Vacation Bible School: Indoctrination or Social Skills Training?

Vacation Bible School
Vacation Bible School (Photo credit: heraldpost)

Vacation bible schools are popular with families in many areas of the U.S. They provide children with organized activities and give parents who are used to their children being in school during the day with a bit of a break from them.

One of my co-authors at Mississippi Atheists, Turniphead, recently wrote a post in which he described how he and his wife negotiated over whether they would allow their first-grader to attend a summer vacation bible school with a friend.

Turniphead clearly had some strong feelings about this matter and ended by concluding:

I will not trust my child’s upbringing to people who believe in magic and superstition and teach those things as truth. Yes, my children must know how to navigate the waters. Most of their peers in Mississippi’s public schools will already be indoctrinated, and my children will need to know how to deal with them. That will come. But for now, I’m skipping the indoctrination, thank you.

He and his wife decided that their child would not attend the program.

I enjoyed the post and found myself wondering what I would do if I was a parent in a similar situation. I certainly understand his rationale, but I see where his wife is coming from too. Like her, I attended one of these programs. In fact, I did so more than once. Granted, I was not living in Mississippi at the time. I was in a much more progressive region of the country, and I suspect my experience may have been quite different from what could be in store for children in Mississippi. I suppose it is also worth noting that I did not want to attend the program but was compelled to do so by my parents. Not only did they think it would be good for me (this was always their response when it came to church); I think they viewed it as an opportunity to get a break from me during the summer.

I do not remember much about my experiences at vacation bible school except that most of our time seemed to be spent in arts and crafts. I remember lots of scissors, glue, construction paper, and the like. The point made by Turniphead's wife about how it was an opportunity to spend time with other children certainly fit my experience. There were lots of kids there, and we had many opportunities for interaction. Unfortunately for me, I've never much cared for arts and crafts, so much of our time was spend doing something I didn't like. Come to think of it, I don't remember many of the other children seeming thrilled about this part either. It was almost as if we realized it was about keeping us busy so we would be easier to supervise.

To Turniphead's point about indoctrination, I do remember there being a component that reminded me of Sunday school where we had lessons designed to indoctrinate us in Christian dogma. I don't remember being exposed to anything I hadn't already heard in Sunday school. It was just more of the same. Turniphead was certainly right about their tactic of wrapping "Christianity in a veneer of fun." That was exactly what happened. The "Jesus is love" meme was probably the most prevalent. And yes, we were presented with plenty of absurd ideas as if they were factual. And as young children are inclined to do, we accepted them without question. The idea that an adult, especially an adult who our families trusted like this, would not lie to us.

I do understand where Turniphead's wife was coming from when she suggested that it is important for a child, especially here in Mississippi, to grow up understanding what other children do and believe. My ability to communicate this as a parent would be quite limited, and I'd likely do more harm than good by presenting a one-sided perspective that did not accurately reflect what the majority believed. And yet, I cannot help thinking that a child is going to pick up what he or she needs to know about the social norms at school and through peer relationships.

I'll tell you this much - if I had to rely on vacation bible school to learn the social and belief norms of my community, I would have been one seriously disturbed child. First, the beliefs I encountered here were representative of only one small slice of my community. My friends, neighbors, classmates had different beliefs. There was not enough diversity at vacation bible school to prepare us for real life. Second, compared with my public school experience and the peer relationships I had, vacation bible school was terribly artificial. Not only was the supervision so much closer that even the possibility of bad behavior was all but removed, we were too terrified at what our families would do if they learned we had misbehaved at church. Third, a program like this deprived us of the opportunity to fail and learn the vital lessons failure brings. After all, nobody was going to tell us our Jesus art was shitty.

If I had been in Turniphead's shoes and was convinced that the child in question really wanted to attend the program, I think I would have agreed to let them give it a try. I probably would have tried to do a bit of debriefing afterward to see what the child thought of the experience. Had the child not particularly wanted to do it or seemed indifferent about it, I would have done exactly what he did and said no. I'm glad I don't have to make decisions like this, and I don't envy those who do.