CHILD ON GOD AND COUNTRY (a.k.a. what’s a mother to do?)
by Jennifer Harvey
This is more transcript than insight. It follows up my Thanksgiving post about Native Americans and U.S.-American myths where I mentioned our 4-year old being taught the Pledge of Allegiance at school.
Turns out, she’s learned the Star-Spangled Banner too—but that’s getting ahead of myself.
The school setting: I love our daughter’s school. Its educational vision centers on a deep respect for children as people, the value of peacemaking and the reality of global diversity. I also really like her teacher who emanates serious attention to learning and has high expectations of her pupils. It was much to the surprise of my partner and I, then, that we recently learned our daughter had been taught to recite the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the morning routine.
The parent setting: I don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance because I won’t pledge allegiance to a flag, a nation, or anything external other than to humankind and the elusive pursuit of peace and justice. (I don’t care if that sounds vague or cheesy.) My partner doesn’t like it because of the phrase “under God”—a concept she meets with deep suspicion for a number of good reasons. (As a Christian I’m not put off by the word “God” itself, but share her conviction that this 1954 addition to the Pledge violates the so-called church/state “wall.”)
The recent setting: The Star Spangled banner came on TV during the World Series and our 4-year old piped up: “hey, that’s the song we sing at school!” (What?!?) It came up somehow a few days later that she also knows the Pledge. We were admittedly thrown by all of these revelations.
The car setting: On the way home from our playground adventure last week our daughter started belting out the Pledge. At the top of her lungs.
The Child [TC]: … one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty….Hey, God is invisible! (Her tone suggests she has just discovered something new and very important.)
My Unspoken Thoughts [MUT]: Wow, Chris is going to love this. What do we do with this?
TC continues: … with liberty and justice for all. (She then begins to sing in a deep, dramatic bellow.) Oh say can you see, by the dawnzerly light, what so proudly we have with the flag was still there… (trails off in confusion).
TC (after three more tries): Uh! Mama, I can’t remember the words of the song right. Do you know the words?
MUT: Uh oh.
Me: Yes, I know the words.
TC: Can you sing them for me?
(Okay, so I’m not a pacifist. But, I hate war. I find the celebration of war—even if the celebration is of a “necessary” war, which is not what the Star Spangled Banner is—deeply offensive. So, I’m not inclined to sing the national anthem for the same reason I don’t say the pledge. But even if I were I just can’t stomach “rockets” and “bombs” in proud song.)
MUT: What, when, how, do these very conscious decisions and beliefs of mine translate into 4-year old speak……Ugh.
Me: Well, ‘no’ actually I can’t.
TC: Why not?
Me: Well, that song’s about a lot of things I don’t believe in. So I don’t like to sing it. But, there are lots of people who do believe in this song so they do sing it. That’s why you are asked to sing it at school. But, I don’t sing it.
TC: Well I don’t like that song, and wish I didn’t have to sing it.
Me: Really? If you don’t like that song, you don’t have to sing it.
TC: But, my teacher tells us to sing it. So….if I don’t want to sing it, but my teacher told me to, what would I do?
(I’m in so over my head. I am not prepared for this conversation, don’t know what it “should” look like, and especially after a long afternoon of errands, play and solo parenting. We tell our daughter all the time she needs to listen to her teacher.)
Me: Well, if you don’t want to sing the song, but your teacher says you have to, you should talk to me and Mommy about it. We’ll figure out together how we want to handle it.
(Yay! I’ve just learned that my 4-year is wise beyond her years. She somehow already knows that there is something wrong with mixing God, war and nation in celebration and song! Then the realization: responsible parenting probably means “exploring” this with her a bit further.)
Me: So, what don’t you like about the song?
(And the obvious, humorous twist.)
TC: Well, it’s soooo long. Way too long. And my foot always wants to go to sleep when I’m standing on the line to sing it for so long. So, I just wish I could sit down instead.
MUT: Sigh. Of course.
I guess the many moral dilemmas of parenting—which we have only begun to face—will remain precisely that: dilemmas for the parent to sort out. At least for now.
By the way, if you’re wondering why we don’t just ask for our daughter to be exempted from the Pledge (since this has come up in two posts now, it clearly doesn’t feel settled to me, and since my partner objects as well) it’s not because we’re afraid of making waves or of not conforming to school culture somehow. There are lots of reasons I don’t want to take up this particular issue at this particular point in our new relationship with public education. But, important in the mix is something to do with wanting to create for both of our kids a larger life context where they are invited, in age appropriate ways, to engage in their own journeys (supported by adults who love them, of course) into their own values. Telling our daughter not to say the Pledge seems to me about as morally meaningful at her age as telling her to say it (in other words, not meaningful at all). It might make me “feel better” but it’s not an obvious fix for the real challenge of helping her to think through the implications of participating or not. That’s what I want to figure out how to do.
For now, I guess, just sharing with her that “I don’t sing it, but others do” seems like enough. At least, it was enough in the car. She didn’t ask me anything more about it and I, therefore, didn’t have to expose my young child (yet) to the horrors of war or the complex moral dilemmas of nationalism.
As she continues to mature, I expect and hope that such a response on my part will prompt her further inquiry into why I don’t and why some do. And that is the kind of supported unfolding sense of her own mind and conscience that I do want to be part of.
In the meantime, she just doesn’t want to have to sing the national anthem because that song is just way too long.
Jennifer Harvey is a writer and associate professor of religion and ethics at Drake University. She’s interested in how social structures shape who we are—and how we can transform ourselves into people who create more just, compassionate social structures. Professor Harvey is the author of Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (Palgrave Macmillan 2007; 2012) and other articles on racial justice.