“Biblical” Parenting, Part Two: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst
Also in this series: Part One: Introduction | Part Two: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst | Part Three: An Extremely Controlling Parent | Part Four: A Parent Who Tries to Change Minds and Hearts through Spanking | Part Five: A Parent Who Isolates In Order to Control | Part Six: Concluding Thoughts
Part Two: A Parent Who Assumes The Worst
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’s 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.
To be continued.