Indoctrination, whether it be religious or nonreligious, requires that parents send a clear and convincing message that there is only one way to think about God and, in doing so, imply that other ways are wrong, silly, short-sighted or dangerous. There is a pretty major difference between revealing our beliefs to our children and insisting our children — and the world around us — believe the same things we do.
Severe indoctrination leads to the opposite of critical thinking — that is, reflective thinking aimed at deciding what to believe. Part of what makes severe indoctrination so scary is the fact that it can hinder a child's abilities to draw her own conclusions about the world, independent from her parents. And that's a skill that relates directly to a child's level of self-esteem, self-confidence and self-worth — the very attributes that will enable her to resist peer pressure in adolescence and beyond.
Indoctrination, whether intentional or accidental, can and often does drive a wedge between parent and child. Parenting coach Linda Hatfield once told me that our voices become the voices our children hear for the rest of their lives. If we say "You can do it," for instance, that becomes a mantra that plays in their heads even when we can't be there to say it ourselves.
So when a parent disparages the intelligence of a person who believes in an all-knowing, all-seeing God, that parent is giving his children information that may very well echo in their ears for years. If ever a child, say, chooses to experiment with religion or falls in love with a person of faith, such words would most definitely be remembered — and, very likely, resented. In short: The more we push our rigid opinions onto our kids now, the more we risk having our children withdraw from us later.
Here are four more reasons to avoid inculcating our children with nonreligious or anti-religious beliefs:
1. Indoctrination often fails. More than a quarter of American adults — 28 percent — have left the faith in which they were raised, according to Pew Forum's 2008 Landscape Survey. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, that number spikes to 44 percent. Think how you would feel if your kids failed to believe something you have given them no choice but to believe? Talk about an ego-killer. And it's no fun for the kids either, by the way, who probably want nothing more than to make you proud.
2. Your passion could backfire. Children who feel unconnected from their parents (and that's many of them during the teen years) may use religion (or anything else that seems important to their parents) as a point of rebellion during adolescence — a way to assert their authority and establish independence. If religion is a sore point for you, that's all the more reason not to indoctrinate.
3. Your kid might have a natural affinity for some type of spirituality. Or he may come to need it at some point in his life. One respondent to my 2012 survey told me he has a friend who "traded in his alcoholism for God." Despite the respondent's non-belief, he commented: "It was a good trade." Religion might someday have the power to make your kids feel good or even safe. To take that away could be detrimental — not to the child's eternal soul, of course — but to his happiness. And there aren't a lot of things more important than that.
4. Indoctrination breeds intolerance. The natural byproduct of religious freedom is a good, healthy dose of religious tolerance. It's extremely difficult to teach compassion and tolerance to others when you're sending a message that your way is the only right way. True tolerance starts at home. If you're going to tell your child it's okay for others to believe differently than she does; then be okay with your child believing differently than you do. Otherwise, you're kind of a hypocrite. And by "kind of," I mean totally.
And now, on a lighter note, here are some more Toothpaste for Dinner comics: