In the comments section of a juicy leaving-my-religion article, a commenter shared his opinion that it isn’t “fair” that religious people raise their children in a strict environment like Orthodox Judaism. It’s child abuse to brainwash them the way we do! Why don’t we just raise them without religion and then let them choose what works for them when they are adults?
Setting aside the impracticality of that idea in the context of Orthodox Judaism, which is basically a full-day full-body life experience, I would like to propose that everyone indoctrinates their child. Even if they don’t mean to.
Our children learn about the world, about morals, values, everything from us. They look to us to understand how the world works. Someone who is a wholehearted secularist is going to be passing on those values to their children, even if they are not intentionally doing so. If children are taught, through witnessing their parents’ choices and reactions, that the world works randomly, without any Divine intervention, and without any pattern or ultimate meaning, that is how they will view the world. And it will either work for them, or it won’t. And if it doesn’t, they’ll shop around for a worldview that does.
Same thing with raising a child within a religious structure. Not everyone who ostensibly observes the rules of religion is a great parent, and so you can have a beautiful religion like Judaism, and yet have a parent (or other authority figure) who doesn’t support the child emotionally, or makes decisions that are harsh, capricious, and likely antithetical to Judaism. Under those circumstances, that child is probably not going to have a high opinion of Judaism. That may even be the least of their concerns. You know?
Years ago, I was sitting in the waiting room to get a sonogram during my second pregnancy. Next to me was another pregnant woman with an energetic two-year-old girl. This little girl was climbing on the chairs, happily bouncing around, chattering and full of energy. You know, like a normal two-year-old in a waiting room. The mother spoke to this child in such vile language that I was really shocked. I’m not saying that parents should just let their kids run around willy-nilly, but there’s no reason to use that kind of language with a child, ever. And I thought about how this child is going to grow up with the experience of being verbally abused for typical toddler behavior. And how her mother was probably treated the same way. She may have been indoctrinated into a worldview where hate, anger and violence were the norm, and was now passing this along to her child.
It’s really heartbreaking.
So, yes, I’m indoctrinating my kids. I’m “forcing” them to say please and thank you. To say excuse me before speaking to an adult. To wait their turn when another child is playing with a toy. To clean up after themselves. Fine, everyone will likely agree that those are good things to instill in any child, religion notwithstanding.
But I’m also indoctrinating them religiously. To give thanks to G-d before and after eating food. To use refined language. To eat kosher food. To refrain from turning lights on and off on Shabbos. To stand up for their parents. To treat adults with respect. To think of the needs of others. To give charity.
Will my children make their own decisions about life as adults? I certainly hope so! Do I hope and pray that they will find Judaism as beautiful and fulfilling as I do? Absolutely. At this formative stage, it is my responsibility as their parent to provide them the context to navigate the world and life in the way I think will give them the best shot at happiness and success. And this is the way that I think is best.
A practical example:
My husband and I have decided to only play Jewish music around our kids (classical music being an exception). Initially, this seemed a little extreme to me. I mean, I understood intellectually that everything kids hear has an impact on them, but was it really that big of a deal? I occasionally listened to NPR around the kids and they weren’t quoting Steve Inskeep or anything. Then again, I do recall Little Man singing the iconic theme to All Things Considered…
The other day my two-and-a-half year old was singing to himself as he played. Happily, I had a chance to eavesdrop. I heard something which sounded like “Omar Rab Kiva. Omar Rab Kiva. Hafta Reyka Mocha.” It took me a minute, but I realized he was singing “Omar Rabbi Akiva,” which was on the Uncle Moishy CD we have on current rotation in our car. I hadn’t realized that he knew the words, and I spent an awe-struck moment contemplating the wonders of human development. When did he get so big?
As I listened to my little boy singing these words, I was so glad we made that choice about music. The actual words are “Omar Rabbi Akiva, v’ahavta l’reyecha kamocha, zeh klal gadol baTorah.” They mean, “Rabbi Akiva said, Love your neighbor as yourself. This is the greatest principle in the Torah.” My son was imbibing these profound words. Did he understand what he was singing? Probably not. But it’s making an impression on him, nonetheless.
And would I rather have him singing this?
I don’t know about you but im feeling 22
Everything will be alright if you keep me next to you
You don’t know about me but I bet you want to
Everything will be alright if we just keep dancing like we’re 22, 22
It’s just a song, Rivki, calm down, you might say. Sure, sure. I hear that. But when my children are still so impressionable, why not shape them in the best way possible? Why even introduce concepts like finding “solace” in hooking up at a party? Do I think all secular music is bad? No, no. Do I judge other parents who let their children listen to a wider variety of music?
Definitely. Of course not. When my kids get older, they’ll listen to what they want anyways. I’m happy to choose what concepts are going into their head while I still have the chance.
So, yeah, I’m indoctrinating my children. I’m imparting to them that the world is a beautiful, amazing place. That life has meaning and purpose, and that they matter. That their decisions have an impact on the world around them. That love is more than one-night stands and haphazard relationships. That even when they make mistakes, there is always the chance for redemption. That everything comes from one ultimate source, which is a loving, omnipotent G-d.
What do you think? Do you consciously indoctrinate your child? Am I a crazy extremist?