care, even if the small children who make them aren’t necessarily intending them to be unpleasant. That’s what growing up and learning to live together is all about.

I can see why the governors are keen to protect the school’s reputation too, though whether they were wise to react to remarks in what was intended as a private email – albeit one made public, and from someone in their employ – is another matter.

However, the head teacher was surely justified in explaining to the child and her mother that there was a problem with her behaviour towards a classmate, and trying to do so with sensitivity and awareness.

Perhaps those Christians who object to the school wanting to maintain a non-threatening environment should ask themselves how they would feel if a son of theirs ended up crying after being told by an atheist pupil that religious people are nuts and should be locked up? Or if their daughter was upset by a Muslim telling her she would suffer eternally for not believing in Allah and his Messenger?

In both these cases, there would be an outcry if the school did nothing, or if it said that that their kids would have to put up with being frightened, because trying to stop this would amount to “not showing respect for beliefs”.

Most fair-minded people will see this, and it is gratifying that Landscore head teacher Gary Read is being supported by both colleagues and other parents.

Teachers have a tough job trying to balance the needs of pupils from diverse backgrounds. Trying to do so is not ‘political correctness’. It’s humanly decent and educationally necessary. This is something Christians and all people of good faith, believers or not, should be able to acknowledge.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He blogs at http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com and his website is at http://www.simonbarrow.net. The latest book he has edited, Fear or Freedom? Why a warring church must change is published by Shoving Leopard. His forthcoming book, Threatened With Resurrection: The difficult peace of Christ, will be published soon.

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