Thursday, August 30, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Criticism #2: An Extremely Controlling Parent

This is part of a series of posts reviewing Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips".
Read the introduction here.
Read criticism #1 here.
Read criticism #3 here.
Read criticism #4 here.
Read the conclusion here.

To briefly review, my first criticism of Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips" discussed the way his advice pushed parents toward the worst possible interpretation of their child's behavior at the expense of mercy and understanding.  Now here is my second criticism.

Criticism #2:   Parents are urged to exercise an extreme level of control of their child's mind and body, which prevents the child from preparing for adulthood.  

Reb Bradley is very straightforward about what he considers the primary task of a parent.  Several times throughout the book, he reminds parents that their goal is to subdue their child's will: "keep your objective in mind - subjection of their will" (p. 44); "since the goal of child training is to help a child learn to subdue his self-will, parents must take every opportunity to subdue it when it manifests itself" (p. 60); "the child whose will is not subdued in the first few years of life is hampered in the maturing process" (p. 29).  Why do parents need to take control of their child's will?  Reb Bradley explains his reasoning this way: "maturity is rooted primarily in self-control which, in turn, facilitates growth in wisdom and responsibility.  The most basic objective of training children, therefore, is the subduing of their self-will.  From the time children are born, parents must develop in them the ability to say 'NO' to their own desires and 'YES' to their parents" (p. 28).  In other words, he sees self control is a basic component of maturity and thinks self-control is achieved through imposing external controls upon the child.

I certainly don't dispute the importance of developing good self-control, especially in light of the "marshmallow challenge" research conducted at Stanford University.  In this experiment, the researchers left young children alone in a room with a large fluffy marshmallow, telling them that they could choose between eating that one marshmallow right away, or getting two marshmallows if they waited for the researcher to return to the room (adorable video here).   The researchers discovered that the kids who had the ability to exercise self-control at age 4 went on to experience more success in academics and in adulthood.  So why were some children more able to exercise self-control than others?  After hundreds of hours of observation, researchers determined that "the crucial skill was the strategic allocation of attention. Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow...the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street.  Their desire wasn't defeated--it was merely forgotten."  Dr. Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor who headed the experiment, explains, "If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you're going to eat it....The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place."

So Reb Bradley and I agree that self-control is important; what we disagree on is how to help a child develop self-control.  I think that parents who rely on excessively authoritarian parenting techniques are actually hampering their child's development of self-control; a "subdued" child who simply follows orders to avoid spankings will likely be unprepared for the freedom of adulthood.  Going back to the marshmallow challenge, Mischel found that when he "taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes."  Mischel explained, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”  The parents' task, then, is to give their child the tools to increase their child's chances of success.  Parents can help their child identify natural rewards and natural consequences of decisions, and parents can help their child develop helpful mental patterns such as how to pay attention and how to distract themselves.  These tools, along with the determination of a strong will, will better prepare the child for the realities of adulthood.  Reb Bradley's approach of spanking the child for disobediently eating the marshmallow doesn't give the child any tools that will last into adulthood.

A potentially more harmful aspect of the total control that Reb Bradley promotes involves bodily ownership.  It appears the he considers parents to be the owners of their child's body; to him, a child attempting to establish personal space is actually rebelling against the parents.  In his book, he lists the following actions as examples of "active rebellion": "a child moves their shoulder away from a parent reaching out to touch or embrace him" (p. 76); and "walking along, a parent reaches down and takes their child's hand and the child attempts to pull it away (If the child is in pain because the blood in their hand has drained to their shoulder, and gangrene is setting in, they should be able to respectfully ask to have their hand back.)" (p. 77); also "after being placed on their parent's lap, they attempt to get off.  They should be permitted to respectfully ask to get down, but only after the parent is satisfied that they are willing to remain" (p. 77); finally, "while being held in their parent's arms a toddler struggles to get down" (p. 77).  In other words, a child is not allowed to refuse a hug or touch, refuse to hold hands, or exit a lap or arms without verbal permission.  This type of training--overriding a child's sense of bodily ownership and personal space--could be extremely dangerous for the child, making them an especially easy target for a predator because the child has fewer personal boundaries to overcome.

This danger becomes even greater when combined with Reb Bradley's other advice to parents.  He tells parents to require their children to show an excessive amount of respect to people in leadership and people who are older than them.  He explains, "The Bible commands...that children respect...a church leader, or just someone older" (p. 119).  He continues by explaining what the word respect means to him: "Respect: to treat those in authority with the realization that they have power in your life.  It means that when they speak, you listen and obey them, fearing the consequences they could bring for disrespect" (p. 120).  Once again, we see that something positive, like treating people with respect, has been taken to an unhealthy extreme in this book due to Reb Bradley's obsession with obedience and authority.  A child who regards every adult as an authority, who has no practice saying no to an adult, who has no sense of bodily ownership or personal space--that is an incredibly vulnerable child!  But there's more: Reb Bradley also takes away the child's only remaining defense against predators: parents who are open for communication.  "Unless it is an emergency," he says, "children should never be permitted to criticize those over them in authority" (p. 124).

Growing up should be a process of learning how to take care of your needs, make good decisions, and keep yourself safe.  That is what maturity looks like, and the ability to follow orders has very little to do with that.  Reb Bradley seems to think otherwise; he claims that "learning to honor adult authority when young prepares a child for future adult relationships in areas of work, social relationships, and citizenship" (p. 119).  Perhaps it has been too long since he participated in the culture outside of church events.  Regarding work: with some exceptions, most employers today value qualities that authoritarian parents unknowingly suppress, such as the ability to innovate, show initiative, and solve problems.  Adult social relationships are about communication, understanding, and cooperation, which are also skills that authoritarian parenting does not allow children to practice.  Citizenship, besides the usual payment of taxes and such, is about looking out for the best interests of the country and your neighbors, which sometimes involves activism against leaders who are abusing their power.  And for those who join the military and other similar professions, where unquestioning obedience to authority is valued--joining was an adult decision, and it comes with appropriate training, such as boot camp.  For most of society, life is certainly is not all about obedience to authority; I'm sure I'm not the only one who felt like a  confused and vulnerable little kid inside for years after entering independent adulthood, struggling to get the tools I needed to operate in the world as an adult.

However, the concept of absolute authority and total submission is so important to Reb Bradley that he even gives special instructions to parents who want to start this type of parenting approach when their children are older.  "Give them a time period (perhaps 6-8 weeks), during which all parental commands will be given without reasons, and no appeals will be considered" (p. 48).  How did Reb Bradley choose that 6-8 week amount of time, you ask?  Well, he admits to being inspired by the length of boot camp, and it seems clear that he sees this as a type of boot camp experience for the unsuspecting child.  He continues: "explain to them that if at the end of the time period, they consistently obey quickly and respectfully, then you will begin to give wisdom behind your commands.....The reasons you give will be brief and may not be discussed at the moment of instruction" (p. 49).  Oh wow, what a great reward for the totally obedient child!  Allowing them to hear a brief explanation later--really, it's so generous of the parent.  Yes, that was sarcasm, but this book certainly gives parents the impression that children ought to sit around eagerly waiting for the crumbs to fall from their parents' table of wisdom, and that the parents are very generous to share at all.

In urging parents to withhold information from their children, Reb Bradley seems to put parents in the role of God in their children's lives.  Or, at the very least, he sees parents as siding with God against their children.  Discussing the Biblical story of Job--the righteous man who suddenly lost all his children, wealth, and health for no discernable reason--Reb Bradley focuses in on the unresolved 'why' of the story.  "Although God could have explained to Job His reasons for allowing the trial, He never did tell Job 'why.'  He would not honor Job's disrespectful insistence on an answer.  Even after Job finally humbled himself and repented of his pride, he received no answer from God" (p. 51).  Although the obvious application of the story is that sometimes good people suffer, and we can't always know the reason why, Reb Bradley decided to put a different spin on it: "as parents we must follow God's example and not reward our children's disrespect" (p. 51).

Holding so much power over another person is not something that humans handle well, and this is famously illustrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment run by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo.  In this experiment, a group of seemingly normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of either prison guard or prisoner.  The prisoners were given new identities and placed in a mock prison, and the prison guards were told to keep order.  According to the Wikipedia article, "the participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo's expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue."  How long did it take for things to get out of hand?  The entire experiment had to be stopped early, at the insistence of Zimbardo's girlfriend, after only 6 days.  In my opinion, there are far too many similarities between the mentality of the prison experiment and the mentality of this version of "Biblical" parenting.  The parents, like the prison guards, are told that they are managing bad people; in addition, like the prison guards, the parents are also told that they have absolute power over those people.  It shouldn't be surprising that in many cases, the parent-child dynamic gets completely out of hand and becomes abusive.  After all, haven't we learned by now that "power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely"?

In summary, Reb Bradley's extreme emphasis on authority and obedience hinder children's ability to develop the skills they need for adulthood.  The child, as a result, is likely to be more vulnerable, while the parent is at risk of developing abusive habits from holding so much power.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Criticism #1: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst

This is part of a series of posts reviewing Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips".
Read the introduction here.
Read criticism #2 here.
Read criticism #3 here.
Read criticism #4 here.
Read the conclusion here.

The task of reviewing Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips" has been a lot more challenging than I expected.  First of all, where do I start when I disagree with almost every sentence that this book contains?  I can find almost no common ground on which to begin.  And how can I explain my reasons for disagreement when the very things that I see as horrifying are held up as admirable goals by the author?

Because of these difficulties, I have decided that these posts will simply be a way for Present Me to explain to Past Me that this so-called "Biblical" parenting is damaging to individuals and relationships because it sacrifices all other virtues for the sake of authority and submission.

Those quotation marks are around "Biblical" for a reason, and it's not because of my changed opinions about the Bible.  Instead, it's because the type of child and the type of parent that this book promotes are not found in the Bible.  It appears that Reb Bradley's "Biblical research" may have gone like this:
Step 1:  Hmmm, what is my ideal godly child like?  *scribbles some notes* 
Step 2:  Ok, now I'll dig up some random Bible verses that seem to support my idea of a godly child, regardless of whether those verses are about children or parenting. *Adds a few Bible verses here and there* 
Step 3:  *Reads notes*  Wow, what a high standard--it must be from God!  Obviously, children who are left to themselves will never become that way.  I guess that means parents have to take charge.  What are some control tactics?  *Finishes book*
To be fair to the author, I do believe that Reb Bradley is a good-hearted and caring person, despite everything that he has written in his book.   However, I think he doesn't realize that he and his wife, very busy with their pastoral responsibilities and not at all detail-oriented, probably implemented these parenting techniques very differently than many other parents.  Many fundamentalist homeschooling parents, who are the primary audience of the book, spend far more time supervising their children and are much more focused on details.  With those parents, these parenting techniques can quickly escalate from bad to abusive.

With all of that in mind, here is my first criticism of Reb Bradley's "Child Training Tips."

Criticism #1: Parents are pushed to assume the worst about their children instead of being encouraged to demonstrate the virtues of mercy and understanding.

The evil nature of children is one of the premises of the book, and parents are actively cautioned against thinking otherwise: "One dangerous, humanistic idea...is that children are basically good" (p. 18).  The role of parents, therefore, is to work against their children's natural badness, to "bring them up to maturity by twisting them against their nature.  Twisting requires firm effort, sustained throughout their childhood." (p. 17).

This belief in the depravity of children is unfortunately not unusual in Christian circles; however, this book takes that belief to a whole new level by continually pushing parents toward the worst interpretation of their children behavior.   Some of the more horrifying examples of this negative and suspicious parental attitude are in regards to the discipline of young children.  As the mother of a toddler myself, I found myself absolutely speechless and heartbroken numerous times as I read.

Many attentive parents will notice that in the first few months of life, their babies develop an important skill--the ability to turn their heads toward a sound.  This skill is important not only to help keep the babies safe, but also to help them notice what is going on around them so they can learn about the world.  This inclination to look towards sounds, especially unexpected sounds, is reliable enough that medical professionals have historically used it to test for hearing loss in infants and toddlers.   However, to Reb Bradley, a baby's inclination to look towards a sound means something completely different.  To him, it means that the baby is capable of understanding and rebelling against a parental command.  He explains it this way: "If your crawler reaches for the stereo, walk over, offer a firm 'No' and clap your hands once.  If they respond to your voice and the sharp sound of the clap and turn away, they got the message and should be held accountable from then on.  You may even want to skip the clap" (p. 134).  In this example, we see that the parent must not only assume that the infant understood the reason for the sudden noise at that time, but also that the infant will remember the meaning of that particular clap forever.  The parent is pushed to see a confused or forgetful infant as rebellious instead.

A second example can be found in Reb Bradley's abysmal understanding of language development: "To test a toddler's understanding of your vocabulary, without showing him anything, offer him a familiar treat, like ice cream or a bottle.  Does he respond?  If he does, then he is old enough to understand a simple direction such as, "Come here, son," and should be chastised each time that he chooses to defy your authority" (p. 134).  Admittedly, I do have an advantage here because of my linguistic background and my experience in teaching a foreign language, but I'm sure that I'm not the only one whose jaw dropped from reading those lines.  Even for adults who are learning a second language, who have far more life and language experience, it doesn't work this way.  For instance, an adult language student who understands the question "how are you?" does not automatically understand even a variation of that same question, such as "how's it going?"

If the small difference between "how are you" and "how's it going" is not automatically understood by an adult, how can a toddler be expected to make an even greater leap of understanding?  Knowing the name of a favorite object like "bottle" is a relatively simple language task; recognizing a string of multiple words and realizing that an action is required in response is an entirely different skill.  Even worse, there are many different forms that a so-called simple command can take, such as the negative commands "no hitting," "don't hit," "I told you not to hit," "stop hitting," "you must not hit," "we don't hit," etc., and the positive commands "eat your carrots," "please finish the carrots", or "you need to eat those carrots."  Adding to the complexity, parents often verbalize observations or make suggestions that sound a lot like commands to the language learner, but aren't.  For instance, my toddler often hears "turn the page" while we are reading books together, even though I am simply letting him know that he can turn the page if he wants to (if he's not too busy sucking his thumb, that is).   Once again in this book, we see the toddler is held to impossible expectations, and the parents are pushed to assume defiance rather than enjoying the beauty of newly blossoming language ability.

A third example is Reb Bradley's troubling assumption that toddlers naturally cry when they see their parents coming, and that their crying is due to guilt.  He explains it this way: "Although some rules are never spelled out, and some behaviors are never specifically prohibited, our children still know better.  They intentionally disregard what they know will please you.  What gives them away when they are caught, is behavior which suggests a violated conscience....The toddler who is caught in the bathroom unrolling the toilet paper, may not have been specifically forbidden to unroll the tissue, but the tears he sheds, and the haste with which he continue his deed as he sees his mother approaching, verify that he knows he is doing wrong" (p. 80-81).   The world must be an irresistible place to toddlers, whose new mobility allows them to access a constant stream of new experiences.  Each object is like a small physics lesson: what does it feel like?  How heavy is it?  Does it taste good?  What happens when I drop it?  Can I put it inside of another thing?  Does it come apart?  With so many things to learn in such a short time, a baby needs a healthy curiosity and a drive to discover.

Sadly, it never seems to cross Reb Bradley's mind that the exploring toddler with the toilet paper could be crying out of fear of the parent, not from guilt.  Perhaps too many times the toddler, engaged in a fascinating new discovery, had been stunned and confused by a sudden punishment; perhaps now the toddler fears a similar response from the parent, and cries accordingly.  Is there really something so obviously bad about unrolling toilet paper that even a baby can recognize it as "sinful" and feel guilty???  In my own experience with my very curious toddler and his little toddler friends, I have absolutely never seen this reaction.  Instead, my toddler beams at me and tries to show me what he found.   Of course, if I have to take it away from him for his own good, he is upset, but that doesn't stop him from beaming at me over his next discovery.  His reaction is a positive one because he has no reason to be afraid of me.

Infants, crawlers, and toddlers are not the only victims of the suspicious parental attitude and impossible expectations that this book promotes.   Parents are also actively encouraged to assume the worse of their older children, and to act accordingly.

Parents are told, "Never give instructions more than once" (p. 53), with no acknowledgement that a child could have a legitimate need for repetition.  I know from personal experience and observation that even adults can fail to hear a person speaking to them when distracted or absorbed in a task.  Surely a child is worth the same consideration that we give to an adult in such situations.  In fact, children should deserve even more benefit of the doubt, since their hearing sensitivity develops slowly throughout childhood.  According to "What's Going On In There?", an excellent book about cognitive development written by a neuroscientist mother of three, "newborns are virtually deaf to quiet sounds, and...babies remain hard-of-hearing at six months, when their auditory threshold is still some 20 to 25 decibels higher than adults.  Thereafter, it gradually improves until puberty.  Thus, toddlers and pre-school-aged children still have hearing thresholds about 10 decibels higher than adults" (Eliot p. 245).  Also relevant is the time that it takes for children to learn to identify important sounds from background noise, something that most adults take for granted: "children's ability to distinguish signal from background noise does not fully mature until about the age of ten" (Eliot p. 246).   Yet according to Reb Bradley, children not only shouldn't receive instructions more than once, they also should not receive any warnings before punishment: "Warnings make you an accomplice to their crimes.  By not bringing immediate consequences, you are aiding and abetting them in their disobedience.....never threaten to spank" (p. 55-56).

This guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude is maddeningly combined with a refusal to allow the child to communicate at the relevant time.  A child who attempts to explain himself is simply trying to avoid responsibility: "there are no good reasons for disobedience (Except in case of emergency, of course.)  When confronted with their defiance they should not be permitted to offer an excuse.  If trained well, it might not even enter their minds to offer a justification.....A parent should first establish a child's guilt and have him accept responsibility, and then find out the reason why" (p. 58-59).   Why should parents refuse to listen to their child's perspective before assigning guilt?  Because, Reb Bradley says, they might be tempted to show mercy when they hear their child's point of view: "Parents accept excuses because...they put themselves in their children's place, and know they would want mercy if it were them" (p. 60).  So, to be clear, Reb Bradley thinks that accepting any excuse and showing mercy would be a bad thing because it weakens parental authority.  One has to wonder when reading this if Reb Bradley sees Jesus' mercy and acceptance as a sign of God's weakness as well.

Tragically, parents are even discouraged from showing mercy to their children in special circumstances.  Reb Bradley cautions parents against adapting their approach or changing their standards for any reason.  He says, "every child is different from all others, but that does not mean they can be held to different standards.  God's standards are the same for everyone" (p. 135), and he specifically includes special needs children in that statement: "Yes they are harder to train than a 'normal' child, but God's standards are the same.  In fact, the parent must apply the same principle of child training to the special needs child as to any child" (p. 137-138).  It would certainly be convenient if we could judge every person by the same standards, but even Bible-believing Christians can't agree about what those standards are or how to apply them.  There are too many variables and too many unknowns, even within the same cultural context.  Adding to the complexity is the fact that people often fail to understand themselves properly, so how can we accurately judge another person reliably?  It certainly isn't as simple as Reb Bradley seems to believe.  These verses from the Gospel of Matthew do a much better job at acknowledging the complexity of life when they warn against over-confidence in our own perspective: "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye" (Matthew 7:1-5).

But, you ask, what if your children are sick, sleep-deprived, or under extra stress?  Is a parent allowed to be more tolerant and merciful then?  Reb Bradley believes the answer is no.  Regarding sickness, Reb Bradley says parents must not change their standards because "some children find such solace in the tolerance shown them during an illness that they convince themselves they are sick much of the time" (p. 113).  In other words, showing mercy to your sick child will cause them to act sick even when they aren't.  Regarding hunger, fatigue, and irritability, he adds that "many parents excuse their child's misbehavior if the hour is late or if they have missed a nap.  This reinforces to the child that they needn't always exercise self-control" (p. 113).   Thus we see that parents are encouraged to be be suspicious that a sick child is simply trying to avoid responsibility, and that a sleep-deprived child is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to act out.

Reb Bradley occasionally stops to warn parents against excessive harshness, or advises them to discipline themselves to show love to their children, but frankly those few sentences don't mean much after reading page after page, chapter after chapter of advice that pushes parents in the opposite direction.  And even more telling is the lack of a single positive sentence about children in the entire book; even the few warnings against harshness don't speak positively of children.

In summary, the parenting style modeled in Reb Bradley's book is excessively focused on parental authority, to the point of specifically urging parents to sacrifice understanding and mercy anytime that those virtues might interfere with establishing or maintaining their authority.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Introduction

This is the introduction to a series of posts reviewing Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips".
Read criticism #1 here.
Read criticism #2 here.
Read criticism #3 here.
Read criticism #4 here.
Read the conclusion here.

Every once in a while, I realize something shockingly obvious, something that confronts yet another false assumption that has managed to cling to my mind even as I've moved further and further away from my fundamentalist Christian roots.

In the whole Bible, there is not a single verse that credits parents for having raised a good child.  Nothing from God, nothing from any adult sons or daughters in the Bible.  Not one word of thanks, not one word of credit.

It would be easy to insert a few parental credit verses into the Bible.  Maybe we could add a little phrase here or there in the Old Testament, such as "King David, because of his godly parents," or "Moses, thanks to his childhood training;" or maybe we could stick something in the New Testament epistles: "The fruit of the Spirit and of spanking is self-control." No? Perhaps the Gospels then?  Maybe Jesus on the cross could say something like, "I couldn't have gotten where I am today without the support of my godly mother Mary.  There she is, people.  Let's give her a round of applause!"

But those verses are not there.  So why do fundamentalist Christian parents today feel they have so much control over their children's destinies?  Why do they think that they can help their child get closer to God by getting in the middle?  Why do they put so much pressure on themselves, considering themselves failures if their children grow up to take a different path? 

In the homeschooling circles that I was raised in, many of these unhealthy ideas about parenting came from several books that claimed to be about true "Biblical" parenting.   First on the market was a 1979 book by Richard Fugate, called "What the Bible Says About Child Training."  Fugate's book appears to have inspired two other books that surpassed his own book in popularity: Michael Pearl's 1994 "To Train Up A Child" and Reb Bradley's 1995 "Child Training Tips."

Based on these books, the small collection of homeschooling families who attended Reb Bradley's church Hope Chapel along with my family had high hopes for their children.  Yet in the dozen years since, many sincere and dedicated parents have seen all their work fall apart before their very eyes as their children reached adulthood, or even earlier.  I am one of many who didn't "turn out right," yet another disappointment to the former parents and leadership of Hope Chapel.

Everyone responds a little differently to poor results.  Some, like Michael Pearl, laugh at the critics and refuse to self-reflect at all.  Others, like Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz, who were just young parents when we attended Hope Chapel together in the late 1990s, apparently felt that they could avoid poor results by doubling down in intensity on poor little Lydia Schatz, who was disciplined to death in 2010 at age 7.

Of all these responses, I find Reb Bradley's 2006 blind spots article, "Solving the Crisis in Homeschooling", to be the most promising because it represents a very small step in the right direction.  Here is a quote from the introduction to the article, in which Reb Bradley acknowledges the unexpectedly poor results:
"In the last couple of years, I have heard from multitudes of troubled homeschool parents around the country, a good many of whom were leaders. These parents have graduated their first batch of kids, only to discover that their children didn't turn out the way they thought they would. Many of these children were model homeschoolers while growing up, but sometime after their 18th birthday they began to reveal that they didn’t hold to their parents’ values. 
Some of these young people grew up and left home in defiance of their parents. Others got married against their parents' wishes, and still others got involved with drugs, alcohol, and immorality. I have even heard of several exemplary young men who no longer even believe in God. My own adult children have gone through struggles I never guessed they would have faced. 
Most of these parents remain stunned by their children’s choices, because they were fully confident their approach to parenting was going to prevent any such rebellion. Some were especially confident, because as teens these kids were only obedient.  Needless to say, the dreams of these homeschool parents have crashed, and many other parents want to know what they can do to prevent their own children from following the same course."
 When I first scanned over many of his points in that article, I was encouraged by the things I saw; acknowledgement that parents don't have total control over their children's destinies, a de-emphasis on authority, and a much-needed emphasis on relationship and acceptance.

If only there weren't this little paragraph at the end of the introduction [emphasis mine]:
"After several years of examining what went wrong in our own home and in the homes of so many conscientious parents, God has opened our eyes to a number of critical blind spots common to homeschoolers and other family-minded people. Bev and I still stand behind what we have taught on parenting in the past. However, we urgently add to it the following insights."
It is because of that sentence, and because of my own desire as a new mother to deliberately throw out the unhealthy ideas of parenting that I was raised with and around, that I have decided to write a critical review of Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips: What I Wish I Knew When My Children Were Young."

My critique will be posted in several installments online for the purposes of discussion, and I welcome any comments or feedback from the authors, from parents who have used this parenting approach, from now-grown children who experienced these techniques, from parents who are considering using it, or from horrified online bystanders.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Church: To Go Or Not To Go?

"My name is Latebloomer, and it has been three years since I have been to church."

At first it was uncomfortable to quit doing something that was an ingrained lifelong habit; however, as some point, the weekly discomfort of attending church significantly surpassed the temporary discomfort of quitting.  I just don't belong at church right now.  I may never belong there again.

Church is not a place where I can learn.  In fact, I can't remember the last time I learned something new at church.  After all, I was raised in church; I've heard and read all the stories hundreds of times, from innumerable perspectives, with every possible church-approved application.  Really, only so much can be said when a pastor is limited to speaking devotionally out of one ancient book, especially when the pastor is also socially obligated to keep the Bible safe and dependable in order to protect the favorite beliefs of the church members.

The things that I now want to learn about the historical Bible, the context in which different parts were written, and the intended meaning of many controversial passages?   I will never learn about those things in church.  The ways that different verses have been interpreted, re-interpreted, or misinterpreted based on the culture of the people who were reading it?  I will never learn about those ideas in church.  The challenges of translating the Bible into different languages and trying to keep the intended meaning rather than the exact wording?  I will never learn about that in church.

Church is not a place where I can experience genuine emotion.  A church service is structured to be a series of communal emotions, triggered mostly through musical cues.  The repetition, the chord progressions, the rhythm, the synchronized clapping/movement, the key changes--they are all designed to bring up specific emotions or attitudes such as joy, humility, confidence, and resolve.  People say that they experienced God during the church service if they experienced a particularly strong emotion at the "appropriate" time.  What they don't realize is that a lot of work went into creating the right conditions for that emotion.  The number of hands raised in worship directly correlates to order of songs, the skill of the musicians, and the skill of the sound mixers in the back that day.  It seems strange that God needs so much help in emotionally connecting with people.

For me as an introvert, I actively resist feeling or displaying emotions on cue.  I used to try.  I sat in the dark corner in the back or church and closed my eyes to shut everyone else out.  Nothing.  I even tried the "fake it till you make it" approach.  Nothing.  Nothing except guilt over being emotionally out of sync and apparently less spiritually attuned than everyone else.

Church is not a place where I can experience genuine connection with others.  There's something about walking through the doors of a church that subconsciously triggers most people to play a role, the role of "Christian in church."  There are certain topics that are avoided, certain attitudes that are buried instead of acknowledged, certain spiritualized vocabulary that is preferred, certain styles of clothing that are preferred, and social pressure to act loving even while silently judging people.  There is even an art to sharing prayer requests, praying out loud, and praying silently, and there are socially unacceptable ways of doing all of these.  It's hard to see the game when you're still in the middle of it, but it exists and it certainly makes real human connection very difficult to achieve.

Churches are often aware of this problem, and desperately want people to feel connected, but their approach is often just to increase the appearance of connection.  A prime example of this is the tradition of interrupting the church service with 30 seconds of greeting as many people as possible.  In my experience, the "meet and greet" tradition is really more like "meet and greet, awkwardly forget all the names, and then never speak again."  I'm sure it works nicely to stop a visitor from saying later, "I went to that church, and no one even spoke to me," but it doesn't do much more than that because it misses the heart of the issue: the desire for inclusion, acceptance, and real relationships.

In my experience, church "connections" do not progress to friendship outside of church, and in my opinion, the main reason for this is the lack of authenticity in the church social scene.  Believe me, I have tried really hard to belong in the various churches I've attended regularly, and that effort has required a lot of vulnerability from me as an introvert while providing no benefit.  I have spent countless hours attending church services, participating in small group Bible studies, volunteering for church-based ministries, and going to occasional church retreats.  Is it just bad luck that in my life today, I do not have a single meaningful relationship that was formed in a church setting?

The worst example of my apparent social failure also happens to be my most recent experience with church.  Shortly after my husband and I got married, we started attending a weekly home Bible study of about 12 people.  For 18 months, we rarely missed a day, we participated in the discussion, we shared prayer requests (sometimes tearfully), and we made an effort to remember other people's requests and help them when possible.  Then, for just one month, we couldn't attend because we were in the middle of buying a home, packing, and moving 15 minutes away.   It was slightly disappointing when no one offered to help us move; however, we were both shocked and hurt when not even one person from the Bible study group bothered to rsvp for our open-house party two weeks later, and no one ever contacted us again.

Experiences like that can really damage a person, especially a socially-insecure and introverted person with a lot of church baggage, like me.  I would certainly believe that something was seriously wrong with me if it weren't for the meaningful friendships I was able to form with non-Christians at the same time that I was failing with the Christians.  And those non-Christian friends have been incredibly generous, patient, kind, supportive, and fun, and they are still an important part of my life today.

Eventually, I realized the insanity of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  Why was I wasting one of my precious weekend days every week?  I spent my Sunday mornings in church, learning nothing, feeling all the wrong feelings, meeting no one.  My head was groggy; my back ached; then I came home to spend my Sunday afternoons depressed and far away from God.

After almost a year without church, I got pregnant.  My husband and I briefly considered giving church yet another chance in our lives, for the sake of our future child.  After all, I thought, "Who will bring casseroles when I have a baby?  Isn't that a part of church culture that I want to keep in my life?  I've delivered the meals; now it's my turn to receive them."  We even tried a few churches, but we just couldn't force ourselves to play that game again.

When our little baby was born, our non-Christian friends celebrated with us and helped us with meals.

I used to feel sad at the thought of my child growing up without a good church community, the kind I always wanted to have.  Now, I have trouble with the thought of sending my sweet little boy into Sunday school to learn about truly horrible things that are not appropriate for children.  I don't want him to think about human sacrifice, torture, murder, genocide, and God's anger, not even in simplified kid terms.  Even the subtle church-culture messages worry me now: I don't want him to get used to the lack of economic, ethnic, and lifestyle diversity; I don't want him to grow up with the idea that Christianity is only done "right" by middle-class white heterosexual Republican families.

I would love to hear from others who have come out of fundamentalism and are raising children with or without God; how are you handling church and religion with your kids?