Teaching Values to Children

Teaching values to children is part of their upbringing; a parent’s right to choose what values are taught, though, is contentious.

As described earlier, children acquire habits of behaviour by observing others who might not even realise how much influence they have (4.2.1).  Some upbringing, though, is designed to shape a child’s values in accordance with a specific agenda – which might be a religious education, for example.

It is widely accepted that parents have a right to influence children until they are regarded as autonomous.  For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Appendix 1):

“Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.” [Article 26.3]

The importance of a child’s early years has long been recognised.  In the Bible, for example, Proverbs 22.6:

“Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.”

It is natural for parents to want to impart their wisdom to their children, and a religious faith might be part of that.  And it is questionable whether anyone else has more right to choose what is to be taught.

The right of parents in teaching values to children is not uncontested though.  A Nick Cohen article, How church schools brainwash children, starts by setting out the anti-clerical position:

“Of all the religious slogans that pushed European liberals into anti-clericalism, the Jesuit boast “Give me the child until the age of seven and I will give you the man” was the most provocative. The impressionable young were to be brain-washed. Superstitions were to be buried so deeply in their minds that they would be beyond the reach of reason when they grew up. What could be sicker than this declaration of intent to engage in intellectual child abuse?”

Richard Dawkins, in chapter 9 of his book The God Delusion, also argues that it is an “abuse” to teach children religion before they are old enough to reach their own conclusions; an MAAW summary of the book reported him as arguing that “[t]he fear of burning in hell can be very real for otherwise rational people, but children are easily traumatized”.  There is disagreement about when, if ever, children have the right to make their own moral decisions.

No one would seriously question the need to indoctrinate children in the need to be careful before crossing the road, for example, but teaching them religion is apparently controversial.  Those who oppose early religious teaching do so because of the power of religion as a potentially divisive force.  Reaching a compromise between the needs of society and the rights of a parent is a political question that is considered later (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4332.htm.