“Biblical” Parenting, Criticism #1: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst

“Biblical” Parenting, Criticism #1: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst September 7, 2012

by Latebloomer

The task of reviewing Reb Bradley’s book “Child Training Tips” has been a lot more challenging than I expected.  First of all, where do I start when I disagree with almost every sentence that this book contains?  I can find almost no common ground on which to begin.  And how can I explain my reasons for disagreement when the very things that I see as horrifying are held up as admirable goals by the author?

Because of these difficulties, I have decided that these posts will simply be a way for Present Me to explain to Past Me that this so-called “Biblical” parenting is damaging to individuals and relationships because it sacrifices all other virtues for the sake of authority and submission.

Those quotation marks are around “Biblical” for a reason, and it’s not because of my changed opinions about the Bible.  Instead, it’s because the type of child and the type of parent that this book promotes are not found in the Bible.  It appears that Reb Bradley’s “Biblical research” may have gone like this:

Step 1:  Hmmm, what is my ideal godly child like?  *scribbles some notes*

Step 2:  Ok, now I’ll dig up some random Bible verses that seem to support my idea of a godly child, regardless of whether those verses are about children or parenting. *Adds a few Bible verses here and there*

Step 3:  *Reads notes*  Wow, what a high standard–it must be from God!  Obviously, children who are left to themselves will never become that way.  I guess that means parents have to take charge.  What are some control tactics?  *Finishes book*

To be fair to the author, I do believe that Reb Bradley is a good-hearted and caring person, despite everything that he has written in his book.   However, I think he doesn’t realize that he and his wife, very busy with their pastoral responsibilities and not at all detail-oriented, probably implemented these parenting techniques very differently than many other parents.  Many fundamentalist homeschooling parents, who are the primary audience of the book, spend far more time supervising their children and are much more focused on details.  With those parents, these parenting techniques can quickly escalate from bad to abusive.

With all of that in mind, here is my first criticism of Reb Bradley’s “Child Training Tips.”

Criticism #1: Parents are pushed to assume the worst about their children instead of being encouraged to demonstrate the virtues of mercy and understanding.

The evil nature of children is one of the premises of the book, and parents are actively cautioned against thinking otherwise: “One dangerous, humanistic idea…is that children are basically good” (p. 18).  The role of parents, therefore, is to work against their children’s natural badness, to “bring them up to maturity by twisting them against their nature.  Twisting requires firm effort, sustained throughout their childhood.” (p. 17).

This belief in the depravity of children is unfortunately not unusual in Christian circles; however, this book takes that belief to a whole new level by continually pushing parents toward the worst interpretation of their children behavior.   Some of the more horrifying examples of this negative and suspicious parental attitude are in regards to the discipline of young children.  As the mother of a toddler myself, I found myself absolutely speechless and heartbroken numerous times as I read.

Many attentive parents will notice that in the first few months of life, their babies develop an important skill–the ability to turn their heads toward a sound.  This skill is important not only to help keep the babies safe, but also to help them notice what is going on around them so they can learn about the world.  This inclination to look towards sounds, especially unexpected sounds, is reliable enough that medical professionals have historically used it to test for hearing loss in infants and toddlers.   However, to Reb Bradley, a baby’s inclination to look towards a sound means something completely different.  To him, it means that the baby is capable of understanding and rebelling against a parental command.  He explains it this way: “If your crawler reaches for the stereo, walk over, offer a firm ‘No’ and clap your hands once.  If they respond to your voice and the sharp sound of the clap and turn away, they got the message and should be held accountable from then on.  You may even want to skip the clap” (p. 134).  In this example, we see that the parent must not only assume that the infant understood the reason for the sudden noise at that time, but also that the infant will remember the meaning of that particular clap forever.  The parent is pushed to see a confused or forgetful infant as rebellious instead.

A second example can be found in Reb Bradley’s abysmal understanding of language development: “To test a toddler’s understanding of your vocabulary, without showing him anything, offer him a familiar treat, like ice cream or a bottle.  Does he respond?  If he does, then he is old enough to understand a simple direction such as, “Come here, son,” and should be chastised each time that he chooses to defy your authority” (p. 134).  Admittedly, I do have an advantage here because of my linguistic background and my experience in teaching a foreign language, but I’m sure that I’m not the only one whose jaw dropped from reading those lines.  Even for adults who are learning a second language, who have far more life and language experience, it doesn’t work this way.  For instance, an adult language student who understands the question “how are you?” does not automatically understand even a variation of that same question, such as “how’s it going?”

If the small difference between “how are you” and “how’s it going” is not automatically understood by an adult, how can a toddler be expected to make an even greater leap of understanding?  Knowing the name of a favorite object like “bottle” is a relatively simple language task; recognizing a string of multiple words and realizing that an action is required in response is an entirely different skill.  Even worse, there are many different forms that a so-called simple command can take, such as the negative commands “no hitting,” “don’t hit,” “I told you not to hit,” “stop hitting,” “you must not hit,” “we don’t hit,” etc., and the positive commands “eat your carrots,” “please finish the carrots”, or “you need to eat those carrots.”  Adding to the complexity, parents often verbalize observations or make suggestions that sound a lot like commands to the language learner, but aren’t.  For instance, my toddler often hears “turn the page” while we are reading books together, even though I am simply letting him know that he can turn the page if he wants to (if he’s not too busy sucking his thumb, that is).   Once again in this book, we see the toddler is held to impossible expectations, and the parents are pushed to assume defiance rather than enjoying the beauty of newly blossoming language ability.

A third example is Reb Bradley’s troubling assumption that toddlers naturally cry when they see their parents coming, and that their crying is due to guilt.  He explains it this way: “Although some rules are never spelled out, and some behaviors are never specifically prohibited, our children still know better.  They intentionally disregard what they know will please you.  What gives them away when they are caught, is behavior which suggests a violated conscience….The toddler who is caught in the bathroom unrolling the toilet paper, may not have been specifically forbidden to unroll the tissue, but the tears he sheds, and the haste with which he continue his deed as he sees his mother approaching, verify that he knows he is doing wrong” (p. 80-81).   The world must be an irresistible place to toddlers, whose new mobility allows them to access a constant stream of new experiences.  Each object is like a small physics lesson: what does it feel like?  How heavy is it?  Does it taste good?  What happens when I drop it?  Can I put it inside of another thing?  Does it come apart?  With so many things to learn in such a short time, a baby needs a healthy curiosity and a drive to discover.

Sadly, it never seems to cross Reb Bradley’s mind that the exploring toddler with the toilet paper could be crying out of fear of the parent, not from guilt.  Perhaps too many times the toddler, engaged in a fascinating new discovery, had been stunned and confused by a sudden punishment; perhaps now the toddler fears a similar response from the parent, and cries accordingly.  Is there really something so obviously bad about unrolling toilet paper that even a baby can recognize it as “sinful” and feel guilty???  In my own experience with my very curious toddler and his little toddler friends, I have absolutely never seen this reaction.  Instead, my toddler beams at me and tries to show me what he found.   Of course, if I have to take it away from him for his own good, he is upset, but that doesn’t stop him from beaming at me over his next discovery.  His reaction is a positive one because he has no reason to be afraid of me.

Infants, crawlers, and toddlers are not the only victims of the suspicious parental attitude and impossible expectations that this book promotes.   Parents are also actively encouraged to assume the worse of their older children, and to act accordingly.

Parents are told, “Never give instructions more than once” (p. 53), with no acknowledgement that a child could have a legitimate need for repetition.  I know from personal experience and observation that even adults can fail to hear a person speaking to them when distracted or absorbed in a task.  Surely a child is worth the same consideration that we give to an adult in such situations.  In fact, children should deserve even more benefit of the doubt, since their hearing sensitivity develops slowly throughout childhood.  According to “What’s Going On In There?”, an excellent book about cognitive development written by a neuroscientist mother of three, “newborns are virtually deaf to quiet sounds, and…babies remain hard-of-hearing at six months, when their auditory threshold is still some 20 to 25 decibels higher than adults.  Thereafter, it gradually improves until puberty.  Thus, toddlers and pre-school-aged children still have hearing thresholds about 10 decibels higher than adults” (Eliot p. 245).  Also relevant is the time that it takes for children to learn to identify important sounds from background noise, something that most adults take for granted: “children’s ability to distinguish signal from background noise does not fully mature until about the age of ten” (Eliot p. 246).   Yet according to Reb Bradley, children not only shouldn’t receive instructions more than once, they also should not receive any warnings before punishment: “Warnings make you an accomplice to their crimes.  By not bringing immediate consequences, you are aiding and abetting them in their disobedience…..never threaten to spank” (p. 55-56).

This guilty-until-proven-innocent attitude is maddeningly combined with a refusal to allow the child to communicate at the relevant time.  A child who attempts to explain himself is simply trying to avoid responsibility: “there are no good reasons for disobedience (Except in case of emergency, of course.)  When confronted with their defiance they should not be permitted to offer an excuse.  If trained well, it might not even enter their minds to offer a justification…..A parent should first establish a child’s guilt and have him accept responsibility, and then find out the reason why(p. 58-59).   Why should parents refuse to listen to their child’s perspective before assigning guilt?  Because, Reb Bradley says, they might be tempted to show mercy when they hear their child’s point of view: “Parents accept excuses because…they put themselves in their children’s place, and know they would want mercy if it were them” (p. 60).  So, to be clear, Reb Bradley thinks that accepting any excuse and showing mercy would be a bad thing because it weakens parental authority.  One has to wonder when reading this if Reb Bradley sees Jesus’ mercy and acceptance as a sign of God’s weakness as well.

Tragically, parents are even discouraged from showing mercy to their children in special circumstances.  Reb Bradley cautions parents against adapting their approach or changing their standards for any reason.  He says, “every child is different from all others, but that does not mean they can be held to different standards.  God’s standards are the same for everyone” (p. 135), and he specifically includes special needs children in that statement: “Yes they are harder to train than a ‘normal’ child, but God’s standards are the same.  In fact, the parent must apply the same principle of child training to the special needs child as to any child” (p. 137-138).  It would certainly be convenient if we could judge every person by the same standards, but even Bible-believing Christians can’t agree about what those standards are or how to apply them.  There are too many variables and too many unknowns, even within the same cultural context.  Adding to the complexity is the fact that people often fail to understand themselves properly, so how can we accurately judge another person reliably?  It certainly isn’t as simple as Reb Bradley seems to believe.  These verses from the Gospel of Matthew do a much better job at acknowledging the complexity of life when they warn against over-confidence in our own perspective: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:1-5).

But, you ask, what if your children are sick, sleep-deprived, or under extra stress?  Is a parent allowed to be more tolerant and merciful then?  Reb Bradley believes the answer is no.  Regarding sickness, Reb Bradley says parents must not change their standards because “some children find such solace in the tolerance shown them during an illness that they convince themselves they are sick much of the time” (p. 113).  In other words, showing mercy to your sick child will cause them to act sick even when they aren’t.  Regarding hunger, fatigue, and irritability, he adds that “many parents excuse their child’s misbehavior if the hour is late or if they have missed a nap.  This reinforces to the child that they needn’t always exercise self-control” (p. 113).   Thus we see that parents are encouraged to be be suspicious that a sick child is simply trying to avoid responsibility, and that a sleep-deprived child is simply taking advantage of the opportunity to act out.

Reb Bradley occasionally stops to warn parents against excessive harshness, or advises them to discipline themselves to show love to their children, but frankly those few sentences don’t mean much after reading page after page, chapter after chapter of advice that pushes parents in the opposite direction.  And even more telling is the lack of a single positive sentence about children in the entire book; even the few warnings against harshness don’t speak positively of children.

In summary, the parenting style modeled in Reb Bradley’s book is excessively focused on parental authority, to the point of specifically urging parents to sacrifice understanding and mercy anytime that those virtues might interfere with establishing or maintaining their authority.

| Introduction |

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Read everything by Latebloomer

Latebloomer is on a journey away from the ideals she was raised with in the conservative homeschooling culture.  Becoming a wife and mother has prompted her to re-evaluate her childhood experiences in an effort to avoid repeating those mistakes.  Her blog Past Tense Present Progressive is her place for sorting through her thoughts.

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  • I’m sorry, they just don’t like children. No one can convince me otherwise. Taking a mental tour into their homes shows a dysfunctional nightmare of the grandest scale. They use obedience as personal validation and have zero knowledge of basic childhood development.
    Our seventeen month old grandson has taken a liking to unrolling the toilet paper roll. He proudly ran into the living room last week waving about a ten foot long piece behind him. I thought it was hysterically funny. After praising him for this wonderful accomplishment, I went and cleaned up the bathroom and then closed the door so he couldn’t do any more TP damage. Then I redirected him to other toys. That is the proper way.
    These people however, would use that as an excuse to beat them. I can’t comprehend that in my brain.

  • I’m shocked. None of my Christian friends raised their children this harshly. The astonishing thing is that if I’m understanding what you wrote in your Introduction, this is supposedly the toned-down version, after he learned a few things from reported poor results, right? If so, I have to wonder how much worse his earlier books were!

    I don’t understand why they think “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “mercy triumphs over judgment” don’t apply to parenting. My own children never, ever cried when discovered doing something new– because there were no hidden rules that they could be breaking without knowing it! Hidden rules like “don’t pull the toilet paper off the roll, and if you do you’ll be punished even though you didn’t know it was wrong,” are a prime example of dysfunctional family life as described by therapists.

    I remember when my own daughter at 2 years old came out of the bathroom pulling the TP after her across the house. I laughed and laughed, and then took her picture. And then I told her very reasonably that she shouldn’t make a habit of this because toilet paper cost money and used trees, and it wasn’t right to waste it. She understood, and never did it again. If she had done it again, we probably would have done something small to make her “pay” for the cost of the waste.

    Children are human beings. They have minds that though immature, can reason and understand. They want to please their parents. They want to know and understand their boundaries. They feel within themselves that injustice and arbitrariness and being silenced are wrong. The doctrine of original sin does not actually negate any of these truths!

  • suzannecalulu

    My kids never unrolled the toilet paper as toddlers but I would laugh hard and do what KR says she did had they done it. Kids need to have the freedom to explore the world around them and learn that there are consequences for every action, like learning or fun much less punishment. So glad I rejected most of the child training manuals offered me at my old church.

    Wonder what Reb Bradley would tell me to do about my cat, he loves to sit on the toilet seat and unroll the paper. I laugh at that and then roll it back up the roll. Why is that even considered a bad thing? Strict boundaries harm the mind..

  • Saraquill

    So this schmuck finds it all right to beat a deaf child for not understanding spoken commands, and that if a child breaks hir leg in a mishap, s/he should be beaten for misbehavior. I hope that he’s infertile and isn’t allowed near children.

  • KarenH.

    I’ve been thinking on this very subject recently. It has struck me particularly strongly as I re-read some of the Slacktivist’s Left Behind archives (some mutual friends of mine have only just discovered them and we’ve been talking about them). In the Left Behind books, as I’m sure you already know, they begin with the Rapture, in which every child on earth under the age of….something, but definitely all those evil, defiant toddlers… have been Raptured whether they accepted Jesus with the magic code prayer or not. Regardless of background, education or parents’ religion, every child has been taken to God.

    Now, if every nasty, evil, defiant and criminal toddler is good enough *right now* for the Kingdom of Heaven, why aren’t they at least worthy of some simple respect, understanding and mercy here. With the parents who are supposed to love them next best?

  • KarenH.

    Plus, as latebloomer mentioned, it’s really disturbing that Bradley thinks it’s natural and normal for a toddler to cry when he sees his parent. WTF is he doing to his toddlers???

  • Laura

    I would have laughed about the toilet paper too, and told everybody, and thought it was so clever. I thought it was clever when I walked into the living room and found every bit of mail that had come through the slot taped firmly to the floor or the wall, and while she was at it, other random things she could find, such as stuffed animals, etc. My fault for leaving the tape in reach. It took a while to clean all of the sticky off the surfaces, but I laughed as I did it.

    I found the doctrine of original sin really comforting when my daughter actually was naughty, though. It meant she wasn’t a bad kid and I wasn’t a bad parent – she was just a normal human being, susceptible to temptation as are we all. You deal with it but you don’t freak out and make it that your kid is some kind of monster. The idea that you can or are supposed to try to beat that out of them – if so, what did Jesus die on the cross for? Why didn’t God just keep smiting us until we were righteous?

  • Laura– yes, I agree. The doctrine of original sin has been a comfort to me as well. When I myself do something selfish or hurtful, I can accept that in myself and forgive myself– so how could I not do it for my own child?

  • Sorry, the timeline is a little confusing. This book “Child Training Tips” was written in 1995. Then, in 2006, after seeing and hearing about poor results, he wrote an online article about it, which I mentioned in the introduction. In that 2006 article, he toned down his advice a little, especially about parenting teens, but at the same time said that he still stood behind everything he had written about child training in the past (aka this 1995 book “Child Training Tips”, etc.).

    I contacted him to let him know about my review of his book, to give him a chance to respond. He replied that he’s too busy to even read book reviews, especially not ones for blogs.

  • L

    Argh, in the late 90s my family visited his church a few times after someone gave us some tapes of his and my dad remembered knowing Reb in their teens. My dad was actually mentioned on one of his tapes as an example of a “mature” teen to emulate – what he did not know was that my dad came from a terribly, terribly dysfunctional background, was harshly abused for years, and was not “mature” as a teen but repressed and trying to survive. I really, really cannot believe Reb actually thought it was normal for toddlers to cry when seeing their parents coming. Disgusting.

  • Jenny Islander

    I asked this at a forum frequented by a lot of women who had come out of punitive “Biblical” backgrounds and were attempting to parent with God’s grace instead. What it boiled down to, IIRC, was unexamined cognitive dissonance. They had been raised to believe both that little kids get a free pass to Heaven and that if you don’t beat them all the time (using a euphemism for “beat,” of course) they will turn into little sin-soaked criminal embarrassments. People who preached to them about child training didn’t talk about the contradiction–they just accepted it.

  • Jenny Islander

    Another effect of this assumption of bad faith in children is the encouragement of self-absorption in their parents. Everything my child does is a deliberate slap against ME. When my baby cries out for comfort in the night he is really trying to establish his rule over ME. The crawler who discovers the toilet paper roll has begun a campaign of rebellion against ME. If my toddler is too tired to keep his temper bottled up, he is attempting to bully ME. The preschooler who can’t follow directions has sinned against ME. ME ME ME.

  • madame

    I’m glad that book never landed in my hands. Even the (much softer) advice I got from our pastor and his wife (at the time) already sounded off. He is a believer in chidren born as wicked little sinners who are trying to manipulate their parents, and yes, that view will influence the way you treat them from birth onwards.
    I’m glad I started reading secular advice shortly after having my baby, and learned to listen to my instincts rather than experts. We tried the slap on the hand approach, and our first got a few spankings, but we soon realized that it wasn’t getting us anywhere and we stopped. I’m so glad…
    I don’t know how anyone can advise parents not to “lower the standard” when the children are ill, tired or hungry! Come on, we give ourselves some flack when we are not feeling 100%, why shouldn’t we do the same for our children?
    I remember the time I went to pick up DS1 from his grandparent’s house. He had been kept out of the living-room because his grandfather was painting, and had not been fed a proper meal all day. The poor boy was tired and hungry, and his grandfather told me off for being too soft with him and not punishing him for crying. The poor thing had been neglected all day! Needless to say, I never left him with his grandfather again.

  • Ruth

    As the mother of an autistic daughter, I can only wonder at how much pain and abuse his wrong advice has caused. My family is Catholic and I still had to work to convince them that she was not being bad on purpose. It wasn’t until more stories about autism appeared in magazines that they started to understand. (She is now an honor student in a public high school).

  • I had similar thoughts when I came to the line about never repeating a command. Latebloomer addressed hearing difficulties a bit, but some people have extra issues. I have some minor audio processing difficulties, which means that even when I can hear people, I can’t always make out what they’re saying. While I can somewhat compensate with context, there’s still a lot of room for misunderstanding. And I won’t even get into issues with misunderstanding meaning.

  • Christine

    That being said, as an individual on the autistic spectrum, I do think that there is value to teaching all children the same behavioural standards. Just keep what the child is capable of in mind when determining your reaction. Just like with a sick child. Or one who is too young to understand what you’re asking. I tell my 7-month-old “no, that’s not a toy”, but I don’t get upset when she tries to reach for something I can’t let her play with again.