Habituating children to a worldview

This is my last post, at least for a while, on indoctrination. Commenter Sabio has challenged me to think more deeply about what indoctrination means, for which I am greatly thankful (please see our exchange in the comments of my first post on indoctrination).

As a result of my rethink, I’m focusing my efforts on children, and on a particular type of indoctrination. Indeed, I’d like to begin by getting rid of the word “indoctrination” altogether. Instead, I’m going to use the word “habituation” which, in the context of raising children, I define as follows:

Habituation is the teaching of a belief in such a way that it will be incorporated unquestioningly into the child’s worldview.

When habituation is in the best interests of the child

There are some practices we all need to employ in order to thrive in modern social settings. In particular, we need to

1. Uphold certain basic moral principles (for example, murder, theft, and rape are wrong).

2. Have a reasonable grasp of social etiquette.

The beliefs we hold in addition to these fundamental practices are less critical to our well-being. These include religious and political beliefs. Any of a diverse range of often conflicting religious and political beliefs can be held by thriving members of society. Conversely, the range of etiquettes and basic moral outlooks that permit a person to thrive in a particular society are much narrower.

We can therefore conclude that there is much greater danger to the well-being of those individuals who modify or abandon their basic moral beliefs and social etiquette than there is to those individuals who modify or abandon their political or religious beliefs.

This is not, of course, the case everywhere in the world. In the west, it is possible for someone to modify her stance on certain rules of social etiquette without any serious repercussions, while in parts of the Arab world, someone who changes her religious beliefs may do so at great personal peril.

In the discussion that follows, then, I will direct my attention to the west, where a person’s well-being is put in much greater danger by a modification or rejection of basic moral principles (especially those upheld by her legal system) than by a modification or rejection of religious or political beliefs. Social etiquette probably lies between these extremes.

Let us now consider a parent faced with raising a child in western society. One of the primary duties of the parent is to ensure that her child grows up reasonably happy and well adjusted. Given the above discussion, this requires, at minimum, that the child have a solid appreciation of basic morality, and to be reasonably well skilled in social etiquette. No child will be happy for long if he believes that murder is a good thing or that defecating on the sidewalk is socially acceptable.

It also follows that it is much less important for a child to grow up holding any particular religious or political worldview.

The point of this part of the post, then, is that there are certain beliefs which a parent is justified in habituating her children to. Put differently, there are certain beliefs which, if abandoned by the child at any stage of his young or adult life, would put him in real physical or psychological danger. As argued above, these critical beliefs are restricted to basic morality and, to a somewhat lesser extent, aspects of social etiquette.

Now, I believe I’m being quite lenient toward the concept of habituation here. It should not strictly be necessary to prevent a child from questioning a belief if suitable answers to those questions are available. In other words, there is no harm in allowing a child to question basic moral principles or habits of social etiquette provided convincing answers in favor of those beliefs are at hand. What this really boils down to is whether the parent (1) has a good grasp of the arguments in favor of these beliefs and (2) trusts her child to respond to those arguments. It seems to me that any good parent should meet the first requirement. The second requirement depends more on the age and personality of the child.

But let us proceed under the assumption that habituation is acceptable when it comes to basic moral beliefs and social etiquette, the two areas which pose the greatest risk to the child who chooses to modify or reject them.

When habituation is in the best interests of the parent

If I am correct in claiming that a diverse range of religious and political worldviews can be held by individuals in western society with relatively little chance of negative repercussions to their well-being, then it follows that habituating a child to any particular religious or political worldview is mostly unnecessary.

Indeed, it may be argued that the freedom to determine one’s own religious and political views is something that contributes positively to a person’s well-being, implying that the use of this freedom ought to be encouraged in any child who is capable of it.

This points to an important skill that the parent interested in her child’s well-being should teach. If a child is to become independent, and therefore make his own decisions about religion, politics, and other aspects of life, he must have the appropriate critical thinking skills.

I would even go so far as to say that a person will remain a child as long as he lacks critical thinking skills, no matter his biological age. The life of a child is the life of someone under the thrall of authority, whose decisions are made, or at least strongly limited, by someone else. This is why life under dictatorship can be so demoralizing: adult citizens are treated by their government as children. The theme of parent and child has occurred in several authoritarian situations in history. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il comes to mind, as does the parent-child language in various religious traditions.

Now I must emphasize that critical thinking skills are not necessary for a basic level of well-being, at least not to the extent that basic moral behavior is. Children can be very happy without critical thinking skills.

The point I’m making here is that it is not usually in the best interests of the child to habituate him to any particular religious or political worldview (given that he has already been habituated to basic moral behavior and social etiquette). Instead, it is in the child’s best interests to train him to make religious and political decisions for himself.

Thus, for example, a parent might be justified in habituating her child to the idea that stealing is wrong, and that we must be polite to other people, but she is not justified in habituating her child to the idea that Jesus is the son of God and died for our sins.

How, then, should parents proceed?

In the light of the above discussion, is it wrong for parents to favor one religious or political worldview over another when raising their children? I don’t think so. What’s more important is how exactly parents go about it. It is only wrong, I believe, for parents to habituate their children to one particular religious or political viewpoint. To instill that viewpoint in such a way that the child is almost certain to incorporate it into his worldview without question.

At this point, I return to the list of criteria for indoctrination that I gave in my first post on the subject. I’d like to tailor this list to the more focused subject of habituation in children.

Habituation is not likely to succeed if time is short. The following two criteria must therefore be met:

1a. Start reinforcing the desired worldview as early as possible. The younger the child, the more impressionable he is likely to be.

1b. Reinforce the desired worldview over as long a period as possible, preferably over several years.

Habituation cannot take place if the child has doubts and questions. To prevent these from arising, or to put an end to them when they do arise, the following techniques might work:

2a. Characterize doubt and questioning as weaknesses.

2b. Take a pejorative attitude toward alternative worldviews and the people who hold them. A child is less likely to doubt her own worldview if the alternatives are unattractive.

2c. Conversely, lavish praise on the desired worldview and the people who hold it. Don’t simply present arguments in favor of the worldview, but actively praise it and its various components. Suggest to the child that people who hold the worldview are better than other people.

2d. Suggest to the child that if she does not uphold the desired worldview, her role models will be ashamed of her.

2e. If possible, ensure that the child mixes socially only with people who hold the desired worldview.

Keep in mind that this list applies to the habituation of basic morals, social etiquette, and religious and political beliefs. Thus far, I have argued that habituation of basic morals and social etiquette are, at least to some extent, in the best interests of the child, and therefore morally permissible. Criteria 1a and 1b, for instance, may be necessary to instill in a child a basic sense of morality and good social etiquette.

However, I find it hard to put my support behind all of the remaining criteria – those whose intent is to quell questioning and doubt. Most of them are either dishonest or unnecessarily manipulative. The only clear exception is 2e: when it comes to basic morals and social etiquette, it is in the child’s best interests to mix with like-minded individuals. As Sabio points out, no parent wants his child mixing with drug addicts. Criterion 2d might also be marginally acceptable, but it still smacks of emotional manipulation.

Habituation – we all do it

My conclusion, as it has been all along, is that certain (not all) religious traditions encourage parents to employ many of the above habituation methodologies. Often, basic morality is wrapped up within the religious tradition itself. This means that justified habituation (i.e. the habituation of basic morality) often provides a piggy-back ride to unjustified habituation (the inculcation of particular religious beliefs). Many religious parents, because of their mistaken belief in the religious origins of morality, fail to see the distinction between the two.

But many atheists undoubtedly habituate their children too. There are probably atheist parents out there who belittle Christianity in front of their children, or who discourage their kids from mixing with Christian friends. On the other hand, I doubt that many atheist parents discourage doubt and questions, whereas many religious traditions preach just such a message (I’m reminded of the song I was taught in Sunday School as a young lad many, many years ago: “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”)

My closing remark, then, is to encourage all parents to avoid the tools of habituation wherever possible. They may be warranted in some cases, but I think we’re better off encouraging – and honestly answering – questions, than suppressing them altogether. And if we don’t have suitable answers to our child’s questions, then perhaps we need to take a second look at what we’re teaching them.


12 Responses to Habituating children to a worldview

  1. Sabio Lantz says:

    Before I proceed reading, may I ask:
    (1) Why you chose the word “habituation”
    (2) I am familiar with the word used in many situations. “Habituate” means “To accustom by frequent repetition or prolonged exposure.” Have you seen anyone else give it the definition you have? Or a definition anywhere near the word you have? Perhaps it is used differently in some circles which I am not familiar. Wiki has a large article on it that talks only about uses that I am familiar with. Thanx

  2. L.Long says:

    I was going to post a bet about how long it would take for Sabio to question your definition. But I’m too late. As an Xcatlick I can attest to the expensive use of indoctrination and habituation by them. Good post.

  3. Sabio Lantz says:

    I guess it shows how blind I am to clear thinking, or perhaps I just nitpick to avoid the obvious truth. But it seemed like a good question. Oh well.

    Because as I speed read the rest of the post, it just seemed like Keith put his same conditions under a new word — a word which already has meanings that are nothing like his new one. So that seemed odd in two ways.

    I addressed my objections to his “definition” here in Keith’s previous post’s threat. But he didn’t reply to my objections. And this seemed just a restating his “definition” using different phrasings and elaborations. Here are the equivalents:

    new (1a) = old (1)
    new (1b) = old (2)
    new (2a) = old (6)
    new (2b) = old (3)
    new (2c) = old (3 + praise)
    new (2d) = old (6 – of sorts)
    new (2e) = old (7)

    So, not only does the word not fit, but my criticisms, which he never addressed, still hold. And finally, again, I’d rather just agree with Keith’s best, spot-on criticism — namely:

    new (2a) : characterizing doubt and questions as a weakness is bad.

    All the rest does not seem to be getting us anywhere for reasons I have previously given it — no matter how he tries to package it.

    I hope that clarifies my feelings & thought on this issue.

  4. Sabio Lantz says:

    I don’t see either of you gents at my last post, but some principles I allude to there, may apply to my objections here. Or perhaps:
    (a) you feel my post there are nonsense
    (b) they don’t apply at all

  5. L.Long says:

    Keith said….Thus far, I have argued that habituation of basic morals and social etiquette are, at least to some extent, in the best interests of the child….
    Again I will agree and also add that this cannot be taken too far. Silly Example: I have a friend that will literally gag and start to get sick if he sees a 2yr old pick his nose and then eat the results. I later found out that this is from his parents LITERALLY beating his basic behavior into him!!!!

    And as with indoctrination, habituation is the methods of all types of dogma.

    Sabio says…Have you seen anyone else give it the definition you have? Or a definition anywhere near the word you have? …….
    Well Keith and Me. And I know about 4 others that use both indoctrination and habituation as Keith defines it when it is done beyond just basic safety or beginning training.

    • Sabio Lantz says:

      Are you guys real-life, face-2-face buddies?
      I have always used habituation as gradually having less and less of a response to a stimuli.
      So, you see your kid eat snot and are shocked the first time but after the 100th time you just say, “Johnny, please don’t do that.”

      BTW, I did not understand your example at all.

      Here is another example:
      You shoot an enemy in battle and are shocked at the blood and deformity but your tenth kill barely phases you.

      I am use to that use of “attenuation”.

  6. Keith says:


    I actually worked quite hard to respond to the issues you raised, which is why I made the distinction between basic morals, social etiquette, religion and politics. I was basically agreeing with you that some of my criteria for “indoctrination” were sometimes necessary, even for parents who didn’t want to brainwash their kids.

    Furthermore, I changed the language in the criteria to bring out what I felt were negative aspects of those methodologies, but I’m not sure you’ve fully appreciated those changes.

    Finally, I took on a form of the diagnostic approach you recommended by splitting the criteria into two groups, the first of which had necessary criteria, and the second of which had optional criteria.

    As for the choice of “habituation”, I felt it was a suitable one for the concept I had in mind. My post provides a very clear definition of what the word should mean in the context of the post. When I provide such a definition, I’m asking the reader to use that definition, not his own.

    I have different topics I’d like to move on to, so I will not being making any further modifications. Thanks again for your input.

  7. Keith, it’s certainly better than it was. It’s less biased toward the religious a bit and you do include the little blurb about atheist habituating their kids….all in all it’s an improvement.

  8. Sabio Lantz says:

    @ Keith,
    Yes, I can tell all the work you put into it.
    The question is “What do you want to do with you definition?”

    Imagine this scenario of child raising.

    A man has a strong belief that “Love” is the most important thing in life. He plans to instill this in his 3 children so they can experience love their whole lives. To this end he:
    1a. Starts teaching and modeling “Love” as soon as the children understand. He reads them bedtime stories and has home videos about love.

    1b. He persists teaching and demonstrating a loving lifestyle until they are adults.

    2a. He encourages them to doubt and question and test the Love teaching.

    2b. He tells stories of those who live a life of hate, lies, selfish greed and in these stories the outcomes are very bad. He can’t help teaching a pejorative attitude toward those who view a me-me-me worldview.

    2c. He praises those who demonstrate love. He tells stories of them, points them out when they are in the news and shows the children that a life of loving is better than other views.

    2d. The children know that if they grow up greedy, hateful or violent that their father will be ashamed of them. He may not have taught it outright, but it is clear.

    2e. The father makes sure that he surrounds his children with other families who hold his view on love and isolates them from hateful, selfish, fighting families. He exposes the children too them, but helps teach his children not to associate with that sort of peer.

    So as you said, this is normal raising of children technique for diligent parents. Unfortunately most parents aren’t diligent.

    I call this reflective, intentional child rearing — you have tried to call it “indoctrination”, and then “habituation”.

    The question, is WHAT is taught. The only method issue I see as questionable is the doubt issue. So not that we have established that teaching children that doubt is bad is a bad method. We need to focus on which beliefs you believe are bad because the methods you point out are healthy if the right things are taught.

  9. Keith says:


    I agree that the positive or negative quality of habituation depends on WHAT is taught. I thought I made that clear when I said that parents are justified in using habituation to teach basic morals and social etiquette, but not religious or political views.

    The example of love, and the behaviors associated with it, can be regarded as either basic morality or social etiquette (you mention behaviors associated with a lack of love, like greediness, lying, selfishness, all of which are anathema to basic morality and social etiquette). Habituating a child to such behavior is therefore acceptable.

    I do, however, have to note how some of my criteria are NOT met in your love example:

    2a: This criterion requires doubt to be characterized as a weakness. You are suggesting just the opposite: the father ENCOURAGES his children to doubt. In your example, then, criterion 2a is not met.

    2b:Demonstrating that a certain belief has a negative outcome is NOT the same as casting ad hominem attacks on the people who hold it, which is what I meant by being pejorative. If the father in your example says something like “people who don’t love others are just worthless idiots” THAT would qualify as an example of criterion 2b. I somehow doubt if the father in your example would be comfortable saying things like these.

    Apart from theses two criteria, though, the rest are met: the father is habituating his children to a favorable view of love. And, once again, I think this is justified, because it falls under the categories of basic morality and social etiquette.

  10. Sabio Lantz says:

    OK. So now, how do you want to criticize some Christians? Do you want to call them “indoctrinators” or “habituators”?
    Or isn’t it enough to keep it specific and focused? For example, saying something like:

    “Look, I believe that teaching children not to doubt is bad. I also think that demonizing those who are thoughtful about their stances is counterproductive?”

    That is all I am stressing — staying focused and specific in our criticism and try to avoid pejorative, broad, indiscriminant criticisms using abstractions.

  11. Keith says:


    The criticism in my post is quite clear: habituation should not be used for religious and political worldviews, but it is permissible for basic morality and social etiquette.

    I’m therefore criticizing any Christian (or atheist, for that matter) who uses habituation to instill in her child an unthinking attitude toward a particular religious or political doctrine.

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