One last ripple to address from last week's posts...

In emails and comments, a few readers brought up another issue that cuts close to the bone for secular parents. In the conversation with my daughters, I described our condition after death as identical to our condition before birth. Some readers threw the flag at this point -- Indoctrination, 10 yards against the parent, second down and 20! -- because I did not say "I think our condition after death, etc." or "other people think that when we die, etc."

Wanna see a nonreligious parent turn cartwheels of panic? Accuse him or her of indoctrination. It's the cardinal sin of freethought parenting. To avoid the appearance of it, we often bend over backwards to be evenhanded and neutral. Evenhanded is splendid. But in expressing ourselves to our children on these deeply-felt issues, we are not neutral, cannot be, and shouldn't pretend to be.

Non-neutrality, however, is worlds away from indoctrination, and a source needs not be neutral to have value as a source. (My critical thinking students had trouble with this all the time, discarding one good source after another "because the author is biased" -- meaning s/he had an opinion on the topic s/he was addressing.) Indoctrination is "Teaching someone to accept doctrines uncritically" (WordNet) -- insisting they do so, in fact, often by invoking dire consequences should one stray from the party line. A parent can express his or her perspective without doing this. It's all a matter of the larger context in which the expression takes place.

If this conversation with my daughters stood alone, the charge of indoctrination might stick. But parent-child conversations never stand alone -- they build on everything that comes before. As regular MoL readers will know, freethought, not disbelief, is at the heart of my parenting, which makes the avoidance of indoctrination my Prime Directive. So my kids have heard from me, repeatedly, that different people believe different things, that they are free to form their own opinions, that my own statements are merely expressions of my opinion, that I would rather have them disagree with me than adopt my point of view only because it is mine, and so on. These are the foundational concepts in our family's approach to knowledge. They've heard these things so often now that they roll their eyes and say "duh, I know, Dad" whenever I start in on one of those.

Once children hear that message loud and clear, a parent is freed up to express his/her perspective and welcome theirs without the burden of an added paragraph of caveat and disclaimer on every conversation.

Yes, a parent's opinions will have a disproportionate influence on the child. As I said in a post last year,

there’s no use denying that, nor would I want to...Influence is sometimes passive and sometimes a matter of intentional teaching...My kids know — and are surely influenced by — my religious views. But I go to great lengths to counter that undue influence, keeping them off-balance while they’re young so they won’t be ossified before they can make up their adult minds: “Dad? Did Jesus really come alive after he was dead?”
“I don’t think so. I think that’s just a made-up story so we feel better about death. But talk to Grandma Barbara. I know she thinks it really happened. And then you can make up your own mind and even change your mind back and forth about a hundred times if you want.”

That's the idea. When influence exists in the context of direct encouragements to decide for one's self and to seek out other points of view, it stops well short of that other iWord. That's all I would ask of religious parents as well -- not that they present themselves as neutral, but that they invite their kids to differ and ensure them that they will be no less loved if they do.

That’s influence without indoctrination.

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