John over at Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt posted his thoughts about raising children in a Buddhist context. In particular, he very clearly rejected overtly teaching children Buddhism in a way that indoctrinates them.
Western Buddhist Centers that want to provide some child care is fine but when it is something that involves religious indoctrination it makes me ill. I know that this is going to come off as insulting but when I think of anyone of any tradition or religion telling my daughter what to believe it makes me physically ill.
First, here's what Merriam-Webster has to say about indoctrination.
Main Entry: in·doc·tri·nate
Function: transitive verb
Inflected Form(s): in·doc·tri·nat·ed; in·doc·tri·nat·ing
Etymology: probably from Middle English endoctrinen, from Anglo-French endoctriner, from en- + doctrine doctrine
1 : to instruct especially in fundamentals or rudiments : teach
2 : to imbue with a usually partisan or sectarian opinion, point of view, or principle
Now, what I would like to say is that I am a member of a "Western Buddhist Center" that places a heavy emphasis on working with children. We have a fully-functioning bi-weekly program for children of all ages, with classes broken down by grade level that work on basic Buddhist teachings through discussion, play, art, and even some meditation and chanting. Is it indoctrination? Yes, in the sense of definition number 1 above. Part of the problem with the word indoctrination is that it's meaning is so broad, almost any learning environment could be said to be indoctrinating.
John writes, "We (my wife and daughter) are a family but we are not Buddhist and I don’t want to raise or convert anyone to Buddhism. I don’t want to raise a religion. I want to raise a person. A free-thinker. An individual."
Before I joined our board of directors, I was a teacher in the 2nd-3rd grade class at our meditation center. I loved working with kids this age because they are inquisitive, active, and haven't given in yet for the most part to softening the answers they give, or the questions they ask. I watched parents struggle with the bluntness that occurred at times, but I felt it was wonderful to have kids sharing stories with each other about what they loved, what they hated, death, animals, bugs, going to the bathroom, and, well, you get the drift. We had a very simply chant to open the class that was basically a vow to take care of each other, animals, the planet, and our toys (gotta remember those toys, right?). A few of the kids didn't want to chant, or would make up their own words, but to me, it was most important that we do something together to mark off the time as our group's time. That's a value of ritual, even a simple one that takes 30 seconds. If you consider me a tyrant for imposing a bit of ritual on those classes, so be it.
I sometimes wonder if much of Buddhist practice is going to survive here in North America because we're so hellbent on maintaining our individuality that we can barely see the value of community. In fact, I'd argue that most of us have a deep longing for community that competes with this individualism, and this is partly why it's been so difficult to develop healthy "brick and mortar" sanghas. I also think this issue plays out in a slightly different way in the online Buddhist community. Specifically, the desire to be right, to make a great point about practice, sometimes trumps sharing space with others and working together to come to a greater understanding about an issue.
John's distaste for the controlling, life numbing methods of religious instruction seen in some of the monotheistic communities of North America is something I share. And yet, at the same time, if a parent practices Buddhism, or any spiritual tradition, the child will be influenced. There's no way around it. Why is it wrong for the sangha the parents attend to provide classes for their children?
What I find with the parents at our center is that they want to practice and have their family. They don't want to divide everything up, disappearing to do their zen thing for a few hours a week, and then trying to run a household the rest of the time. They also want their children to spend time in a community that isn't their school. But mostly they just want to be with their kids, and not have to shuttle them around whenever they want to go to Sunday service, or take a class.
At the end of John's post, he quotes a comment that a mother who practices Buddhism left on another blog about raising children. She writes:
Whenever we are trying to impose anything – a way of thinking, a belief system, the expectation of an outcome – it is not satisfactorily resolved. We resolve this question only through our own practice, as we let go of the notion that there is anything dogmatic that will benefit either ourselves or our children. Satisfied with things as they are, we can be ourselves, and let our children grow up to be themselves as well, each of us on a path that is entirely our own
I think it's worth striving for not imposing your views on your children, but let's face it: parents impose things on their children, sometimes even without knowing. I'd even say the desire to raise a child as a free thinker could become an imposition if the children becomes dogmatic about something in a way that the parents consider wrong or destructive. Even teaching basic safety, healthy habits, and respect for other requires that a parent stop their children from doing and thinking things to the contrary. Sure, these issues are different than religious teachings, but I don't think there is a clear cut answer to the question of indoctrination posed by John and also raised by the mother in the quote above.
The way I see it, it's fine to skip the overtly Buddhist teachings if that works for your family. And I also think it's fine if you want to have your children in an overtly Buddhist program. I'm well aware that the complexities of every family means a different approach in every family. But I have to wonder if some of the concerns about indoctrination are coming from memories of Sunday Schools or their equivalents.