A lot of people are familiar with the Duggars only from catching snippets of their TLC show or coming across random news articles, so let’s add some context here. The Duggars are part of a specific culture, a Christian homeschooling world that has served as a sort of hothouse for eccentric ideas pushed by charismatic leaders. Within this hothouse environment, parents implement specific methods and ideas—breaking children’s wills, isolating children from public schooled peers, banning dating in favor of parent-guided courtship—using their children as guinea pigs.
I should pause to note that I am not talking about every Christian who homeschools. When I speak of Christian homeschooling culture in this post, I am speaking of Christian families who homeschool for religious reasons and follow a loose network of homeschool leaders, including (but not limited to) Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard, Doug Phillips, Jonathan Lindvall, Greg Harris, Voddie Baucham, Geoff Botkins, and Michael Farris. Not all of these families are identical, and there is some variety, but they do share an underlying commonality—they conducting an experiment on their children in hopes of finding the perfect formula for turning them into True Upstanding Christians who will not stray from the narrow path they are set on.
The forenamed Christian homeschool leaders, and others like them, prey on Christian homeschooling parents. They promise these parents that if they raise their children just so, their children will grow up to hold their beliefs and share their way of life. And too many parents, already anxious about their children’s salvation and eternal souls, are taken in and think such a formula exists. And so they raise their children in an environment that can only be described as experimental. And their children? Their children are their guinea pigs.
I was one such guinea pig. My parents followed the teachings of Michael Pearl, Doug Phillips, and others, and implemented their ideas. I grew up in a homogenous environment, surrounded by other evangelical homeschoolers. My parents said children were like plants, needing the protection of a greenhouse while young. They believed—because they were told—that if they sheltered us as children, kept us from bad influences, thought us theology and encouraged our spiritual development, we would reach adulthood as Christian warriors ready for battle. And that is what they expected.
Unlike Josh Duggar, I attended college, in part because my family was culturally upper middle class while his family is culturally working class. For me, college was simply expected. Some of the other homeschooling parents—primarily those from working class backgrounds like the Duggars—asked my father if I was truly ready for college, and he assured them that I was—in fact, he said the real question was whether college was ready for me. He had that much confidence that my upbringing had made me impervious to any outside assault. I was 18 years old, and yet he believed I had been trained in such a way that I almost couldn’t fail. I had been taught carefully. I was prepared. For 18 years I had been sheltered and protected and taught, and now I was ready for combat (spiritual combat, of course). I could not fail.
Except that I could. I was an 18-year-old college student on my own for the first time in my life. I was suddenly exposed to people and ideas and a complex world that didn’t conform to the stereotypes I had been taught. For a long time I maintained the beliefs I had been taught so carefully over the years. Those beliefs may had been my parents’ originally, but during my teens I had accepted and embraced them eagerly. They had become my beliefs. And yet the more I learned of the world around me, the more cracks appeared in my worldview. I ultimately had to break down my entire belief system and restructure it.
Think, for a moment, about the amount of pressure all this puts on an 18-year-old. I was my parents’ guinea pig, the proof that their system of beliefs and their way of life worked. And I knew this! I knew that breaking with my parents beliefs in some sense invalidated those beliefs. I knew very well what my actions and choices would do to my parents, and what my decisions would mean for them socially, and that made the entire thing incredibly difficult. My parents’ standing in the community and their view of their own success in life was completely tied up in how I turned out. They had shaped their entire way of life and their very belief system around molding me into something very specific, and it hadn’t worked.That hurt. It hurt to know that I was letting my parents down so colossally. It hurt to know what they would face from their friends and others in their church community. It hurt to know that my desire to form my own beliefs would be seen as tangible evidence of my parents’ failure.
The Christian homeschooling community puts way too much pressure on its children. Of course, there are other communities where this happens as well. Think, for a moment, about parents who decide when their children are young that they will go to Harvard—or the Olympics, or what have you—and then spend their children’s entire growing up years driving them and pushing them and denying them a real childhood. The child is expected to fulfill the parents’ dream. We, too, were denied an ordinary childhood and pushed and driven as our parents sought a specific result. The pressure to perform—the pressure to succeed—was tremendous. Our actions reflected on our parents in a fundamental way—and we knew that.
But I promised to write about Josh Duggar, didn’t I? Josh grew up with all of the expectations and pressures I have described here and then some—Josh grew up in front of the TLC cameras, held out to the world as the most visible child (or product) of Christian homeschooling. Whatever pressures and expectations I felt pale in comparison before those Josh faced. Josh’s actions and choices as an adult reflected directly back on his parents and their beliefs. He—and his sisters—became the proof that their parents’ beliefs and ideology worked. And then he failed.
The Duggars, like my parents, follow a variety Christian homeschool leaders who’ve made a lot of promises over the years. These leaders told our parents that if they raised us just so, we would turn out just so. For years now, I and other bloggers have been calling these teachings out as the empty promises they are. Children are wild cards, not blank robots waiting to be programed. Courtship fails to create strong marriages because it denies young people the experience (and privacy) they need to determine compatibility and build healthy relationships. Sheltering children prevents them from gaining life experience and brings them to adulthood unprepared and without skills for navigating society. Josh Duggar’s fall from grace is but one more confirmation of what we have been saying—the ideology is wrong. It doesn’t work.
Whatever Josh Duggar’s faults—and they are many—my mind is drawn, today, about what he must be facing from his parents. He has singlehandedly made a lie of what they have believed and publicly taught for decades now. And yes, this isn’t fair. It was grossly unfair of his parents to put the burden of confirming the validity of their belief system on his shoulders. The Duggars, like so many other Christian homeschooling parents, built their brand around the claim that they had discovered the secret to raising perfect godly children. Making this claim placed a huge burden on their children, and especially on Josh as the oldest. And now Josh has destroyed everything his parents spent so many years promoting.
It’s difficult for parents when their children screw up whatever the circumstances, but this is on another level entirely. No one should grow up with with the validity of their parents’ entire belief system resting on their shoulders. It’s not fair, and it hurts. Belief systems that encourage parents to make their children into guinea pigs are not healthy. Children need the freedom to make mistakes and choose their own paths without that sort of pressure. They need to not be expected to be perfect. Children need to be allowed to be people, not products.
Note: As several readers have pointed out, Josh walked a problematic line, espousing and promoting his parents’ beliefs officially while privately violating them. Perhaps Josh was trying to hide the collapse of his private life so that he wouldn’t disappoint his parents. Or perhaps more likely, give his public role, Josh enjoyed the attention he received through TLC and through his job at the Family Research Counsel so much that he chose to ignore the disintegration of his personal life rather than grapple with what that disintegration meant for the beliefs he publicly espoused. Regardless of his motivations, Josh made his choices within an atmosphere of extreme pressure to be (and look) perfect, as the validity of his parents’ belief system (with its claims of producing perfect Christian children) rested on his shoulders.