The Duggar Family and ATI (plus disgraced leader Bill Gothard)

by Lana Hope cross posted from her blog Wide Open Ground

I recently read through the book The Duggars: 20 and Counting. I remember meeting the Duggars  at an ATI homeschool conference about 15 years ago.  Because I grew up under the same program the Duggars are involved in, there were a lot of ATI lines that jumped out at me in the book. I am talking blatant Bill Gothard, ATI, IBLP lines. (If you don’t know the acronym, they are fancy words for Gothard’s Christian programs and seminars.) Here they go.

1. The book refers to the Children’s Institute songs. The Children’s Institute is a children’s program run by Bill Gothard, the founder of ATI. Jinger Duggar alludes to the theme song, the Ten Unchangeables, on page 7 of the book.

Q: How do you feel about what other people may think or say about your family? Have you heard anything that is particularly hurtful?

A: Our parents have taught us to work at doing right and not worry what others think of us. Yes, sometimes we hear some negative and potentially hurtful comments. But when those negative comments come, we are reminded to accept the ten unchangeable things about ourselves that make each person a unique individual: (1) the way God made us, (2) our parents, (3) our brothers and sisters, (4) our nationality, (5) our mental capacity, (6) our time in history, (7) our gender, (8) our birth order and placement in our family, (9) the fact that we grow older as the years pass, and (10) the fact that life is a race against time and the best way to use that time is to serve God and others.

- Jinger, age fourteen.

To listen to this song, see this youtube video. Literally, Jinger is repeating the song.

YouTube Preview Image

2. The book mentions sexual teachings for married couples. Bill Gothard himself is not married, but he teaches that we should still follow the Old Testament’s teaching on sexual abstinence. Here is what Jim Bob Duggar says.

Q: Do you use any birth control method at all, including abstinence or the “rhythm” method?

A: An interesting thing happens when you have seventeen-going-on-eighteen children. Completely strangers start asking you about your birth control practices! It’s okay! By now, we’re used to it. Here’s what we can tell you: In addition to living by the principles in the New Testament, we have learned that some Old Testament practices, including recommended times of sexual abstinence, are still helpful today. For example, one such teaching tells couples to abstain from sex for seven specific days during a woman’s menstrual cycle. Another passage says to abstain for forty days after the birth of a boy and eighty days after the birth of a girl. These teachings are no law for New Testament Christians; but we’ve found them to be a healthy practice, both for our bodies and for our relationship. I (Michelle) feel cherished, knowing that Jim Bob is following these guidelines simply because he wants to do what’s best for me and for our marriage. Plus, after we take these pauses in our sexual life, our coming back together is always a very special time.

This was taught in Gothard’s Advance Training Seminar. See the Research in Principles of Life Advance Seminar Textbook.

At his Advanced Seminars in 1983, Gothard introduced sex regulations based upon Old Testament commands. Under the session titled “Six Purposes, Principles, and Keys To Fulfillment In The Marriage Relationship,” he told married couples to abstain from physical relations: 1. During the wife’s menstrual cycle; 2. Seven days after the cycles; 3. 40 days after the birth of a son; 4. 80 days after the birth of a daughter; and 5. The evening prior to worship.

3. Circumcision must be done on the 8th day and circumcision is a command, a must. As seen on page 88, the Duggars asked a doctor-friend to come back to their home and circumcision the baby on the 8th day.

4. The girl’s wear only dresses. This is true in other quiverfull families, but in ATI, wearing only dresses is a requirement albeit one many break.  The Duggars say they do it so people are attracted to their faces and “character” rather than body. Character is everything in the ATI world, and one of the reasons Gothard has the dresses rule.

5. The children are taught that obedience is to be “instant, cheerful, thorough, and unconditional.” This is Bill Gothard verbatim. Oh, and they must say yes ma’am or yes sir, Mrs. Duggar says, because they must verbally commit to their obedience. See page 115 and 116. Read also their obedience game. When I attended the Children’s Institute conferences, they always emphasized verbal commitments, and we had to raise our hands in the air and promise to follow the character traits.

6. The parents weave character training into everything, literally everything. Self-control, obeying the Holy Spirit and attentiveness are even woven into potty training, for example. They learn initiative by cooking, generosity by playing. The children even get consequences if they get distracted and accidentally forget to put the trash all the way to the sidewalk (say put it down by a tree, and forget to go pick it back up); in ATI land, there is never a good justification for tripping up on a character trait. The Duggars mention 49 character traits regularly in the books. Those come from the Wisdom Booklets in ATI. Its expected to spend a minimum of 5 years (more like the upwards of 7) going through each character trait and lessons, and when finished, families are to repeat the books. Bill Gothard’s team influenced a curriculum for public school, called Character First. Every character definition, every character study mentioned in the book, all of it, comes from the ATI program.

7. Mr. Duggar attributes their businesses success to Jim Sammon’s Financial Freedom programJim Sammon works along with Bill Gothard. His financial points are actually taught in the Wisdom Booklets.  When I went through the wisdom booklets as a little girl, I learned the same lessons Mr. Duggar talks about — not profiting from others misfortunes, no debt, and no business partners. Yes, financial lessons are taught in 2nd and third grade.

8. Prison Outreach. This is an outreach of Bill Gothard and big in the quivefull movement in order to bring character into the prisons. You can read up on it here. Not surprising that both the Kellers and Duggars participate in prison ministry.

9. The book interweaves anger management lessons. The kids mention learning to manage anger, and so does the parents. These include lessons such as lowering the voice instead of raising it. Stop and just forgiving. Bill Gothard has a whole seminar section for managing anger using these techniques.

10.The Duggars study law, medicine, character, etc. I remember those days well. When I was in the 3rd grade, my subjects were law, Greek, medicine, and finances. Then I did grammar and math on the side. Talk about a bizarre education. The Duggar book features the kids studying these altogether at the same table. How can high school kids possibly grasp law at the same level as a 5 year old? Answer: it doesn’t matter as long as everyone gets the character traits memorized. The law and medicine lessons are merely lessons on character. Finances? that too. Generosity, honesty, attentiveness: yes, these are character traits needed for successful businesses, but they are also needed to be successful people.

11. The Duggars sing songs, write down scriptures, and remind themselves of character traits to manage their family conflicts. This may not seem like a problem until you lived it, until you’ve been there. For example, on page 145 Joseph, age 13 says, “What I felt like doing was being angry and telling him to never touch my stuff again. But I memorized the Bible lessons.” Then Joseph mentions how Jesus ran an extra mile. That verse is found in Matthew 5:41; ATI has a whole wisdom booklet/character trait month on that verse. Jinger just sings a song. Dad just takes a deep breath and forgives. Everyone just remembers what God says. In the ATI world, you can’t be human with real emotions. If you are upset, all you have to do is sing the Patience Song, sing theGratefulness Song, sing the Orderliness Song, sing the Smile Song; just lower your voice (a odd way of saying bury your emotions); just repeat the scripture verses and character traits; just meditate on Matthew 5 more and more. In fact, the Patience Song song even starts out, “when I’m in a hurry and I start to worry……I start to sing this song.” That is the ATI solution to managing a house where everyone is human: sing songs, write down scripture and character traits (a zillion times over).

12. Finally, no list is complete without mentioning the large family. This, of course, is a quiverfull thing, but nonetheless, the Duggars mention that they started attending the ATI conferences from the time the eldest was 4, which meant they attended the required seminars to join before then. So for the Duggars, ATI teaching on large families played a huge role in the number of children they have.

My Reaction

I saw myself in the Duggar’s story so much. I didn’t have 18 siblings by any means, but the character lessons, the rules, the setting ourselves apart, the Young Earth Creationism, the financial lessons, the pro-life politics, the conferences, the wisdom booklets, everything was all too familiar. In and of itself, forgiving people and reminding yourself to be cheerful isn’t bad, but let me assure you, as one who lived this same program, that the kind of child-rearing the Duggar’s are describing is not healthy, and it sends out clear messages that ifyour upset or angry, that something is wrong with you, with you. Because if you just remembered the song, or the character trait, you wouldn’t have that struggle.

I want to urge people to understand that the Duggars’ system of child-rearing is spiritual abuse. It’s not funny, cute, and it’s certainly not worthy of TV entertainment.  It’s not healthy. The ATI curriculum is a system that wounds children who have emotions and fail to live up to the holiness standard, all in the name of God. Not only does this god despise public education, peer pressure, rock music, cabbage patch dolls, eating pork, trolls, birth control, and people who wear normal clothes, but this god also expects little children to master character traits, for teens to parent younger siblings while always feeling “grateful,” showing “initiative,” and “patience,” and for children to stuff their frustration and emotions because that’s “self-control.” Let me assure you: this is spiritual abuse.

I’ve had friends tell me they watch the Duggars’ show because its funny to watch. “I don’t believe that stuff,” they say. What they don’t understand is that by laughing at the show, they are laughing at children who are being spiritually abused, and by using these children as their entertainment, they are encouraging this none sense to spread around.

As for the Duggars themselves, I wish to approach them with empathy as well. I am one of these daughters. I am still struggling to believe God doesn’t expect me just to smile.  I had a sign that said, “stop, you aren’t all dressed until you wear a smile” above my bedroom light switch for years (assignment from the ATI wisdom booklets). “Just smile” is engrained in my brain. I failed the 49 character lessons of my childhood. At the Children’s Institute when I was 11, they asked me to promise to be attentive. I had been trying for 4 years to master that trait. I didn’t want to make another verbal commitment. I knew I would fail.  So I didn’t raise my hand; I refused to promise. I couldn’t bear the pain of letting God down. I know in my heart the Duggar kids share in that feeling of letting God down. I was – and still am — the Duggar girls.

And I  have empathy toward the parents. They wanted to raise kids set apart, and they didn’t know. They didn’t understand. The character traits sounded like the answer. People today just lack self-control. So the Duggars thought they could do it. They could teach their kids this starting from birth, starting from one blanket lesson, starting from potty training.  So at night, the preschoolers would repeat the character traits, and the kids would grow up and somehow be okay. It sounded so good.

I wish it were that easy. I wish character training in the name of God didn’t hurt so bad.

But it does.

To read more on my experiences in this extreme conservative program, click here.

Read everything by Lana Hope!

Lana Hope was homeschooled 1st-12th grade in a small town and rural culture. Involved in ATI, her life growing up was gendered, sheltered, and with a lot of shame and rules in disguise of Biblical principles and character qualities. After college Lana moved to SE Asia and began working with the abused, and upon discovering that the large world is not at all like she had been taught, she finally questioned it all, from Calvinism to the homeschool movement to the foundation of her Christian faith. Today Lana is a Christian Universalist, holds a B.A. in English, and is currently working on a M.A. in philosophy.  She blogs about the struggles she has faced leaving fundamentalism and homeschooling behind and how travel and missions has wrecked her life for good and bad at her blog www.wideopenground.com.

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