“Little Bundles of Sin”: Evangelical Child Rearing

I recently ran across a truly excellent article on the politics of the conservative family (seriously, go read the whole thing). I found the section on children and child rearing especially pertinent to my own experiences and a helpful overview of a lot of the particularities of evangelical and fundamentalist views toward children and child rearing. I’m going to quote from this section, pausing every couple of paragraphs for some commentary.

…Drawing in part on their belief in original sin and on biblical passages that seem to promote a strict approach to discipline – ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him’ (Prov. 13:24) – evangelical Protestant leaders…stress the divine authority of parents and the need for parents to take a firm hand with children.” And so the fourth characteristic of a Christian Right home is that children are born evil and can become good only through a Godly mixture of love and punishment.

“One does not have to teach antisocial behavior to toddlers,” writes right-wing family psychologist John Rosemond in a 2006 column, syndicated in 225 newspapers. “They are by nature violent, deceitful, destructive, rebellious, and prone to sociopathic rages if they do not get their way.”

I wrote to Rosemond in an email and asked him to elaborate. “In my estimation,” he replied, “toddlerhood is a pathological condition that demands ‘cure,’ accomplished through a combination of powerful love and powerful discipline.…The toddler mindset and the sociopathic mind-set are one and the same: ‘What I want, I deserve to have; the ends justify the means; and no one has a right to stand in my way.’ This is a reflection of human nature.”

Given my own experience, I found myself nodding furiously through this section. I grew up hearing babies referred to as “little bundles of sin.” (I later found out that this exact terminology comes from southern apologist, self-ascribed “paleo-confederate” Doug Wilson, who became infamous this summer for arguing that men have a sexual need to “conquer” in the marriage bed.) Children were seen as inherently evil and in need of training. The infant was without training whatsoever, and thus was purely sinful – “a little bundle of sin.” Or, as Rosemond says, a sociopath.

This is why Michael Pearl, for instance, advocates spanking babies beginning at about six months (click here for the full text of Michael Pearl’s To Train Up A Child). For example, if an infant is crying in his crib even though all his needs are met – he’s not hungry and his diaper is clean – that is interpreted as defiance. It’s selfishness. He should be left to cry.

As the mother, holding her child, leans over the crib and begins the swing downward, the infant stiffens, takes a deep breath and bellows. The battle for control has begun in earnest. Someone is going to be conditioned. Either the tender-hearted mother will cave in to this self-centered demand (thus training the child to get his way by crying) or the infant is allowed to cry (learning that crying is counterproductive). Crying because of genuine physical need is simply the infant’s only voice to the outside world; but crying in order to manipulate the adults into constant servitude should never be rewarded. Otherwise, you will reinforce the child’s growing self-centeredness, which will eventually become socially intolerable.

Similarly, if a baby cries because he doesn’t get his way – say, he wants his mother to pick him up and she doesn’t – it’s rebelliousness and a spanking may be in order.

My nine- and eleven-year-old daughters came in from a neighbor’s house complaining of a young mother’s failure to train her child. A seven-month-old boy had, upon failing to get his way, stiffened, clenched his fists, bared his toothless gums and called down damnation on the whole place. At a time like that, the angry expression on a baby’s face can resemble that of one instigating a riot. The young mother, wanting to do the right thing, stood there in helpless consternation, apologetically shrugged her shoulders and said, “What can I do?” My incredulous nine-year-old whipped back, “Switch him.” The mother responded, “I can’t, he’s too little.” With the wisdom of a veteran who had been on the little end of the switch, my daughter answered, “If he is old enough to pitch a fit, he is old enough to be spanked.”

And just what do mainstream psychologists think of all this? Back to the original article:

Psychologists I interviewed were horrified by Rosemond’s … conception of children as mentally ill, which amounts to a translation of the doctrine of original sin, with its framework of damnation and salvation, into contemporary therapeutic terms. The difference is simple: A two-year-old human being is still learning how to deal with and express her feelings, but a true sociopath has no feelings. To treat a toddler like a sociopath is like studying snakes in order to understand koala bears – and then declaring that koala bears are cold-blooded.

In fact, contrary to Rosemond’s views, research has found that human beings exhibit empathic behavior from as early as 18 months. For example, Nancy L. Marshall at Wellesley College found that “when toddlers saw a teddy bear suffer an ‘accident,’ their faces showed distress and concern. They also responded by trying to help or comfort the bear” - a behavior I’ve seen my three-year-old son exhibit many times. There are literally hundreds of empirical studies that echo these results. Based on findings like these, evolutionary psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser argue that moral behavior has evolved to keep selfishness in check and has deep biological roots.

None of the findings indicate that human beings are born saints, only that the capacities for empathy and cooperation are present from the very beginning and can be cultivated – or squashed. Rosemond’s views are, at best, one-sided. At worst, they suggest a deep fear and hatred of children. And among conservative evangelicals, Rosemond is hardly alone. “Your child came into the world with an insatiable faculty for evil,” writes Pastor John MacArthur in his 2000 book, What the Bible Says About Parenting.“Even before birth, your baby’s little heart was already programmed for sin and selfishness.”

I love the first sentence of that last paragraph. Babies aren’t born perfect, but they are born predisposed to good behavior just as much as to bad behavior. I see myself as carefully cultivating my children, helping them learn how to get along in the world and to balance their needs with the needs of others (for more, see my Positive Parenting section). How very different from the fundamentalist/evangelical approach being discussed here!

Is it harsh to accuse the parenting gurus of the Christian Right of fearing and hating the precious children they’ve worked so hard to protect? It’s no harsher than the punishments they proscribe for wicked children. Let’s say, for example, that your two-year-old insists on getting out of bed after you’ve told him to stay put. “The youngster should be placed in bed and given a speech,” writes Dobson, who launched Focus on the Family as a forum for Christian parenting and is now a major voice in the Republican Party. “Then when [the child's] feet touch the floor, give him one swat on the legs with a switch. Put the switch where he can see it, and promise more if he gets up again.”

But Dobson seems like Dr. Spock when compared to Tennessee Pastor Michael Pearl. “If you want a child who will integrate into the New World Order and wait his turn in line for condoms, a government funded abortion, sexually transmitted disease treatment, psychological evaluation, and a mark on the forehead,” Pearl writes in his 1994 book To Train Up a Child, “then follow the popular guidelines in education, entertainment, and discipline, but if you want a son or daughter of God, you will have to do it God’s way.” Pearl’s interpretation of “God’s way” entails hitting disobedient children with quarter-inch plumbing supply line or PVC pipe – “chastisement instruments” he endorses as excellent expressions of the Lord’s will.

What strikes me here is the amount of fear. If you don’t raise your child just right, that child will grow up to [insert every bad thing you can imagine, times two]. This is the exact horrified response I got from my mother when she learned that I’m not spanking my daughter Sally. Leaders like Michael Pearl and others frighten parents into following their authoritarian discipline methods. Here is another example of this sort of tactic by Pearl:

I am sorry the psychologists and secular child advocates don’t get it, but then if all parents practiced child training as I have suggested, there wouldn’t be any need for abnormal psychologists or child protection agencies. A lot of people would move on to more practical kinds of work, and there wouldn’t be any more crime or war.

It’s easy to see how child training gurus like Pearl can take people in, especially when they’re already incredibly worried about the state of their children’s eternal souls and already believe their children were born with original sin. (As a side not, more and more evangelicals have begun questioning Michael Pearl’s methods, including the very same Tim Challies who wrote that article about morality and hell for Answers in Genesis not so long ago.)

Let me finish with one more excerpt from the original article:

Unsurprisingly, Christian Right groups like the Family Research Council and Focus on the Family actively campaign against laws intended to curb child abuse. “The campaign to end child abuse too often abuses families,” declare the authors of The Natural Family, citing “witch hunts” against misunderstood parents who were probably only trying to protect their kids from the New World Order.

As Lakoff points out in Moral Politics, the Christian Right confuses psychologist Diana Baumrind’s influential idea of authoritative parenting – which sees discipline as supportive, not punitive, and is responsive to children’s needs and thoughts – with separate categories of permissive or neglectful parenting. As an alternative, the Christian Right promotes authoritarian parenting, which denies choices to children and expects them to obey without question – a style that research has shown contributes to lower self-esteem, poorer social skills, and more feelings of depression.

Two things. First, the “obey without question” thing is given huge emphasis in evangelical and fundamentalist homes, and especially in those homes influenced by the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movement. And in my opinion, the feeling of being absolutely stifled because you’re not allowed to make a suggest, ask for a clarification, or explain is the worst part. Second, it was largely Christian Right groups that blocked the U.S. from signing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty signed by every other country in the world except Somalia. Why? Because the Christian Right is almost universally opposed to anything that might limit parents’ rights – and especially their right to discipline their children as they see fit.

I’ll conclude by referring you to a post I wrote about how glad I am that I am a “post-fundamentalist mother.” It sums up how different my very understanding of my children is from the evangelical/fundamentalist understanding I was taught growing up.

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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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