meaningful mondays: are we brainwashing our kids?

[Originally printed in The Forum newspaper Saturday, April 13; reprinted with permission.]

Living Faith:

Sharing values isn’t the same as indoctrination 

By Roxane B. Salonen, The Forum 

For parents with beliefs (which I assume is every single one of them), there comes a point when someone you don’t know may accuse you of “indoctrinating” your children with those beliefs.

I once had a long discussion with an atheist who maintained parents who impart their worldview onto their children are, in essence, brainwashing them.

She said reason and belief in God are mutually exclusive, and children brought up in homes that embrace faith aren’t allowed to think for themselves.

I can’t help but chuckle a bit at her contention versus my reality. If only my kids would believe and listen to everything I tell them, we’d have a much more peaceful existence.

Instead, we grapple it out, small and big things alike, and often get into long conversations about the workings of the world, including the terribly important moral questions.

Our kids have plenty of opportunities to share their views, and we return with our takes and how we came to that vantage point.

We’ve had some wonderfully vibrant discussions through the years, and I hope that will continue, though I know we won’t agree on everything all the time. Our children are not extensions of us but individuals with their own minds and wills.

Nevertheless, it would be irresponsible for us not to offer the best of the wisdom we’ve gained with the youngest members of our family.

As for the ill-fitting word “brainwashing,” that implies such things as “coercive persuasion,” “mind abuse,” and “thought control,” rather than the kind of meaningful discussions we’ve had play out in everyday life.

As parents in today’s society, we don’t have to go far from our homes – in fact, we don’t have to leave them at all if we but look at a television, computer screen or magazines – to find brainwashing at its best. Messages meant to persuade and control the mind bombard us daily.

In this context, what we do as parents to help hand down our family’s beliefs seems more along the lines of damage control than heavy-handed indoctrination.

Most of our children will stay in our homes around 18 years. After that, they enter into and navigate the world largely without our influence. We have but a thin opening in which to impart values that can help them find their way.

As parents, we are our kids’ first and primary teachers. From their youngest years they look to us to discern the world, and it’s been shown that even rebellious teens secretly watch us for cues on how to move about life.

There’s nothing coercive about this. In fact, I’d say we should be even more intentional about it than we sometimes are.

Without even trying, parents naturally “indoctrinate” their children to view life a certain way. It’s part of the gig and of being in a family. None of us are perfect at it, but if we’ve done our best to develop healthy, sound ways of living, our children will be better for it.

Sharing our values with our children isn’t something we should suppress but something to celebrate.

Roxane B. Salonen is a freelance writer who lives in Fargo with her husband and five children. If you have a story of faith to share with her, email