Showing posts with label family relationships. Show all posts
Showing posts with label family relationships. Show all posts

Thursday, September 10, 2015

From Homeschool to College: Dealing with Culture Shock

There was always an expectation in my family that I would go to college.  Both of my parents had a college education and saw its value, and they didn't cave to the general attitude at our homeschooling cult church that higher education wasn't appropriate or necessary for girls.  Even though my parents' expectation was for me to attend an extremely fundamentalist Christian college simply to get a skill to "supplement my future husband's income, if necessary," that expectation was more than what many of my female peers at church had, and I'm grateful for it.  And, unlike many homeschooling families in our circles, my mom also put in the necessary work to make sure I wouldn't encounter any roadblocks on my way from homeschool high school to college--she made a very professional-looking and detailed high school transcript that included my GPA, she signed me up for the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) so that I could have a legal high school diploma, and she made sure that I took the SAT.

Still, it took me three years after graduating from homeschool high school before I began to pursue higher education.  Years and years of severe isolation had not emotionally or socially prepared me to deal with the world outside my home. Years of listening to sermons about the evils of the outside world had left me terrified to leave the "shelter" of my home, even though my home life consisted of nothing more than broken family relationships and debilitating depression during those years.  Years of heightened spiritual sensitivity had also paralyzed me with no sense of direction in life, waiting for a sign from God about what to do with my life, terrified of making a mistake.

With no end in sight, the darkness of those years gradually increased my sense of desperation until it was finally enough to overcome my inertia.  I decided to be a moving vehicle that God could steer, and I would simply make the best decisions I could until I heard from him.  I started taking a full load of classes at my local community college a few months later.

I entered my classes confident in my academic ability.  Thanks to my mom's willingness to administer yearly standardized tests and my scores from the SAT, I knew that I was an above-average student.  As I expected, I performed well on tests and got great grades.  But I had other college struggles that caught me off guard.  For instance, I was used to simply reading textbooks for the info I needed, so I had no idea how to take good notes in class, and my handwriting and rushed spelling looked like a child's.  In class, I'd get distracted occasionally by hearing the pronunciation of words that I had only ever seen on paper and had been saying wrong in my head for years.  I sometimes had questions, but no idea about the etiquette of asking questions during the lecture.  Additionally, my teachers were surprisingly fond of group work, something that I had no experience with, and I was at a loss as to how to collaborate or give/receive feedback.

But for me, the worst thing of all was my discomfort with myself, my body, my existence.  While everyone around me seemed to just plop down easily on any available floor space or chair in order to study and eat and chat, I simply couldn't do it.   I could never relax and be at ease where there was even a chance I might be seen by another person, and attempts to talk with others left me breathless and sweaty, with my heart racing.  At this time in my life, I couldn't even eat in front of another person--not because of an eating disorder, but because of anxiety.  The pressure of eating and chatting at the same time made me physically shake, because I had only really experienced eating silently together with my family, and we never had people over for meals.  Because of these issues, I couldn't handle being on campus for a second longer than necessary.  For breaks between classes, I would sit in my car or drive home and come back just in time for the next class.  The stress of being in public and being surrounded by people was too much.

But over time, my continued practice and effort started to have positive effects.  As I went into my second semester in community college, I wasn't constantly teetering on the edge of panic, and I started to notice positive things happening despite my social stress.  People around me didn't seem bothered by me.  People sat by me in class.  People smiled at me.  People tried to talk to me.  I started to feel a spark of human connection and see that people could be kind and decent even when they didn't share my beliefs and even when they had no agenda and nothing to gain from it.  It confused me because it didn't fit the narrative I grew up with, but it also gave me a vague sense of hope about the life I might be able have as an adult out on my own.

Meanwhile, I was ramping up to transfer to a conservative Christian university far from home, in a place where I didn't know a single person.  It sounds like a big deal, except that I really had almost nothing that I was leaving behind--really, just one close friend that I had made several years before and that I'd been able to confide in, a person who was similarly sheltered and homeschooled.  The thought of a fresh start somewhere was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.  I figured that the culture of the Christian university campus would feel at least a little familiar, and that having my own room on campus to hide in would be a welcome relief.   I made sure to request an international roommate so that my weirdness--my odd clothing style, my poor conversational ability, and my nearly-total ignorance of my peer group's slang, movies, music, etc.--wouldn't be as obvious.

In the environment of gender-segregated dorms, no alcohol, no sex, no drugs, and no dancing, there wasn't too much around me to shock me at my Christian university.  Instead, it was the little things that made life challenging.  One of my daily challenges was dealing with the shared dorm bathroom, where there were always at least a couple other people milling around.  Even though it was set up so that there was no need for public nudity, I didn't have any idea how to pee or shower in a shared space.  I couldn't stand around casually wrapped in a towel doing my hair and makeup and chatting with the other girls, not a chance.  I couldn't even pee while other people were listening.  This was a completely foreign experience to me and one that took me months to get used to.

For the first semester, my life on campus consisted of going to class, doing homework in my room, and hanging out in my room, which was luckily often empty since my Chinese roommate, despite having just arrived in the country, already had a life and friends.  It sounds like a recipe for homesickness, but this is something that I never experienced the whole time I was in college.  Instead, I was the happiest I'd ever been (really, it was just that I was less severely depressed, but at the time it felt like happiness in comparison to the previous years).  Even though I had no idea about how to connect with the other girls in my dorm and was too anxious to really try, I saw that they were nice people and I felt like the future was full of possibilities.

Things started to change after a few months, thanks to a couple good dorm events that brought me out of my room.  This proved to be just enough for one of the outgoing girls in the dorm to seek me out later and start to pry into my little closed-clam-shell of a life.  Friendship with just one outgoing person in the dorm served as a bridge to making more connections and boosted my confidence to attend other school events.   Although at first I just drifted along trying not to cause anyone any trouble by having opinions or problems, during the next few years I was able to start figuring out more about who I was, what my interests were, and where my place in the social scene of life was.

Figuring out my place in life turned out to be much more complicated than simply getting past the worst of my anxiety though.  Even though I was several years older than my dormmates and classmates, I had years of catching up to do, learning about things like cliques, gossip, power dynamics, the art of self-deprecation/teasing/complimenting, and how people seem to group themselves based on life habits, clothing choices, and hobbies.  It's hard to explain, but I simultaneously felt I was decades older than my peers, and also much much younger, which meant that I either felt like I was taking someone under my wing or basking in their glory.  I had no idea how to connect to someone as an equal, and I didn't even start to learn that until I was about to graduate from college.

Looking back now at my transition from homeschool to college life over a decade ago, I feel a sense of pride in how much I grew and changed in a few short years.  I finished college able to relax in class and chat comfortably with friends.  I no longer hid away in my room all the time.  I stretched myself.  I attended dorm events.  I cheered with enthusiasm at sports games.  I worked out at the school gym.  I went to parties.  I dated.  I asked out a guy.  I got away with breaking the campus rules about gender segregation and alcohol.  Years of pushing through my anxiety paid off, and I finished college feeling ready to tackle life and live on my own as a working adult.

Given my set of issues, I can't imagine how I would have transitioned to adulthood any other way. The most important things I learned in college were not academic, but instead life and social skills that paved the way for me to have a satisfying life today.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Learning to Leave My Son with Others

I am a chronic worrier, a bit of a pessimist, an over-preparer, and prone to occasional panic attacks.  And since becoming a mother a few years ago, all of these tendencies are now focused on my son and his soon-to-be baby brother.  

Growing up, I heard so many times, in so many ways, how unsafe the world was.  As an adult, reflection has made me realize how the "safe" isolated homeschooling world my parents confined me in was actually incredibly damaging to me and many of my peers, while my adult experiences in the "dangerous" outside world have been very positive and affirming.  I have been able to overcome my deeply ingrained childhood perceptions for myself, and feel like a functioning and happy member of the big outside world.  

However, I am unexpectedly having to go through the same process again, now that I am in the role of a mother.  All the progress I made for myself, I am having to do again, this time for my son.

Hours, days, weeks, and months of continuously caring for his little infant needs really affected me.  I had never felt so needed and so intensely protective before--my entire life was about him, his happiness, his well-being, and I couldn't spare any attention for myself or my marriage.  After all, no one could take care of my little baby boy as well as my husband me--we knew him better than anyone and loved him more than anyone!  

It didn't help that I had a huge falling-out with my mom and my mother-in-law at around the same time that my son was born.  And it also didn't help that we were living in a relatively new area with no long-term friends around.  No local family, no close established local friendships, plus drama with both of my son's grandmas--that situation made it easy for me to continue for a long time in my hangup without ever acknowledging to myself that I was deathly afraid to leave my baby with another person besides my husband.  

As my son got older, I saw other parents that I respected leave their babies with babysitters, or in daycare, or with family and friends, and I thought nothing of it.  It seemed like the right choice for them, and once they got through the initial adjustment, it seemed like their choice really benefited the whole family.  But when I tried to imagine myself in the same situation, I would be flooded by panic attacks and vivid imaginations of what might go wrong.  My old fears were coming back to haunt me--not for myself but for my son.

With a lot of encouragement from my husband and my friends, and a realization that I was going to either fade from existence or crack under the pressure, I left my son with someone I trust and went out on a quick lunch date with my husband.  I sobbed, I thought about my son constantly, and I was in a rush to get back to him.  It really wasn't much of a date, more of a milestone, because for the first time I saw that my son could be fine without my husband and me--he didn't cry at all when we left or while we were gone!

Since then, I've gotten more and more comfortable leaving my son with a small group of people I know and trust.  And he has helped a lot by never crying when we leave, not even once!  However, I'm now stuck on the next step--finding and using a babysitter.  Once my second little one arrives, it will be a far bigger imposition to ask for babysitting favors, and much harder to return the favors as well.  The time has come to find and learn to trust a babysitter.  The thought absolutely terrifies me.  But I will eventually push through this fear as well, and enjoy the benefits it will offer to me (sanity!), my marriage (better communication and more affection!), and my kids (more social confidence and self-reliance!).

I want to always be there for my little boy and his soon-to-be baby brother; I don't think that will never change.  But I can balance that desire with my other desire, to see my sons learn to navigate the world when I'm not around and gain confidence in themselves.  And I need to give them space, little by little, for that to happen.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

De-conversion Doesn't Have a "Moment"

Sometimes it hard to admit to yourself that you don't identify with your identity anymore.

For as long as I've had an identity, it has been wrapped up in the word "Christian", specifically the fundamentalist variety.  I wanted my relationship with Jesus to completely consume me and leave me with no other identity and no errant belief.  My entire life would be spent in gratitude to God for saving me from the hell I deserved.  It was my responsibility to try to love others the way God loved me: by hoping for them to start to follow Jesus too, so that God and I could accept them into our spiritual family.

Then slowly, one by one, my fundamentalist beliefs started shifting, starting first with my beliefs about evolution, then my beliefs about homosexuality, then my beliefs about the inspiration of the Bible, then my beliefs about sexual purity, then my beliefs about salvation only through Christ, then my beliefs about hell.  For about five years, my identity became "liberal Christian".   I embraced my own human limitations and uncertainty, and found beauty in the variety of shades of gray that replaced the black and white of fundamentalism. 

To my surprise, however, my personal journey didn't stop in liberal Christianity.  I don't know exactly when it happened, but one day, less than a year ago, I decided to face the fact that my label had to change.  Even the very broad label "liberal Christian" didn't fit anymore.  I found conversations about Christianity to be extremely interesting, but conversations within Christianity were completely meaningless and empty to me.  I had no desire to pray anymore, and I found the idea of sin and blood sacrifice to be very outdated and arbitrary.  The idea of love in Christianity seemed more like abuse and manipulation to me.  The Bible was not worth my time anymore, and church was nothing but depressing.  I finally admitted to myself that I didn't think Christianity was any different from any other religions, and that I seriously doubted that god even existed, much less that he was actively involved in the affairs of the world.

That is how I arrived at my new label: agnostic.  It was a very uncomfortable label to put on, mostly due to residual fundamentalist emotions that bounce around in my head on occasion.  Some of the discomfort also came from immediately being seen as a tragedy or a project by the few Christian friends and family in my life.   However, I was lucky enough to miss out on the greatest discomfort because my husband has taken a very similar journey as me, at nearly the same time.  Overall, the small discomfort I experienced was short-lived, and the label now feels like a natural part of me; I'm quite happy with the fit, and with the colorful view from here.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Motivating vs. Controlling Children

I absolutely adore my sweet, sensitive little boy.  He melts my heart with the hugs and kisses he shares even with his toys, the way he beams "Mommy! Mommy! Here go!" as he brings me bowls of pretend food,  the way he belly laughs when we play chase, the way he loudly tells himself, "No, no!" when breaking a house rule, and the way his lower lip sticks out when he is about to burst into heart-felt sobs.

Looking into his adorable little face, I just can't imagine ever hitting him, no matter what his mood or what he has just done.  I know that being hit by his parents would break his sensitive little heart, not to mention my own.  Although I can't say with certainty that spanking is always wrong for everyone, I absolutely know that it is wrong for my son, wrong for me, wrong for my family.

And luckily for me, it seems that research backs up the results of parenting without the dynamic of strong punishment.  In his bestselling book "Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion",  Dr. Robert Cialdini describes a very relevant study on using different types of persuasion on children.

In the study, the children--all boys ranging from age 7 to 9--were divided into two groups.  For one group, each boy was shown an array of five toys, then threatened with punishment if he played with the most attractive toy, a robot.  When the researcher left the room for a few minutes, almost all the boys avoided the forbidden toy.

However, the other group of boys, who also each saw the same five toys, received different treatment.  They were simply instructed not to play with the robot "because it is wrong," with no threat of punishment.  When the researcher left the room, almost all of those boys also avoided the forbidden toy.  In other words, these two approaches produced the same immediate results.

The most interesting part of the study came six weeks later, when the same boys met with the researcher again.  This time, the researcher didn't give any special instructions about the robot when leaving each boy alone in the room with the same five toys.  Of the group of boys who had previously been threatened with punishment, 77% chose to play with the robot during the second visit.  Of the group of boys who had simply been instructed rather than threatened, only 33% chose to play with the robot during the second visit.

How can we account for this difference?  The book explains,
"Social scientists have determined that we accept inner responsibility for a behavior when we think we have chosen to perform it in the absence of strong outside pressures.  A large reward is one such external pressure.  It may get us to perform a certain action, but it won't get us to accept inner responsibility for the act.  Consequently, we won't feel committed to it.  The same is true of a strong threat; it may motivate immediate compliance, but it is unlikely to produce long-term commitment.
 All of this has important implications for rearing children.  It suggests that we should never heavily bribe or threaten our children to do the things we want them to truly believe in.  Such pressures will probably produce temporary compliance with our wishes.  However, if we want more than just that, if we want the children to believe in the correctness of what they have done, if we want them to continue to perform the desired behavior when we are not present to apply those outside pressures, then we must somehow arrange for them to accept inner responsibility for the actions we want them to take" ("Influence," Kindle location 1526-1537).
This certainly resonates with my own experience.  I know that I felt very little agency over my life and my choices while growing up, and as I discovered in the freedom of adulthood, very very few of the lessons of my youth "stuck."  So now as a parent, I will try as much as possible to promote mutually respectful dialogue, disagreement, and compromise, so that my son doesn't have to realize that he has no idea who he is when he becomes an adult.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Judgmental People

"How was your Christmas?" the guy working at the fish counter at my local grocery store asked.

"It was a good Christmas....how was yours?" I responded, moving my cart as my toddler tried to smack his slobbery hands on the display window.

"Oh actually, I celebrate Hanukkah.  My family is Jewish," he volunteered.

And from there, we somehow chatted our way into the story of his first Christmas experience--last year, with his girlfriend's extremely Christian family.  "We just sat around singing songs about Baby Jesus," he said incredulously, "and anytime I made a joke to lighten the mood, I could tell it offended them, especially her aunt."

"That is soooo awkward and no fun at all!" I said, secretly wondering how similar my past self was to his girlfriend's aunt.  "What did your girlfriend think of the whole situation?"

"Well, that's the problem; she's not religious anymore herself, but she didn't feel comfortable with my joking around and being honest in front of her family.  We actually just broke up two months ago because we couldn't work that out.  She was so afraid of being judged."

And that is the legacy of growing up in religious fundamentalism--fear of being judged.  And for a person who was never given permission to be themselves, who was conditioned for their whole lives to conform to a very narrow standard in order to be loved, the experience of being judged even as an adult can often be devastating and crippling.  The disapproval of others, rather than being a blip on the radar, is instead a sign of a looming danger.  Because of its use as a control tactic in fundamentalist circles, it signals that a relationship is broken until the person conforms.

This fear of judgment is something that I personally still struggle with on occasion, although thankfully not as much as  before.  I often try to remind myself that there are many different approaches to life, and some people are better suited for one than other--it's ok if I'm doing things differently than others in my life, and it's ok if they are doing things differently than me.  And from there, I'm starting to take to heart that adults can disagree with each others' choices and yet still like each other.  Really, it's one of my favorite things about being outside the black-and-white worldview of fundamentalism.

However, around most religious friends and family, and any other person who has a particularly judgmental attitude, I still struggle.  Up until a few years ago, I often found myself playing the role of the Jewish guy's ex-girlfriend--keeping quiet, avoiding conflict by suppressing my true self, sacrificing my real opinions for the sake of the "relationship".  Yet these days, I have swung to the other extreme--a sort of "judgmental people can go f*ck themselves" attitude, because I don't want people like that in my life or my son's life.  I don't even want to be aware of their existence.

I don't think that either approach is the healthiest one for me.  But I do think that it might be necessary for people like me--those who grew up in the extremely judgmental fundamentalist culture--to experience both extremes in order to identify and settle in the more peaceful middle ground.  I hope that, step by step, I'll be able to move towards true self-confidence that is not unsettled even by the presence of judgmental people; I hope that I can completely be myself while also being tolerant of and kind to even the judgmental people who cross my path.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Conclusion

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

Read criticism #4 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.  My second criticism looked at the extreme level of control that parents are urged to have over their child's mind and body, which can prevent the child from maturing and can put the parent at risk of developing abusive habits.  My third criticism looked at the shockingly broad definition of rebellion and the abusive use of spanking to force children to change their opinions and feelings.  My fourth criticism discussed how isolation weakens families by removing other sources of support, and how isolation negatively affects children's social and emotional development.  Now here is my conclusion:



To parents:


Being a parent is incredibly challenging, and the constant stream of conflicting advice about parenting only adds confusion to the challenge.  There's an extra level of stress for many devout Christian parents because raising upstanding citizens is not enough for them; they also desperately want their children to share their faith and religious convictions.  It's not surprising that even good and caring Christian parents could get sucked into this severely authoritarian parenting approach, believing it to be in their children's best spiritual interests; they need to feel in control of their child's destiny because they believe the stakes are so high.

If you are one of those parents, perhaps it will be a little easier for you to see the relational damage of this parenting approach if you witness a parent outside of your own faith employing these techniques on their child.  Is it ok for an atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, or Orthodox Jewish parent to force their child to follow their beliefs about religion, punish their child for expressing disagreement, and isolate their child from other influences?   In another religious context, doesn't this look like abusive parenting?  Doesn't it look like the parent cares much more about their own opinions than about their child?  Don't you feel sympathy for the poor child, and suddenly find yourself believing that the parent ought to let their child have the freedom to choose his or her own opinions?  What makes you think that the experience is any different for the child if the parent happens to be a Christian?


Yes, it's hard to realize that your child's destiny is outside of your control, but it can also be incredibly freeing.  It allows you to be relationship-focused rather than goal-oriented toward your child.   Parenting mistakes are impossible to avoid, but as much as possible, let your errors be on the side of unconditional love, mercy, forgiveness, understanding, patience, grace, peacefulness, kindness, gentleness, and self-control.  A parent who personally lives a sincere and virtuous life and who also has a positive, open, and accepting relationship with their child will make a much more valuable contribution to their child's life than any parenting technique from this book ever could.


If your children are already grown and your relationship with them is strained, please don't underestimate the power of a heartfelt apology, of repeatedly telling them how proud you are of them (without a hint of disapproval), and of absolutely never giving them unsolicited advice.  My own nearly-destroyed relationship with my dad was able to come back from the brink of total destruction because of these changes that he made, and today, amazingly, we actually respect each other and enjoy each other's company. 


To kids who grew up with this type of parenting:


It's very likely that your parents had your best interests in mind, and that they made personal sacrifices in order to participate in this lifestyle.  Because of this, they may be very resistant to acknowledging that their choices caused you harm.  Don't let that stop you from processing your past for yourself, acknowledging your own feelings, and trying to overcome the negative effects of that lifestyle for yourself.

The word "bitter" gets thrown around a lot whenever a person faces their past and admits their pain.  See that accusation for what it usually is: the defensiveness of people who feel threatened because they have not come to terms with those experiences for themselves.   Realize that your emotional pain, like physical pain, is there for a reason, and should not just be ignored.  Luckily, it is possible to face your past and create a better future for yourself, even without the support of your parents. 

You may feel like you don't deserve to be loved.  You may have a lot of trouble having and voicing your own opinions.  You might avoid getting close to people out of fear of rejection.  You might feel disconnected from the rest of the world and excessively worried about its dangers.  You may feel socially lost, confused, and anxious.  You might feel like you don't know how to enjoy yourself or have fun.  You may feel like every problem or even emotion you have is nothing more than your own spiritual failure.  These are some of the effects that I experienced, but every person is different; some people are affected more while others are affected less

I personally found it helpful establish a lot of personal space between my parents and me, meet a lot of different kinds of people, hear about the experiences of others who have left fundamentalism, talk extensively about my own experiences and memories with a few empathetic and nonjudgemental people, experience unconditional love from my spouse, and see a good therapist.  There have been ups and downs, of course, but overall the life I have today is better than I ever imagined possible.  I hope for the same for you!

Feel free to share your perspective, opinions, and experiences in the comments, or send me an email: pasttensepresentprogressive [at] gmail.com. 

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Criticism #4: A Parent Who Isolates In Order to Control

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 #2 here.
Read criticism #3 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.  My second criticism looked at the extreme level of control that parents are urged to have over their child's mind and body, which can prevent the child from maturing and can put the parent at risk of developing abusive habits.  My third criticism looked at the shockingly broad definition of rebellion and the abusive use of spanking to force children to change their opinions and feelings.  Now here is my fourth criticism:

Criticism #4: Parents are urged to isolate their families in order to maintain extreme levels of control over their children without outside interference. 

Of all the bad parenting ideas we've seen so far in this book, this one is really the last nail in the coffin.  The parental suspicion, the extreme levels of control, the abusive spanking--this combination is very likely to lead to a severe family crisis.  And when some members of the family reach their breaking point, they will tragically find themselves isolated from all other forms of support, advice, and information, thanks to Reb Bradley.

First, Reb Bradley wants parents to isolate themselves from other sources of advice, information, and support.  He warns parents not to listen to advice from nonChristians, explaining: "Psalms 1:1 tells us that we will be blessed if we do not seek advice from those without Christ.  Although they have the appearance of wisdom and offer insights that may seem reasonable, their thinking is infected with worldliness, and leads to regret" (p. 21).  In other words, he thinks nonChristians don't have anything helpful to offer; in fact, he thinks nonChristian advice is actively dangerous, even if it sounds reasonable.  Then, as he continues to explain, Reb Bradley widens his warning to even include Christians who happen to disagree with his version of Christianity.  "God tells us that those lacking the fear of God, whether professing Christian or not, are hampered in their thinking an do not have even the basics of wisdom....Christian leaders have undiscerningly received 'wisdom' from the world's experts, then christianized it, and passed it on to the Church" (p. 22).  So, even the advice of most other Christians is suspect, according to Reb Bradley.  Parents who take him seriously are very alone indeed.

In giving these warnings, Reb Bradley effectively cuts off parents from the support of professional therapists and Child Protective Services, even if the professional therapist and social worker happen to be Christians.   This seems far too naive an attitude for a pastor to have, not to mention incredibly irresponsible, since pastors are required by law to report endangered children to authorities in most states, including Reb Bradley's home state of California.  There are many complex issues that people face, Christian or not, and sometimes those issues put others in harm's way.  Sometimes, we don't have the luxury of time, of "waiting for Jesus to change hearts".  What about cases of children being physically or sexually abused, or severely neglected?  In cases like these, the answer can't be a simplistic "Everybody just pray more and try harder."  Sometimes, the situation calls for professional intervention, Christian or not, in order to prevent more harm and tragedy.

Although Reb Bradley claims that his Biblical advice will lead to blessings, while other nonBiblical advice "guarantees trouble" (p. 21), I personally found the opposite to be true.  As an older teen attending his church, Hope Chapel, I struggled for years to conform to an ill-fitting "God-given" role, as taught by Reb Bradley.  Finally, absolutely miserable and out of my mind with desperation, I went to Reb Bradley privately to ask him for help because, as a legal adult, I was finding it impossible to submit to a controlling father who seemed to actively despise me.  Was there anything I could do differently, I asked?  The answer was no.  All I could do, according to Reb Bradley, was to stay home and try even harder to be a submissive daughter, trusting that one day God would honor my obedience by making my dad a better leader.  In other words, keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Luckily, when we reached our breaking point as a family, we were able to reach out for other help, which saved our family relationships from complete destruction.  A professional therapist coached my parents in how to treat me more like an adult, against Reb Bradley's "Biblical" advice.  Around the same time, my debilitating depression started to give way to new hopefulness as I finally moved out of my parents' home to go to college at age 23, which was also against Reb Bradley's "Biblical" teachings.  The reality is that a professional's "unBiblical" advice was far better for my family than Reb Bradley's simplistic "Biblical" advice.  And I know my family's story is far from unique.

Now as an ex-fundamentalist, I can see that the tendency of many fundamentalists to isolate themselves reveals their deep insecurity about their beliefs.  This insecurity is because many of their opinions are emotionally based rather than intellectually based, so they react emotionally instead of responding intellectually when their opinions are challenged.  A person who is truly confident about their opinions can face challenges without fear; and a person who is genuinely interested in the truth is not afraid to have their opinions challenged because they are willing to adapt their opinions when the evidence is convincing enough.  There is no healthy reason for people--especially not adults--to isolate themselves from ideas and information.

I suppose though that such isolation is necessary based on the fundamentalist's worldview: the Biblical way is supposed to go against our human instincts and tendencies, while the worldly way is supposed to be easy and appealing.  It's because of this type of thinking that we see contrasting sentences like these: "upon hearing biblical principles taught, some parents wrestle with accepting them" (p. 23); contrasted with "those without Christ...offer insights that may seem reasonable" (p. 21).  However, I can no longer accept this simplistic view because I believe that life and morality, even in the Bible, are far more complex than that.  After all, parts of the Bible appear to condone or overlook actions that today are recognized as immoral by Christians and nonChristians alike: committing genocideoffering a daughter to be gang rapedattempting child sacrificeactually sacrificing a childkidnapping slaves and wivesabandoning a wife and childmurdering a child for rebellionfantasizing about getting revenge through killing infants, establishing the death penalty for homosexuality, etc.  Clearly, both Christians and nonChristians are capable of having noble and harmful desires, good ideas and bad ideas.  Therefore, if something seems reasonable and good, it doesn't matter to me whether the source is Christian or nonChristian.   Similarly, if something seems harmful to myself and others, I disregard it even if the source is a Christian and even if there are Bible verses that appear to support it.  I have a mind and a responsibility to use it.

Reb Bradley, in contrast, sees the mind as such a dangerous thing that he even warns parents against paying attention to their own childhood memories.  He says, "Those parents who were victims of poor training are right to avoid the mistakes made by their parents, but they must guard themselves from rejecting solid biblical principles, just because they seem close to what they experienced.  If our parents' approach seemed close to biblical parenting, yet bore bad fruit, we can be certain it was not biblical" (p. 24-25).  Don't trust your own experiences, parents--just do what Reb Bradley says is Biblical.  If it works, then you did it right.  If it doesn't work, then you messed it up somehow, even if it was pretty damn close.  This type of thinking is what allows Reb Bradley to give advice freely, take credit for any good that comes of it, and avoid taking responsibility for the bad.

In addition to urging parents to isolate themselves from other advice//information/support, Reb Bradley also urges parents to consider sacrificing their children's social connections for the sake of parental authority.  Although he says that he is leaving it up to parental discretion as to how much isolation is necessary, his intention is clearly to plant doubt in the parents' minds about the benefits of peer involvement for their kids.  He provides a helpful list of potentially dangerous activities for children:
"Too few parents stop to consider the spiritual and moral dangers of the day-to-day situations in which they place their children.  They have wrongly considered to be absolutes things like school, youth group, choir, summer camp, sports, friends, theater productions, music, dances, dating, Sunday school, Christian clubs, etc.  None of these are inherently evil, but each puts your children under the authority and influence of someone else - someone who does not love your children as much as you do, nor will be held accountable on Judgement Day for them.  Is it possible that one or all of those activities or settings has more of a corrupting influence than a redeeming influence on your children? ...Too many parents have thwarted their own efforts at training up godly children, because they assumed they needed to send them off to a community program or to a church-sponsored event" (p. 153-154). [emphasis mine]
Keep in mind that Reb Bradley's primary audience is fundamentalist homeschooling families who are already prone to over-sheltering their children.  Yet here he is, suggesting that some children may need to be entirely cut off from the outside world.  Here he is, speaking in support of parents who don't allow their homeschooled children to have peer friendships or even attend Sunday school once a week for an hour.   I know from experience exactly how much damage this can do to a person.  For many of my teenage years, I only left the house once a week to go to church, where I was not even allowed to participate in Sunday school; I was 17 years old by the time I managed to make my first friend as a teen.  The resulting social confusion, anxiety, and feelings of disconnect still affect me today.  And I'm not the only one who has noticed these lasting effects that social isolation has on children and teens.  People like me are the reason that the stereotypical homeschooler is a socially awkward misfit.

All children need to learn how to relate to other members of their society in order to successfully enter that society as independent adults.  In fact, experiments have shown that even young monkeys who are socially isolated are later unable to relate to their age-mates normally, instead displaying more anti-social and emotionally unstable behaviors.  Isolating children does a huge disservice to both them and society as a whole.  Yet to Reb Bradley, giving children the opportunity to learn peer social skills is clearly not a priority, not compared to parental authority.  In "Child Training Tips", he never addresses the probable negative effects of isolating children from peer contact.  And he never mentions the numerous positive aspects of regular social connection for children--things such as learning how to get along with many different types of people, learning how to make and keep friends, being exposed to new interests/jobs/hobbies, learning teamwork, learning to receive and give criticism and compliments, learning how to communicate effectively outside the family, practicing leadership skills, learning to say no, etc.  Instead, Reb Bradley exclusively focuses on how children's social involvement can undermine the parents' goals for their children.  All he can see is that outside influences might interfere with parental authority.

It's not just the social interaction that Reb Bradley worries about though.  It's also the fun.  Yes, that's right, Reb Bradley thinks that fun activities are not good for children because they promote immaturity and lack spiritual value.  I wish I were exaggerating, but here it is:
"Childhood is so brief, why would we want them to spend excessive amounts of time doing something which offers no spiritual value, and does little to bring them to maturity?  If maturity is developed by denying self and responsibly serving others, and immaturity is fed by spending excessive time in self-indulging, entertainment-oriented activities, why would we want our children to spend multiple hours each week involved in such things?  We must evaluate their pursuits and decide if the time and energy required will actually make them mature and prepare them for their role as adults" (p. 155). [emphasis mine]
You know the bright-eyed grin of a child who is having fun?  That is the smile of a selfish child who is wasting time on unspiritual activities, according to Reb Bradley.  I really took this lesson to heart as a teen.  I had one fun activity in my life during my early teen years: horseback riding.  I had to earn the money for it myself, and I definitely kept to myself at the barn, but it was the one thing that I actually enjoyed for, you know, "multiple hours each week."  But then, when my family started attending Reb Bradley's church, Hope Chapel, I was suddenly "convicted" about wasting my time and money on fun.  I felt like God wanted me to quit my only hobby and save my money for Bible college instead.  So I did, and my life became a little emptier and darker that day.  But that, in turn, made me notice that I also enjoyed watching movies, which certainly didn't have any spiritual value.  So I made a vow to God that I would not watch any more movies for the rest of my life, and instead use my extra time to pray and read the Bible.  After that, it was unspiritual conversation topics and unspiritual trains of thought that plagued me--so I began to spiritualize everything, even to the point of thinking things like, "Jesus is the bread of life.  Jesus is the bread of life.  Jesus is the bread of life..." while making homemade bread.  And so it went; one by one, anything that I enjoyed became a source of guilt to me instead of pleasure, and I sank deeper and deeper into depression.  It has taken me years to undo that damage, re-learn how to enjoy myself, and start to feel alive inside again.  Ironically, it was Ecclesiastes that helped me with that at first; it matched my feelings that everything was meaningless, and yet still told me, "I commend the enjoyment of life, because nothing is better for a man under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad.  Then joy will accompany him in his work all the days of the life God has given him under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 8:15).  

Remember, in my case, eliminating the fun things from my life was done of my own initiative, as a sign of devotion that was just between God and me.  But Reb Bradley is telling parents to use their authority to force that type of devotion on their children.  Why can't he leave anything between the child and God, without a parent in the middle?  Why can't Jesus call the children himself, and why can't they respond for themselves?  Why has the verse "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross and follow me" (Matthew 16:24) somehow been changed into this instead by Reb Bradley: "If any parents want their children to come after me, let the parents deny their children, put crosses on their children's backs, and march their children down the street behind me."

In conclusion, we can see that Reb Bradley's advice doesn't strengthen families, but instead weakens them by isolating them from the rest of society.  The parents will have fewer resources at their disposal, and will be less able to make changes when things aren't working well.  The children, meanwhile, will feel the great insecurity of knowing that every single positive thing in their lives is subject to their parents' imperfect and spiritually selfish whims, and that they will have no recourse and no allies when their parents take away everything that makes their lives worth living.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Criticism #3: A Parent Who Tries to Change Minds and Hearts through Spanking

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 #2 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.  My second criticism looked at the extreme level of control that parents are urged to have over their child's mind and body, which can prevent the child from maturing and can put the parent at risk of developing abusive habits.  Now here is my third criticism.

Criticism #3: Parents are instructed to use spanking as their primary tool of discipline, not only for behavior modification but also to force the child to change their opinions or feelings.

Spanking is one of those hot button issues; some parents are strongly against it in all cases, while others find it a useful last-resort parenting tool.  However, whatever your feelings on spanking, I think that we can all come together to condemn the abusive spanking instructions that are given to parents in this book.

You see, Reb Bradley views spanking not as one of many parenting tools, but as the only tool.  Before giving parents his specific instructions on how to spank, he reminds them, "Spanking is incorrectly used if it is a last resort rather than the first response for rebellion" (p. 71).   He adds, "Beware of trying to cure rebellion with 'creative alternatives.'  Any alternative to chastisement [spanking] is an alternative to Scripture -- God offers no better solutions to subduing rebellion outside the Bible" (p. 74).  What are those creative alternatives to spanking that he's referring to, that are apparently un-Biblical?
  • "When your authority is not sufficient to motivate your child to pick up their toys, you make a game of it, so that their desire for fun will gain their cooperation." (p. 61)
  • "When they will not obey your specific direction to go into their room for a nap, you become animated, playful, and silly, and make the walk to their room look like a lot of fun." (p. 61)
  • "Instead of giving them a direct order to go to bed, manipulate them by saying, 'Which do you want to take to bed with you right now -- the teddy bear or the doll?'"  (p. 61)
  • "When they will not cooperate, you create a contest to gain compliance, i.e.: challenging them to get their room clean within a time limit." (p. 61)
  • "A three year old who is throwing a fit, may forget that he was upset if an animated parent points out the window and exclaims, 'What could that be?'  However, the calming effect of the distraction does not subdue his will and should not be a substitute for chastisement [spanking]." (p. 62) 
  • "The parent who is unaware of his authority sometimes resorts to offering bribes to his children to evoke obedience: 'If you behave in the grocery cart, I'll get you a treat when we check out.' 'If you get into bed for your nap, I'll read your favorite story.' 'You may have cake for dessert if you eat your vegetables.'" (p. 57-58)
From his examples of un-Biblical techniques, we see that a parent is not allowed to do anything to diffuse tension, increase positive motivation, or add humor to the moment.   Reb Bradley claims that these parenting techniques are unBiblical even though they are clearly not forbidden in the Bible, and even though the Bible clearly doesn't claim to be an exhaustive child training manual.  Ironically, these so-called unBiblical techniques are much more in line with verses such as Ephesians 6:4 "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger," and Colossians 3:21 "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged."  Reb Bradley's advice, in contrast, seems much more likely to provoke, embitter, and discourage the child, since he urges parents to treat everything as a power struggle and to use only direct confrontation and physically-aggressive punishment to deal with it.   In addition, the techniques that Reb Bradley deems unBiblical are the ones that the child could most benefit from seeing modeled; offering positive motivation, diffusing tension, and using humor to promote cooperation are techniques that are useful in peer relationships and adult relationships, where spanking is less socially acceptable.

So spanking is the only tool a parent can use against rebellion, but what is Reb Bradley's definition of rebellion?  As I'm sure you can imagine, an extremely controlling parent has many opportunities to see rebellion in the child's behavior, especially when the parent thinks the goal of parenting is to completely subdue the child's will.  It's no surprise, then, that Reb Bradley has many strange and sad examples of rebellion to give us, which he separates into two categories: active rebellion and passive rebellion.

Active rebellion is defined as purposeful or premeditated disobedience, although it oddly includes things such as any form of sass and back-talk (p. 75), a toddler crying uncontrollably over not getting their way (p. 76), a child moving away from a parental hug or touch (p. 76), a child who attempts to get off the parent's lap without verbal permission (p. 77), and a toddler who arches his back against a seatbelt (p. 77).

Even worse are the examples of passive rebellion, which is "less conscious and premeditated than active rebellion...requiring parents to work harder to expose to them their rebellion" (p. 78):
  • "Consistent forgetfulness: When they can remember to set their alarm and dress themselves for soccer practice, but habitually forget to take out the garbage, they are demonstrating they can be capable when they choose to be.  They just need greater motivation" (p. 78). 
  • "External obedience with a bad attitude: They cooperate with your directions, but talk, complain, or whine about it the entire time, i.e.: The three year old who lets his mother shower him, but is permitted to complain throughout the shower: 'But I don't want a shower. I don't want a shower.'" (p. 79). 
  • "Obeying only on own terms: Does not come exactly when called; walks slowly...Dictates to parents when they will obey: 'I'm getting a drink first,' or 'I'll be there in a minute.'" (p. 79). 
  • "Doing what is required, but not how it should be done: Does chores, but not by parents' established standards, i.e.: dishes are not quite clean, bed is not made properly, bedroom is not ordered as required" (p. 79). 
  • "Violating unspoken, but understood rules: 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 continues his deed as he sees his mother approaching, verify that he knows he is doing wrong" (p. 80-81).
In other words, the child can never do anything less than instant, cheerful obedience to a parent's spoken and unspoken commands.  The child's obedience must be up to the parents' standards at all times in both speed and quality.  Anything less can be interpreted as rebellion.  Please keep in mind that, according to Reb Bradley, the only appropriate parental response for active and passive rebellion is to administer a spanking.  It's no wonder that children raised with this mentality often have trouble relating to the grace and love that Jesus demonstrated, since they learned instead to evaluate themselves by impossible standards and habitually feel deserving of punishment.

With all this in mind, let's look now at Reb Bradley's instructions on how to spank, which he calls chastisement: "Chastisement is a calm, controlled spanking on the bottom...uses a light-weight rod....is done after the first offense, while the parent is still calm" (p. 70-71).   He continues by explaining a common spanking mistake that parents make: "Many parents implement chastisement with their children, but are frustrated because it does not seem to subdue their wills.  The most common reason for this is incomplete chastisement -- it is administered as discipline for rebellion, but is ended before its goals have been accomplished.  What are the goals of chastisement? 1. To cause children to be humble before their parents' authority. 2. To cause them to take responsibility for what they have done. 3. To cause them to submit to the consequences of their actions" (p. 71).

What does incomplete chastisement look like?  Here are a few of the many horrifying examples that Reb Bradley lists:
  • "No obvious sign of brokenness or humility" (p. 72)
  • "Refuses to hug the discliplining parent" (p. 72).
  • "Cries out for the non-disciplining parent" (p. 72).
  • "Extended or extra loud crying (venting anger -- not pain or sorrow)" (p. 72).
  • "Expresses no remorse to God in prayer, and refuses to ask for forgiveness of those they offended" (p. 72).
In other words, if the child doesn't appear broken, doesn't want to be hugged right after being hit, cries in the wrong way, or doesn't seem sorry enough in prayer to God, then "the chastisement obviously did not work, and should be repeated a second time," or perhaps even a third time, although Reb Bradley apparently rarely hears of a third time being necessary (p. 73).  It would seem that Reb Bradley has mentally adapted the verse, spoken by Jesus, from "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them" (Luke 18:16), to a crusade-like mentality of "Beat the little children until they come to me and confess their sins with appropriate sorrow."  Reb Bradley also seems to believe that a parent can and should beat their child into demonstrating love through a hug, which is an absolutely disgusting attitude for a parent to have.

As if that's not horrifying enough, there is also a list of behavior during chastisement that "merits extra discipline" because they indicate resistance to parental authority (p. 73-74).
  • "Moving away from the rod" (p. 74).
  • "Putting their hand in front of their bottom" (p. 74).
  • "Pleading for mercy; making vehement promises of repentance" (p. 74). 
  • "Requesting limited number of swats" (p. 74).
  • "Extra loud, angry crying" (p. 74).
Why is it ok for me to ask God for mercy, but a child requesting mercy from a parent deserves more punishment?  Why is it ok for people like King David and Job to express strong negative emotion, sometimes even toward God, but a child who feels anger when hit by a parent deserves to be hit more?  And how is a child expected to override the subconscious physical reflexes that help prevent bodily injury?

If you are wondering what this type of spanking can be like from the child's point of view, here is a truly heartbreaking first-hand account.  Clearly, even calm parent using an "appropriate" rod can be abusive in their attempts to follow these guidelines of chastisement.

Reading this book, you notice right away that almost everything is a strong assertion that is not backed up by evidence, not even Biblical evidence.  The lack of support throughout the book makes the few verifiable claims stand out even more; unfortunately for Reb Bradley, the verifiable data from his book is easily disproved by a few simple google searches.  For instance, he claims, without citing his source:
"That society which does away with corporal punishment will raise undisciplined, self-consumed young people, who lack the security that comes from being required to stay within firm limits.  Sweden and Denmark, famous for their prostitution, drugs, and child pornography, are the world's first countries to have outlawed spanking.  Not surprisingly, since their first generation of undisciplined children has grown up, these two countries are now reported to have the highest teen suicide rates in the world.  Eliminating the rod is not a sign of a civilized society, but of one in moral decline" (p. 69-70).  
In mentioning prostitution, drugs, and child pornography, perhaps Reb Bradley is thinking of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where spanking was actually legal until 2007; Amsterdam, after all, has the famous Red Light District and legalized marijuana.  Sweden and Denmark, on the other hand, are certainly not famous for these things.  In regards to spanking, Denmark didn't outlaw spanking until 1997, after this book was written, and at least five other countries had already outlawed spanking before Denmark did.

So let's look at the three countries that first outlawed spanking: Sweden, where spanking was outlawed in 1966; Finland, where spanking was outlawed in 1983; and Norway, where spanking was outlawed in 1987.  According to Reb Bradley, these countries should now be showing increased rates of teen suicide.  However, the opposite is true.  In Sweden between 1969-1979, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 8.69 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 6.30 by the 1990s.  In Finland between 1980-1989, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 24.54 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 15.51 by the 1990s.  In Norway between 1980-1989, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 15.71 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 12.12 by the 1990s.  

Although Reb Bradley doesn't mention crime rates, they are worth looking at too.  Currently, the homicide rate in the USA is 4.2 per 100,000 people; in contrast, the homicide rate in Sweden is 1.0, in Finland it's 2.2, and in Norway it's 0.6.  Murder rates in all four countries are on a downward trend, regardless of the legality of spanking.

This basic data certainly doesn't prove anything about whether spanking should be legal or illegal.  What is does show, however, is that spanking is not a necessary part of a harmonious society with low rates of suicide and homicide.  It also shows that Reb Bradley is extremely negligent in his research.

In conclusion, Reb Bradley's tells parents that hitting a child with a rod is their only possible response to perceived rebellion, and that the spanking should be used to control the child's behavior, mind, feelings, and even relationship with God.  In giving these instructions, he shows a severe misunderstanding of the Bible and serious scholarly negligence.

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.