General Question

bodyhead's avatar

What's the difference between enlightening a child and brainwashing a child? (when dealing with religion)

Asked by bodyhead (5525points) September 24th, 2008

Obviously, not all religions can be accurate at the same time. When does enlightenment become a brainwashing exercise? Is it when people teach children to believe any other religion besides your own?

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36 Answers

Judi's avatar

Brainwashing usually involves abuse.

blastfamy's avatar

Enlightenment comes on its own. I don’t think a church can instill that in anyone.
Becoming enlightened can only pertain, in any given case, to a single religion. Enlightenment occurs when one reaches an optimal state of understanding under the religious teachings of a specific religion.

Any teachings of a church can facilitate this, but enlightenment must come from a true understanding, which cannot be beaten into a kid’s head.

Judi's avatar

Funny how blast focused on enlightenment and I focused on brainwashing. :-)

wildflower's avatar

It’s the difference of serving them food and force-feeding them

bodyhead's avatar

Brainwashing as defined on Google: A non-violent method that uses mind control techniques to convince a person to abandon some of their basic beliefs and adopt the beliefs of the indoctrinator

GAMBIT's avatar

We have to realize that it is our responsibility to prepare our children for life and instill in them the correct values and morals that will make them responsible adults and be able to function in the world. As a parent, guardian or care giver we must always do what we think is best for the child. Once the child reaches a certain age we must give it room to make it’s own decisions. If we did a good job while it was young it will make the right decisions as an adult.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

You can’t enlighten anyone until their brain is fully developed and they’re capable of analytical thinking. Children are literally not capable of that kind of thought process. Children are naturally inclined to look up to their guardians. It’s how they survive. It’s brainwashing, flat-out, until their brains are fully developed and can actually deduce things on their own.

Bri_L's avatar

I always considered it this way.

If I enlightened my child I provided them with as many accurate facts and answers as I could so they could make up their own minds.

If I brainwashed my child I provided them with as many opinions and skewed resources as I can and convince them to make up their minds.

JackAdams's avatar

It’s probably along the same lines of either teaching a child HOW to think (which leads to enlightenment), or teaching the child WHAT to think (which is brainwashing).

blastfamy's avatar

Enlightenment transcends the teachings of any faith. The kid can always reject the teachings.

SpatzieLover's avatar

@ judi, wildflower,JA Well put! You took all the words out of my mouth.

Bri_L's avatar

@ Jack – Nicely put!

JackAdams's avatar

@blastfamy: Respectfully, it depends on the age of the child. Some are too young to reject anything, and accept anything as “gospel” (forgive the pun, please) just because it is being fed to them by somone they have come to trust, blindly.

DrasticDreamer's avatar

“The kid can always reject the teachings.” Not true. Age absolutely matters in a situation like that. As I said before, children blindly do what their parents do at certain ages, it’s how they survive. If their parents are very religious and got their child through life without harming them in some big way, that child will most likely remain religious, because they were brainwashed at a young age. And they have no way of recognizing it, either.

EmpressPixie's avatar

I agree with JackAdams. I would go one step further and say it is giving them the choice if you make them aware of all parts of the religion, not just the parts that look good. It is brainwashing if you only serve the parts that are easy to digest.

Children often have very developed senses of right and wrong. The right should be rewarded, the wrong punished. It is why they find fairy tales appealing. The morals are simple, clear, and delivered on.

Most religions threaten you in an unending fashion to make you believe and follow their rites (hell, the bad part of hades, whatever). They say, “If you don’t listen to me horrible things will happen to you.” And they say it to you at an early age before you are fully capable of making an informed decision and this comes from a position of authority. How could it be wrong? It suits that developed sense of the just being rewarded and the bad punished and is accepted as the truth.

We generally don’t tell the more… confusing bits until later. I mean, just imagine trying to explain Deuteronomy to a kid.

La_chica_gomela's avatar

In my opinion, the difference is teaching a child to think for herself. Some teachers try to do this. Others do not.

Zaku's avatar

The difference is opinion, or faith.

Fieryspoon's avatar

I think it depends on whether or not you believe in the religion you’re teaching him. If I raise a kid who is getting taught to follow a religion I don’t believe in, then that’s the same as my kid getting brain washed, since, as far as I’m concerned, he’s being taught to believe untruths. If he’s being taught things I feel are true, then that’s enlightenment. I think the distinction is different for each third party, for every individual.

I also don’t really believe there’s much of a distinction other than the connotation of one word is positive, while another is negative.

Judi's avatar

The big underlying question is, how much control should parents have in raising their children and when is intervention necessary? Waco David Koresh? Where is the line?

bodyhead's avatar

Hey Fieryspoon, you raise some good points. What about when others teach their children something that you don’t believe? Is that brainwashing?

EmpressPixie's avatar

@bodyhead, fieryspoon: Or what about when someone else (a teacher for example) teaches your kid something you don’t believe, but they do?

Fieryspoon's avatar

@Judi I think the question that anyone would ask in return is: Who are you to decide what’s right for other people? Your education and opinions aren’t unbiased either—who is to say who is right and who is wrong?

Personally, I don’t really mind what other people do, as long as it doesn’t infringe upon the rights of others. I don’t really feel like I have the right to say that my opinions and feelings are better, or more valid, than someone else’s.

@bodyhead, empresspixie I think that, for me, it’s brainwashing, and for the teacher who teaches it, it’s enlightenment. I think they’re identical, except I don’t want the teacher to do it, and the teacher does want to do it.

I do believe that it would be my responsibility to teach my own moral code to my children, so if a teacher was teaching something that conflicted with that, I would have a problem with it. It’s not wrong though. It’s just wrong for me.

Judi's avatar

I tend to lean way towards parents rights, but there is a line somewhere, like when parents marry off their 13 year old daughters. That’s WAY over the line, but it tends to fade as you go back from there. Spanking is grey, beating is over the line, ......

Nimis's avatar

I think there is also situational brainwashing.
Where the adult may have an unfair advantage to mold a younger mind.
At an early age, the distinction between teaching them how and what to think is blurred.

For instance, an ex of mine is now a grade school teacher.
When we were dating, he was very much anti-religion.
After we broke up, I wasn’t terribly surprised to hear that he had become born-again.
(I think people who are very anti-something are more likely to become pro-something
than someone is merely middle ground. The fervor is fertile grounds for conversion.)

I was surprised, however, to find out that he was teaching his students about God.
As someone who has worked with kids for a long time, I was especially appalled.
While he may insist that he is not forcing it on them,
I think he is taking advantage of the role that he plays in their lives.

I think he is betraying the parents and school system
that put him in a position to influence young minds.
Not to mention the children themselves.

drhat77's avatar

It depends on whether you let the child make whatever choices, spiritually, the child wants to, instead of forcing (through intimidation, threat of breaking ties, etc) the child to beleive the way you do.

Jreemy's avatar

The Enlightenment was actually a movement in early America that dealt with the use of reason, logic and science. It was the Great Awakening that dealt with a new found love for God. However, I know that you speak of a different enlightenment.

To me, enlightenment is something that is achieved on your own, the whole, “I can show you the door, but you have to walk through it” kinda thing. I heartily think that what churches and church communities do is a disguised version of brainwashing. I say this because I grew up in one of these communities. I kept my “religious” affiliation (or non affiliation) much to myself. I told a teacher once about my decision to be an agnostic and she seriously became angered. This is not a result of enlightenment, this is brainwashing. Think of it this way. Enlightenment is showing someone various types of art and letting them make their own inferences about the pieces. Brainwashing is forcing someone to view a particular piece of art and telling them that it means a certain thing and if they try to say otherwise, they will never be loved and shall burn for all eternity. Those are my thoughts.

Zaku's avatar

@Jreemy: I’ve not heard of that “The Enlightenment” – I tend to think more of the European philosophical movement which was largely about reason, free thinking over dogma, and human rights. It was the origin of much of the thinking behind the American Revolution, but was hardly begun here.

drhat77's avatar

also, you can teach the child that “this is what we (your family) believe,” instead of “this is the truth, and if you go against it, you’ll be damned to hell”

augustlan's avatar

I was raised a Christian, my ex was Jewish. We taught/teach our three children about both our religions, as well as many other religions. In every instance, we tell them that some people believe A and some people believe B, while still others don’t believe in A or B. In no case have we ever tried to influence their own feelings and beliefs about religion. That, to me, is enlightenment.

mzgator's avatar

We are southern baptist. We have purposely exposed our daughter to many different types of people who have many different types of faiths. Her favorite uncle is Buddhist. Most of my husband’s family are Catholic or Jewish. She accompanies us to our church. When she was 13 she decided to get baptized. We were very happy and proud. If she should change her religion, we will still love and accept her. If she marries a person of another faith, we will accept him.

My dad is Catholic. When I was a little girl an old baptist preacher came to visit and to try to convert him. My dad listened to him, and at the end of his speech, my dad said something so wise that I never forgot it. He told the preacher that he drove a chevrolet and the preacher drove a ford. If each of them got into their own cars and drove to the local neighborhood store, both cars were equally capable of getting them where they want to go. He explained that about religion. Just because I am baptist and you are whatever doesn’t mean we both won’t get where we want to go. (heaven) You choice of religion is just your path to get there.

If our daughter chooses another path, that’s ok. I don’t think she has been brainwashed.

nina's avatar

It is all in the eye of the beholder.

delirium's avatar

My mother and father taught me thusly: Until I was old enough to decide for myself, they taught me in depth about all the big religions (Yes, I went to church, temple, synagogue, etc.). When I was old enough to choose, they let me.

I think that’s the only way you can teach a child about religion without brainwashing them. Threatening them with ‘hell’ is brainwashing. It says “You must believe this because this book says so, and if you don’t believe that the book is telling the truth, the book says you’re going to hell.”

Malakai's avatar


Critter38's avatar

There is no easy answer to this as at its heart is a question of ranking the rights of the parent against the rights of the child. But, of those people who are religious I think it is only those who do not take a literalist/ fundamentalist interpretation of their faith that could possibly adopt a “let the child decide” outlook. If I honestly believed that my child would experience everlasting suffering when he or she died, unless he/she embraced a certain set of beliefs and practices, then it would be irresponsible of me not to do everything I could to ensure that my child adopted those beliefs. So the stronger (more literalist, fundamentalist) the religion of the parent, the more likely that a child will be indoctrinated or brainwashed into accepting those beliefs.

But this brings us back to a definition. Can we brainwash a child by telling them that the earth is spherical, or that most birds can fly or people need oxygen to survive? Probably not, as these statement are true to the best of our knowledge. Is it brainwashing to tell a child repeatedly there is a hell (if you believe hell exists, fill in some rival religion’s belief that you find silly)?

So to me brainwashing really comes down to the truth of the information that you’re providing your child. So to separate the issue of “brainwashing children” from the necessary and vital role of parents as the principle teacher of children about the world around them, comes down to the validity of the information the children are being provided.

The only solution in my mind (admitedly I am about as removed from religious belief as is possible), is to teach your children about the different ways that we can “know” things. Be honest with your children about what you know and how you know it and what you believe and why you believe it. Explain the difference between evidence and faith. Above all I would teach my children why reason and evidence should take precedence over authority and dogma. Including my own authority as their parent. It doesn’t matter who, or which book, a particular claim originates from, but the quality of evidence available to support the claim.

As such, I think it is impossible to brainwash a child if your central goal is to teach them to think for themselves. If this is what the enlightment teaches, then it can never become brainwashing.

bodyhead's avatar

A small child will have to take everything on faith. They don’t have enough ‘evidence’ of the world around them to made educated informed decisions. To them there is no difference in believing in a God and believing that the world is round.

What I’m gathering from this thread is that from an outsiders point of view, you are only brainwashing a child when you teach them the wrong belief system. As such, any time someone teaches a child the wrong belief system (i.e. not your system), they are brainwashing but anytime someone teaches a child your belief system, they are enlightening.

Letting the child make up its own mind can just as easily bring the child around to your way of thinking. The child believes everything you tell it until it has a reason to think otherwise. Since most faiths don’t require one scrap of evidence, the child will usually believe what it was taught when it was too young to make informed decisions.

Critter38's avatar

For the first part, absolutely. Small children are completely incapable of deciding what is true and what is not true. The power is completely in the hands of the parent.

I also agree that the use of the word “brainwashing” can easily be subjective. Some Muslim parents inevitably think Christians brainwash their kids and vice versa. Agreed. I imagine many Christians are devasted “knowing” that children of atheists are likely to be bound for hell if they don’t find faith on their own.

However, I think acknowledging that the term can be subjective can mistakenly take us down the path towards relativism.

There is more evidence for some things, less for others, and no evidence for some ideas. As such, there are different levels of justification for teaching your children that something is “true” or not.

So although I agree that the term brainwashing is often used by outsiders judging the information other parents (with different belief systems) convey to their kids, I also think that there are means by which it becomes very difficult for outsiders to justify their claim that a given parent is brainwashing their kids.

For instance, If I can demonstrate the validity of what I teach to my kids, then how would any outsider be able to justify a claim that I was brainwashing them?

“Most birds can fly.” says the mother to her daughter.

However, if my neighbour gets his/her children to believe that boys must have their earlobes removed on their 13th birthday because that is what God wants, are we both equally guilty of brainwashing?

If so, then the term brainwashing ceases to really mean anything and does become completely subjective. Hopefully we can keep the term for something more meaningful than that otherwise it ceases to have much use…that which defines everything, defines nothing.

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