Indoctrination: A word about age

In my previous two posts on indoctrination, I allowed some sloppiness when it came to the age of the target. I’d like to clear that up here.

As a helpful commenter pointed out, we all impose on our children some of the methods of indoctrination I outlined in my original post on the topic, and we don’t generally consider this to be a negative thing. Indeed, regardless of social, cultural, and family history, children below a certain age are not capable of thinking critically and rationally in the same way well-educated adults are. To some extent, then, we have to use the tools of indoctrination to raise our children. We have to rely, to some extent, on our position of authority as parents or teachers, and our children must occasionally just take our word for it that we’re being fair and balanced.

My view of this is that it’s a necessary evil – in an ideal world, such methods should never be necessary, but we don’t live in such a world.

Yet this is also why indoctrination can be so pernicious when targeted at the young: it works better on naive, unsuspecting youngsters, than it does on adults.  Hence the Jesuit saying, “Give me a child for the first seven years, and you may do what you like with him afterwards.”

The difference between a parent (or teacher) intent on indoctrination, and one intent on raising an independent thinker, is that the latter will look for every opportunity to encourage the child to think for himself. In this way, the child will be weaned from his dependency on authority as soon as possible.

There is another big difference. The parent intent on raising an independent thinker will generally not use emotional ploys to encourage obedience. As a parent of a young child myself, I’ve discovered that an effective way of convincing my child to do something is by explaining to him exactly why it needs to be done, and what the consequences are of him not doing it. However, I could just as easily run a guilt trip on the child: tell him how disappointed and sad I’ll be if he fails to comply, or how happy I’ll be if he does comply. Suffice it to say, I find this latter approach to be both manipulative and unnecessary.

It seems to me that indoctrination, in the pejorative sense that I’ve been using in these posts, takes advantage of these sorts of emotional tools – tools that fail to explain the reasoning behind claims but instead encourage fealty by manipulating the emotions. Critical thinking cannot blossom under such conditions. (Religions, in particular, are quite good at this: God will be upset if you don’t do X. You’ll make God sad if you do Y. It makes God really happy when you do Z.)

Once again, this can be applied to children or adults, but it tends to be more effective with children given their greater desire to please role models.

So, with the above discussion in mind, here are some modified criteria for indoctrination.

Once again, I’m not claiming that all criteria have to be met simultaneously. I’d also like to say a quick word about number 2: I’ve rephrased it to reflect the concept of consistent praise. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to teach a particular doctrine over a long period of time, but one should also be willing to share any weaknesses and flaws that the doctrine may have. Careful avoidance of such weaknesses is not conducive to critical thinking.

  1. Start when the target of indoctrination is a child, if possible.
  2. Consistently praise only the desired doctrine over a long period of time, preferably years.
  3. Demonize or mischaracterize alternative views and/or insulate the target from them.
  4. Teach the target that he is not capable of making decisions about beliefs for himself (i.e., that obedience to authority is paramount).
  5. Lead the target to believe that he owes it to you (or someone else) to uphold your worldview. Make him believe he has a debt to pay. In short, use guilt and other emotional ploys.
  6. Discourage doubt by characterizing it as a weakness.
  7. Immerse the target in a social environment composed only of people with the same beliefs.


9 Responses to Indoctrination: A word about age

  1. L.Long says:

    The really hard part of indoctrination is doing it while still trying to instill some critical thinking. For my G’Kids (2 & 4yrs) I tell them that spiders are good because they eat other bugs BUT they bite and can harm you so stay away from them. and I keep up the indoctrination on this and other things and when they ask the right question (what does a bad spider look like) I will then take them on the trail of thinking and examination.
    Indoctrination is a short cut to learning especially something harmful until they are old enough to handle the thinking.
    The main difference between me and the religious is they never stop and instill the thinking. And anyone who thinks they do teach thinking then go into religious classes and ask the hard questions and see how long they are welcomed.

  2. I’m not sure how anyone can claim religion is any more indoctrinating than anything else, like atheism for example, because it’s clear to everyone immediately that there is free will involved and choice. Doctrine is presented, claims are made, faith is encouraged and explained, and eventually down the road a choice is requested and desired.

    The necessity of making this choice forces critical thinking, research, and looking into other beliefs over time. I don’t believe any parent could condemn their own child for choosing not to believe, nor would the parent not love their child. The parent might exhibit disappointment, but Christians believe very strongly that the ability to freely choose is imperative, no matter what the person’s choice is.

    We are also aware that our children will be exposed to countless other faiths and beliefs in this world. Who is attempting to keep them from this? I know I am not as a mother. My child is not sequestered or kept from knowledge… it’s quite the opposite.

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    Threats of going to hell for not believing, is to me child abuse. Threats of no TV if homework is done, is not child abuse.
    See, I don’t have to use “indoctrination” here. I feel that pointing out the specifics is important.

    So, in your definition, how many criteria have to be met to qualify as “indoctrination”? Though I must say, I still think you are beating this word to death unproductively.

  4. Keith says:


    The point about indoctrination is that the parent can assure that her child will make the “right” decision when the time comes, precisely *because* the child has been indoctrinated into the tradition.

    I’ve lived in the Christian world and I’ve seen the stage kids get to when they’re required to make a real decision to commit to God. And I have to say, this “decision” is an utter farce. The kids are generally so inculcated into Christianity by then that for them to suddenly up and quit is almost unthinkable. 99% of these kids just go right ahead and make their “commitment” without really thinking much about it. It’s what they’ve been brought up to do.

    Furthermore, most Christian kids never actually consider alternative belief systems seriously. They’ve been taught all their lives that theirs is the one true religion, so why would they consider anything else? The only reason I eventually started looking at different beliefs seriously is because I was already very far down the road of doubt.

  5. Keith says:


    I think you’re getting unnecessarily hung up on my word choice. I’m trying to define the phenomenon of interest, and that should be more important than the particular word I use to name it.

  6. Sabio Lantz says:

    Hey Keith,
    I think what you are trying to address is important.
    But I am trying to identify exactly what that is.

    For instance, I could sit around with my kids and discuss the Bible, explain how all the apologists explain away the many problems I have with Christian dogma and Christian explanations. But I don’t do that. First, because my kids could care less. Second, I don’t want to. Third, my kids have never been given a hint that studying the Bible is really important for them.

    But likewise, I have neglected the Bhagavad Gita, Greek Myths, Shinto’s Huge scripture, Buddhist Scripture, the Qu’ran and more. So, they are suppose to make a choice at 14 or 18 years old, I know they’d chose to be just like me and their Mom — Atheists. I have indoctrinated them.

    I have introduced the kids to other belief systems, but they do not consider them seriously. They only consider seriously the Naturalist approach. Again, my indoctrination.

    However, I always tell them that they can marry a Hindu, convert to Islam or Christianity or whatever they want. I always tell them that they are too young to even consider themselves Atheists and that they can worry about labels later when they are older. This probably differs from the average Christian education.

    Sooooo, it is not “indoctrination” that seems to be the problem unless you strictly define it. Your definition is too broad and captures both Atheists and Christians.

    So, instead, you and Warrioress should make a list of things you feel Children should not be taught, or methods you think should not be used. Jumping to label them as indoctrination is a rhetorical move and not taking us closer to understanding.

    As I said before, I think it is Child Abuse to teach a child they will be separated from their parents and burn in hell if they don’t believe like their parent. It is that indoctrination that I detest and think is horrible. Indoctrinating a child to love their neighbor as themselves is great indoctrination.

    What method or teaching do you not want for children? [maybe focusing on children is better after all]

    So the phenomena of inter

  7. Keith says:


    The list of things I feel children should not be taught is essentially the list of criteria that I use to define “coercive indoctrination”, a term I’ll start using henceforth. Of course, the list does not contain specific pieces of information that should not be taught, but pedagogical methodologies that should not be used.

    While you may not have educated your children about other religious beliefs (perhaps you should even consider doing so a little more?), you have done things that exclude your approach from the definition of indoctrination as set out by my criteria: you’ve told your children that they’re welcome to marry people of other faiths, to convert to other faiths, and to wait until they’re ready to make serious decisions about their faith. These items are not compatible with the criteria on my list.

    Also note that my criteria do not include the simple act of educating your children in one worldview, and not others, as you have done (and as I am doing). Instead, the criteria specify that consistent, active praise must be given to one worldview, while other worldviews are condemned. This latter you have not done, and your behavior therefore does not constitute coercive indoctrination as I’ve defined it.

  8. Sabio Lantz says:

    Maybe you ought to put your definition of “coercive indoctrination” in a colored box on this post. Jumping between posts where the whole thing is arguing a definition is difficult.

    BTW, I read my kids Hindu stories and Bible stories and other stuff. I have taken them to churches and Hindu temples. But they could care less about theology. We have talked about heaven, reincarnation, nothingness and more. So but I don’t teach them the difference between Sufis, Sunni and Shiites; between Vaishnavites and Shivaites; between Catholics and Protestants; between Jews and Muslims; between New Agers and Wicca folks; and on and on.

    I agree that:

    (1) letting children know you’ll love them if they marry out of your belief, is important

    (2) they can decide as adults what they are, is important. But I don’t stop them from calling themselves Atheists — they ignore me when I tell them they can decide later. 🙂

    And BTW, I do condemn other worldviews, don’t you? And my kids hear me say it.

    For all those above, there are many Christians who do exactly as I do and many who don’t. Lots of different Christians out there.

    For fun, maybe you could make a new post on your own definition of “Coercise Indoctrination” where you try to use the syndrome method of defining.

    See my post here:

    Then be sure not to overgeneralize about ALL Christians. It may be helpful.

    I think, under your criteria, I may coercively indoctrinate to some degree. But without a clear definition, I can’t be sure.

    THEN, you have to get the Warrioress to agree with the definition.

    Or, you could just discuss your particular objections — my original point.

    Thanx for your patience.

  9. I don’t have a lot to add, but I’ve read through this whole series on indoctrination and found it really good. I was doing some thinking and writing on the subject of religious indoctrination a while back and I had a lot of the same thoughts. Great read .

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