An Ideological Straight-Jacket

I just realized that in my last post I made the my home and those of other daughters who leave sound like a sort of prison complete with wardens. I will explore that idea here, and argue that the children of Christian Patriarchy essentially grow up in ideological straight-jackets.

The parents of Christian Patriarchy have one goal in mind: to raise children who believe and act as they do. The reason, of course, is that they see their beliefs and lifestyle as the only one that is truly Christian, and anyone who steps outside of their beliefs and lifestyle turns their back on God. Within this framework, parents of Christian Patriarchy act quite rationally.  

Vision Forum and No Greater Joy and the Institutes for Basic Life Principles tell them that if they do just so, they will turn out perfect godly Children. This is the appeal these groups have, and parents buy it. They then live by the formulas these groups present and expect complete conformity from their children, not because they think they have to force their children to believe something they don’t believe, but rather because they think the formulas will work and produce children who genuinely believe just as they do.

These formulas for raising perfect godly children always seem to involve some degree of sheltering and some degree of surveillance. Children are kept from bad influences and their associations are monitored. The extreme to which this is taken, though, varies slightly from method to method and greatly from family to family. On the one end, Michael Pearl suggests in his article Sanctuary that children’s every move and interaction should be watched:
Over the years as our children were growing up, Deb and I offended about every family member and some of our friends by being “overprotective” of the innocent charges God sent into our care. We guarded them from any suspect company and thoughtfully planned their associations. We have not trusted, “good Christian families.” We have not participated in churches where the children were separated from us. After church, we watched them and their associations. When kids stop running around in circles, screaming, and start talking, or drawing aside, you’ve likely got the beginning of troubles brewing. Keep the little ones standing right beside you after church. They should always sit with you, never with their friends. If they go out to the bathroom, go with them. Never allow them to spend the night with friends or cousins. Slumber parties are sin parties. Never allow them to listen to music through headphones. Three-minute phone conversations, no chat rooms, no surfing the web for any reason. Parents should make it physically impossible for them to even access the web. We didn’t allow our children to spend time in their bedrooms unless they were working on a project or reading. Bedroom doors were always kept open, except for two minutes while dressing.
Families that go to this extreme essentially act as prison wardens over their children. Vision Forum goes so far as to advise that children of both genders should not be sent away to college for fear of corruption.  

Yet sheltering and surveillance are rarely taken quite to this extreme by the families of Christian Patriarchy, which can vary in many respects. In my family, for instance, we children had plenty of friends and activities, and we weren’t watched every minute. We were allowed at least some privacy, inasmuch as privacy could be found in a house full of children. We were also allowed to go to friends’ houses and to slumber parties. In addition, my family believed in sending children away to college, trusting that by that point they were well trained enough to withstand the evil influences they might come in contact with. Yet, nevertheless, every family of Christian Patriarchy practices at least some sheltering and surveillance, especially with regards to internet use, friend selection, and privacy in bedrooms.

Even as most children of Christian Patriarchy have activities, friends, and some measure of privacy, they nevertheless grow up in a sort of ideological straight-jacket. The parents of Christian Patriarchy expect a great deal of conformity in belief (especially when it comes to religion and gender) and in action (no dating, no cussing, dress just so, etc.), and stepping outside or having a differing opinion simply is not an option. Questioning your parents and how they do things is a big no-no, and is counted as either back talk or rebellion, depending on one’s age. Now here’s the thing about an ideological straitjacket: to someone who shares the ideology, it doesn’t feel constricting. In fact, it feels perfectly comfortable and comforting. It is only when an individual begins to grate against the restrictions or ask questions or change beliefs that they realize they’re in a straight-jacket.

Now, when a child rebels the parents generally do not see it as a problem with their beliefs or child-rearing methods, but rather as a problem with the child. After all, they followed the formula, so the child should share their beliefs, and if she doesn’t then there’s something wrong with her. The general conclusions are that she’s selfish and is thinking only of her fleshly desires, or that she’s been misled or brainwashed by someone (especially if college or outside classes are involved), or that she’s blinded by love (if there’s a boy involved). These explanations are turned to because the parent literally cannot figure out how a child raised according to the formulas they’ve been sold, separated from evil influences and immersed in the Bible and covered with prayer, could ever go wrong or leave their beliefs. It simply does not make sense to them.
At this point, the parents generally believe it is their duty to bring their wayward child back to the true path. They see this as a fight against the devil and the world, a fight for their child’s very soul, and a struggle between the parents and the child ensues. It is here, if not before, that the child realizes that she is stuck in an ideological straight-jacket. This struggle is not fun for either the parents or the child, and it involves much heartache and pain for both. In the end, one of three things has to happen: either the parents rein the child in, or the parents loosen up and accept some lack of conformity, or the child simply leaves and the parents are left trying to figure out what went wrong and what to do now. In essence, the child must either be taught to remain in the ideological straight-jacket willingly, or the straight-jacket must be loosened and its wearer allowed more freedom, or the child must find a way to rip off the straight-jacket entirely.

When an older daughter rebels or changes her beliefs, she automatically becomes a threat. When I told my father about my differences in belief, the very first thing he said was, “What am I supposed to do about the children?” I was completely shocked, because that wasn’t the first reaction I had expected. I realized then that in that moment he had gone from seeing me as his precious daughter to seeing me as a threat to his other dozen children. I had suddenly, in his eyes, become the enemy. That hurt, a lot, and it also scared me. What it told me was that he would consider sacrificing me in order to protect the children he still had. While the idea of cutting a daughter off for rebelling or differing in belief may seem foreign to some of you, it’s important to realize that it actually makes perfect sense and is indeed quite rational – within their worldview.

And it is with good reason that the daughter who rebels and leaves is seen as a threat. If the parents allow the daughter to visit and have contact with her siblings, those siblings may look at this older sibling they’ve been told is “rebellious” or “out of step with God” and see that she appears normal and happy and experience a disconnect. They may come to see leaving as a valid option, and they may even question their parents’ treatment of her. It is for this reason that some parents cut off a wayward older daughter completely, denying her access to her siblings completely. This serves two purposes: it is an attempt to bring her back by using her siblings as a weapon against her, and it is an attempt to protect the children they have at home from potential corruption.

 

Yet even if the parents deny the older daughter any access to her siblings, she is subversive by her very existence. The parents may tell their younger children that the older sister is “selfish” or “worldly,” but who do you think daughter #3 or son #5 will call the moment they face conflict with mom and dad? I know of one case where an older daughter who had left home received a call from a younger sister who had run away from home, asking to be picked up. If that older sister hadn’t been there, the younger one might not have run away, or else would have run away in the face of far more difficult circumstances. Just being there provides an alternative support system for a younger sibling who starts asking questions.

If children of Christian Patriarchy grow up in an ideological straight-jacket, the daughter who leaves shows her siblings that the straight-jacket can be removed, and that if they need there is someone who can help them do so.
To be clear, it’s not that I have a problem with the parents believing whatever they want to believe. I’m all for freedom of religion and the freedom to choose your own lifestyle. The problem I have is with the way that Christian Patriarchy forces the child into an ideological from which children who want to make their own paths and come up with their own beliefs or views must break free, leaving parents and siblings behind. The parents of Christian Patriarchy can’t seem to let their children make up their minds for themselves.
And yet, if you get inside the heads of the parents of Christian Patriarchy, you can see why they do what they do. After all, they believe that any views or ways of living besides their own are ungodly and worldly, and thus the option is quite stark: conformity or rebellion. Furthermore, Vision Forum, No Greater Joy, and the Institutes for Basic Life Principles have preyed on their fears and told them that if they raise their children just so, they’ll turn into into “perfect godly Christians,” echoing their parents’ beliefs and marching like robots down the straight and narrow to God’s kingdom. Sadly, the parents don’t see the ideological straight-jackets they put their children in: for them it’s just “godly living” or “godly parenting.” It’s only the children who ask questions or want something different that suddenly realize the ideological straight-jacket their parents have unwittingly (or intentionally) put them in.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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