Carefully scripted lives: My concerns about the Duggars

I can’t say how often I’ve heard ordinary Americans defend Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar and their popular TLC television show, 19 Kids and Counting. “I wouldn’t choose to have nineteen kids,” they say, “but if they can manage it, who am I to question their choice?” “The kids look happy and healthy,” they say, “look how polite and well mannered they are.” I hear these comments and I just have to sigh.

First of all, I want to pout out that I would have concerns about the Duggars even if they were your ordinary family plus seventeen extra children. For one thing, there is no way any two parents can give nineteen children the individual attention and time they need. It’s just not feasibly possible. The Duggars like to say that “love multiplies,” but the thing is, time doesn’t. And then, of course, there is the population issue.

But it’s not these things I’m going to discuss here. The fact is, the Duggars aren’t just your ordinary family plus seventeen extra children. There is a great deal of editing that goes into making TV, and one thing that gets edited out are the Duggars’ religious beliefs and their beliefs about child rearing. There is much, much more going on here than you see on TV.

I know this because I grew up in a family very much like the Duggars. We had a third fewer kids and we didn’t have a TV show, but otherwise it was about the same. Our beliefs were nearly identical to theirs, as was our way of living. When I look at the older Duggar girls, I see myself. I was them. With that in mind, I’m going to take a moment to outline nine specific concerns I have about the Duggars.

1. Isolation and Indoctrination

The Duggar childern are homeschooled in part in order to shelter them from bad influences, i.e. from other kids and teachers who hold different beliefs or live different sorts of lives. The Duggar kids don’t have friends who aren’t pre-approved by their parents. In fact, the Duggar kids aren’t even involved in church activities – their family participates in a “home church” where they and several other like-minded families get together on Sunday mornings and worship together.

Furthermore, even the older Duggar children are not allowed to go anywhere without having an “accountability partner,” i.e. another sibling, to keep tabs on them. When one of the older boys volunteered at the local fire department, one of his sisters always went with him to keep an eye on him and make sure he didn’t get in trouble.

Another reason the Duggar children are homeschooled is in order to teach them “God’s truth.” This means that they use religious textbooks, creationist science curriculum, etc. I understand that we have this thing called “freedom of religion” in our country, but I also believe that children have a right to an education, and teaching children one side of everything becomes indoctrination rather than education.

Not surprisingly, the Duggars’ computers have internet access limited to about seventy “approved” websites. To get unlimited internet access, the children – even the older ones – have to get a password from their mother and then have another sibling sitting by them watching the screen as they surf the web to make sure they stay out of trouble. The main reason for this is likely to keep the children from viewing internet pornography, but it also helps ensure that they don’t get subversive information or other viewpoints.

2. Children raising children

If you think Michelle is the one raising all of those kids, think again. Those older daughters, some of them already adults, are the ones who are actually doing the majority of the cooking, cleaning, and childcare. They are, in effect, raising their younger siblings.

Now I’m not saying Michelle sits back and watches soap operas while the kids work, but rather that with that many children there is simply too much for her to do on her own. She doesn’t have the time or energy to raise her children without her older daughters’ help. And fortunately, because the Duggars homeschool, those older daughters are available to help 24/7.

The Duggars have this thing called the “buddy system.” When each new child is born, that child is assigned to one of the older children. In this way, the older children are responsible for dressing, feeding, and even educating the younger children. Michelle had this to say about the buddy system:

This house would not work if we didn’t have the buddy system. The older children mentor the younger ones. They help them with their little phonics lessons and games during the day, help them practice their music lessons. They will play with them or help them pick out the color of their outfit that they want to wear that day, and just all of those types of things.

I’m all for siblings helping each other and playing together, but this goes way further than this. This is siblings raising each other. And as we’ll see, this means a lot of sacrifice for the older siblings doing the raising.

3. Authoritarian discipline

Though they have not directly admitted it, there is a lot to indicate that the Duggars follow Michael and Debi Pearl’s discipline methods. This means they require absolute obedience from their children and see even bad attitudes as signs of disobedience. It also means they use corporal punishment. The Pearls suggest that you begin to spank your children at around six months, and they urge parents to spank a disobedient child until that child submits completely. Complete submission to the parent’s will is the hallmark of the Pearls’ teachings. Here is a quote:

If you are just beginning to institute training on an already rebellious child, who runs from discipline and is too incoherent to listen, then use whatever force is necessary to bring him to bay. If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise. You are to rule over him as a benevolent sovereign. Your word is final. (To Train Up A Child, page 49)

The Duggars have stated that they use blanket training. What they do is place a baby on a blanket and tell the baby not to get off. If the baby crawls off, he or she is spanked on the leg, told “no,” and placed back on the blanket. If you do this for long enough, the baby will learn to stay on the blanket, and then you can safely leave the baby there while you cook lunch or school the older ones. This all seems counter to the nature of a naturally curious baby.

Authoritarian discipline shuts off questions and leaves little room for children to explore. The emphasis on obedience overrides anything else, and as I’ve written before, this can be highly problematic.

4. Bill Gothard and IBLP

The Duggars are big fans of Bill Gothard and are enrolled in his Institutes for Basic Life Principles. Outside of the circle of his followers, Bill Gothard is frequently regarded as a cult leader. He teaches, for instance, that troll dolls delay labor, that cabbage patch dolls are possessed by demons, and that Christians today must follow Old Testament sexual purity codes, including abstaining from sex the evening before weekly worship. Oh, and he teaches that tampons take girls’ virginity.

Until 2002 Gothard ran a group home for delinquent children in Indianapolis, Indiana. Children were sent there by the juvenile justice system for years until the place was closed down under allegations of abuse, including Gothard’s notorious “prayer closets.” There has been a growing movement among young people raised on Gothard’s teachings to expose the abuse, physical, emotional, and spiritual, they suffered at the hand of Gothard and his multiple ministries, including orphanages in places like Russia.

What bothers me most about the Duggars’ involvement with Gothard and IBLP is their use of his “re-education” camps (my term). When Josh Duggar was showing some signs of being “rebellious” years ago, they sent him to Gothard’s military boot camp for young men, the ALERT Academy. He returned much subdued. They’ve done the same with some of the girls, sending them to Gothard’s Journey to the Heart programs, where they are reminded of how wicked and sinful they are and told again and again that following God means obeying their earthly parents.

5. Emotional control

The Duggar children are also taught to carefully control their emotions, and emotions like anger or ingratitude are not acceptable. I’ve often heard people argue in favor of the Duggars by stating that “they look so happy!” Here is an excerpt from blogger Dulce, who was raised on the same teachings as the Duggars, dealing specifically with this issue:

One of the creepiest things about Gothard and the Pearls is that they teach that happy is the only acceptable emotion.  If you do not have a joyful countenance, you are publicly shaming your authorities.  In other words, if the kid looks unhappy, it is a personal offense against the parents.  Pearl also has nauseating quotes and anecdotes about how any time his kids expressed unhappiness or anger they were hit even harder and longer until they were cheerful.  How twisted is that?  Children are taught from babyhood to always be cheerful, or else they deserve a spanking.  As they grow older, it is not just the fear of a spanking that causes them to keep smiling.  It is the sincere belief that they are sinning with ingratitude, rebellion and more if they don’t present a happy face.

As I said earlier that a bad attitude is seen as rebellion, and immediately dealt with. I have no idea whether the Duggar children are happy or not, but I know that if they are unhappy they aren’t allowed to express it, especially for the TV cameras (being a Christian “witness” to the world and all that jazz).

6. A quiver full of expectations

As I said in my introduction to the Quiverfull movement, Quiverfull is more than just seeing children as a gift from God. It’s also about seeing children as potential culture warriors. Children are “arrows” who are to be sent out into the world spreading the gospel and Christian values and replicating their parents beliefs and lifestyles. This mindset leaves little room for children who may differ from their parents or what a different sort of life.

In a family influenced by Quiverfull beliefs, children who embrace different beliefs or ways of life from their parents are seen as failures. The idea is to raise ideological clones. The amount of expectations this places on children is immense. I really don’t know what those older Duggar kids want out of life, but I do know that if they want something different from what their parents want for them they are in for a lot of trouble, a lot of emotional manipulation, and a lot of guilt.

7. A patriarchal family order

The main emphasis in the Christian Patriarchy movement, as I pointed out in my introduction to it, is on a hierarchical family order where each member plays his or her role and everyone stays in their place.  As an example, click here and here to see what the teachings the Duggars follow regarding the proper role of the husband and of the wife. The gist is, of course, that the husband is to lead and the wife is to submit.

The main way this plays out for the children is threefold. First, the children are required to obey their parents without exception. Second, the children are being raised for their future roles – the boys are to be providers and protectors and the girls are to be homemakers. They’re taught this from day one. Third, daughters are taught that they must obey their father even after they become adults.

Those older Duggar girls have been taught that they are under their father’s authority, and that they must follow his will for them. His commands are absolute, just as their obedience is to be absolute. By obeying their father, they are preparing for the time when they will similarly obey their future husbands. Furthermore, by staying at home rather than leaving the home to attend college or get a job, they are preparing to spend their lives as homemakers, as mandated by their gender.

8. Courtship, modesty, and purity

Like many Americans, the Duggars teach their children to remain sexually abstinent until marriage. But they go further, teaching that even kissing should wait until the wedding day. Furthermore, virginity is not just physical, it is also emotional. “Giving away pieces of your heart” through crushes or childhood romances is viewed as permanently damaging, and sexual thoughts are strictly forbidden.

The Duggar girls are also taught that they must dress extremely modestly so as not to “tempt” their “brethren in Christ” (why is this always the female’s responsibility?). That is, of course, what is behind their long jean skirts. This sort of emphasis on “modesty” can be damaging to both girls and boys.

In addition, the Duggars believe that their children should find spouses through parent-guided “courtships” rather than through dating. Dating is portrayed as “practice for divorce” rather than more realistically as “practice for carrying out relationships.” I’ll give an overview of what such a courtship looks like below, but for a young woman’s excellent courtship story, which finishes with damning analysis, click here.

First a young man goes to a young woman’s father and asks to court her, and the father says either yes or no (or sometimes maybe later). The young woman is given the chance to veto the courtship if she is not interested in the young man. If a young woman has her eye on a guy, she can share that with her father and he can possibly talk to the young man or the young man’s father, but she can’t initiate anything herself.

A courting couple is ever under the watchful eye of parents and other chaperons, and sometimes is not given a chance of privacy at all. The father can call or suspend the courtship off at any time for any reason. Eventually, if the courtship goes well, the young man asks the young woman’s father for permission to marry her, and if he obtains that permission he asks the young woman, and if she says yes a wedding follows almost immediately.

9. No teenagers allowed

Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the Duggars is that their older children aren’t allowed to be teenagers or make their own choices. You can see this strung throughout this entire post.

The older children spend their teen years raising their younger siblings and are only allowed friends from a small pool of approved families. Their access to the internet is strongly curtailed, and they aren’t allowed to go anywhere without an “accountability partner.” Disobedience or ingratitude is seen as rebellion and dealt with swiftly and immediately, sometimes through one of Gothard’s many “re-education” camps. Extreme modesty is enforced and dating is forbidden. Contact with the opposite sex is watched closely. Adult daughters are expected to obey their father’s will for them, are taught that being a homemaker is their God-mandated role in life, and are only allowed to marry through a courtship controlled by their fathers. Furthermore, teen and adult children are expected to adopt their parents exact beliefs and way of life, and any other option is seen as failure.

All this is seen as a good thing. Just like my parents, you see, the Duggars don’t believe in teenagers. Let me quote myself on this issue:

It’s true that the word teenager is less than a hundred years old, and it’s true that our current modern conception of the teenager is new. But the reality is, in our society today, being a teenager is not simply about gossip and boys and a lack of responsibility, it’s about figuring out who you are as an entity separate from your family and their beliefs. Because I was never allowed to be a teenager, I never differentiated myself from my parents at all. I never learned who was. I was never allowed to.

While I do wish I had been allowed to be a teenager in external trappings – clothes, dating, hanging out at the mall – what I really regret about not being allowed to be a teenager is not the material trappings but rather not ever separating myself and my identity from those of my parents. I wish I had been allowed to be different from them, and encouraged to find my own interests and beliefs. I wish I hadn’t been so enmeshed in my parents’ lives and identities as to lose myself completely.

The Duggar children are given no real chance to differentiate from their parents and to explore what they themselves believe and want from life. Instead, they are set off along a prescribed path and are quickly nudged back onto it if they so much as angle to toward the edge. Rather than forging their own paths, the Duggar children are expected to simply follow the path forged by their parents. No questions, no buts, no backtalk.

Have you noticed that all the Duggar girls share one room and all the Duggar boys share another? Michelle said that’s because that’s how the children wanted it – they didn’t want to be separated. That may well be true, but it’s worth noting that when you share your room with your eight sisters, some still toddlers or babies, it’s really hard to find a moment of privacy or a place for sharing secrets.

Conclusion

Most of this stuff doesn’t come across on the TV show, does it? On the TV show the Duggars try to portray themselves as just one big happy family following God’s commands – a witness to others. What you don’t see is that the Duggar children live lives in a fishbowl, carefully scripted lives from which no dissent or differentiation is allowed. Their lives are laid out for them, and growing up is not about exploration but rather fulfilling the expectations of their parents. Conformity is key and stepping out of line is not acceptable.

Bowing to negative publicity, the Duggars recently enrolled some of their children, including the older girls, in an online college program highly promoted by premier Christian Patriarchy group Vision Forum. This program promises bachelors degrees in as little as two years and has the advantage of keeping the Duggar children safely under their parents’ watchful eyes. Not surprisingly, the girls are interested in studying things like nursing and midwifery. I have no idea whether they’ll actually finish, but it would be great for those older girls if they were able to get college degrees of some sort, because it might open more horizons for them in the future.

As for what’s in the future for the Duggar kids, if all follows their parents’ plans the boys will be set up with careers of some sort and will court girls from like-minded families and then start their own families with a baby at least every other year. We’ve already seen Josh Duggar follow this prescribed path.

The Duggar girls, in contrast, will remain at home until some suitable suitor approaches Jim Bob to ask to court them, and they will then move to their own homes to continue their duty as homemakers and begin having numerous children of their own.

If things work out differently, though, and one or more of the Duggar kids strike out on their own, I can only guess how hard things will be for them. And I have to say, the TV cameras and publicity won’t help. I can only wish them the best.

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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