Indoctrination, Brainwashing vs Educating

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I don't get to talk with many Sonlight students in my job. I read your amazing blog posts, but I'm rather out of the loop when it comes to your kids. I've chatted with graduated Sonlighters only a few times.

The first I remember was a brother-sister duo who had used Sonlight for a year. "But it was sooo boring!" they told me. That didn't jibe with my experience, so I asked what they liked instead. "Oh, we're doing A Beka now." ...uh-huh. Interesting. It is nice that there are options out there to meet your needs if Sonlight is not a good fit for you. ...but boring? Really?

This week I got to give a high five to a guy who showed up at my house with a friend. He used Sonlight all the way up and seems to be doing great. (Not surprising. <smile>) We didn't get to chat about his experience, but it seemed like a positive one. I would have liked to know more.

But then this one guy, who used Sonlight off an on over the years, told me that he had been brainwashed by his parents. I disagreed. We ended up looking up the definition so we could have a common starting place: Indoctrination that forces people to abandon their beliefs.

"Wait a minute! This completely ignores what your parents push on you." He was irate.

"I don't want to discredit your experience," I told him. "I know you feel like stuff was pushed on you. But you weren't brainwashed. You chose to believe things very different from your parents. The education they gave you came from a certain slant, to be sure, but it didn't put you on a track from which you couldn't break free."

Homeschooling allows us to transfer, not impose, our values. You can communicate why you have certain beliefs. But no system guarantees your kids will accept them. Indeed, they may harbor a longstanding wound, feeling as if they've been brainwashed. Pushing ideas can push away.


Do I have any suggestions? Sure. But I don't know much about this as I had a great experience growing up and felt very free to challenge ideas, do research, and question stuff. Here are my two cents, but I'd love to hear yours, especially if you've had a child abandon core values you tried to impart to them.

  1. Ask questions. I really like what my New Testament professor did with Luke 2. Sometimes the most powerful ways to demonstrate why you believe what you believe is to first use the best arguments against your side. ...and only later provide the answers. Don't just give answers. Let your children wrestle with the difficulties and encourage them to weigh in.
  2. Be open about your own struggles. Does a particular doctrine, practice, passage, or emphasis rub you the wrong way? Did a troubling question nag at you for years? There are probably good times to bring these up, to let your children see that you've wrestled with things yourself. Even if you haven't figured it all out yet, letting them see your own journey can be a great way to encourage them in their own.
  3. Relax. A missionary recently quipped that she needs a tattoo on her forearm that says, "You are not the Holy Spirit!" I know I tend to get more pushy the more disinterested someone becomes. But this is likely the opposite of what I should do. Let God do His work. Let peace and grace and love be what you offer, not pressure.
  4. Pray. Once we've surrendered our lives -- and the lives of our family -- to God, we need to keep our focus on letting Him do His work. Aligning ourselves with Him and His will is a good practice to keep.

You are working to educate your children. You want to share things that matter to you. This is good. Don't let the lies creep in. Remain faithful. Act in love. And allow the loving-kindness of Christ draw your children to Him.

 ~Luke Holzmann
Filmmaker, Writer, Pseudo-Dad

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  1. Luke, this is a very important post. I think it addresses the very reason many people chose to homeschool. As you know, we are huge Sonlight fans and believe your book selection addresses the worldview issues with which you wrestle here. In conjunction with the literature and history materials that addressed our worldview that were part of the Sonlight program, we added materials that very directly and specifically explained why we believe one thing and do not believe another. Why is Christianity true and Islam false? Why is Secular Humanism false and Christianity true? The Sonlight books played extremely well with our worldview studies, but the books alone should not be expected to carry the entire weight of "raising up a child in the way they should go." The parent has to "own" the presentation of truth to their children as they know it. In the case or your friend, it seems like it would be objectively wrong to teach him stuff they did not believe was true. That he chose not to believe it after the fact seems to be more proof of the love of the parents than brainwashing. In the end, like everyone in history, he got to chose for himself.

    On another note, I have two fairly successful Sonlight alums with whom you can talk anytime you like. They would love it.

    • Ken, I agree. What I appreciate about your story here is that it demonstrates one of the things we want to do with Sonlight: Educate, not indoctrinate. We want to give you, the parent, the flexibility to teach things how you deem best for your family. But, as I caution in my post above, by "owning" that responsibility, we must be careful in how we interact with our children because we know they will choose for themselves.

      And I would love to chat with them at some point [smile]. That'd be awesome. ...trouble is, and this is something I've been thinking about since writing this post, I'm not sure what a good format would be. I'd love to get more stories from/interaction with students/Sonlight grads, but I don't think interviews and the like would be a good fit for that kind of interaction. ...still thinking about that. But I appreciate how open and inviting your family is [smile]. It's nice to have such fantastic bloggy friends.


      • I am not sure about how to get the stories, but when I read your thoughts about the interviews, I immediately thought about the Humans of New York page on Facebook. It seems like you are uniquely situated to do something just like that. You have attended public school AND homeschool. You have professional media and (I assume) interviewing skills. There are a lot of us out here who really would like to listen to the experiences of others in the poignant way only an insider can elicit. Both the single subject photo with insightful interview response and the long-form third person interview with an interviewer who tries to find out what the interviewee (parents, students and onlookers) does, did, knows, feels and thinks rather than an interview or article that represents the ideas and agenda of the first person writer.

        That is something I have not really seen so much when it comes to homeschool reporting. Everyone does it differently--even from within the Sonlight family. We all like some of what other people do and are skeptical about other stheff. There is always seems to be an agenda other than just to get the truth in the reporting seen from homeschoolers themselves and from outsiders in media and academia. I know I am guilty of that. I don't know. Just a the thought that came into my head when I saw this.

  2. Pingback: Want Your Children to Reject Your Teaching? Do This | Sonlight Blog

  3. That is really encouraging, Ken. Thank you! I've been thinking about that idea now for the last 24 hours. ...we'll see what comes of it [smile].