Are Religious Parents Brainwashing Their Children?

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During Mass at a parish in Denver that my wife, Amparo, and I attend when visiting family members, children bring gifts to a Nativity display at the foot of the altar.

Dressed in their Christmas best, they are – to coin a phrase – “cute as a bug’s ear.” But watching them last year, I remember wondering how many would grow up continuing to practice the faith of their parents.

I thought about this when I read about a Harvard University study showing that “participating in spiritual practices during childhood and adolescence may be a protective factor for a range of health and well-being outcomes in early adulthood.”

Makes sense to me, but I know a lot of people disagree. Many, in fact, say that including young children in the religious practices of their parents is a form of brainwashing. They believe children should be raised without any religious beliefs, allowing them to reach intellectual maturity completely on their own.

Mind Control?

I really don’t think it’s a matter of brainwashing, which, according to Wikipedia, is also known as “mind control, menticide, coercive persuasion, thought control, thought reform, and re-education.”

Brainwashing, it says, “is the concept that the human mind can be altered or controlled by certain psychological techniques. (It) is said to reduce its subjects’ ability to think critically or independently, to allow the introduction of new, unwanted thoughts and ideas into their minds, as well as to change their attitudes, values and beliefs.”

Much of how parents raise their young children could be included in this definition. We try to instill in our children our own beliefs and practices precisely because we believe in them and want what’s best for our children. Is that brainwashing?

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We don’t ask them if they want to go to the dentist, or the doctor, or if they want to go to school, not as part of any “psychological technique,” but because we want them to grow and thrive. We believe that dentists, doctors and teachers can help them do that. Isn’t faith at least as important?

The trick, I believe, is knowing when in their development parents should back off and allow their children to make their own decisions about their faith or lack of it. Many of us may not make this call correctly, leaving children with a bitter pill of coercion. 

To me, the findings of the 2018 study by the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard findings aren’t surprising.

“Researchers found that people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s – and were less likely to subsequently have depressive symptoms, smoke, use illicit drugs, or have a sexually transmitted infection -—  than people raised with less regular spiritual habits,” a Harvard press release says.

Health and Parenting

“These findings are important for both our understanding of health and our understanding of parenting practices,” said first author Ying Chen. “Many children are raised religiously, and our study shows that this can powerfully affect their health behaviors, mental health, and overall happiness and well-being.

“Previous studies have linked adults’ religious involvement to better health and well-being outcomes, including lower risk of premature death,” the press release continues.

Most parents aren’t thinking about health benefits when taking their children to church. They want their children to reap the spiritual rewards of faith, especially if it contributes to what all parents want for their children.

Said Tyler VanderWeele, one of the study’s authors: “…These practices may positively contribute to happiness, volunteering, a greater sense of mission and purpose, and to forgiveness.”