Is It Only ‘Brainwashing’ When We Don’t Like What the Child is Saying?

The Green Street United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina said recently that they won’t perform any marriage ceremonies until United Methodist pastors are allowed to perform same-sex ceremonies, too. Right on.

Now imagine you’re a young child brainwashed into thinking those pastors need to get right with God. Well, you’d stand in front of that church all Westboro-like on Easter Sunday and start protesting.

His parents must be so proud… (<-- Not kidding. They probably are very, very proud.)

Here's my question: I used the word "brainwashed" above because it's the first thought that came to mind when I saw the video. But I remember posting a video featuring a 10-year-old boy speaking in support of marriage equality a few years ago and commenters were quick to point out how he was no different. Could a young child really have his own opinions on such a heavy topic or was he just echoing his parents beliefs? (For what it’s worth, the 10-year-old’s parents insisted the speech was their son’s doing and not theirs.)

So before you call this kid a bigot or a victim of mental child abuse, just consider what you’d say if he were speaking in support of gay marriage outside an evangelical Christian church.

(via Good As You)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Alexander Ryan

    Might not be the parents telling him to say that, but one’s upbringing does have a tendency to define you. Not always, naturally… but you can’t say it’s exactly uncommon.

  • MD

    He’s also disapproving of the Methodists’ brand of Christianity. Poor kid, worrying most people will go to hell.

  • April

    You have to be really careful how you frame any sort of political/religious intercourse with children. I always tried to be sure that my kids had every opportunity to explore their own opinions and beliefs about religion. My oldest daughter was telling people she was an atheist when she was 6 years old. This was before I had even fully embraced atheism. I thought her beliefs were entirely her own. This is a child who decided to be a vegetarian in a family of avid meat-eaters when she was four years old. But children are inevitably influenced by their upbringing. They want to please their parents. When she reached teenage-hood and decided to become Christian, she insisted that her vehement atheism in her younger days was entirely due to the overriding influence we had on her. She said we forced atheism on her (even though we don’t remember doing so). She embraced Christianity with the same aplomb that she had embraced atheism and vegetarianism when she was very young.

  • Beutelratti

    I’d actually like to repeat a very important point that I read on Libby Anne’s blog the other day. While I do not really think we should let our children do the talking for us, I still think there’s a vast difference between a child of a heterosexual couple shouting and repeating bible verses and homophobic propaganda, and a child of a homosexual couple standing up and saying that they love their parents and want them to get married. The difference is experience. The child of the homosexual couple is talking out of experience. It is their very own experience.
    The child in this video here is not talking out of experience. He does not have homosexual parents that he now detests because he made his mind up about what god wants. He was fed homophobia from birth onwards and is now used by his parents to repeat their teachings. There is no experience of his own involved. This child is telling other people that their own experiences are wrong and not that his experiences are right.

  • Eve

    How could it possibly be his own speech, if the “camera man” tells him to “back up” and then “PREACH”? Maybe a general rule of thumb should be to keep children out of this discussion until they are capable of forming their own opinion.

  • Taxihorn

    “This child is telling other people that their own experiences are wrong and not that his experiences are right.” Hit the nail on the head! Bravo!

  • Beutelratti

    I’d like to point out again, that I’m merely repeating this thought. I read it recently here:

    Specifically it was Plunderb’s comment. Credit where credit is true, even though I think this is a thought a lot of people can get behind.

  • slaq

    Mirroring Libby Anne’s stance, I’d rather children not be used as political tools at all. It’s bad no matter which side does it. If you have a valid political point to make then you shouldn’t have to rely on children to make it.

  • Beutelratti

    *credit is DUE, duh. Sorry. :P

  • RedGreenInBlue

    +1 – just what I was going to post! (I’m glad I hit the “Show new comment” button first :) )

    In addition, his vocabulary and concepts are *not* those of a well-adjusted primary-school-age child. “All you immodest women need to put on some clothes next time” – What?! Even if your average nine-year-old even *knows* what constitutes immodest clothing, that is clear case of parroting some stock phrases, because the women leaving church are actually dressed pretty modestly IMHO!

    In summary: WTF, lolwut, facepalm.

  • RedGreenInBlue

    Observe the woman in the blue cardigan at 2:32 passing by and saying, “God bless you, child,” and listen to the (boy’s father’s) response. Feel that Christian love! :-o

  • ElizabethS

    As a parent I KNOW that I will have an effect on my children’s world view. It is impossible to stop. It’s only abuse if I use my kids as a pawn. Telling my kids “everyone should get married to whom they wish” isn’t a bad thing and I try to foster an environment where they can question that to come up with their own view. But having them march in front of a church or state house would be SO wrong.

  • sfd4304

    This makes me really sad. My heart goes out to this kid. I hear all the buzzwords of a grown up preacher; this kid has no clue what he is really saying. He is in for either years of brain-mush-zombiedom, or a very, very rude awakening.

  • indorri

    We’re all “brainwashed” (read: sold bullshit) as children to a certain degree. E.g. North Korean children are probably taught Kim Jung-un is the dog’s bollocks. Kids in the US, meanwhile, are usually taught a heavily romanticised history of early America.

    However, that’s the key difference. It’s bullshit, and we may find out differently.

    I’m not going to apologise for thinking backing up moral conclusions via religious fiat is invalid, and that harm done by those conclusions makes them bullshit. Similarly, I’m not going to apologise for thinking that moral conclusions reached by consequential analysis based on evidential (though generally limited, vis-a-vis personal experience) reasoning is sane.

    I cannot guarantee that all, or perhaps even most kids against marriage equality are brainwashed or that kids who speak out for it reach that conclusion on their own. There’s just too much data missing. That doesn’t mean I can’t find it more likely that the anti-gay side, which uses factually wrong info to disparage gay people as reasons to not grant marriage rights to them, to be “brainwashed”/indoctrinated.

    A kid who takes it upon himself to meddle in the affairs of a private organisation because they made a decision affecting its internal affairs is, based on that description of the situation, is highly likely to be indoctrinated to be a memebot.

    And I will not apologise for thinking that’s true while thinking the eloquent kid for marriage equality as more likely to having reached that conclusion on his own.

  • Claude

    I agree. The child is parroting fundie rhetoric, but in order to preach for so long and with such mastery he’s got to be quite intelligent. What a waste of his energy!

    I tend to be pretty laissez-faire about religion, but honestly, I don’t think children should be exposed to it before their teens, and then not as theology but as cultural history.

  • Michelle

    I have a rule of thumb about any type of issue, no matter the side… Leave children out of it. They are not your tool to carry on your message.

  • SeekerLancer

    I feel like it’s a low blow for anyone to use children to try and push their point of view.

    However if a kid wants to speak out on their own volition they’re free to do so. They’re people too.

  • Barefoot Bree

    I was a middling teen back during the Nixon administration (oh shut up and listen for one goddam minute, you whippersnapper!). At Halloween during the worst of it, I went trick-or-treating with a group of schoolmates I was loose friends with, and several of them took to shouting “Impeach Nixon!” into the night at random intervals as we walked around. Even then, I was thinking: “You don’t have any clue what you’re talking about. You’re just repeating shit you heard your parents say, and showing off by shouting it.”

    And I’m sorry, I know this puts me at odds with most people, but I cannot stand TV shows that put “cute”, “precocious” lines in kid actor’s mouths – because I know it’s a freaking script that an adult wrote. It just strikes me as screachingly fake.

    These are the same kinds of reactions I have now, watching that kid and others (like the poor Westboro kids). They don’t know what they’re saying. They’re just repeating what their parents said themselves or told the kid to say. Even if a kid sounds practiced like this one, that’s all it is – practice. I don’t give a lick of credence to what anyone of any age says unless it comes from lived experience, as others have said here. And that goes double/triple/quadruple for teens and kids.

  • CoboWowbo

    Ratings and comments have been disabled for this video…


  • fsm

    I feel there is a big difference between telling a child fairy tales and not. If you tell the fairy tales to the child and tell them that is the way it is you are essentially indoctrinating the child. If you don’t tell them any such thing then you are letting the child chose their own beliefs.

  • ecolt

    I was going to mention that comment from Libby Anne’s blog, too. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a child whose family is active in gay rights who doesn’t feel some sort of personal connection to the issue – even if it isn’t his/her parents, they almost certainly know older siblings, other relatives, family friends, etc that are gay. I became outspoken on the issue as a teenager because many of my friends at the time were gay, so I could see first-hand how they were treated and how it affected them. Most anti-gay protesters, though, are exactly the opposite. They don’t personally know anyone who is affected by the issues (at least, not that they know of) and in fact actively avoid forming close relationships with pretty much anyone who doesn’t share their views.

    When I was very young, there was a lot of discussion in the media about the growing number of single parents and how bad people thought that was for society. Even though I was far too young to understand everything about the issue, I still had formed a strong personal opinion because I was the child of a single parent. I remember how personally I took it when people said single mothers couldn’t raise a child as well as married parents. My mother hadn’t really talked to me about it before then, and she didn’t need to teach me what to think. The children of gay parents are similar – they aren’t repeating the lines that are being fed to them (like the other side) but have the personal experiences and emotions to speak honestly.

  • C Peterson

    A good indicator of “brainwashing” is when there’s reason to believe, as in this case, that the child doesn’t have any real understanding of what he’s saying.

    When a young child says he wants his same-sex parents to get married, I think that kid has a pretty good idea of what he’s asking for. When a young child says that same-sex marriage is a sin, I don’t think that kid has a clue- he’s mouthing something that’s been externally programmed.

  • SuperAsianSalsero

    I cringed so badly and couldn’t watch this more than 5 seconds.

  • Matt Eggler

    I agree with Beutelratti’s excellent comment but I also agree with Hemant’s larger point. While the video makes me think the kid is just spouting what he’s been taught, I realize that 10 is a very formative age. I was 10 when I became an atheist despite being raised in a religious home. We should be very careful before judging children’s speech ass parroting or sincere but, more importantly, parents shouldn’t be using their children as props on any side of political and social issues.

  • Claude

    Perhaps you underestimate the boy. He may have a primitive notion of sin–I did at his age (10). What I did not have was the capacity to stage this kind of appeal. The message is lamentable, as is burdening a child with the notion of hellfire and damnation. But on the level of performance art this kid is impressive. He’s a talented preacher.

  • C Tran

    Exactly. A child with no prior instruction has no concept of gay marriage being right or wrong. It just -is.- Kids must be trained otherwise.

  • kevin white

    Eh, Credit is True works too, just this once. Don’t let it happen again. :D

  • C Peterson

    I don’t think anybody has any real idea of “sin”, because it’s an abstract idea with no natural basis, and countless definitions. Children have ideas about right and wrong- both “true” right and wrong that comes naturally, and artificial right and wrong, like most of what religions preach.

    This kid has been taught that something is wrong, in spite of any objective reason to support that view. That pretty much defines brainwashing.

  • Shoe

    The difference between a child screaming what he thinks is right (and oh how often I was wrong as a child but sometimes right), and brainwashing is the parent(s) prompting the child to do so. “Nolan backup. Preach.” at the 2:12 mark. (Not to be confused with Mark 2:12 which looks horribly ironic out of context)

    That’s the difference. The child, if it is his own thoughts (for whatever that is worth), decides to weigh in on an argument before the age of reason should be considered more influenced than an adult. This is why children aren’t allowed to vote. This child being prompted or coached is more indicative that what he is doing is based on what he is taught and not what he has examined at length. Brainwashing? Depends on perspective. The more appropriate term should be coaching/coached.

  • Michael W Busch

    Thanks for providing the reference – that comment was the first thing I thought of as well.

  • Claude

    I don’t think anybody has any real idea of “sin”, because it’s an abstract idea with no natural basis, and countless definitions.

    This is overreach. What distinguishes a “real” idea? Abstract ideas aren’t real? Fanciful ideas aren’t real? Even if the idea of sin has no natural basis, which is dubious or at least highly debatable, it is an accessible idea.

    Our view that there is no objective reason to oppose same-sex marriage is irrelevant to a Biblical literalist. That they elevate fiction to cosmic law has no bearing on whether a child can develop at least a vague understanding of what is meant by If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them. Just writing this I’m appalled that any one would subject children to such a text, but apparently all’s fair in culture war.

    Children have ideas about right and wrong- both “true” right and wrong that comes naturally…

    I have to ask: do you have kids?!

  • Equal Rights For ALL Humans

    They won’t perform ANY marriages?


    Go elsewhere.

  • C Peterson

    I didn’t use “real idea” as an isolated noun, but as a qualifier of sin. I say nobody has any real idea of sin because “sin” itself is so abstract that everybody understands it differently. That’s all I meant.

    Do you disagree that children come naturally to certain ideas about right and wrong, in addition to the cultural rights and wrongs that they learn about?

  • Claude

    Alright, we’ll just have to disagree about the sin thing and whether this child has any understanding of the theology.

    As for your question all I’ll venture is that children appear to naturally develop a sense of personal justice.

  • m6wg4bxw

    I wonder about words like “bigot” in this way too.

  • Rich Wilson

    I was sitting in the pickup truck between my grandfather and my aunt, on a dirt road in Arkansas. Grandpa suddenly hit the brakes, pulled his shotgun off the rack, and shot a bird. I was stunned, and asked him why he did it. He said “Because that bird [I don't remember the name now, 40+ years later] kill Quail, and we hunt and eat Quail”

    I had a deep visceral reaction. I just knew that it was ok to kill a bird and eat it, but not ok to kill a bird because it would do the same.

    My parents aren’t even exactly sure when the trip was, but we’ve narrowed it down to I was late three or very early four years old. And nobody had taught me any lessons about the morality of shooting birds.

    My father also recalls me wandering off at a rest stop, and them finding me a few minutes later feeding little bits of cheese to the ants. I very vaguely recall that myself, but I can’t be sure if that one is just because of him telling me about it.

    Edit: oh and I did stage a passionate appeal. I didn’t forgive my (actually step) grandfather for years.

  • Anonchan

    This is fucking sick. This kid’s like a tool. No–more like a dog doing their bidding for a treat.

    “Preach.” He says to him, and the kid does.

  • chicago dyke

    almost all kids go thru that “i hate it because (i believe) my parents like it!” phase… and later come out of it. how old is she now and is she still a christian?

  • A3Kr0n

    No sense letting a perfectly good email link go to waste, right?

  • Myschyf

    The kid is a bigot, as he was very carefully taught to be. Hopefully, one day he grows out of it.

    So much of what we teach our kids *is* brainwashing. We tell them things over and over again, so that they don’t even *think* about it any more. “Say excuse me when you burp”, “Cover your mouth when you cough” and so on.

    I’ve been actively brainwashing my kids their whole lives. My eldest turned thirteen last week and I have taken every opportunity to tell her “Unless you want to be pregnant, don’t let a condomless penis near you”, “You never owe anyone sex, no matter how nice the person seems to be and no matter what was given to you”, “People are so much more the same than they are different. We all have to eat, we all have to sleep, we all have to go to the bathroom.” and so on. I’m not sure we can teach without brainwashing. Not everything, but a lot of things.

    Is brainwashing with love rather than hate better, worse or just a thing?

  • Claude

    Why you had moral insight so young is mysterious. Some children possess natural empathy, and that’s also mysterious. I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but it’s something to ponder. Then there’s probably a bunch of science on this that I’m ignorant of.

  • Rich Wilson

    I’ve pondered it myself. And I certainly had moments of acting quite immorally later. It’s just that that event was so strong, and really felt like it came out of nowhere.

  • Pseudonym

    So as a matter of curiosity, where would you stand on a child with different-sex parents campaigning for marriage equality?

    We can assume any number of additional qualifiers you like (e.g. having no friends with same-sex parents) which make it clear that the child is not speaking from direct experience.