“Post-Fundamentalist Motherhood”

Latebloomer recently wrote an excellent post called “Post-Fundamentalist Motherhood.” I’ve often had readers tell me that they read my posts and feel like I’m reading their minds. In this case, I felt the same when reading Latebloomer’s post – she was articulating my thoughts almost exactly. I’m going to quote from her article and add some additional commentary. Latebloomer begins as follows:

When I look at my little toddler, I am so glad that I am no longer a fundamentalist Christian.

She goes on to give three reasons why, all of which I share:

First, I don’t believe in total depravity anymore, so I don’t feel compelled to interpret his actions with negative terminology.

If I believed that my child had a sin nature that predisposed him to evil, that would certainly predispose me to interpret his actions very negatively.

When he insists on exploring the world and touching everything, I could see it as stubbornness.  Instead, I am free to see it as healthy curiosity and a drive to discover the world.  …

When he fights sleep at bedtime, or wakes up multiple times during the night, I could see it as defiance.  Instead, I am free to assume that he has a real need.  …

When he takes toys from other children, I could see it as selfishness.  Instead, I am free to notice that he also spontaneously gives his toys to others. …

When he screeches for me to pick him up, I could see it as manipulation.  Instead, I am free to see that he is just learning to feel and communicate, and crying is one of his main tools of communication right now.  …

My child is not depraved.  He is a good person with a lot of potential.

This. I have seen this so many times with Sally, and have written about it as well. I had been taught to see parenting as a contest, a contest in which I must defeat my child’s will. I was taught that my daughter when she was a babe in arms was “a little bundle of sin.”

It may be difficult for someone not raised the way Latebloomer and I were to see how all encompassing this perspective is. Latebloomer’s list of examples helps reveal how the doctrine of total depravity influences – no, determines – how fundamentalist parents perceive their children’s every action, facial expression, and emotion.

Today though, things are different. Today I see Sally as a good person and, like Latebloomer says, someone filled with potential rather than depravity.

Second, I no longer believe that spanking is a necessary part of parenting, so I won’t feel like a bad parent for not hitting my child.

When my son was only 9 months old, I was horrified to discover that my first impulse was to smack his hand to stop him from touching things after I said no.  I had this impulse even though I have not been in the fundamentalist culture for almost 10 years now.  Luckily, I did not follow through on that impulse–in what world is it right for an adult to hit an infant???  In the fundamentalist world it is not only acceptable, but also necessary, according to Reb Bradley’s book “Child Training Tips”, Richard Fugate’s book “What the Bible Says About Child Training,” and Michael Pearl’s book, “To Train Up a Child.”

Contrary to these fundamentalist teachings, I believe that my child is a person who deserves to be treated with respect. …

I prefer an approach to parenting that is about teaching, not punishment.  …

My experience was very similar to Latebloomer’s. When Sally was nine or ten months old she became mobile and started getting into things we didn’t want her in (indoor plants, breakable decor, important school papers, etc.), and when she got into things after being told “no” my first impulse was to smack her hand. And for a few months, I followed that impulse, largely because of the strong influence of Michael Pearl’s “To Train Up a Child.” And then I realized how backwards that whole approach was.

Like Latebloomer, realizing that my daughter was a person who deserved to be treated with respect was something new – and ultimately something life changing. My entire parenting philosophy pivoted. And, like Latebloomer, I now see parenting as about teaching, not punishment, and about guidance, not control.

I realized something the other day. I haven’t had the impulse to spank (i.e. hit) Sally in over a year. For someone who was taught that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, that’s what I call an achievement.

Finally, I no longer see blind unquestioning obedience as a positive thing in my relationship with God, so I don’t expect that of my child.

Many fundamentalist parents see their role as preparing their children for a relationship with God.  But rather than focusing on displaying God’s love and patience to their children, they focus on demanding respect and obedience from their children, hoping that their children will grow up to be more obedient to God.  So, just like the parents are not allowed to question God’s Word or feel angry at him, their children are not allowed to question or be upset at the parents.  Just like the parents believe there are consequences for disobeying God, they impose consequences on their own disobedient children.  Just like the parents believe that God judges their hearts and motives, they also judge their own children’s hearts and motives.  As parents, they become obsessed with authority because they feel that their children’s eternal souls are at stake.

Latebloomer makes an important point here, and one I have thought about before. If you believe that you owe absolute and unquestioning obedience to God, it’s not that hard to hold that children should render the same to their parents. Authoritarian parenting is in many ways the natural offshoot of authoritarian religion. And, once I questioned and rejected authoritarian religion, it was in many ways natural that I should likewise question and reject authoritarian parenting.

While I do not believe in God, I nevertheless identify once more with what Latebloomer says here: I too came to the realization several years ago that obedience for its own sake is not a positive thing. And when it comes to raising children, that makes all the difference in the world.

So instead of obsessing about obedience and authority, I want to foster an environment where my child can thrive, discover his interests, and find his place in the world.  I want him to feel confident, to think, to question, to choose for himself, to say yes and to say no.  The end result of parenting should be a happy and independent adult who knows that I will love him no matter what, no matter how different from me he is.

You know what’s interesting? Latebloomer identifies as a Christian, and I identify as an atheist, but I could have written this exact same paragraph. In fact, I think in some of my other posts I essentially have. For those who grew up in environments where the parenting goals outlined in this paragraph were the norm, it may be difficult to understand how incredibly radical this entire perspective is for those who were raised in fundamentalist evangelical religious families like Latebloomer and I. And how absolutely beautiful and freeing.

Latebloomer calls her post “Post-Fundamentalist Motherhood.” I’d never thought of it like that before, but I like it.

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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.

  • Steve

    Calvinism is easily the most fucked up, inhuman, immoral and disgusting religious belief system anyone ever dreamed up, but mostly it’s really just standard Christianity taken to its extreme in all theological core issues.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      Calvinism is easily the most….

      I have to disagree. Two words: strict Islam.
      (Yes, that’s damning with faint praise)

  • smrnda

    I’ve always thought that the theological ideas of ‘original sin’ or ‘total depravity’ (which an expert told me is different than ‘utter depravity’) are hard for me to take seriously – if everything that is lumped under ‘sin’ is really ‘sin’, then ‘sin is a category that contains things that are just too different to be linked together in any meaningful way. But I think that both of you are right about the mindset affects how you see the world.

    I mean, if a baby is crying my instinct is to figure out *why* and get the baby what it needs as soon as possible. It sounds absurd to me to think of a crying baby as ‘selfish’ because babies can’t meet their own needs and the world is still new to them – it takes a while before babies even learn object permanence, let alone that they can actually trust the adults around them to meet their needs. Within reason sometimes you can’t always attend to babies right away, but I’d be more inclined to think that adults can be selfish in not paying attention to the feelings and needs of children than the other way around.

    But once you decide that people are totally sinful, you have to re-interpret the world so that it confirms those facts – it’s not a hypothesis you test against evidence but something that you decide has to be 100% true at all times, regardless of how things seem, which requires a sort of mental and emotional legalism so that even the most benign actions can be shown to be sinful.

    I’ve read stuff by people like Dobson, and what always surprises me is how no matter what the situation he provides this play by play of what a child was ‘really thinking’ (always whatever confirms his belief that kids are innately bad.) I’ve worked with kids for a number of years and what surprises me is how most of them are really not so difficult, but part of that is if you just want to make sure kids stay safe and have a good time, you aren’t bothered by things that would get to you if you were into a more authoritarian way of raising kids.

    To me, authoritarianism and the belief that kids need to show total obedience creates the problem in the first place, and it’s great business that it’s a problem that can’t really be fixed since there’s always greater demand for greater obedience all the time.

    One thing worth noting – I can’t imagine too many authoritarians are capable of thinking critically or trying to understand what other people might be thinking – people who beat their kids over any infraction probably don’t wonder what reasons their kids had for doing what they did, but then again, they probably don’t value those qualities much at all.

    I think an obsession with authority is out of insecurity – most of us don’t get to be big and important, but bossing around some kids might be the ego boost some people want.

    • Carol

      I can’t even imagine what kind of mental gymnastics you have to go through to believe that everything your baby does is a sinful act of rebellion. But why have kids to begin with if you have to constantly struggle against their sinful nature and you live in fear for their eternal souls? Why not just not have kids and be done with it? Maybe that’s too simplistic. On the other side of that, what is behind the thinking that when people combine sperm and egg they suddenly go from a sinful, subordinate position to know-it-all authority figures?

      “To me, authoritarianism and the belief that kids need to show total obedience creates the problem in the first place, and it’s great business that it’s a problem that can’t really be fixed since there’s always greater demand for greater obedience all the time.” Yes, it seems it’s the “Cosmopolitan” style of parenting, but instead of trying to achieve the perfect, unattainable look, they’re trying to obtain the perfect, unattainable family. There’s always something new you can buy to fix that problem. There’s no money in “great job, you’re doing fine”.

      • Rosa

        it’s actually really easy, when you’re overwhelmed and sleep-deprived, to start feeling like an infant is purposely trying to torture you with sleep deprivation and general discomfort. Especially if the discourse all around you is like that. Even outside fundamentalism – I’m on a mom’s group on Facebook and every week or so someone posts a variety of “My mom/mother-in-law/husband says I am spoiling the baby by cuddling/feeding every time he/she cries. They say I should do cry it out so the baby learns I won’t always do what it wants. But it hurts my heart to listen to my baby cry. Am I going to have a bossy little brat in a few years?” An awful lot of them are from slightly conservative families, but very few are fundamentalists or even evangelicals.

      • Carol

        I dunno Rosa, I have 2 kids, my first was up all the time, never slept. For years. It was truly terrible. It was so terrible, we weren’t going to have any more children. No one ever said to me I should let her cry it out. No one gave me any kind of advice really. When I complained all my mother did was smile and say “oh well”. I lived sleep deprivation but I never thought my daughter was purposely trying to torture me or that she would end up spoiled if I went to her. It just never occurred to me. She just really fought sleep, that’s all I could see, period. It was hard going through it, but there was nothing more to it than that. So I guess you’re right, I really can’t see how easy it would be to think that a child is purposely tormenting her parents. It seems I don’t see in my children what other people see in their children.

        My daughter is 16 now and is as delightful as can be. She asks for so little that when she does ask for something, I do my best to give it to her. She thanks me for little things I do for her, like picking her up late at a friend’s house. So, at least from my experience, responding to your child’s needs is just part of parenting, and will not necessarily lead to a spoiled child. It ain’t easy, it ain’t fun, it’s lonely a lot and frustrating as &^%$, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

      • Rosa

        I agree with you – but it’s not like those sleep-deprived days were my most rational.

    • Liberated Liberal

      It is fascinating how the religion insists that couples have as many children as possible (and thwarting a possible pregnancy/birth is unspeakable sin!) because children are the ultimate gift from God, but at the same time they are the ultimate little bundles of sin, controlled by Satan and sent to destroy your relationship with God. I mean, WHAT?!

      Of course, I’m simplifying it, but it still boggles the mind.

  • smrnda

    Carol, you raise a good point that if everyone is so innately sinful then why should parents or other authority figures be given such unquestioning obedience and respect?

    Libby Ann might know this better than me, but I hear that there is a doctrine known as “Umbrella Theology” (I don’t know if that’s a term given by proponents or by people making fun of it) where a person is always bound to obey authority no matter how bad the authority is, with the idea that the authority is accountable to God and the person under is accountable in terms of their obedience to whatever God sanctioned authority they answer to.

    A reason that I haven’t been tempted to become religious is that I don’t think it would make me a better person, mostly that it would require that I be more judgmental, and I don’t feel going that direction would be progress of any sort.

    • http://cfiottawa.com Eamon Knight

      I recall hearing that term (or something pretty close to it) in the early 70s from ministers who were Bill Gothard fans. And I thought it was total crap. Hey, while we’re at it, let’s admit the Reformation was a big mistake and the “priesthood of all believers” isn’t Biblical, and abdicate personal moral responsibility to whomever claims they know better than I do.

      where a person is always bound to obey authority no matter how bad the authority is,

      That argument went over real well at Nuremburg, didn’t it? (Oops, did I just Godwin the thread?)

  • smrnda

    No, I don’t consider that a Godwin but you are spot on – if when we submit to authority the authority is to blame for everything wrong we do in obedience to it, why is did we need the reformation? Heck, why are all these people so patriotic – shouldn’t the US still be a British colony under the King or Queen? Why do so many fundamentalists need to start new churches over obscure points of doctrine?

    I think it’s less about abdicating moral responsibility as it is feeding into the egos of the leaders of these movements.