Elena loves Jesus. She loves him with all the fervor of a headstrong 4-year-old.
"Oh yeah," she reminded herself the other day, midway through a conversation about taking care of pets. (We were about to acquire a guinea pig named Brownie.) "Taking good care of animals is not the most important thing. The most important thing is always listening to Jesus."
As is often the case with these "Jesus conversations," I couldn't bring myself to ask Elie what she's been hearing from Jesus lately. I'm fairly sure that she only hears from him at preschool, a sweet, gentle place run by local Lutherans. Near as I can tell, the curriculum consists of three things -- play, snack and Jesus. And although my husband and I are Unitarian Universalists, we appreciate (mostly) the lessons in kindness, generosity and faith she is learning at that distinctly Christian institution. But there are moments, such as the time the Lutherans for Life bookmark fell out of her pink Barbie backpack, or when they had the birthday party for Jesus or when Elena's best friend and fellow non-Lutheran preschooler, Lauren, announced that she wanted to be born again -- "just like Jesus" -- when I start feeling a little uneasy.
In our rural Iowa town (population 2,400) there are only two preschools. Elena's is just a block from our house and the teachers are as kind as they are devout. But try as I might, I cannot get comfortable with surrendering my beautiful, intelligent little girl to Christian fundamentalism for her first official taste of school.
"Jesus or God is the boss of everybody, even the president," Elena told me several times after coming home from preschool during the Clinton impeachment hearings. And the other day on the way home from dance class she asked, "You and Daddy talk to me about Jesus at home, don't you, Mommy?" There was a note of disapproval -- mixed maybe with a bit of pleading -- in her squeaky little voice that didn't seem altogether natural in a 4-year-old.
Our older son, Andy, went to the same preschool for a year, but none of it seemed to sink in. Quiet and unimpressionable, Andy is a born Quaker by temperament. It's also in his nature to pay no attention to things until he hears them four or five times. Elena is nothing like her brother. She pays attention to everything, and she is always responding to the spirits that move her. They move her to sing, to dance, to watercolor the wall of her lavender-and-white room electric blue, to throw a tantrum because it is Sunday and she wants it to be Tuesday, to tell me I'm fired one minute and the best mom in the whole world the next -- and to really mean it both times. If her quiet and thoughtful brother is a Quaker, Elena's firey and extreme approach to life makes her a natural-born evangelical.
Like the rest of the family, Andy steers clear of the whole Jesus thing. Elie works away at him with the zeal of a white-shirted young Mormon, even molding her message to his worldview. "Andy, you like soldiers," she says and proceeds to tell him the story of the soldiers sticking their weapons into Jesus' wounds as he hung on the cross. "You like that story, don't you, Andy?" she asks, hoping to entice him. Though he shrugs, he has to admit that it kept his interest.
Perhaps most disconcerting to me is the way Elie has completely bought into the idea of a Jesus-centered life. She wants Jesus, Mary and Joseph to decorate her birthday cake next October. Since seeing "The Sound of Music," she talks about being a nun so she can marry Jesus. I'm not sure what to say when she puts the biggest sucker and her only "Best Friend" card into Jesus' box at the preschool Valentine exchange. She turns to Jesus to stop her bad dreams (unsuccessfully, the Unitarian in me has to point out), and she often starts off dinner by giving us all lessons in the various ways to hold your hands when praying.
Maybe her fervor makes me uneasy because it seems to overpower my own wishy-washy faith. My husband and I attend Unitarian services fairly regularly and Elie and Andy love to go to the religious education program. Last Sunday they talked about honoring trees; before that their class spent a month on the importance of helping others. But compared to fundamentalist Christianity, the message is just too diffuse. In our liberal tradition, we tell many stories, honor many heroes -- including trees -- and leave a lot up to what goes on inside each person's own heart. If we do any of it with conviction, it is the conviction of the not-entirely convinced.
That is why I have tried to squeeze around my personal issues with Christianity. Part of me is really glad that my daughter has found faith, which has eluded me but has much to recommend it. Still, I cannot get beyond my discomfort with how she has found it, with the way Jesus is ingratiated into virtually every preschool activity except potty time. I understand what they are doing, and it is perfectly reasonable: They are trying to raise good Missouri Synod Lutherans. Short of being born again, can non-believers fit into such a program?
My friend Susan, who is Jewish, scoffs at my concern about this apparent brainwashing. Susan sends her 4-year-old, Max, to a synagogue preschool where he is learning Hebrew and is fast becoming the world's smallest Zionist. Religion is good for kids, Susan argues. It gives them a system of explanations to plug their million questions into. But at his school Max is also learning a myriad of other things besides the history of Israel -- about dinosaurs and art and cooking. I tell myself it isn't that Elie is learning so much about Jesus that makes me uneasy, but that she isn't learning very much of anything else. From our time at home, she already knows her ABCs and her 123s, and has her colors and shapes figured out, but her teacher's focus on Jesus leaves little time for building on and responding to the wonder of art and nature.
"You think too much," local friends keep telling me.
"It's only preschool," another mother insists. "Did you even go to preschool? I didn't and it didn't harm me for life."
But it's not fear of lifelong harm -- or lowering Elena's future SAT score by two points -- that eats away at me. It is missing the opportunity to introduce her to all the fascinating pieces of the world.
Maybe my dilemma is generational. Like most baby boomers, I suffer from the delusion that I am in control. If I just pick the right neighborhood, preschool and piano teacher, my children will grow up safe, cultured, smart and able to figure things out for themselves (even though I can't imagine ever letting them actually do that). This ideal is in stark contrast to the way I was raised. My mother came of age during the Great Depression, lost her baby brother to World War II and fell through the gaping cracks in the Great Society. Raising five children with neither a husband nor a decent income, she never had the illusion that she was in control of anything. Beyond seeing that we ate our vegetables and went to bed on time, Mom couldn't afford to pay much attention to the details of our lives. For instance, when we had to move every year or two between sixth and 12th grade, it rarely occurred to her to stay in the same school district, or to wait until the end of a school year. Mom never even dreamed of the sort of high-input parenting that seems to grip me and many of my friends.
"You survived, didn't you?" she'd say, refusing to even discuss another way of looking at things. "Kids are tough, they can handle most things so long as you don't spoil them."
Hindsight tells me that there were a few areas where Mom should have paid more attention, but mostly she was right. We all survived and figured out how to take care of ourselves remarkably well. That said, her laissez-faire approach is directly at odds with the way good parenting is supposed to work now. Modern mothers are expected to oversee everything about our children's lives, boosting their self-esteem and packing their calendars. At my house, with but a 6- and a 4-year-old, we juggle dance, gymnastics and baseball with preschool and kindergarten. Last week swimming lessons were added to the mix; before that, wrestling. Many of my college friends get more worked up picking a preschool than they did selecting a school for themselves 15 or 20 years ago.
We once had neighbors who held especially fast to this belief, raising their three children like hothouse violets. They refused to buy their 3-year-old a toy golf set, even though she loved hitting the little red, green and blue plastic balls all over other people's backyards. "We decided against it," the mother confided to me one afternoon, "because we'd really prefer that Alice play tennis."
Can parents really mold their children that way, deciding what sports they will like and what instruments they will play? A quiet little voice in my head says we can't. In the end, Elena's going to decide for herself what to believe in. Knowing her, she's going to do it with a whole heart.
Just the same, a year of fundamentalism has been enough for my little girl. Next year, Elena's going out of town to a little Suzuki preschool near our church. We visited, she loved it, and now we can't wait for August. She's not worried about making new friends or feeling lonely at this new school, she says, because "Jesus will be going with me, Mommy. He's my best friend."