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What effective methods (preferably backed by some sort of data) are there for avoiding religious indoctrination or pressure on a child? Some of the possible factors I'm thinking of are:

  • Teachers and other authority figures asserting their own religious views as fact or just drawing inappropriate focus to them.
  • Desire to fit in with other children who are part of religious community.
  • Religious themes in popular books/entertainment/etc.
  • Harassment/bulling from other children - "You're going to hell!"
  • Concepts of guilt/shame/etc.

Are there good approaches to develop an ability to understand others' beliefs as just "their beliefs"/"their story" rather than "the truth", or is that too much to expect for young children? Is introducing religious stories/characters early, but on the same basis as fiction/super-heroes, an effective way of framing it?

This question is somewhat inspired by Should I allow or forbid my son to visit the education of a religion that I do not share?, but I believe it's significantly different. I'm not looking for a solution to a difficult family dynamic that has already arisen, but ways to raise a child to peacefully coexist and interact with dominant religious communities whose beliefs you don't want imposed on your child. Based on my own family's background and the community we live in, I don't anticipate this being a big issue for our child (now 1yo), but I know it will come up in some ways and I'd like ideas for what to be prepared for, and I think it's an worthwhile topic in general. At this point aspects of the question that apply to early childhood up through preschool/early-elementary are the most relevant to me, but I'd also like to hear ideas for later on.

  • Within a school context, I'd expect the school to treat bullying based on religious discrimination - e.g. "you're Jewish/Hindu/Atheist/Muslim so you're going to Hell" - the same way that they'd treat racial abuse. I.e. for the teachers to come down quite hard on it. That's here in the UK, the situation may be different in other parts of the world. – A E Mar 8 '15 at 19:23
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There's nothing to suggest that an answer to this question would be different than the answer without the religious context.

Since the difference between indoctrination and education is muddled at best, and intentionally divisive at worst, I'm not going to address that terminology beyond this.

Your question is really many questions, and these are the answers I would provide:

Disagreeing With Your Child's Teacher

There are many articles out there regarding how to deal with teachers that you disagree with. Because of the nature of the subject, there's not much in the way of data. However, the different opinions out there generally have a few suggestions in common:

  • Keep a calm demeanor
  • Address the issue at an appropriate time and place
  • Go to the teacher first (rather than above their head)

Here are some links: SheKnows, Parenting.com, MemberHub

Handling Peer Pressure

This Parenting.SE question on peer pressure lacks some details, and seems a little out of date. There's also not much for data on this subject, but there's general advise on avoiding peer pressure:

  • Instill self-esteem and positive self-image
  • Encourage diverse peer relationships
  • Develop strategies for turning down pressure (Don't justify, nor argue, nor defend, nor explain. AKA, Don't JADE)

University of Nebraska Lincoln, A Better Child

Dealing With Religious Themes in Literature

Aside from homeschooling your child, and controlling everything they read, there's no way to prevent your child from reading books with religious themes in them. Religion and mythology are core parts of culture, and thus make it into art in amazing kinds of ways. It's said that one of the most recognizable icon in the world is Superman's S shield. It's pervasive. What you may not know is that many people draw parallels between Superman and Jesus Christ, even though Superman was created by Jewish guys! I say this just to illustrate how unrealistic it would be to prevent a child from coming in contact with religious ideas from this avenue.

So rather than preventing the issue, we'll have to address this by treating the issue. Again, this isn't a topic that's easy to study, so we'll have to forego data once again.

I would say that the best route to take is to encourage education. Instead of your child encountering themes that may only apply to one specific religion, or just a few religions, try to expose them to a wide variety of religious themes. The more religious (or non-religious) concepts they're exposed to, the more they'll be able to see that there isn't a consensus on the subject.

Personally, I would try to encourage a love for Science Fiction. That genre often does a great job of addressing religious beliefs and rational beliefs, and how they counter each other or coexist with each other. I find it hard to find a Sci Fi novel that doesn't also have religious elements, but I attribute a large part of my open-ness about and lack of religious to my reading habits.

As far as other media, or just life in general, my answer would be the same. Increase exposure to all types of religion. Ignorance is not a defense against the ways of the world. In fact, a famous study shows that people who identify as Atheist or Agnostic have the best Religious Knowledge. So, obviously, non-religious individuals shouldn't be expected to be unknowledgeable about religion. You can also research the relationship between education level and religiosity and draw some conclusions there. I won't address that topic in any detail here, as it's not the appropriate place.

Harassment and Bullying

I think there are plenty of questions on Parenting.SE to address this already.

Handling Guilt and Shame

Guilt isn't a particularly religious concept. If you "steal" a cookie from the counter, you may end up feeling guilty about it. Guilt happens when you do something that you believe you shouldn't have done, because it's contrary to your morals. Shame, by contrast, usually occurs when you do something that others don't believe you should do. Based on the context of the question, I believe only shame is relevant here.

In this article, Why Shame Sucks, the author says the following:

I try to be abundantly clear with children that they are loved and accepted unconditionally, even when their behavior is terrible. It is way too easy for kids to slide directly into feeling worthless via shame.

This sentiment is echoed in other articles, of which there are plenty. They also suggest avoiding shameful wording or disciplines. Now, if the shaming activities are occurring at school, then you're likely going to have to address it with the school. If the teacher is the one doing the shaming, you'll have the first part of this answer to help you out. If it's children doing the shaming, then try looking at the bullying answers.


All of these answers are connected by a single concept, which I believe is the real answer to your question:

The best thing to do is to raise your child as best you can, provide for them as best you can, educate them as best you can.

By addressing your child's physical, developmental, psychological, emotional, and intellectual needs, you'll be doing the best you can to protect them from anything. This includes "protecting" them from religion, as you put it.

Education will play a large role in this. I'm not saying education trumps religion, or that religious people aren't educated. But, I believe that when people change or choose religions (or non-religions) it's because they've been exposed to new information or experiences. If they're only exposed to information that supports a single outlook, then that's likely to be the outlook they choose (see State Atheism).

If you educate your child on all the different types of religions and religious beliefs, then you're better preparing them for handling exposure to them in the real world. They'll have time to reconcile the variety of beliefs with their own world-view, and be better able to stand firm in their own beliefs.

I would also take the same stance for parents that desire their child to accept a given religion. If they're never exposed to other religions, then when they finally meet them face-on in the real world, they may have a harder time adjusting.

  • Thanks. This answer contains a lot of the ideas I was looking for, and things I suspected might be good answers but don't have any experience on the topic to judge whether to trust that intuition or not. I especially like what you wrote on religious themes in literature. – R.. Mar 9 '15 at 13:11
  • I do think there's a bit of a difference in the case of "disagreeing with teachers" though, because of the concept of falsifiability. If the teacher says 6 times 7 is 45, or that the US Declaration of Independence was signed in 1781, these errors are falsifiable. On the other hand, if the teacher says "we don't really know if there were dinosaurs or if God just put dinosaur bones there to test our faith", that statement is non-falsifiable (in their framework, at least) but loaded to bias children against actual facts and learning. – R.. Mar 9 '15 at 13:15
  • If you disagree with what's being taught, the only recourse is to take it up with the educational system, usually with the teacher first. If that doesn't work, you still have to work within the system or find a new system. In may be helpful to become familiar with local school policy, to see if what they're teaching is technically allowed, and use that to your advantage. However, since I only know how US public schools operate, I'm don't think I can give a point-to-point that would apply for most schools in the world. – user11394 Mar 9 '15 at 13:52
  • >even though Superman was created by Jewish guys - Christianity too ;-) – RedSonja May 11 '15 at 7:48
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Find a community of like-minded folks. With most religions, this is your church, synagogue, mosque, temple, etc. It is somewhat harder with atheism or agnosticism. The key is not necessarily practicing the religion, but much more giving your kid a way to feel connected, and know that even if classmates are all Other Religion, there are still plenty of nice people from Our Religion or Our Philosophy.

Be up front with teachers or childcare workers. "Our family is [religion or philosophy]." This is especially important if you have dietary restrictions (e.g. kosher, halal, no caffeine), or you don't celebrate various holidays. We have had very few instances of religion overtly entering curriculum (and all before official schooling), but most teachers were happy to be extra cautious to respect different cultures and tone down "Easter" or "Christmas" parties to more general celebrations. This can help them deal with issues of bullying once they arise, too --forewarned is forearmed.

Actively seek out examples of famous people who share the same faith. Much like the first suggestion, it gives a source of pride and sense of belonging and normalcy.

Be up front about differences. Kids will notice (and be constantly reminded by society and their peers) that their family does different things anyway. Acknowledge that. "Santa doesn't visit us. It doesn't mean you're bad, it just means you don't celebrate Christmas." Explain traditions or observances of other faiths when asked. Having the background knowledge of why other people celebrate a holiday helps my kids understand why we don't, and they tend to be more calm about the difference as a result. It helps that we have our own cool traditions ;-)

Encourage a calm, unruffled approach to teasing. "Ha ha, you're [religion or philosophy]" should really be met with "Yes, you're correct, and I am happy about that." Taunts rarely continue if they aren't a source of hurt. If somebody does use this as a way to bully, or pulls "you're going to hell because you're [religion or philosophy]", get teachers involved to get that behavior to stop. Have conversations if it happens -- "a lot just don't understand our religion, ignorance makes them afraid, and they can say mean things." This is the hardest of all -- there will be plenty of experiences, both intentionally and accidentally offensive, that remind a child they're different and some people think that's bad. Always be ready to sympathize and remind them that it's really OK to believe what your family does. (See above for positive community and examples to rebuild the sense of belonging that mean people may try to injure.)

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    Only his first example (teachers imposing a viewpoint) is really what I'd consider indoctrination, the rest is just "peer pressure." And I'd argue that providing a foundation at home (or [place of worship] etc.) in the family religion/philosophy is the only way to do that, other than telling the teacher their b behavior needs to stop. – Acire Mar 7 '15 at 23:21
  • Fair enough! :) – anongoodnurse Mar 7 '15 at 23:49
  • Thanks for the ideas. For our family, I have no intent of omitting holidays just because they have religious origins or doing anything else that's just going to make a child feel gratuitously different and resentful of that. But I can see where some parents would, especially in the case of families from a religious background that the dominant religion is actively hostile to. – R.. Mar 8 '15 at 2:47
  • There is a great deal of secularization that originally religious holidays have gone through (Valentines Day and Halloween are the most extreme example I can think of in the US), so which ones are celebrated by any given family will vary widely :) – Acire Mar 8 '15 at 2:51
  • As far as examples of "indoctrination", yeah I really didn't get into that much in the question. I also had in mind things that older children/teens face like religion offering promises of (depending on what your present psychological need is) transcendental experience, absolute truth, life after death, etc. as a bait-and-switch, but I figure by that age a kid should be equipped with critical thinking skills and knowledge about religions to make their own choices what to believe. So I focused more on things affecting young children. – R.. Mar 8 '15 at 2:54
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What are you truly asking?

I am going to say something which might sound a bit harsh, but what you seem to be asking is How can I indoctrinate my child with a post modernist world view?. You are attacking teachers for "asserting their own religious views as fact or just drawing inappropriate focus to them" and then go on with asking how to make the child in question see "others' beliefs as just 'their beliefs'/'their story' rather than 'the truth'".

Now, the good news is, that's not necessarily a 'bad' question. After all, a psychologist (or wikipedia) will tell you indoctrination is a natural part of education. And it's necessary that you teach your believes to your children, because everybody needs things to believe in and something to drive them (be it as an atheist in the 'positive hormones' leading to a chase of 'happiness' or as a Christian in a God and heaven), but it's also good to realize that what you are doing is actively indoctrinating a child.

In other words, what I am trying to say here is that you feel like there is an innocent non-indoctrinated child that has to defend himself to religious indoctrination attempts, whereas the situation is more like that we have an indoctrinated child that is being exposed to other world views. To be really clear here, I am not trying to say that it's bad that you are trying to indoctrinate your child, that's not why I brought that up! What I am just trying to say is that the situation isn't as bad as it might look at first sight.

So what can you do?

That said, at the same time I do agree with you that it's not a good thing if a child hears only about one set of believes and is blindly indoctrinated with those. The good news is, apparently you have believes that differ from those of the children in class, so that wasn't an issue in the first place. The bad news is, that same thing makes blind indoctrination for you harder if that's truly your goal (and I sincerely don't know whether it is, that's up to you).

Now, a difference that some people make between indoctrination and education is whether a child is taught to think critically for themselves. Technically I disagree with that notion (after all, our way of critical thinking is part of being indoctrinated with a lot of western and originally Christian values), but at it's core I absolutely do believe and agree that it's crucial to teach a child to think for themselves. And to achieve this it's best to be open about those differences and discuss why you think what you think. And once they are old enough discuss why you think others are wrong (or if you're agnostic: probably wrong) and how you got to the point where you're now. Discuss the things you lived through and how those things shaped you as a person. Make a child actually understand you, rather than just trust you (or famous people) based on authority or because you took them to a community of like minded people.

And yes, that could end up with a child concluding that your faith isn't correct. And yes, that tends to suck badly. But honestly, it's fairer to give a child a chance to think for themselves than to try to trick them to just believe what you believe. And once they make their own decisions they will also know how to react to the situations you describe.


Unimportant post script: A child telling another child that he is 'going to hell' and calling that bullying is quite bad as well... I mean, it definitely could be part of actual bullying, however on it's own it's just someone expressing their concerns and fears. And something that is bullying is trying to make such a child (or person) shut up or forcing a school teacher to have general (post modernist) celebrations instead of a small easter party in his class. (Mind you, regarding the 'go to hell'-thing, I think it's absolutely crucial to make sure that such a child understands that others do not necessarily think the same things and probably do not share his concerns, but that's not the same as everybody just shutting up)

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    As written my question contains nothing about a "post modernist world view" or indoctrination as such; I believe it's equally applicable to religious minorities living in a place where there's an established dominant religion. One child telling another that they're going to hell is abusive behavior and when it's done by a group who's singling out one or a few children who are different from them, it's bullying. – R.. Mar 8 '15 at 2:43
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    And to clarify, I downvoted this answer because it offers little constructive and it's basically a rant against the premise of the question. – R.. Mar 8 '15 at 2:44
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    Problems with the premise or phrasing of a question (and suggestions for improvement) are better dealt with in comments than Answers. – Acire Mar 8 '15 at 14:03
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    @Erica: In general on Stackexchange it's quite acceptable to 'attack' the premise of a question if that resolves the question (in this case the essence being that there might be no problem at all). If this is not allowed on parenting.SE, could you please direct me to the relevant meta post? – David Mulder Mar 8 '15 at 23:34
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    I did not say "not allowed" and was just suggesting a different approach if you're hoping to help R focus his question. See meta.parenting.stackexchange.com/questions/123/… – Acire Mar 8 '15 at 23:42

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