How to unindoctrinate an indoctrinated child?
August 1, 2014 3:15 PM   Subscribe

I know this is heavy stuff, but my seven year old daughter has lived with her very dogmatic grandparents within a very dogmatic culture for the past two years or so. She tried to evangelize me tonight and now I see the extent of the damage that's been done to her young mind.

So I live in a west African country where Christianity proliferates just about every part of life in the southern part of the country. I came to live here last year to be reunited with my daughter, who has been living here with her grandparents (my ex husband's parents) for the past couple years. I was very ill and they were taking care of her while I made a recovery. While I'm glad she has had a nurturing upbringing for the most part, I wasn't unaware of the fact that she was being raised in a christian home. Which isn't a problem in itself, but this particular brand of Christianity frowns on critical thinking, is very rooted in tradition (to the point of shunning progress), and hold very restricting tenants like "No nail polish" and "no secular music." I revealed to my daughter tonight that I'm no longer a Christian (I deconverted years ago), and she proceeded to tell me why I should be, in a way that an adult evangelist would. It was frightening to me as a mother. I'm an agnostic, and I know how dogmatic and anti-progressive Christians in this part of the world can be. I also know how traumatic it can be to realize that your entire worldview is wrong. I want to take her home asap and get her out of this environment. But is there any way I can help to get some of these ideas out of her head without scarring her for life?
posted by Cybria to Human Relations (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I think you have to let them drift away, rather than try to force them out. The less traumatic you make this transition, the easier you make it for her to adapt. If you attack her current worldview too directly , I worry she'll feel like she has to defend it.
posted by mercredi at 3:23 PM on August 1, 2014 [52 favorites]

She's only seven. If you make a big deal about how everything she believes is wrong, you're probably going to freak her out more than anything else. Likewise if you act frightened of the things she's saying. Probably opportunities to naturally share and discuss why you don't share those beliefs will come up once she's away from the grandparents, and I think it will be easier on her if you don't view it as some sort of urgent matter of de-programming her. I would think that at her age, the ultraconservative bits at least will fade away once she's with you and not with the grandparents.
posted by daisystomper at 3:24 PM on August 1, 2014 [13 favorites]

If you get her out of there, a lot of it should fade naturally. And you there are many age-appropriate ways to talk about, model, and practice critical thinking.
posted by Lyn Never at 3:41 PM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I just wouldn't worry about it. Listen to her, let her explain herself. When appropriate, you can tell her what you believe. Will the grandparents continue to be a part of her life? Are they otherwise caring, loving people? Don't rush to alienate their beliefs. She'll find her own way which may be your way or their way or, most likely, somewhere completely of her own creation.
posted by amanda at 3:57 PM on August 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Take a deep breath. If you have been separated for two years, there are going to be many, many adjustments in her life and in yours while reestablish the parent-child relationship. You are probably going to hear "grandparents don't do it that way" about all kinds of things that (language, clothes, food, chores, bedtime) If you are still living in their home for now, you probably want to respect their values as much as you possibly can. You also don't want to put your child in a situation where she feels like she has choose which side she is on. When she tries to tell you what to do, I would suggest a very calm firm response along the lines of "People have different opinions about that. I'm doing what is right for me."

Also, kids that age tend to be very black and white in their thinking ("all girls should wear dresses" even though her own mother wore jeans every day) and they get ideas from "experts" that are just ridiculous (Babies are born because the mother swallows a seed. It doesn't matter what you say, my friend Bobby told me and so I know it is true). So don't over-react, time is on your side - you have another 10+ years to influence the development of the person that she is going to become.
posted by metahawk at 4:02 PM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm not sure how free you are in choosing a school for your daughter, but try to choose a diverse environment for her. That way she'll just experience that there are different points of view and different rituals. This is something I'd discuss when talking with schools.
posted by ouke at 4:03 PM on August 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Also, be aware that she might really afraid for your immortal soul. If it comes up, I would try to find a way to reassure her without denying her own belief in God. For example, I might say "I try hard to be a good person. If God is going to judge me*, I trust that God will have the love and mercy to appreciate that I've been good and everything will be OK" If she argues with this, go back to the earlier response, "That's what some people believe but I believe that if God is going to be judge me, being a good person will be enough"
*What you are thinking, but not saying, might be "I don't actually believe in God, but if God does exists then...."
posted by metahawk at 4:09 PM on August 1, 2014 [21 favorites]

Keep listening to her and talking to her. She has a working brain and you are her mother. And nothing is locked in place here. The problem with doctrinaire people is when their ideas are never examined or challenged -- and by that I do not mean you need to be any more than gently questioning with her. At her age I was terribly impressed with religion . . . when I was in my early 20s I was a fierce libertarian. Maturity and thought bring greater wisdom to all of us.
posted by bearwife at 4:10 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is an age where kids respond well to choices. You could frame belief as a choice - some people believe the way her grandparents do (and that's OK), and some people believe like you do, and that is also OK. She can decide as she grows which ways make the most sense to her. You can also let her know that she can change her mind over time about what she believes, and that's normal and OK as well.

The structure of that kind of belief is probably appealing - one of the tough things about being a kid is trying to figure out how everything works. You can build on that need for structure and order by acknowledging and validating her feelings ("yes, some people believe that, and that is OK"), expanding it ("other people believe other things, such as foo and blah, and those are also OK"), and providing an overriding value system ("no matter what you believe, the most important thing is to respect/care for/be kind to/etc. all people").

I also think it is important to talk with her about it in ways that aren't judging the beliefs. You can talk to her about which parts of the belief system are most appealing to her. Which Bible stories does she particularly like? What does she pray about? Ask her to describe God.

This will all be much easier if your plan is to move to a less fundamentalist area (it isn't clear from your question whether this is your plan or just something you wish you could do). Your guidance, along with other influences, will likely gently wash this away. If you're staying in that area, you may have to take a longer perspective - providing the kinds of guidance and options above, staying in touch about which parts of her faith are most important to her, and generally just keeping the door open.

Being a parent is often scary, but you don't have to be afraid of the evangelizing of a 7-year-old. She's parroting what she has heard, and you have a great opportunity to help guide her.
posted by jeoc at 4:14 PM on August 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

I'm thinking that moving from one set of caretakers to another is an enormous upheaval for a little one. Learning that the people who love you and take care of you can make mistakes and be wrong about big things is also an enormous upheaval (especially if it was her whole town and her school and everybody she knew). Being stuck in the middle of a disagreement between people you love is pretty rough too, and rearranging your entire world view is yet another major challenge.

Thus I'm squarely behind everyone who says let it be for the moment, downplay the whole thing, and focus on integrating kiddo back into your life for a good long while before getting into Everything Grandma Taught You Was Wrong.

UNLESS she is upset by the idea that her Mum will be going to hell, in which case I'd address that one in specific, "I think a God that would send people to hell for doing things that don't hurt anyone sounds kind of mean, I don't think a God would be mean like that".

In the meantime you can maybe encourage her in forming an active and questioning attitude about all the little everyday things, and model a process of thinking about moral issues that isn't centred on an external authority.
posted by emilyw at 4:30 PM on August 1, 2014 [10 favorites]

I would agree with the point above about black and white thinking - kids at the age of your daughter don't understand abstract concepts much, and their understanding of "right" and "wrong" is very rules-based. I think indirectly addressing the issue by the way you live your life, the people and situations you expose her to (presumably, diverse ones with diverse perspectives on the world), is your best strategy, rather than trying to directly tell her that what she learned was wrong. That will be very hard for her to understand.

If it helps, I know plenty of people who were dedicated followers of religion at your daughter's age who grew up to have strong atheist beliefs. A lot changes when kids become teenagers and start questioning their identities and the authority of those around them.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 4:55 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

The number one way to destabilize dogmatic thinking is to ask someone why they think the way they do, then listen to them stumble as they justify their non answers. Do so without judgement. Just listen. Then ask follow up questions that pose counter arguments like, "Well, so and so does this, and you love them. Does that make them bad?" It can really make a big difference, and it's a gentle way to pick apart dogma without making someone feel stupid.
posted by Hermione Granger at 4:56 PM on August 1, 2014 [5 favorites]

Listen and speak to her with logic. Around 8-12 she will start to bring more & more logic into her thinking, and she will see which ideas make sense and which don't.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 5:02 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

When she next comes out with an evangelistic saying, don't contradict it, just say "Yes, Grandma and Grandpa believe that, but not everyone believes the same things. There are many different people with different beliefs in this world, and they are all worth listening to." Then maybe give her examples from different faiths, customs, older mythologies, etc. When she asserts that her version is right because it comes from God, you can counter with "That's exactly what someone from [x belief] would say too." "But they're wrong!" "They'd also say that." Etc.
posted by Pallas Athena at 5:04 PM on August 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Reconnect with your daughter, enjoy being with her, and be patient. Reestablishing a loving relationship is what matters right now. Please don't make theological quarreling a cornerstone of your interactions with your 7 year old. You don't need to lie or to wilt, but shift your focus elsewhere.

She'll change her mind about important things more than once as she gets older. (You did, didn't you?) Be someone she trusts and respects, and what you believe will be important to her as she grows up. Be patient.
posted by mattu at 5:23 PM on August 1, 2014 [8 favorites]

When she was 11 years old and in a Baptist private school (for educational purposes only; we're not Baptist), my sister came to stay with me for a few weeks in the summer. Somehow we got on the religion topic and I realized she'd been drinking the Kool-Aid. My adorable sweet littlest sister was spouting off about people being damned to hell for not believing in Jesus Christ.

Like any self-righteous know-it-all twenty something, we had a discussion under the guiding premise of "A mind is like a parachute; it has to be open to function properly." I briefly sketched out how Judaism, Christianity and Islam were related branches of the monotheistic tree. I questioned her beliefs, pointed out the logical weaknesses of such a rigid doctrine, and made her explain her thought processes, which to her credit were pretty well thought out for her age. For example, upon my prodding she explained that she thought a little Hindu boy who hadn't been exposed to the word of Christ wouldn't go to hell, but if he had and still choose to be Hindu then yes, he was damned.

She had been receptive yet holding her own in our discussion. At the time she wanted to be an archaeologist. I pointed out that there were no dinosaurs in the bible, so how could she explain that to me.

She burst into tears and ran into the bathroom. I felt like an ass. I still feel like an ass jut thinking about it. I calmed her down and hugged her and told her I was sorry, that I hadn't meant to make her cry but I just wanted her mind to be open. She forgave me and I continued to feel like a total shit heel for the rest of her stay.

Fast forward to little sis all grown up with nary a trace of religion, and her summer stay with me comes up in conversation. I groaned in guilt and started apologizing again for making her cry. She stopped me and said that she should thank me for making her think. And I got a little gooey, but it still makes me cringe whenever I remember her 11 year old self crying over the dinosaurs.

All this is to illustrate that you can help her actually think through and help her untangle those knots of what she has been parroting. But be very gentle and let it happen naturally over a period of time.
posted by romakimmy at 5:27 PM on August 1, 2014 [9 favorites]

I posted a related question almost seven years ago now (wow!). Let me tell you how the child in question is turning out.

My seven year old daughter has an excellent relationship with my Catholic in-laws and sees them regularly. She has attended church with my in-laws, believes in God, and wants to be baptized. She wants to know why I am not Catholic. She occasionally expresses concern about my immortal soul. This has all occurred while she was living under my agnostic roof and attending public school.

Pallas Athena is spot on in my opinion. "Everybody believes different things" is the line I give when grandma does X and I do Y. This works well, but with some caveats. The hard questions for agnostics are the ones about death and afterlife because atheists/agnostics really don't have a compelling child-friendly alternative to heaven. Sometimes I let that one go.

The other thing is that I have been clear with my daughter that she will not be baptized. I told her that choosing a religion is an adult decision, and that when she is 18 she can choose to be whatever religion that she wants. Sometimes parents get to make decisions for kids because kids can't understand all of the things that can happen because of a decision. There are lots of simple examples of this principle. One time I reminded my daughter of the time where she accidentally gave the dog a breathing problem because she put a heavy blanket over the crate - an adult would think through that scenario and not make that mistake. This is why kids aren't in charge.

I had the advantage of being present with my child the whole time so I could easily assert the "I'm the mother, you're a kid" doctrine. You've been away so that's hard. You're going to have to work through the "I'm the mother, you're a kid, grandma's not the boss" thing anyway. I would start with a less thorny battleground than religion for your first fight on this. I suggest choosing diet or studying as a warm up to this.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:33 PM on August 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is an extremely different situation, but I remember my mom driving me home from Sunday school when I was about 6 or 7 (which I was attending at my dad's church) and telling her something they had told me which I then totally believed (I forget what it was exactly, but I think it was that this church thought images of Jesus on the cross -- like in Catholicism -- was wrong because Jesus ascended so the cross was supposed to be empty. Or something. I was 6 or 7). I believed it because these people had told me to believe it.

My mom, a patient hippie type, asked something to the effect of "Well, do you believe that's true? Do you believe the other people are wrong to believe what they do? You get to decide for yourself."

And that was it. We didn't talk about it further in the car. But I realized that hey, I could decide things for myself. I could believe what I wanted and discard the stuff I didn't. It wasn't all or nothing.

So yeah, be patient with her. I remember being a kid and always believing what adults said where true because they were adults. Kids aren't necessarily taught to think for themselves.

I think next time she says something, ask her gently "Why do you think that?" If she says "Because Grandma says ..." ask what she'd think if grandma hadn't said that. She may not have an answer, but she'll get to think about it.

But she's 7. Kids don't know what they're supposed to do yet. Even if you disagree, give her room to explore those things. Challenge her, yeah, but don't treat it like her grandparents are wrong. There can be more than one "right."
posted by darksong at 6:54 PM on August 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I agree that slow and steady is the way to go. Like crazycanuk I have a close relative, my sister in law, who has been proselytizing to my kids since they were born. She is a lovely person in many ways, and great with the kids. She also thinks that my partner and I are going to hell (we are a lesbian couple) and has cried over this with my partner, her sister. My sister in law an evangelical Christian and her life revolves around the church.

This has been a bit of a tough one for me since I spent many years in the evangelical movement (thanks Mum and Dad) as a child and adolescent and it was not a good experience AT ALL. Fucking horrible actually. My first instinct was to protect my children from the indoctrination I had to go through as a child. However, circumstances are different for my kids. My partner and I chilled out and decided to mostly let her sister have her way. We accept the gifts she brings - Christian books and manga, Christian cartoons for kids and the horrible ear wormy Christian cartoon music videos she plays for them.

I talk to the children about religion on a regular basis. They know which friends of the family are Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist (or were raised in those faiths even if they don't practice). If we pass a relgious building, I point it out to them. I've told them bible stories from the Old Testament at story time for years, always stressing that they are stories (and taking out the overly salacious bits when necessary) and mixing them in with the other stories. I've also told them religious stories from other faiths, including Buddhism and Hinduism. They know that their aunt believes something, grandma and grandpa believe something else and Mama and Mummy also believe different things (I'm aethiest, my partner is agnostic). I've tried to teach them to be respectful of other beliefs and I try to be respectful of their beliefs.

My eldest really likes the idea of reincarnation, my youngest thinks heaven sounds pretty cool. My talk about feeding the earth with our bodies isn't playing so well with the 6 & 8 year old set. Understandably so. So at the moment I have a young Buddhist and a young Christian. I'd be lying if I said I was happy my littlest one believes in Jesus. But I think my parents did a shitty thing dumping their religion on me, so I'm trying to present the issues to my kids as best I can and certainly not demand that they be non believers. I trust that things will come out all right in the wash. My kids love their Aunty and I hope I am showing them, by example, that people can get along even if they don't have the same beliefs. And I hope I'm teaching them to think things through so that as they grow and develop they can delve deeper into these issues.

Of course, the minute Aunty tells them that Mummy and Mama are going to hell we will have to reevaluate. We are in this for the long haul. Good luck.
posted by Cuke at 6:55 PM on August 1, 2014 [6 favorites]

I grew up in an extremely fundamentalist Christian household. I'm not sure the type of Christian teachings but these things were very life or death with me (i was also spiritually abused so beliefs came with scary and often painful consequences). I eventually fell away from that and now am a happy pagan lesbian social worker.

For me the topic had to be be approached carefully and slowly. I grew up in a city where the religion was predominantly Christian and often heard people relating struggles about family members who were not the faith. People who weren't in the faith suffered social exclusion and also missed cultural arguments and mythology. It was very scary ground to walk. I remember crying and being so upset when my brother denied Jesus at some event and I cried for his immortal soul and it was super that serious. The amount of terror I had in me was no small feat to work through and really took skill building.

The best thing you can do is help her think in different ways. Build skills to critically look at things. Regardless what topics you help her with eventually she will apply it to religion. Act on the religious stuff slowly. Reassure when she had major doubts about something.

Personally I'd be more concerned about shaming messages regarding sex and lust. This stuff was super confusing for me and led to tons of internal suffering for just being human and having feelings .

If I was you i would focus on relationship building and critical thinking. My experience is on the far end of the spectrum may not be applicable. And it is ok if she turns out Christian. It's ok if she worries about you. It's not okay for her to beat herself up over it or try and save you because that is not her responsibility. You can help her resolve those conflicts in the context of her religion if need be, if at this time she can't believe anything else. Ultimately spirituality is a healthy thing for people to have. It provides boundaries and answers to the unanswered questions in life. It provides social support. It gives her a chance to meet people who are like minded. Teach Her to be opened minded and to think. With those skills no matter what she decides she will be just fine.
posted by AlexiaSky at 9:17 PM on August 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

At seven the young mind is flexible. Just let her be and respect her faith for now. As your influence dominates, let your curiosity be her model. Ask Socratic questions of her. "That's an interesting point of view, why do you think that?" Let her explain to you. Encourage a critical line of thinking.

Don't make a BFD of any of this. She will be who she will be.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:02 AM on August 2, 2014 [1 favorite]

It may help her to know that sincere Christians come in many flavors. As an agnostic, you could be sympathetic to the extent that you expose her to other versions of Christianity. I wouldn't try to tell her that her version of religion is wrong. For one thing, that's an open-ended argument with no clear resolution. This is a bit more serious than tooth-fairy or santa clause issues, because a seven-year old child is able to apprehend those concepts, and myths are one of the basic tools we use to imply the nature of existence.

I went to several types of churches growing up, because my folks and family are generic Christians. I was lucky that way. Eventually I drifted into agnosticism, then flat out atheism. Nowadays I'm willing to believe in a creative force (because who knows?) but not a personal god.

If your daughter can get exposed to various doctrines in a non-confrontational way, she may be able to adapt her views to less severe contours than they now have. By the time she reaches her majority, then, you two may be able to have a reasonable exchange of ideas about how the universe works.

Now, this could require you to visit some churches, and have frank discussions with their pastors, ministers, and such. In my experience many Christians are willing to patiently let you muddle through your existential roilings on the off chance that you'll come into the fold. You don't have to critique these churches, but you should be willing to sit in on Sunday school sessions and discuss Bible Stories.

The idea here is to try to look at these stories the way you would look at any story: what is the writer saying? Though they may be clothed in religious rhetoric, most of these stories are about people dealing with stuff. You won't make any headway if you try to meet the intolerance already imparted to her by a similar rejection, even though it may come from a more enlightened ground. At some point in her education she will be exposed to the creation myths and religious views of other cultures. Some are as interesting as coyote turds, and others are more difficult to grasp. It would be fair if you commented on any of the various conflicts that come up in these Bible stories, but I wouldn't go so far as to point them out to her. The idea is to keep her engaged with learning, not create a polemic that requires her to make decisions that (even) scholars are not equipped to handle.

Even as a believer in the Cosmic Muffin, I still re-read the KJ and other versions of the Bible, because every reading shows me something interesting. Not so much the New Testament, though.
posted by mule98J at 11:53 AM on August 2, 2014

I echo those who suggest introducing talk about all of the other belief systems out there. As a kid, reading mythology books and history of religion books (I was the kid inside the library during recess) completely changed me: I began to understand that people thought differently.

Around 5-8 years old, kids are sponges, so give her lots of critical thinking skills to slowly suck up. By 12, logic is much more developed, and you may find her asking very different questions. You can help her with learning how to make decisions and draw conclusions: you don't have to give her the answers.

In the end, you just do the best you can do. As Ruthless Bunny put it, she will be who she will be.
posted by troytroy at 11:56 AM on August 2, 2014

One thing to consider, is to find a church local to you that has theology that you're more comfortable with. There might be one near you that's more into, say, being a good person and performing acts of charity. Offer to take her. She's probably been told by her grandparents that church is necessary, and will want to go so she doesn't disappoint them. If you can find one that's less dogmatic, it will help to deprogram her. (Or you could find one that's so deadly boring that she doesn't want to go again).
posted by kjs4 at 6:55 PM on August 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

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