An extended family member once criticized my kids watching Veggie Tales videos. His barbed words had nothing to do with the quality of animation or storytelling, the cheesy jokes or subjects parodied. His complaint was solely of religion. "It's pure indoctrination," he said, "I would never subject my kids to that." I have heard this many times before as objections to Christianity and organized religion in general. Parents don't want their kids involved with church for fear their kids will be brainwashed.
Growing up in a religious home that attended church multiple times a week in an area that was predominantly non-churched, I heard all sorts of reasons why people don't believe in God in any form. Due to my background, it was easy to get trapped in the bubble maintaining a circle of friends who shared my structure of belief. However, as I aged, that isolation became more and more impractical. Life experiences altered my points of view. Study of Biblical translation, ancient history, and repeated scriptural reading changed my perspectives. Opinions and beliefs diverged and matured.
I was once taught that every objection to Christianity had a perfect rebuttal; now I have come to understand even rebuttals have rebuttals. I have learned through trial and error (and mostly error) that arguing over religion doesn't change hearts or minds. Today, when I hear someone explain why they reject religion, I get it. They have a point. I might not agree with them, but I understand where they're coming from.
The only objection I cannot fathom is the charge of indoctrination. "I don't want to brainwash my kids into my belief structure." This idea is ridiculous. Here is why.
1. You all ready are indoctrinating your kids. Kids learn from their parents. How you raise your kids is (without intentional effort to do otherwise) a matter of behavior learned from your parents. When your kids grow up and have their own kids, their parenting strategy will be modeled after what they learned from you. This is why kids from dysfunctional families so frequently repeat cycles of abuse, addiction, and alcoholism.
Kids also pick up the beliefs and attitudes of their parents. No one is born a racist; it is an attitude they inherit from their parents' behavior. No one is born a Republican or a Democrat, children tend to mirror their parents political beliefs during their formative years. Parents will share their values in education, science, art, and business. Kids will also adopt their parent's religious persuasion - even the absence of formal religious practice. Everyone believes in something whether it is a god, gods, or no god.
2. Outside of religion and core beliefs or values, you are still indoctrinating your kids. Sport fans raise sport fans. Geeky parents raise geeky kids. Bookworms raise readers. Health nuts raise kids who think sugary foods taste weird. There are exceptions to this rule; major life-changing events affect how children react to parental interests. Divorce, illness, injury, blended families, job loss, or relocation all impact child development. And kids everywhere develop interests independent of their parents (I am one of them). Regardless of exceptions, parents will inevitably introduce their kids to their vocation, their hobbies, and their fandoms.
What self-respecting Red Sox fan would let their kids cheer for the Yankees? What mechanic doesn't teach their kids how to change the oil or a flat tire? It happens. We can't help it. My oldest son's second favorite band is Coldplay because they are one of my favorite bands. My youngest son's favorite part of summer was going hiking because I enjoy hiking. My daughter always wants to help me cook dinner because cooking is something that brings me joy. All three of my kids read comic books because I love comic books. I am indoctrinating my kids to appreciate music, the outdoors, good food, and superheroes. If you are a parent, your experience is probably similar.
3. Fear of indoctrination assumes the worst of your kids. It presumes they lack intelligence. It discounts their ability to make their own choices or develop their own beliefs. It ignores that other factors like teachers, friends, and media can have impacting influence over your kids. It concludes that your children's highest aspiration is to obey your every command. Anyone who has raised or is raising children knows these conclusions are false. Kids are smart - often smarter than we realize or anticipate.
My kids have all developed interests outside my areas of expertise. Christian loves Minecraft and wants to play at any available opportunity. Zu is my princess who wants jewelry, makeup, and every pair of shoe at the shoe store. JJ loves cars, trucks, motorcycles, and ... well, anything with an engine. They are all wicked smart. They want to trust people, yet they can often tell when someone lies to them. They observe far more than what they are told. And they are not afraid to share their opinion. Just like kids all over the world.
4. Avoiding anything resembling indoctrination ignores the possibility (inevitability?) of rebellion. Children change from finding sameness with their parents to embracing their own identity; it is an essential part of child development. Figuring out how to be autonomous is something every kid needs to do. That frequently means kids will question the beliefs and values of their parents, often to the point of rejection. And that's OK. Teenage rebellion is so common that it has become a trope in literature, TV, and movies.
Statistically speaking, a vast majority of kids raised in evangelical settings leave the church when they graduate high school. If Christian parents are indoctrinating their children, we're not doing a very good job of it. Even when kids (like me) do not leave the church when we become an adult, that doesn’t mean we have been brainwashed, it doesn't mean we conformed to our parent's beliefs. My father and I share the same religion, but we go to churches that are different in style and structure. We agree on essential tenets but differ in things that are not essential. We both mark the Christian box in demographic surveys but our faiths look very different.
5. When you actively avoid indoctrinating your kids, you also remove the opportunity to use your life as a lesson. I want my kids to learn from me. I want to lead by example and teach them good habits: how to be kind to others, how to take responsibility for their actions, and chase after their dreams as if no one can stop them. But I know that I am not a perfect man. I stumble and screw things up. I want them to learn from me when I fail, to learn how to apologize. And I hope they learn enough so that they don't repeat my mistakes.
If kids don't learn life’s lessons from you, they will learn it somewhere else - most likely somewhere less reputable. Your kids need your example. They need your good. They need your ugly. More than your religion, your politics, or your favorite ball team - they need you.