Breaking a child’s will: the idolatry of obedience

Breaking a child’s will: the idolatry of obedience May 22, 2015
My youngest son when he was "blanket training" age
My youngest son when he was “blanket training” age

I read a really chilling blog post on Homeschooler’s Anonymous about a disciplinary practice in the far-right homeschooling community I’d never heard of. It’s called “blanket training.” They put their toddlers on small blankets, tell them not to move off, and spank them when they do. Michael and Debi Pearl recommend putting an attractive object close to the blanket to bait the toddler. The idea is to “break their will” from a very early age so that they will do whatever you ask them without arguing the first time you ask them, which is referred to as “first-time obedience.” A number of child abuse cases, including several fatalities, have resulted from monstrous practices like this, which I would consider to be the idolatry of obedience.

When I was a young father, I did a lot of stupid things. One of them was to raise my voice with my first son when I told him to do something. I got a lot of ego satisfaction out of watching him scramble and jump up to obey whatever my command was. It made me feel like a big boss father dude. Now I just have to look at my older son in a certain way and he bristles. It cuts my heart every time I see him tense up in response to me because it makes me wonder how much I’ve damaged him. He tends to be a somewhat timid/agreeable kid who goes along with whatever other people want him to do whether they’re adults or peers. I don’t know how much of that is my fault and how much of it is his natural personality.

My younger son has the opposite personality. He’s very assertive and demanding. He has no problem flopping in the middle of a grocery store and making a scene, even at age 6. He talks smack to me all the time. Sometimes he’ll run up and head-butt me if he’s mad. I used to spank him if he was doing something dangerous or egregiously defiant or physically violent to his brother or mother. But I hated it and I never felt like it really did anything to change his behavior.

I haven’t spanked my younger son in over a year, but because he remembers it, I can use the threat of it as a negotiating tactic, which has proved to be helpful in impossible situations even if it’s wrong. My relationship with him is continuous negotiation with carrots and sticks. When he gets angry, he seems to need to release his anger physically, so I try to give structure to it. Sometimes we wrestle. Sometimes I’ll actually hold out my hand and tell him to punch it as hard as he can. Sometimes we have tickle wars. Sometimes I just hold him tight and tell him to take a deep breathe and close his eyes while I count down slowly from 30.

One thing I know is that my younger son will never do what I tell him to do the first time I ask if he doesn’t want to. I often have to trick him into wanting to do it. If it’s time to leave our favorite amusement park, it’s a lot easier to get him to leave by saying I’ll race you to the car than to threaten consequences or get physical with him. I really don’t think that his strong will is something I could have broken by spanking him more than I did. Even though his stubbornness is super-aggravating at times, I love his personality. I hope that I can help him turn his fierce independence into an asset for God’s kingdom just as my older son’s more accommodating personality can be an asset too.

I question the idea of seeking my children’s obedience for obedience’s sake. Because obeying God is nothing like obeying a larger human being out of fear of their violence against you. Even though fundamentalists like to imagine God as a hard-core bad-ass who smites those who talk back to him, that’s just not how God operates, at least not in a scientific world where we no longer view hurricanes, earthquakes, and invading armies as expressions of God’s wrath. To obey God requires the capacity to hear the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit over louder, more demanding voices in your life.

In a chapter of my book, I compare two characters with radically contrasting models of obedience, the Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann and Mark Twain’s rebellious teenage character Huckleberry Finn. Adolf Eichmann was perfectly obedient to the orders of his superiors. He organized the logistics of the Holocaust very efficiently. When the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt observed his war crimes tribunal in Jerusalem, she was struck by what an incredibly polite and docile man he was. There was no evidence from his personality that he had played a critical role in the murder of millions of people. It was all a complete abstraction to him. He even expressed regret about what happened and explained that he had to follow his orders for the safety of his family. How many of us today would actually be willing to risk the death of our families by disobeying a fascist bureaucracy?

Huckleberry Finn was a rebel, but his rebellion illustrated a different kind of obedience. He literally thought he was going to hell for helping the runaway slave Jim. At one point in the story, Huck writes a letter to Jim’s owner Miss Watson, apologizing for his wicked deed and promising to return Jim to her. But then his mind is flooded with all the memories of his love for Jim. And he can’t do it. So he tears up the letter and decides that he’ll just go to hell rather than abandon his friend. This is what obedience to God looks like. Not cowering in submission to the loudest voice in the room. But having a heart that is tuned in to the voice of God’s love and the courage to obey it even if people around you condemn you to hell.

So it turns out that the teaching I need to provide my sons is a lot more challenging than simply breaking their wills so they do exactly what I tell them the first time I ask. They need to learn how to listen to God. They need to learn the joy of serving others. They need to learn how to stand up for what’s right when the loudest voices in the room demanding their obedience are wrong. If this were all up to me and my own resources, I would be completely screwed. But there’s a still, small voice in the room quietly teaching me how to be a better daddy. If I can actually carve out enough time to listen to that voice amidst all the louder, more authoritative voices in my head, then I think I’ll be okay and my sons will be okay too.


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  • Sweet parental wisdOm thank you for sharing!!

    • Thanks for reading. Not sure I have a whole lot of wisdom. Just trying to figure it out as I go.

  • Father

    Parenting practices that rely upon breaking the child’s spirit mystify me. Why would you want to break your child?

    Sleep training is another one. Why would you want to teach an infant that he or she is on her own and no one will come to his/her aid?

  • Gregory Nelson

    I don’t know exactly when I realized the relationship between parents and their children, and for fathers, in particular. But I know that at one point, when my son and daughter were around 10 years old, I was driving along and it suddenly hit me. I pulled the car over and I said, “I just want you to know that I am sorry now for whatever it is that I screw up as your dad. I will try to be a good dad, but even if I do my best, I know that your troubles in life will most likely be because of the mistakes I make. So please forgive me and know that I love you.”
    As a single parent this was particularly accurate.
    They said they forgive me, which was nice. But they don’t know yet how much I will screw them up. So we will see.
    In Scouting we have a saying, “Whatever you forbid becomes an adventure.” So we always work with the idea that kids will do something if it is fun, like your race to the car.
    Their freedom to err is a gift we must choose to give them. (And you know someone who gives that gift to you, don’t you?)
    Cultivate the willingness to suffer the consequences of their mistakes with them rather than prevent them by restrictions. That is the road God walks with us. We call it Calvary. And it is the one we will love doing with our children, and then, to all others as we can.

    Perhaps it allows us to get a tiny glimpse of why God created us. The unmatchable joy of seeing that your children know you love them must be what God was looking for, magnified by many billions of lives. Wow.

  • Amen. Growing up for me was all about obedience and I cn relate to the blanket training example in a sense. I’m happy that you have the kind of relationship that you have with your sons, and I know it took time to grow to where you are today. I’m learning new methods often to discipline my children that has nothing to do with physically spanking. I’m starting to notice, just raising my voice brings out the wood works and even then I’m crying with them. LOL, so yes I can relate and enjoyed reading this post.

    • Always trying to grow and learn. Thanks for reading.

  • John Benson

    Morgan, as a father and a therapist I can tell you that you have and are doing damage to your sons. I would point you in the direction of some excellent authors – Dr. Ross W. Greene, Alfie Kohn, Dr. Shefali Tsabary, Dr. Daniel Siegal with Mary Hartzel, M.ed., and Dr. Naomi Aldort. They are all excellent guides in parenting. Children are people, and your manipulation of yours is hurting them.

    One thing you can do to continue to move in a better direction, if you haven’t done so already, is to simply apologize to them. Say something to them like, “I have been wrong in the way I have treated you, especially when I am angry or trying to get you to do what I want. I am sorry. I am going to continue to work to treat you with more love and kindness. I will try to have honest conversations with you and treat you as the human beings that you are. I will work to listen to you and hear what you are trying to say to me. You deserve better from me and I will do my utmost to improve. I ask you to tell me if you feel I am being too mean or too harsh. I love you and care for you.”

    Parenting is not about getting kids to do what we want, as much as it is about being in relationship with and guiding kids toward being loving human beings that contribute to society through the development of their gifts and talents. Violence, whether through physical, psychological or emotional means, has no place in parenting. When bullied by parents, children either explode with defiance, or implode with compliance, which is what you are experiencing. Parenting is not about proper techniques, it is about right relations as it is with God. Be in right relations with your children and you will be for them what they want and need.

    • Well, I’m not trying to pretend like I’ve never made any mistakes. As far as never manipulating my kids to get them to do what I want, I guess you’ve never taken your children to an amusement park and had to persuade them to leave at a particular time before? I don’t think it’s “bullying” to tell my son I’ll race him to the car if it’s time for us to go home and he’s digging in his heels.

      • I’m not taking a side on this – but I thought perhaps I’d share that John Benson’s perspective sounds similar to the concept of “non-coercive parenting” which is a movement in our world with it’s own tenets and unique perspective on things. Just as there are “homeschoolers” in the world and they are a unique movement, there is a subset of homeschoolers out there called “unschoolers”. And just as there are parenting philosophies in the world that are against corporal punishment, there is a subset of that that is specifically known as “noncoercive parenting.”

    • QueenMab

      I find it interesting that you are a therapist, who pointed out the writings of some excellent authors (unschooling mom here), yet you are doing damage to others by having your opening sentence be: “As a father and a therapist I can tell you that you have and are doing damage to your sons.” Seriously, John? You are a therapist and you open with 1) putting someone down and 2) putting him on the defensive. You are doing damage as a therapist if that is the way you work. I know about therapists. My bipolar son has a spectacular one. Interestingly, he knows that not every parent is perfect and children, especially those afflicted with mental illness or autism (not suggesting Morgan’s son is), are extremely difficult to parent…especially in a non coercive manner…which is mine and my husband’s parenting modus operandi. Anyway, I was struck by what a slap in the face your opening comment was. I guess it’s nice for you that you have everything all figured out.

      • John Benson

        Dear QueenMab, It is nice for me most of the time. I have spent a good part of the last 20 yrs involved in understanding human behavior. As a parent, I do have a lot figured out. Not all, but quite a bit.

        Tonight I sat with my daughter and her pain about the state of her life and her feelings about it. That is hard to do and I was less than perfect. It is in the knowledge that I fail my children from time to time, that I apologize when I know I got it wrong. And sometimes it is real hard to know when I got it wrong. But if I can’t face that I fail and I am unwilling to work to admit it and amend it, then I leave open wounds.

        Morgan stated in his post “It cuts my heart every time I see him tense up in response to me because it makes me wonder how much I’ve damaged him.” My comments were in response to that wondering.

        Morgan is honestly reflecting on his parenting and I respect that. He described damaging behavior, born out of his own understanding of himself and parenting at the time. He also describes its lingering impact on his sons. It serves neither Morgan nor his sons to pretend damage has not happened.

        The good news, which I point out, is that such damage is repairable. But it takes more than just recognizing it and trying not to wound more. It takes a willingness to make amends. With most people, and especially children, what will help the healing to start most of the time is a heartfelt and honest apology and an effort to change our wounding behavior. Sometimes it takes much more to heal the wounds, if that is our desire and intent.

        So, I apologize to you and Morgan and anyone else offended by my comments. That was not my intent.

  • Melissa

    Morgan, like it or not, we are the face of God to our children. Long after they have moved out of the house they will be imprinted with the impressions of God they came to, based on how their parents (and especially their father, since we refer to God as “he” and “father”) treated them. So deciding what kind of of parent we will be to our children is more important than we even know. I was raised to believe that God was angry with me for every wrong deed and thought I had, and in the end, for my own mental health, I had to abandon the church and “God” of my father. I believe the grace that you are showing your sons now is the true face of God. It is hard to show grace. It takes patience, long suffering, love and the ability to really see individuals. These are qualities of the spirit–which indicates to me that we are, you are, I am headed in the right direction.

    • Very true. It’s such a terrifying responsibility.

      • Melissa

        Yes, it is. God help us.

  • trinielf

    Can I for a moment, share the perspective of the child? I was raised in one of those “spare the rod spoil the child”, very controlling, very conservative Christian homes. It was also within the Caribbean and if anyone knows the culture, then they know that “licks” or “cut-ass” is part of it. (Here is one of our beloved comics doing an old routine part of which is on corporal punishment from 4:54 on. Or you can watch the whole thing if you want a little laugh.)

    Well, I got lots of cut ass as a child from toddler to late teenager. Religious cut ass with a LOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOONG bible lecture before to build up the suspense, followed by a five minute or so session with lashes with leather belts, whips, switches afterwards. I would have big red welts for days. It really served no purpose, except to increase my pain threshold which came in handy later to spice up my sex life and make me love getting tattoos. Who knew learning to stay calm and breathe through pain can be a tremendously blissful, spiritual experience, something I would not have discovered if I was not beaten as a child.

    When I was growing up, if I was going to do something, I was GOING TO DO IT. I would grit my teeth and take the licks afterwards if I had to. If you had not won my trust, respect, gratitude so that I would WANT to believe and obey what you said, no amount of licks was going to change my mind, especially when I became a teen.

    I was often beaten for expressing perfectly valid emotions like anger or disappointment or simply being grumpy. So I learned to fake smile, fake not acting hurt, fake gratitude and keep my real feelings to myself and find other ways to let them out in private, like writing. Being beaten did not take away the feelings or teach me how to cope with them. It just taught me to suppress them because I realized the adults cannot handle it, just like I realized they could not handle feeling a loss of control in the absence of where they had not earned my trust, respect and gratitude, so cut ass was the band-aid for that. If you cannot be obeyed out of deep trust, respect and gratitude, then being obeyed out of fear is the next best approach I guess.

    Cut-ass was also a means to vent frustration, anger. I am sure being a parent is stressful business. Your child breaks or spills something that costs money or does something embarrassing; their mile a minute distracted brain often cannot focus on one thing for too long; their BIG PEOPLE emotions but childlike lack of perspective to put them in creates a lot of stress for them and sometimes they act out. Their imperfection and ignorance is stressful and perhaps after a hard days work and stress of your own you are not in the mood to be patient and need to let them know how hurt their humanness has makes you. Of course, you won’t beat up an adult person who cuts you off in traffic or breaks something you own. Then again….some adults DO.

    Strangely enough though, no cut ass was EVER required from any adult whom I truly trusted, respected and felt deeply grateful for. I would do ANYTHING for them. If they said, “Jump.”, I would say, “How high?” And most of the adults who brought out that kind of respect in me were those who actually set admirable examples in their OWN lives, so I WANTED to be like them, learn from them, trusted they KNEW what they were saying. They were adults who SAW me truly because they took the time to look at me as a human being, not a burden, not a responsibility, not a future member of their religion, and spoke to me honestly. They had empathy. They never had to lift a finger in violence, all they had to do was say, “You made me disappointed by doing that. I expected more of you.” that was WORSE than any cut-ass ever could be because I wanted their affection and respect and approval.

    So I guess cut-ass is for parents who cannot bring that out in their child and are unable to convince them by any other more enlightened means. Now as an adult, I have long forgiven my parents for not having the parental skills to not have to resort to that. I accept that is all they knew and I was a precocious, strong willed child with deep emotions that challenged the heck out of their very simple view. A child will always love their parents and feel obligated to forgive. However to this day, in so many ways, they still do not have my trust or respect. They lost it a long time ago and no amount of cut ass can undo that one.

  • Al Cruise

    Hopefully the day will come when teaching children “religious myths” as truth will be considered child abuse. Mandatory teaching of Biblical history should be in all schools, teaching the historical origins of the Bible and separating fact from fiction.

    • Perhaps it’s ill advised to engage you. But I would have no problem with teaching my kids the historical origins of the Bible. I just don’t have a dualistic view of truth as either fact or fiction. Truths worth living by are way more than facts. Myths and stories can be tremendously useful for teaching truth. The values within Western secularism are a byproduct of centuries of Christianity. They could not have emerged out of Buddhism or Islam which doesn’t make them better or worse. But Western atheism is basically a branch of the Judeo-Christian tree.

      • DC

        That’s not technically true. Most of the “values” in western secularism are a byproduct of western secularism. To the extent that any mores were passed down from ancient near eastern cultures (unlikely, except for maybe the Code of Hammurabi-even that’s a stretch), they were passed down from secular societies that predate even Judaism.

        Scholars recognize that we have borrowed a great many things from multiple cultures: math came from Arab societies that in the present day are Muslim enclaves. Much of the English language is comprised of secular Latin and Greek roots. The Protestant Ethic, a vestige of European peasants. Our modern fascination with the arts and science, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, both secular. It’s actually kind of hard to find any influence of christianity anywhere in culture.