Orthodox Children in Public Schools

I recently received an e-mail from a reader asking if I knew of any books on things we, as Orthodox mothers, should enforce if we have children attending public schools.  The only thing I can remember reading on this topic is in Presbytera Juliana Cownie’s book Young Children in the Orthodox Church.  I’ve mentioned this book before and again cannot express how much I love it.

Here is an excerpt on Orthodox children in school:
Presbytera says,
“To be honest, the atmosphere which prevails in the average public school is not conducive to promoting civilized behavior, much less Christian conduct.  The greater part of what the Orthodox parent tries to convey to the child at home will be quickly unlearned at school because of the child’s desire to fit in with the herd.  Hypocrisy and shame will often see the child leading a double life, if the parents are not extremely vigilant and careful.  Ideally, Orthodox children should be schooled at home, but the ideal is not always attainable.  Accordingly, here are some guidelines for helping a child maintain his identity as an Orthodox Christian within the public school system.
1.  Have your own dress code and enforce it.  Children express their identity by their outward appearance.  Many inner city schools are moving to curb gang involvement and discipline problems by issuing uniforms and banning make-up and jewelry.  Thus far, these methods have been proven quite successful.  Even if your child’s school has not instituted such regulations, you should insist that your child be attired modestly and without unnecessary adornment.  Girls should wear dresses or skirts.  If, for the sake of modesty, a girl needs to wear shorts, they may be worn under the dress.  The use of hairspray and wearing boyish or distracting hairstyles should be discouraged.  Boys should wear clothing that fits them properly and should have hair properly trimmed.  There is a mistaken notion among some Orthodox Christians that boys who serve as candle-bearers or readers must wear their hair long, as a monk or priest does.  This is not true and should not serve as an excuse on religious grounds to violate school dress codes.
2.  Emphasize the importance of keeping fasts at school.  Temptations will be many and will come not only from the child’s peers, but from teachers who want to treat the schoolchildren (almost always on a Friday).  Provide tasty sack lunches on fast days.  It is not usually too difficult to give the child something more desirable than the normal cafeteria fare.  Bring fasting treats to school parties which are held during a fast period.  Let the teachers know about Orthodox fasting practices at the beginning of the school year, so your child will not experience discomfort at having to explain concepts that he may be unable to articulate.  Above all, let your child know you are proud of him when he refuses something he would like to have eaten.  He will remember that encouragement when future temptations arise.
3.  Make the child think always in terms of acting in a Christian way and pleasing Christ with his behavior.  If the child does something wrong at school, he should admit it and be willing to take the consequences.  A child who blames others for his behavior or lies to escape punishment is developing a pattern of moral cowardice.  A parent who blames others for the child’s behavior (“The teacher doesn’t like him.  It was the other kid’s idea.  He just went along with it.”) , or shields the child from the fair punishment he deserves, is training him to be a moral coward, or perhaps training him to be immoral.  Encourage the child to forgive the children who wrong him or tease him.  Help the child to try to see things from the perspective of the teacher who may always seem so grumpy and hand out so much homework.  Never give the child an excuse for not meeting his obligations at school.  If he misses class to attend Divine Services, make it clear that he must make up the work.  Try to have a good relationship with the teacher, so that if problems arise, lines of communication are open to discuss them.
4.  Teach your child that he must never be ashamed of being an Orthodox Christian.  Wearing a cross, saying a blessing before eating, refraining from blasphemy or cruelty-these are all things which set him apart from an unthinking crowd of young people who have no idea who they are.  Do your best to convince him that confusion and fear of ridicule are not enviable motivations for living.
As a parent, do not be deceived into believing that the school owns your child, or has any right to dictate to you how your child should be educated, or what values he should be learning.  If the school is offering a course which you find morally objectionable, have your child excused.  If the school will not excuse your child from the course, withdraw your child from the school. Whether or not you choose to argue the merits of a particular class, your child should not be subjected to morally questionable material or to the ensuing controversy, should you decide to fight to have the material removed from the curriculum.”
I’m so glad to have been asked about this because it’s been quite some time since I’ve read it and with Ace starting school, I’ve reminded of several things to “nip in the bud” at the beginning of the school year instead of whenever things come up throughout the school year.  Does anyone else have any thoughts on Orthodox children attending school?

12 thoughts on “Orthodox Children in Public Schools

  1. What a great resource! Sorry I can’t offer any thoughts on Orthodox children attending school yet. I’m just looking ahead, myself. 🙂

  2. I’m facing the exact same problem myself. But it isn’t just in the Orthodox perspective, but simply that public school isn’t good for any child…period. But it’s hard. What can one do? The education is not top notch, even at the best schools, and the children are taught moral issues, which should be reserved for the parents to teach. I also have political reasons why I dislike public schools, but I won’t get into it.

  3. How timely for me, with my little one starting school too. It has been hard on me. As a teacher, I want to be the one teaching him! hee hee.Thanks for sharing.

  4. This quote from the author is right on in many ways, including behavior and moral standards. Just like for us, it is ascesis for our children to maintain their standards, but it is good for them to be an example to others.I have a very hard time with “Ideally, Orthodox children should be schooled at home, but the ideal is not always attainable.” That implies that our family’s (and other families’) decision to send children to public school was not the best choice for them.This author does NOT know my family, nor the situations within. Neither does she know how carefully we considered each form of education, and each part of a good curriculum and the teaching thereof (including a catechism and daily prayer life). We also considered the particular needs of each person in the family, and of the family as a whole. Any thoughtful Orthodox parent would do no less.Modesty is important, no question. However, one other section that really struck me as odd was “Girls should wear dresses or skirts. If, for the sake of modesty, a girl needs to wear shorts, they may be worn under the dress.” Doing these sorts of things in junior high PE (for example) is a surefire way to be exposed to excessive ridicule. And that’s something the author wants children to avoid. Surely, there are ways to be modest without standing out in the crowd.I think the author would have been better served if she stuck to overarching Orthodox behaviors (such as being truthful and behaving with integrity). Instead, she recommends a highly conservative Orthodox viewpoint to all members of the faith, and implies that to do otherwise is less than optimal.

  5. I appreciate your posting this. Our family came into Orthodoxy three years ago with a 12 year old daughter and 5 year old son. My daughter has continued in public education and, after I received my teaching degree, I homeschooled my son through 2nd grade. We have put him back in public school because this is a good local school and I know the teachers and the children, but we are considering homeschool again after 4th grade because of what is mentioned here by others. We are keeping an eye on our daughter who is enrolled in an academic magnet school and dress code is now standardized and this helps tremendously. Public school is a difficult environment to educate children in, and middle and high schools are just huge in population drawing from all over the area. Also teachers are inexperienced in addressing life from a Christian perspective. They are so afraid to step on anyone’s toes, insult any belief or practice, that they will allow anything. Encouragement to homeschool is always welcomed, but no one should feel guilty about sending their children to school as long as they are making an Orthodox home and family life. God have mercy on us all!

  6. As much as I liked parts of this quote, I have to agree with Liz. I’m not convinced homeschooling is often the best option, much less always. Where will public school children (and their parents) meet Orthodox Christians if we don’t engage in the school system??Also–when it comes to modesty, I see just another reason to lobby for parent-purchased uniforms in the public schools. What constitutes modest dress is incredibly subjective based on culture, location and climate. Asking our girls to constantly wear long skirts seems like an unnecessary burden with very little potential profit.

  7. In response to the home-school and dress comments, I can totally see where you ladies are coming from. However I don’t think she’s implying that home-schooling is right and public school is wrong. I think she simply means it’s ideal because you avoid many issues by doing so. We had a big contreversy here concerning a gay teacher, for example. We too don’t have a blessing to home-school because of certain issues and I think as long as you’re obedient to your spiritual father you are safe.As far as the dresses go, many saints have said women should wear dresses. I’m not judging anyone who doesn’t!! After all this is why we wear dresses to Church on Sunday because it is proper. Pants on women hasn’t been around for even 100 years yet. I know many, many Orthodox families where the women and daughters both wear skirts (not necessarily ankle length) every day to school and even horse-riding! Women have done it for centuries. But again, what you have a blessing for is the most important. If in doubt discuss this with your priest. I hope this post doesn’t offend you, I just think it’s good for those of us who are sending our children to school for the first time to read it.

  8. In response to Sylvia’s last comment, it seems clear that she believes homeschooling to be by definition superior to the public school system. It was her carte blanche statement that troubled me. AFA situations like the gay teacher, we have used exposure to the concepts of homosexuality to explain to our (then) upper-elementary son the issues in the public arena, a person’s free will, each person’s vulnerabilities to differing temptations, and the Church’s views on the temptations and behaviors surrounding homosexuality. For a young man at the logic stage of development, it was, God willing, an opportunity that helped prepare him for life in this world, and to be a light therein.AFA wearing skirts 100% of the time in the public school setting, it would seem to me to be alienating to the young person at school, especially during the fashion-conscious teen years. If she were my daughter, and she preferred skirts, that’s fine. But I would think a wardrobe that was at the more conservative end of the “hump of the bell curve” would generally be okay. You know, neat jeans which weren’t tight, non-clingy tops with sleeves and which showed no cleavage, skirts below the knee, longer walking shorts, that sort of thing. (I know of resources if anyone needs them.) As Orthodox, we don’t advocate a “seeker-friendly” model of church, but neither do we try to drive away people by exhibiting (what they might deem) weird behaviors. For example, we don’t make a big deal out of fasting when invited to a non-Orthodox friend’s house for dinner during Lent. I don’t see a functional difference between that and wardrobe choices.All this having been said, I am thrilled that the homeschooling movement is flourishing. I firmly believe that when a family considers their education options, homeschooling should be considered equally with public or private school. Then each family should consider what is appropriate for them. I wish that we were homeschooling a few subjects, but that isn’t possible. So I continue to pray, and trust that God’s got it under control :-)Man, I’m getting long winded. If you’ve made it this far, you should get a medal!

  9. thank you for posting this. i asked the director of food services to switch the day with chicken nuggets to a tuesday (instead of wednesday) and she said that she couldn't do it because if she did it for me, then she'd have to do for other religious beliefs as well. However, she has a pig next to the pork entres and claims it's because people are allergic to pork. REally?

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