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. 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. 
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. 
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.
 From Playing and Reality by D. W. Winnicott, Tavistock Publication, 1971.
 “Five levels of self-awareness as they unfold early in life,” by Philippe Rochat, 1973.