A good friend of mine and I had an interesting discussion years ago that still rings within me today. We were talking about the best way to raise and educate children and my friend, a strong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, told me he believes in the “indoctrination of children” into a religion.

He believes children need a base in the LDS church in order to be proper citizens in society and that they should fear God and know there are punishments for bad behavior far beyond what he could do as a father.

I know a lot of parents place the eternal welfare of their children in faith and in other non-religious doctrines and philosophies beyond their parental embrace and I am curious why that is important. Why do some parents place the final authority over their children outside the direct discipline, love and influence of the family unit?

Why do some parents relinquish control of their children to what some consider abstract ideals or theoretical myths or concepts beyond the body that take leaps of faith and mind to sustain? Is it not enough to teach our children behaviors that are simply human? Is it not enough to “indoctrinate” a child with the ideas that murdering someone is bad and feeding someone who is hungry is good?

Why must any indoctrination go beyond those kinds of core ideals? Why do we have to wrap basic human principles in dogma and external doctrine? Shouldn’t children respect their parents’ authority instead of fearing the wrath of a punishment from somewhere “out there” outside the lives of everyday people?

What are the benefits of indoctrinating a child into beliefs beyond a common universal morality? Are there dangers in the “indoctrination of children” into a belief system that is governed from a book or shouted from a soapbox?

24 Comments

  1. I grew up in a Christian household going to church every Sunday and Wednesday night as a child. Although once I started middle school, the Wednesday nights dropped off. I suppose you could say that I had that “indoctrination” as a child, but I don’t believe I was sort of “beat over the head with it.”
    Now I did go to a private Christian school (until fourth grade) where children were raised in that sort of household. (Hmm, maybe I should post about that on my blog! 🙂 )
    I think what was good about my raising was that I was able to see when my parents held a different opinion from what someone else at church thought. I was never told that disrespecting my parents would bring the wrath of God. It was always the wrath of my father that I was worried about. 🙂
    I understand some of what you’re saying, but there are parents out there – and one day I think I’ll be one of them – who can balance a Christian upbringing with the freedom of letting the child think for him/herself.

  2. Hi Carla!
    Thanks for sharing your experience and I appreciate knowing what helped form you.
    This issue isn’t just about Christianity. There are a lot of world religions where the indoctrination of children is part of sustaining the vitality of the religion.
    There are also non-religious indoctrinations beyond the family that are also are the core of my questions.

  3. It’s always interesting to hear the “bad cases” regarding Christians raising children.
    Sometimes evil gives an appearance of being good to further the cause of evil. Look at the television evangelists who preach “health and prosperity” to rip off the weak when the Bible clearly notes that following the Way could lead to persecution. Or abusive parents who cite the Bible as justification for their satanic ways of treating their children.
    We raise our son in the church, but I would be leery of turning my son over to the control of the church. If I was Islamic, I would be leery of turning my child over to a madrassa. Same for any other religion.
    People can be corrupted. We must always keep an eye on our fellow humans who are in positions of power because of our human nature. Look at Paul’s letters to the various churches in the New Testiment giving instructions for improvement.

  4. Hi Chris!
    Gosh, you raise some outstanding insights for careful consideration!
    I like how you have compared and contrasted ideas and text and real life experience against each other as a balance for an overall goal of goodwill.

  5. I think the idea that one can form one’s own value system without the aid of a religious framework is a very recent one. After all, the laws of most governments are deeply rooted in moral values that come directly from one religion or the other.
    Case in point: When you come right down to it, WHY is murdering someone bad? WHY is feeding someone good? If you’re talking about pure survival, anything’s good. But I think one of the main functions of religion has been to allow humans to live together relatively peacefully. Otherwise, we’d all be doing anything we could get away with.
    Societies based on a religion, ideology, whatever you want to call it are fine and dandy when you have religions that are separated by geographical boundaries. In a way, we’re living in a completely unnatural time. Here we are, in countries with muslims and mormons, baptists and b’hais in the same neighborhoods. Which essentially means that any belief system is challenged every day; it is crowded and jostled and questioned because it doesn’t have a huge swath of land in which to reside in the daily backgrounds of unthinking people ….
    So maybe it’s natural for people with extremely strong religious views to want to indoctrinate their children–not just for the belief itself, but as a way to draw them in closer …
    Just Friday afternoon musings, and I think I’ll shut up now …. 😉

  6. I was born to Methodist parents and went to Sunday school off and on. We moved around a lot back then, so it was very hard to get “connected” to a church. When we moved to the Bay Area, my mother couldn’t find a church that she felt comfortable with. One day, some Mormon missionaries stopped by.
    My mother befriended the lady that came with them, and we started going to the Mormon church. It didn’t seem that much different from the Methodist, except for the adults getting up on stage and bawling about what a “true” church this was. My sister and I were very unsettled by this (We were 11 and 9 at the time.).
    The missionaries would come over midweek to deliver a mini-sermon and pray with us. On one such sermon, one of the missionaries told us that there were three levels of heaven. He went on to say that she couldn’t go the highest level because my father wouldn’t join their church.
    We stopped going after that, but the missionaries continue to hound me to this day to rejoin their church. I’ve moved several times (for other reasons) and had unlisted phone numbers. Still, they managed to find me.
    To put an end to this long reply, I haven’t had the heart to take my children to church because of the above. Organized religion has its good points, don’t get me wrong. I’ve met some truly good Christians. But the majority of the ones I’ve dealt with have it all wrong.

  7. I am the child of a divorced and then remarried Catholic (albeit excommunicated) woman … and a divorced man of no particular religion, though he was spiritual.
    I went to Catholic school for ten years and was indoctrinated … brainwashed … and taught to not think for myself. It took many years of breaking through all that, and even now there are times I think I am damned just because I’m doing something that isn’t the way I’m supposed to … based on my religious upbringing. Thinking for myself was a quest that took many, MANY years to accomplish.
    My children weren’t brought up IN a religion … they were brought up with the ‘golden rule’ … and that is the way I live my life now. Guidelines based on an Almighty Higher Being are great … they give a child some basis to know WHY something is wrong rather than just being taught ‘because I SAID so’. But I don’t feel a religious education is necessary to end with good, moral and loving results.

  8. Deborah! – Once again, you make some fascinating connections in sharing your story, and I thank you.
    I, too, was raised Methodist. When I was in college dating “a good Catholic girl” her mother quizzed me about God and my religion for an entire evening then told me at the end of the night “Methodists are the most un-religious of all the religions.” It was only later I realized I had been intentionally insulted. 🙂
    I always thought the most ‘un-religious” were the Unitarians and only because one of them told me so. 🙂
    The Mormons are interesting. I when I was in New York I had a lot of Mormon friends for some reason but it wasn’t by method. The Meadows Mountain Massacre is a curious moment in Mormon history that not many people know:
    http://asms.k12.ar.us/armem/brondel/page1.htm
    Now that I’m around New Jersey I am meeting more Quakers. They are eager to share their experiences in a good way. I like how they get together and just sit together in silence for an hour until someone has something important to say.
    Mama! – Thank you for sharing your Catholic upbringing with us. I am curious why a higher power should be invoked in order to teach a child “why” something is wrong. Why isn’t a parent saying it is wrong enough of a correction?

  9. Thank you for sharing that piece about the Mormons, David. No, they never shared that with us. 😀
    That story about the Catholic mom is amusing in a dry sort of way. I’m left with the question of what is “un-religious.” The Methodists in that one church taught me about compassion and kindness.
    I like the Quaker’s way of thinking!
    Mama Mouse,
    I raise my kids with the Golden Rule, too. The “because I SAID so” mentality often results in rebellion. I also make them accountable for their actions. That’s more difficult today than it was in my generation.

  10. Well … I guess I think about it this way …
    If a child is told by a parent NOT to do something the most common reaction they have is to ask “WHY NOT”. If the parent has no other fall back position other than saying, “because I said so” the child will more likely rebel.
    If on the other hand the parent can back it up with the belief that there is something bigger than they are … some force … Divine Will … whatever … something that guides the universe …. they are more likely to accept it.
    Children, especially older children, have a decided tendency to think that parents know NOTHING. While I didn’t raise my children in a religion, I did raise them to believe in God. I think it helped and I know other parents that had trouble because they didn’t use a Higher Authority to back them up. The kids just had the mentality that it only came from Mom and Dad and therefore it didn’t count much.
    Sometimes children can’t be reasoned with and sometimes the influence of other children reduces the importance of a parent’s warning. Don’t do that because it isn’t right or moral because I SAID it isn’t … is easily countered by another child saying that his parents said just the opposite (even if they didn’t). Whereas the use of a bigger force (God or something similar) bypasses that influence.
    At least that is my experience. I might be wrong … I’m wrong about a lot of things. The God … or Godess for that matter … can be the God of any religion.
    On the other hand … using a persona outside the home but highly respected could serve the same purpose. Someone that was highly respected by MANY people and children. But I do NOT believe that organized religion needs to be involved nor do I necessarily think it is wise.
    I hope that explains my thinking. I’m great at feelings but when pressed to put them into words I get tongue tied and don’t always present them properly.

  11. David,
    It is interesting that when you refer to indoctrination, almost all of your commenters picked up on religious indoctrination. You did sort of frame your argument in that area. But I can see plenty examples of secular influences that also indoctrinate our children.
    There is a pretty big battle going on between the secular and religious influences. As one who is firmly entrenched in the middle, I look and see ugliness on both sides. Neither option is the attractive one.
    As far as what I want my children to know. I will teach them. You can’t depend on public schools to teach them much about optimism and positive thinking. You can’t depend upon those venerated religious institutions much any more either. Each side is embroiled in a struggle for their survival, not for our soul.
    In the end, we will be where we always were. We will have about 10 things that society thinks are important. And those 10 things are all that really matter. Except for the 11th: “Love thy neighbor as you love thyself.”

  12. Mama — Thanks for clarifying your position!
    Kevin — Great post! I agree with you indoctrination comes from many corners. Social indoctrination into hatred based on Race is certainly thriving worldwide in many cultures and there is political indoctrination based on ideology of like minds and economic indoctrination where wealth is preserved and welfare is a way of life and… 🙂

  13. I rejected mormonism some years ago. My children have all followed suite, leaving the religion we “trained” them in. But as I think about it, we always taught our children that love was the most important thing, that rules were not the point and perhaps it was those early teachings that gave them the desire to separate themselves, and not my “bad” example.
    In LDS theology these things are very important. “Teach a child in the way that he (of course he) should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it” is the maxim that is stressed over and over. Parental responsibility and “the plan of salvation” are considered paramount.
    I don’t know why these things appeal to parents other than it is part of the culture of certain religions to do so. I’m just glad that, even while a practicing mormon raising 4 daughters, I was able to instill in them a feeling that what they think matters, and that they should never obey an ecclesiastical order that they didn’t personally believe.
    don in utah!

  14. As I tried to say we taught the kids the tenants of the faith we had, but stressed personal freedom of belief, and diversity of opinion.
    I think they felt like I was just following my own advice, if that makes sense.
    I enjoy a great relationship with them, which I don’t think I could if I had “indoctrinated them”. If anything, I think I was probably a foil against the indoctrination of the “community”, which in mormonism, is very strong.
    don

  15. Personally, I found religion in my life to be toxic, and we’ve eschewed it in rearing our own children. We are also very leery of the secular toxic influences, both the violence that’s pushed on boys and the sexual objectification that’s pushed on girls.
    I’ve seen some new-agey folks be so against any kind of indoctrination that they seem incapable of imparting any value system at all, and that’s a problem. A vacuum is always filled eventually. Either materialism or some cult, most likely.
    Ultimately, it’s a parent’s responsibility to indoctrinate her/his child with the values they hold. I find religion to be an easy out. I think it’s best to seriously evaluate what one’s values really are. Personally, I find humanistic values to be the best, the one’s I think most likely to create a world where I want to live, one where everyone is respected for their own intrinsic value, where ideals of least-harm and most-compassion hold sway.
    That’s certainly not the world that we’ve built with religion.

  16. sorry but morals dont come from religion. The greeks and confusio said same things that jesus said hundreds of years later. Also de morals of the bible, as an example, are outdated and the most of the christian religions wont update their morals.

  17. mauricio —
    Today, morality is colloquially taught by religion while ethics and virtue are the core of Greek philosophy and we make that feeble distinction in order to maintain separation between — “Plato and Christ” aka “State and Church” — but your point is valid and my attempt at humor only tries to demonstrate that even though we look to the Church to teach us morality because we really don’t have any modern day philosophers or scholars, that task often fails, just as you suggest.