Is Teaching Kids about Faith Indoctrination?

I saw a picture of children praying. They were kneeling down, some of them with their faces to the ground and others with their faces to the sky. The expression on each face was filled with expectation and longing. Beneath the photo, I saw a comment: “I wish religious people would stop indoctrinating their children!”

Believe me, as a pastor married to a pastor and a mother to two children, this is on my mind almost every day. How do I do the job I have, live out a faith that is important to me, and bring up my children without making them feel chained to their parents’ religion? How can I answer my children’s questions about life after death and about the senseless violence and suffering in the world without indoctrinating them?

Is it even possible to avoid indoctrinating our children, whether the indoctrination be religious or otherwise?

I believe that, as parents, we can’t help but teach our children what’s important to us. We show them what we value by the choices we make, the patterns we follow, and the guidelines we establish. And I don’t think any of this is wrong. I actually think it is good and necessary. And, in parenting, this begins before a child is able to walk, and even before a child can speak.

Psychological research has often looked at what happens when a pre-verbal child looks at the face of the parent. In many studies, the parent’s face is seen as the first “mirror” for a child. The child looks to the parent for what is acceptable, for how to react under certain circumstances, and even for validation of self-worth. Some psychologists believe that before two months of age, babies look at their mother and see themselves.[1] At some point after two months of age, through a series of experiences and observations, a child begins to realize that the face staring back is a distinct person.

By the second month, children begin to imitate facial expressions, emotions, and even begin to explore consequences of certain behaviors. It is around this time that many babies begin to smile in response to playful interaction.This give-and-take between observing the behavior of others and responding to what a child sees teaches a child what behaviors are considered socially acceptable, which can even lead to children expressing embarrassment by the reflection they see in the mirror by the age of 2. [2]

Children learn from what they see and experience. My kids see me going to church every Sunday. They see me standing behind the pulpit, reading from the Bible, and preaching. They hear me talk to my husband about things going on in our lives. They experience the hectic pace we sometimes keep, and they watch us try to reduce the number of things we’re involved in as we try to make space for rest and healthy living. They know that we bring them to church every Sunday, and they watch us pray.

But, what about indoctrination – specifically religious indoctrination? Can a parent teach his or her children about faith without indoctrination?

I would argue that it is possible – maybe even necessary –  to teach children about faith, and that it can be done without indoctrination. I would also argue that attempting to avoid teaching children about religion still teaches them about a parents’ beliefs, even if that belief is that religion does not exist. 

What does it mean to indoctrinate? According to Merriam-Webster, the word indoctrinate means to teach (someone) to fully accept the ideas, opinions, and beliefs of a particular group and to not consider other ideas, opinions, and beliefs. [3]

Indoctrination is more than teaching. Indoctrination is more than explaining to a child what’s important to you as their parent. Indoctrination is a systematic attempt to teach someone to accept ideas without critically examining them. It ignores that there are other thoughts or beliefs on a subject. It refuses to give anything consideration besides what is already known.

Indoctrination extends far beyond taking my child to church, answering my child’s questions about God, and even teaching my child how to read the Bible or pray. Indoctrination would be to do these things and to convince my child that to question is wrong, to learn about the beliefs of others is wrong, and indoctrination would leave no room for critical thought. As opposed to teaching a child about a particular religion, indoctrination covers up information about other religions, or skews them in such a way that a clear bias against certain ways of thinking is evident.

I bring my children to church because the ritual of being among the congregation is important to me. I bring them to church because I want them to experience being in a place that gives them the opportunity to learn about God. I also teach my children about other faiths, and they know that there are people all over the world who believe differently than I do. I try very hard not to teach them that only my answers are acceptable, though I (of course) would love if they grew up and believed in Jesus. My love for my children is not dependent upon them believing all of the same things I do, and I encourage them to ask questions.

When they ask me questions about God and about faith, I try answer them the best I can, but I almost always ask them, “What do you think?” so that they know they can have their own thoughts about these things.

And, even if I tried, I don’t think I could avoid teaching them about the things that are important to me. But, along with teaching them what matters to me, I can also encourage them to learn about the beliefs of others, about loving others regardless of their religious beliefs, and about being respectful, empathetic, and caring people.


[1] From Playing and Reality by D. W. Winnicott, Tavistock Publication, 1971.

[2] “Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life,” by Philippe Rochat, 1973.

[3] Merriam-Webster definition of “indoctrinate”


12 thoughts on “Is Teaching Kids about Faith Indoctrination?

  1. It seems to me that, given Webster’s definition of “indoctrinate,” and given our Reformed understanding of doctrine–which may reject certain beliefs, a la Dort, but calls on us to always listen to them–Reformed indoctrination is just about impossible.

    That being said, yes, we do teach our children about what we believe, all the time, either in good, healthy, intentional ways, as you and your husband seek to do, or in unhealthy, destructive, usually unintentional ways. I am glad you have chosen the former, and I think Kathleen and I did so, and I also think our grown child would tell you that your children will thank you for this some day.

  2. Is teaching kids about faith indoctrination? Yes, absolutely. Is this a bad thing? That depends and the doctrine.

    On the one hand we could view the word ‘indoctrination’ as having a negative connotation, but kids, and adults, are going to bombarded with doctrines, faith and otherwise, and as a parent it is my responsibility to teach my kids what I think will be best for them. Now I could teach them in a way such as “This is right and everything else is wrong” however I think it is preferable to teach them “This is right and this is why that is wrong.” The sentiment I find behind the “Coexist” bumper sticker, that we can all get along, is fine. The idea that some people find in it, that “all paths to God are the same,” is wrong. Explaining the difference is a matter of doctrine.

    Our caboose is 8 and we have stopped reading with her from children’s Bibles and now read from the same Bible my wife and I read from. And each night as we read a passage with her we give some sort of explanation/interpretation, something which could easily and rightly be called doctrine. And that really isn’t any different from the basic task of each Sunday morning with my congregation, in taking a biblical text and doing my best to explain and apply it in a way that points to Christ Jesus as Savior and Lord.

    1. Thanks for this, Brad! I really appreciate it! The negative connotation of “indoctrination” is even in the dictionary as part of its primary definition, but you’re onto something important. We teach our kids all the time, and it is important that we are mindful of it.

      I’m not advocating for an “anything goes” spirituality, but I also don’t want my kids to think my love for them is dependent on their faith. There are things that I believe are true, and I communicate them to my kids. I also think it is important that they know that there are people who do not believe those things are true.

      You are a great dad, and an amazing pastor 🙂

  3. Thanks April! Probably one of the bravest posts on TRB in a very long time, since Peter’s posts on atonement or Adriene’s post about the ways in which our biblical text and traditional interpretation support contempt for women and girls.

    I don’t teach our kids that our way is right and everybody else is wrong. Neither do I teach them all beliefs are the same, or equal. I start with I don’t know. ALWAYS! I don’t know. No one does. Then I tell them why I believe what I have come to believe. I hope I do everything else you covered about dignity and respect and filling them in on what other folks believe as well. Of course I don’t trust myself to completely and accurately convey what folks of differing worldviews believe and practice so I am glad either at school or through our friends and their children they are exposed to a wide variety: Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pagans, Secular Humanists, even *drum roll please* conservative evangelicals 🙂

    1. I love that you encourage conversation, and also that you recognize that you can’t always accurately represent someone else’s beliefs. These are all critical, IMO.

      When I was in high school, my family moved to Utah. The particular community we moved to was 85% Latter Day Saints, and for the first time in my life I had a close up view of someone else’s religious practices. And what I observed was far different from anything I had ever read about in books. Keeping our eyes open is important, and also keeping the conversation going.

      Thanks, Wayne!

  4. I was so glad to read this today because I was just thinking pretty much exactly the same thing while driving into the church parking lot yesterday morning with my brood of 4. I’m a life-long Christian who currently happens to work in a context where it’s very “uncool” to be a Christian and where the idea of religion generally is very much frowned upon. I understand the reaction, given a lot of the hatred and rigidity non-believers observe from Christians, but I’ve always thought it was illogical for people to believe that parents shouldn’t teach their kids about their religious beliefs. Whether you belong to a formal religious tradition or not, everyone has a worldview and deeply-held values. It’s pretty near impossible to raise your kids without imparting at least some of those values (and, I would say, it’s strange and sad to try not to.) I love the distinction you make between teaching kids about our values and teaching them never to question those values or that other people’s differing values are categorically wrong and bad. It’s normal and natural for young children to accept the beliefs of their parents and church community more or less at face value early in their spiritual development, but part of our role as parents and brothers and sisters in Christ is to help young people learn to reflect upon their beliefs in faithful, honest, thoughtful ways, trusting the Holy Spirit to guide them as they make their faith their own over the course of their life.

  5. “I would also argue that attempting to avoid teaching children about religion still teaches them about a parents’ beliefs, even if that belief is that religion does not exist.”

    Old post, I know, but I wish more people would talk about this. I grew up in a non-religious household, but saying that doesn’t quite capture the animosity toward pretty much any form of religious expression I encountered from my father; he made it abundantly clear that anyone who harbored religious feelings of any kind was pathetic, immature, and deluded. My relationship with my dad was troubled for a lot of reasons, but I really feel that his attitudes toward spirituality harmed me, and have played a significant role in my ongoing problems with anxiety and depression; I always wanted some kind of spiritual life and have recently begun attending church, but I find it very difficult to allow myself to explore religion in an open way.

  6. Children should be taught right from wrong. But teaching them YOUR BELIEFS inhibits them. It teaches closed mindedness. Its a fact, whatever religion you born into is what your going to be BECAUSE ITS TAUGHT TO YOU. Where your born also shapes your way your beliefs are.
    So using that sort of criteria , in a christian argument, I’ve heard way too many times to even calculate,, all people who dont believe in a christian god will suffer eternal damnation in hell. So with that delusional logic, people on a remote island, say who may never been in contact with civilization will go to hell? A child does not have the mental acuity think”hey, are they telling me the truth”? Your their parent, of course there gonna believe what you tell them (santa, the easter bunny etc). I taught my son from a very young age to question everything and study different things, and come up with your own conclusions. That’s the way a loving parent should go about it. They dont need the bible for morals. Moral teachings were around way before the bible was ever made. Its brainwashing and mental child abuse plain and simple. You teach them to fear death and painful consequences for your actions

    1. I agree with you that children should be taught how to question and encouraged to be inquisitive. I disagree that a Christian parent who teaches children about the Christian faith are inherently brainwashing their kids and limiting their options. I always tell my kids “This is what I believe, but you are free to believe that or not.” I do not punish them for disagreeing with me, nor do I make them feel as though I would love them any less should they choose differently than I do.

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