Parents have no choice about whether to influence their child’s moral and spiritual development. What they can choose is how they wield that influence, and to what end.
A 2022 Pew survey found that 35% of American parents believe it’s very important for their children to share their religious beliefs (a percentage that doubled among highly religious parents). In the general population, though, a larger share of parents (42%) reported being unconcerned about passing along any kind of a religious heritage.
Since a majority of these same respondents also saw it as important for their children to be honest, hardworking and helpful to others, these parents still clearly believe in inculcating values. In fact, over 90% of parents said it’s extremely or very important for their children to “be honest and ethical.”
Parents in America today are not indifferent to their children’s moral life, even if many are becoming more ambivalent about the role of religion in shaping it. Even some devout parents worry about wielding undue influence over the sacred province of their child’s conscience, thanks to frequent refrains about how religion “brainwashes” kids.
This is a concern I’ve wrestled, too, as I fully intended to raise up little rationalists. It hasn’t taken long for me to learn as a parent that children — especially small ones — require direction and frequent hand-holding to survive. Nothing but inarguable, authoritative claims to truth could keep them from running into the street, picking up dog feces and poking the newborn in the eyes.
This is because life does not wait to impose the consequences of decisions until they can be rationally appreciated. I can wait to push vegetables until my children are aware enough of the alternatives to make an informed decision, but by that time, they will not only have eaten their weight in Skittles, they will have formed habits and tastes that are difficult to change.
You can’t defer the development of a child’s eating habits because the education of the palate begins, well, when eating begins. You may be more or less intentional about what your kids consume, but consume they will, and this will create a taste and texture vocabulary through which they judge future foods.
So it is with the soul, in my experience. As parents, we have no choice about whether to instill values in our children. Just as they must eat, children must also make sense of their world. And from their first moments, we are communicating, sometimes in words, but often by example, what matters to us, and therefore, what should matter to them.
The question, again, is not whether to influence their moral and spiritual trajectory, but in which direction.
To refrain from explicit instruction in convictions and doctrine you hold dear does not honor a child’s moral agency or develop their critical thinking; it just leaves their spiritual development to the mercy of whatever is culturally popular or pervasive. Rather than freeing children to develop their own beliefs, this hands-off approach impresses upon them the belief that the intellect and the spirit are at odds, that personal autonomy is the highest good, and that reason is the ultimate path for securing it.
Even those who believe that intellectual commitments should come first, therefore, are still animated by value commitments they are passing along to their children. And the idea that thinking critically matters more than being spiritual or righteous is a moral conclusion.
And one that begins to quickly fall apart in practice. For instance, few parents would present white supremacism alongside civil rights history, asking their children to decide for themselves what they think is best.
In my experience, parental anxieties around “indoctrinating” children usually arise from the cultural assumption that religious instruction is inescapably coercive or dogmatic, which for me has never been the case.
Cassandra Hedelius has written about how teaching religious values “can be done well — with reasoned arguments, respect for opposing points of view, and gentle persuasion — or badly — with propaganda, fallacy, and abuse.”
Manipulative or harmful methods can certainly be used in religious settings, but totalizing approaches that constrain and suffocate thought are hardly exclusive to religion. Trofim Lysenko, an infamous agronomist from the last century, was so anxious to bring agricultural science under the purview of communist ideology that he rejected scientifically proven techniques and brought about a catastrophic famine.
In fact, defending against propaganda is one important reason to begin a child’s religious training early. C.S. Lewis argued that “by starving the sensibility of our pupils, we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.”
For Lewis, the best defense against devouring worldviews is not the intellect alone, but the heart too. Reason can be brought into the service of evil, but virtue cannot.
Perhaps this is why Kierkegaard observed that “it is wretched to have an abundance of intentions and a poverty of action, to be rich in truths and poor in virtues.”
To be truly serviceable to God and to our fellow man requires more than knowing the right answers. Correct principles are important, but it’s our actions, our lived habits, that see us through.
Latter-day Saint leaders often emphasize this transformational aspect of Christianity. President Dallin H. Oaks, first counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, taught, “In contrast to the institutions of the world, which teach us to know something, the gospel of Jesus Christ challenges us to become something.”
This is why we need religion, which does much more than provide right and wrong answers. Religion creates a path to internalize our principles, whether it’s convenient or not — for the benefit of people we love, people we tolerate and even people we’d like to quietly dispatch to Chateau d’If.
This requires self-denial and that makes it easy to accuse religious communities of being oppressive. It’s true that daily discipleship requires humility, sacrifice, patience, forgiveness and other deviations from the me-first ethos where virtue is not about character, but about championing a social or political cause.
To some, you’d have to be brainwashed to accept the life of a disciple. But embracing religious teachings and authority can be deliberate and inspired by trust and confidence rather than ignorance or fear. This is something I hope to model to my children by teaching them doctrine without skepticism; not because I have all the answers, but because I have experienced how those doctrines bring us closer to a God who does.
This means teaching them through reasoned persuasion. But often, it also means presenting them with simple doctrinal answers that they will need to apply to their own experiences. There is no reason to be apologetic about teaching your children according to your sincere convictions; not doing so would be to withhold important and simple truths found on the other side of complexity.
I am aware of the objections to some church teachings and have encountered complexities which, for a time, made the simple doctrines seem insufficient. I have no doubt my children will face them as well. My hope is that, by then, they’ll remember their mother’s confidence long enough to experience the deepened faith awaiting them on the other side.