Once I was sitting in a restaurant, listening to some music and chatting with the crowd. One guy and I meshed quite well. As Army vets, we played off each other. He’d tell a joke; I’d tell a joke. Back and forth we went for nearly half an hour. We also swapped stories. “Let me tell you about the time I left clothes in the washing machine overnight.” He’d continue, “No way! I’m surprised you’re not dead!”

Then he’d share: “I once laughed during a CSM retirement speech.” “Let me guess…” and I recounted the same line I’d heard hundreds of times. It was easily one of the most fun nights I’ve had in a long time.

I’ve tried sharing these stories with others and they don’t get it. I’ve gotten responses like, “So?” and “What’s the point?” I couldn’t fault them for not understanding–they didn’t have the military experience these jokes were based on. They’re just not veterans.

Going through basic training is like hitting the factory reset on life. Ripped from the comfort of home, the soldier emerges to find his first encounter with a Drill Sergeant. Like a baby exiting a womb, it’s a shock to the system. The Drill Sergeants teach you everything as if you knew nothing. They give you clothes and teach you how to dress. They demonstrate how to fold the corners of a bed sheet and how your bunk should look at all times (even while you’re in it). Drill Sergeants aren’t concerned with your feelings or your input; they are there to instruct, train, and, yes, indoctrinate.

Drill Sergeants and Parenting

But Drill Sergeants are not always hardened warriors expecting perfection. They are also funny. In the movie “Full Metal Jacket”, Gunnery SGT Hartman carries the first half of the movie with his clever quips. Here’s one of my favorites: “I want that [latrine] so sanitary and squared away that the Virgin Mary herself would be proud to go in there and take a dump.” In short, Drill Sergeants indoctrinate a new way of life through training, experience, discipline and even humor.

Dawkins likely wouldn’t mind if you indoctrinated your kids with this belief.

In many ways, parents do exactly the same things as the Drill Sergeants. They teach kids how to dress, what to eat, and what it means to be responsible. Parents, likewise, get to show their kids the ups and downs of life. They get to witness their children taking their first steps, riding their first bike (without training wheels), and dressing themselves. But they also get to laugh and grow together.

Through every step, parents have an enduring impact on how their kids will face the future. Indoctrination, in this sense, is something that comes without much effort or intent. Simply spending 18 or more years together in the same house is going to set some basic principles for life—good and bad.

The Reality of Indoctrination

Indoctrination gets a bad name when those 18-plus years are spent mandating a belief that a child later finds is not true, or not as evident as they were led to believe. Maybe the habits and practices and beliefs they have been indoctrinated with leave a sore spot—welcome to life!

The opposite of indoctrination is still indoctrination, you’re just indoctrinating a different set of values.

The stories my new-found friend and I shared at the restaurant weren’t all pleasantries and shenanigans. Some of our stories involved the fear of war. Some of our stories involved the smell of ammunition—a smell that always reminds me of the worst parts of humanity. I may have nightmares from things that happened over 15 years ago, but I survived those things because I had a Drill Sergeant that gave me the training and indoctrination to military life that would get me through the best and the worst of it.

Are Youth Trapped in Indoctrination?

Similarly, parents have the power and authority to make a lasting impact in their position. They could potentially raise up the next Hitler, which is a scary thought. But if parents don’t have the freedom to train, instruct or indoctrinate the better parts of humanity (love your neighbors as yourself; treat others as you want to be treated)… then we’re left to only watch kids making the same mistakes as their parents.

Is indoctrination of youth a problem? No. Complete avoidance of all beliefs and principles is the problem, and we get there by failing to raise up the next generation to be better than we are. We get there by failing to indoctrinate values and beliefs in kids that will enable them to indoctrinate values and beliefs to their kids. Indoctrination itself is not the problem–what matters is who we are building kids to become. The cycle of imparting wisdom and character to the next generation can start–or stop–with you.

What do you believe are the features and limits of indoctrination? What makes indoctrination good or bad? Weigh in below.

Roger Browning is a husband, father of four, Army veteran and has been part of the Clear Lens team since 2016. Roger brings wit, experience and an audacious style to the apologetics genre. Currently, Roger is enrolled in the C. S. Lewis Institute Fellows program and enjoys encouraging others to take their faith seriously.

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