On Brainwashing Our Kids with Religion*

How do you teach your kids about Jesus but also teach them to think for themselves?

Christians are often accused of brainwashing their kids by atheists. Yet atheists seem to think they have escaped this indictment. But that’s an illusion.

I read an article a few years ago about a summer camp for atheists, an alternative to the religious camps that Christians go to every summer. They interviewed the woman who lectures the campers daily on religious history and she said, “I feel really strongly these kids shouldn’t be indoctrinated.” Many of the campers, who range in age from 8 to 17, “don’t know what they are” yet when it comes to beliefs.”

So what exactly is she doing in her lectures every day? Isn’t teaching the doctrine of “think for yourself,” with its often anti-religious tone, indoctrinating the campers? I am not here to judge. Just say that se can’t help it. “Brainwashing” is inherent in every act of communication from every system of authority.

We will all “brainwash” our kids in some sense. As humans, we are mimetic; we imitate. There is no way around it.

And lately, I have a growing number of friends who feel tricked by Christianity, feeling they were duped into believing that things are black and white when they are often various shades of gray. They still love Jesus but they don’t want to do that to their children. They don’t want to brainwash. A very noble goal.

But in their attempt to protect their children from the deceit of the religious system, they often swing the pendulum the other way by “not indoctrinating” their children. They want their kids to “think for themselves,” and so do not teach them about their own values.

But that’s the nature of kids. They do not have their own values, so they imitate. So “not indocrinating your kids” really means either allowing someone or something else to indoctrinate them (peers, family, or culture in the form of television and advertising) or indoctrinating them with a doctrine of “no doctrine.”

Recognizing this, we have decided to indocrinate our kids with a religion that involves critical thinking and a love of diversity.

Maybe we are making a mistake, but for our family, we have decided that we are Christians and that we will raise our children as Christians. But along with our personal beliefs and the Christian tradition, we will indoctrinate them with a Christian faith that (1) respects religious diversity, (2) respects Christian diversity, and (3) humbly accepts they might be wrong.

First, we teach our children that not all people are Christians. I am not sure why Christians parents don’t often teach their children about other religions. Perhaps it’s out of fear that Christianity won’t be as attractive or perhaps it’s just out of ignorance of other religions. But we want to make it clear to our children that there are religions out there besides Christianity. And we should respect and learn from every belief system. We are Christians because we choose to be and because we believe it’s the truest story, not because everyone who is not a Christian is evil. That is, we want to teach our kids a Christianity that has respect for religious diversity built into it.

Secondly, we teach our children that not all Christians believe the same thing. We want to expose our kids to the beauty of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Evangelicalism and Catholicism. We want to them to learn to appreciate the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox and the innovation of the non-denominational. Most importantly, we want them to love all of their family members in Christ, no matter how different their practices or beliefs may look.  We all worship the same Christ.

Thirdly, we teach our children that our beliefs are always changing. We don’t have all the answers, which is why we need wise people, the Scriptures, and our own relationship with the Spirit of God in our lives to constantly be challenging us, changing us, humbling us. We want to teach them the beauty of reading the Bible carefully, not being afraid either of questions or of the “I don’t know.”

How else do you try to raise critically thinking and respectful Christians who are both firmly rooted in the Christian tradition and yet freely challenge that tradition?

5Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!  6-9 Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
-Deut 6:5–9, Msg

4 responses to “On Brainwashing Our Kids with Religion*

  1. Wonderful. I wish everyone were indoctrinated with these ideas. In my experience, people who grow up without them will find it much harder to accept them later, even if they leave Christianity. I have met plenty of people who formally reject Christianity but are still fundamentalists at heart (and no, I don’t just mean atheists).

    I was fortunate enough to be raised with the first two beliefs. I owe it to growing up Mormon in Alabama, living next-door to Baptist grandparents, and most of all to parents who weren’t comfortable with pressuring me into being baptized at eight, as is usual for LDS children.

    I think my mother tried to instill the third belief, but it’s not easy when your church claims to have access to truths that everyone else is missing out on, and an infallible leader to top it off. It’s one I still struggle with. It’s just so much easier, so much more comfortable, to feel you have all the answers.

  2. I grew up in a non-religious home where I was told that we were agnostic because both my parents had had bad church experiences. I was told I could “decide what to be” when I grew up, yet I was never exposed to anything, barring a visit to a church with a friend after a sleepover or a wedding or a funeral. I spent a great deal of time seeking and wandering, trying to find what was missing in my life. (Not to say that I’m not still seeking and wandering but it’s a different kind now!)

  3. Or you could give your child a Bible and instruct him/her that religion is a personal conversation with God and all the TV evangelists, street corner bible thumpers and preachers standing in front of their golden chalices inside their multi-million dollar cathedrals do not represent God or Jesus. They’re just proselytizing and grand-standing, will do nothing but confuse your thinking and direct you away from true understanding.

  4. The problem is that you can find countless examples of mature believers who were either:

    1) Raised in a loving, Christian home with mature Christian parents
    2) Raised in an atheist home
    3) Raised in a home where they went to church only on Easter/Christmas
    4) Raised Catholic
    5) Physically/Mentally/Emotionally abused.
    6) Raised in an orphanage
    7) Raised on the streets, homeless.
    8) Raised by parents employing the montessori method

    Etc. etc. etc. Salvation is not ours to give.

    Our responsibility as Christian parents is to pile up the kindling around our children and pray that the Holy Spirit comes and ignites it.

    As far as day-to-day activities, if you are walking in a close relationship with Christ, how can that not influence the kids? Wouldn’t you want to read them Scripture? Wouldn’t you want to engage them in theological debate?

    For the new first-century churches, we see Paul instructing them in the basics. There are some doctrines he flat out teaches them and re-teaches them explicity, without room for questions. It simply is what it is. We also see him teach in a way that invites thought; he leads them toward a goal, but doesn’t just tell them what to believe.

    So as parents, I think we do the same thing. Teach them of The Father, The Son, The Spirit; the Law (now removed); God’s faithfulness to Israel; the Christ event (incarnation/cross/resurrection/return); the Gospel. Whatever you consider the “essentials”, you teach and tell them to believe (us westerners often have a problem with that). The “secondary” and everything else, we guide. But it’s a case-by-case basis as well. There’s a reason wisdom is such a prominent topic in the Bible; and a reason why God gave us brains.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s