If you have atheist friends or relatives, you may well have been introduced to ‘The Story of Suzie’. It’s a video produced by The Thinking Atheist with the basic message that Christian children worldwide have been indoctrinated into believing ludicrous things that leave them shielded and unconcerned about any of the real social challenges the world faces.
Even without the video, many Christian parents have a lurking fear that by telling our children about Jesus they’re guilty of indoctrination. Indoctrination is defined as teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically. The word evokes images of cult groups and sects who manipulate members into believing all manner of lies. Family devotions, Sunday school, youth group and school scripture (SRE) may not seem as dramatic as a doomsday cult, but is it any less indoctrination? I have heard it suggested that it is unavoidably manipulative to offer any sort of religious instruction to a child under the age of 18.
The first thing to remember is that all parents teach or instruct their children.
I presume that most of those who will read this article have taught their children to clean their teeth. Let’s think for a moment why we do that. Perhaps you’ve had to answer the question, ‘Dad, why do I have to brush my teeth?’ Maybe your answer was, ‘because you’ll get bad breath’, or ‘because your teeth will fall out, then you won’t be able to eat solid food’. You might have shared recent research that links tooth decay to heart disease and told your children that brushing your teeth will help them live longer.
But the question still needs to be asked, ‘Why do any of those things matter?’ Aren’t they just your values? You have chosen to value fresh breath, eating solids and living a long life. It’s reasonable to ask why you have decided to force your values on your children!?
Some could argue that these are universal values that come from human nature: who wouldn’t want fresh breath, the ability to eat solid food and live for a long time? If that was true, then surely everyone would do it. But that’s just not the case.
Some relatives of mine decided that they would allow their daughter to choose whatever food she wanted to eat. So when they went to the supermarket, they gave her money to buy whatever she wanted. The theory was that, even though she chose lollies, she would grow tired of them before too long and start choosing fruit and vegetables of her own accord. Well the experiment lasted a month or so before they began getting worried about her health! There are only so many lollies any human being can tolerate.
To take a more significant issue, what about teaching children to respect people with disabilities? Again, I presume (and hope) that those reading this will have taught their children to be respectful towards the disabled. Surely that is a self-evident, universally-held human value? It wasn't the case in 1941. In what has been called ‘the silent holocaust’, the Nazis killed or forcefully sterilised 10,000 men, women and children – the blind, deaf, physically disabled or mentally handicapped, epileptics, orphans and juvenile delinquents. An advertisement in ‘New People’ (the monthly magazine of the Office of Race Politics of the National Socialist Party) told the German people that caring for a person suffering from hereditary defects cost 60,000 marks during his or her lifetime. The advertisement reminded readers, ‘Fellow Citizen, this is your money too’! In 1940's Socialist Germany, respect for people with disabilities was not a universally held value.
The three points I’m trying to establish are these: All of our behaviours express our values or beliefs; all the behaviours we teach our children are based on beliefs and values we hold as parents (whether it’s cleaning your teeth or respecting people with a disability); and all parents teach and expect behaviours from our children before they are capable of deciding whether or not they agree with our values.
What that means is that almost every parent indoctrinates their children. When our children are of a certain age we teach them to accept certain beliefs before they’re capable of determining those values for themselves. To fail to do so is neglect.
The Department of Community Services (DoCS) currently defines child neglect as ‘the continued failure by a parent or caregiver to provide a child with the basic things needed for his or her proper growth and development, such as food, clothing, shelter, medical and dental care and adequate supervision’. Current guidelines for DoCS caseworkers describe neglect under physical, medical, supervisory, emotional and educational categories. That is, to fail to teach children the basic things needed for growth and development like dental hygiene is neglect.
The spectre of indoctrination is a ploy to leave parents uncertain and fearful of their proper responsibility. The issue isn’t whether we indoctrinate our children or not, it’s what we indoctrinate our children in. The literal meaning of the word ‘indoctrinate’ is simply, ‘to teach or instruct someone’. All parents teach their children what they believe to be important. And all parents do not teach their children what they don’t believe to be important.
When our own children were growing up we introduced them to their grandparents. We encouraged them to know their names (Grandma and Grandad) and to talk to them when they saw them. We did this because we think family relationships are valuable and should be fostered. We didn’t teach our children to know the names of the latest Hollywood movie stars. We didn’t teach them this because we don’t think knowledge of the latest movie stars is important or should be fostered.
We also introduced our children to God, our heavenly Father; Jesus; and the Holy Spirit. We taught them to know God’s name and to speak to him every day. We did this because we believe a relationship with God is important and should be fostered. Friends of ours, who are atheists, did not teach their children the names of God because they believe a relationship with God is about as important as we think a relationship with a movie star is.
We teach our children by what we tell them and by what we don’t tell them. Whether a Christian or an atheist, we all teach and indoctrinate our children. To suggest that we shouldn’t teach children about spiritual things before they turn 18 is to teach them that spiritual things are unimportant – which, in itself, is a particular belief and therefore to teach as such would be indoctrination!
We all need to teach our children. The imperative for parents is to teach the truth. The question comes therefore – where will we find the truth?
My atheist friends believe that truth is what they think to be reasonable. I believe that truth is revealed to us by God whom I meet in Jesus. I trust Jesus because he has been demonstrated to be the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead (as Paul says in Romans 1:4). I know my atheist friends disagree – but I challenge them to give me a persuasive reason why their thinking about life ought to be the final measure of truth.
Returning therefore to The Story of Suzie, the problem is that she seems to have been taught so badly! Suzie ought to have been taught that God works through secondary causes. She ought to have been taught the details of what God promises in the Bible (and what he doesn’t promise). She ought to have been taught about how God speaks to us; that it’s okay to ask questions or express anger or confusion to God; that the way God works out his plan is ultimately a mystery to us; and that God’s restoration to all things will come at Jesus’ return and not before.
The challenge is that we need to teach all these truths according to their ability to comprehend. I may not be able to teach my six-year-old son about secondary causality but, I can pray in a way that thanks God for the way he helps people be kind to others; that thanks God that doctors were able to make the Panadol that will help him feel better; and that he’ll be able to get a good rest and get well. The key is that we don’t want to teach now what you’re going to need to un-teach later.
When your children are old enough to understand, you can teach them critical thinking. My oldest daughter is 11 and she’s ready to start asking questions of God. It’s important that she realises that there’s nothing unchristian about asking questions. I need to point out Psalm 10:1: ‘Why, LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?’ and introduce her to the Berean Jews in Acts 17:11 who ‘received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true’.
Our responsibility as parents is to teach our children everything they need to grow and prosper as a human being. As a Christian, I am convinced that knowing the grace of God in the face of Christ is essential for human ‘prosperity’ both now and in the eternal future. When children are too young to reason for themselves – whether it’s about the value of dental hygiene or the historical reliability of the Scriptures – we are obliged to teach them according to what is true. If others want to label that as ‘indoctrination’ then, so be it. As our children grow and develop, we are obliged to teach them how to reason and think – to love God with all their mind. As they do that we pray that, just as God has revealed himself to us, so too he will reveal himself to them and, in time, Psalm 78:4–6 will come true: ‘that the children yet to be born will in turn tell their children of the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, his power and the wonders he has done’.
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