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Influencing without indoctrination

June 11, 2011

I’ve been accused of attempting to indoctrinate my children to be atheists. So I think it is important to distinguish indoctrination from influence.

Children tend to adopt their parent’s worldviews—this is evolutionarily adaptive—but it’s important to avoid using this innate tendency inappropriately in a way that keeps children from thinking for themselves. I don’t want to indoctrinate my children into a religious worldview, but I’m just as serious about not indoctrinating them into a naturalistic worldview.

Indoctrination has a very narrow definition. Indoctrination is the presentation of a single point of view, and the demand that that point of view be accepted. You shut out other voices and demand unquestioning acceptance. Can atheists indoctrinate a child? Sure, if they make it clear that they consider all religious people to be stupid, that religion is uniformly evil, and that any religious expression whatsoever is something they would sneer at.

Either side is capable of indoctrinating, but both sides are also capable of influencing without indoctrination.

Influence without indoctrination is presenting your point of view, letting your kids know what you believe, but then saying as often as you can that there are other good people who believe differently, and encouraging them to seek out those people.

So if one of my sons were to ask me, “Do you think Jesus really rose from the dead?” I would say something like, “I don’t think so. I think it’s a story that’s meant to make us feel better about death. But I know that mom believes differently, that Jesus really did rise from the dead. So why don’t you talk to her sometime about that? And then you can make up your own mind, and you can change your mind a dozen times if you want.”  This is, in fact, how I present my views to my children.

Similarly, a religious parent can (and I think should) say, “Yes, I believe Jesus rose from the dead, but your Uncle Brian doesn’t think he did. I think you should ask him about it sometime and see what you think.” That is influence without indoctrination.

Note how this stands in contrast to the way Mormons and most other Christians are trained to answer such a question. “I know that Jesus rose from the dead. And if you pray and ask God, He will let you know this is true by the power of the Holy Ghost.” This is an indoctrination method, not a method for raising critical thinkers.

If after you give your opinion and then begin with your caveat, “Now, I want you to make up your own mind,” and your children respond, “I KNOW… I have to make up my own mind!” that’s when you know that you’re not indoctrinating your kids. They clearly know that they are free to make their own choices in the long run and not feel the fear and baggage that many children often feel when they realize that they don’t necessarily espouse the same views that their parents do.

This year my wife’s LDS meetings are from 1-4 in the afternoon, leaving our mornings open to expose our children to other religious traditions if we wish. In fact, our entire family attended a local Unitarian Universalist fellowship last Sunday before attending the LDS church. And on Mother’s day, we attended a Baptist church that our neighbor attends before the 3-hour block. Roseli says she wants to attend a Black Baptist church next. And some Saturdays this summer I’d like us to attend a synagogue and a Seventh-Day Adventist meeting. After all, what kind of parent has more trust that children can think for themselves, the parent who presents only one view of the world (whether that’s Mormonism or any other faith), or the parent who encourages her children to be explore diverse perspectives?

Roseli deserves a lot of credit as an active, faithful Mormon for allowing our children to be exposed to a variety of worldviews and for trusting that our children are smart enough to figure out what is true. It’s not like they’re not being taught “the truth” of Mormonism – they go to sacrament meeting and their primary meetings every Sunday. If the LDS church really is the only true church on the face of the earth, then our kids will recognize that and the church will be able to stand on its own merits. But whatever they choose to believe and not believe, they’ll emerge as adults valuing diversity rather than being fearful of it.

[Note: Thanks to Dale McGowan for his thoughts regarding influencing without indoctrination from his Parenting Beyond Belief YouTube channel.]

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