“Biblical” Parenting, Part Three: An Extremely Controlling Parent
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 Three: An Extremely Controlling Parent
To briefly review, my first criticism of Reb Bradley’s book “Child Training Tips” discussed the way his advice pushed parents toward the worst possible interpretation of their child’s behavior at the expense of mercy and understanding. Now here is my second criticism.
Criticism #2: Parents are urged to exercise an extreme level of control of their child’s mind and body, which prevents the child from preparing for adulthood.
Reb Bradley is very straightforward about what he considers the primary task of a parent. Several times throughout the book, he reminds parents that their goal is to subdue their child’s will: “keep your objective in mind – subjection of their will” (p. 44); “since the goal of child training is to help a child learn to subdue his self-will, parents must take every opportunity to subdue it when it manifests itself” (p. 60); “the child whose will is not subdued in the first few years of life is hampered in the maturing process” (p. 29).
Why do parents need to take control of their child’s will? Reb Bradley explains his reasoning this way: “maturity is rooted primarily in self-control which, in turn, facilitates growth in wisdom and responsibility. The most basic objective of training children, therefore, is the subduing of their self-will. From the time children are born, parents must develop in them the ability to say ‘NO’ to their own desires and ‘YES’ to their parents” (p. 28). In other words, he sees self control is a basic component of maturity and thinks self-control is achieved through imposing external controls upon the child.
I certainly don’t dispute the importance of developing good self-control, especially in light of the “marshmallow challenge” research conducted at Stanford University.
In this experiment, the researchers left young children alone in a room with a large fluffy marshmallow, telling them that they could choose between eating that one marshmallow right away, or getting two marshmallows if they waited for the researcher to return to the room (adorable video here). The researchers discovered that the kids who had the ability to exercise self-control at age 4 went on to experience more success in academics and in adulthood. So why were some children more able to exercise self-control than others? After hundreds of hours of observation, researchers determined that “the crucial skill was the strategic allocation of attention. Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow…the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from Sesame Street. Their desire wasn’t defeated–it was merely forgotten.” Dr. Walter Mischel, the Stanford professor who headed the experiment, explains, “If you’re thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you’re going to eat it….The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.”
So Reb Bradley and I agree that self-control is important; what we disagree on is how to help a child develop self-control.
I think that parents who rely on excessively authoritarian parenting techniques are actually hampering their child’s development of self-control; a “subdued” child who simply follows orders to avoid spankings will likely be unprepared for the freedom of adulthood.
Going back to the marshmallow challenge, Mischel found that when he “taught children a simple set of mental tricks—such as pretending that the candy is only a picture, surrounded by an imaginary frame—he dramatically improved their self-control. The kids who hadn’t been able to wait sixty seconds could now wait fifteen minutes.” Mischel explained, “Once you realize that will power is just a matter of learning how to control your attention and thoughts, you can really begin to increase it.”
The parents’ task, then, is to give their child the tools to increase their child’s chances of success. Parents can help their child identify natural rewards and natural consequences of decisions, and parents can help their child develop helpful mental patterns such as how to pay attention and how to distract themselves. These tools, along with the determination of a strong will, will better prepare the child for the realities of adulthood. Reb Bradley’s approach of spanking the child for disobediently eating the marshmallow doesn’t give the child any tools that will last into adulthood.
A potentially more harmful aspect of the total control that Reb Bradley promotes involves bodily ownership. It appears the he considers parents to be the owners of their child’s body; to him, a child attempting to establish personal space is actually rebelling against the parents. In his book, he lists the following actions as examples of “active rebellion”: “a child moves their shoulder away from a parent reaching out to touch or embrace him” (p. 76); and “walking along, a parent reaches down and takes their child’s hand and the child attempts to pull it away (If the child is in pain because the blood in their hand has drained to their shoulder, and gangrene is setting in, they should be able to respectfully ask to have their hand back.)” (p. 77); also “after being placed on their parent’s lap, they attempt to get off. They should be permitted to respectfully ask to get down, but only after the parent is satisfied that they are willing to remain” (p. 77); finally, “while being held in their parent’s arms a toddler struggles to get down” (p. 77).
In other words, a child is not allowed to refuse a hug or touch, refuse to hold hands, or exit a lap or arms without verbal permission.
This type of training–overriding a child’s sense of bodily ownership and personal space–could be extremely dangerous for the child, making them an especially easy target for a predator because the child has fewer personal boundaries to overcome.
This danger becomes even greater when combined with Reb Bradley’s other advice to parents. He tells parents to require their children to show an excessive amount of respect to people in leadership and people who are older than them. He explains, “The Bible commands…that children respect…a church leader, or just someone older” (p. 119). He continues by explaining what the word respect means to him: “Respect: to treat those in authority with the realization that they have power in your life. It means that when they speak, you listen and obey them, fearing the consequences they could bring for disrespect” (p. 120).
Once again, we see that something positive, like treating people with respect, has been taken to an unhealthy extreme in this book due to Reb Bradley’s obsession with obedience and authority. A child who regards every adult as an authority, who has no practice saying no to an adult, who has no sense of bodily ownership or personal space–that is an incredibly vulnerable child!
But there’s more: Reb Bradley also takes away the child’s only remaining defense against predators: parents who are open for communication. “Unless it is an emergency,” he says, “children should never be permitted to criticize those over them in authority” (p. 124).
Growing up should be a process of learning how to take care of your needs, make good decisions, and keep yourself safe. That is what maturity looks like, and the ability to follow orders has very little to do with that.
Reb Bradley seems to think otherwise; he claims that “learning to honor adult authority when young prepares a child for future adult relationships in areas of work, social relationships, and citizenship” (p. 119). Perhaps it has been too long since he participated in the culture outside of church events. Regarding work: with some exceptions, most employers today value qualities that authoritarian parents unknowingly suppress, such as the ability to innovate, show initiative, and solve problems. Adult social relationships are about communication, understanding, and cooperation, which are also skills that authoritarian parenting does not allow children to practice. Citizenship, besides the usual payment of taxes and such, is about looking out for the best interests of the country and your neighbors, which sometimes involves activism against leaders who are abusing their power. And for those who join the military and other similar professions, where unquestioning obedience to authority is valued–joining was an adult decision, and it comes with appropriate training, such as boot camp. For most of society, life is certainly is not all about obedience to authority; I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt like a confused and vulnerable little kid inside for years after entering independent adulthood, struggling to get the tools I needed to operate in the world as an adult.
However, the concept of absolute authority and total submission is so important to Reb Bradley that he even gives special instructions to parents who want to start this type of parenting approach when their children are older. “Give them a time period (perhaps 6-8 weeks), during which all parental commands will be given without reasons, and no appeals will be considered” (p. 48).
How did Reb Bradley choose that 6-8 week amount of time, you ask?
Well, he admits to being inspired by the length of boot camp, and it seems clear that he sees this as a type of boot camp experience for the unsuspecting child.
He continues: “explain to them that if at the end of the time period, they consistently obey quickly and respectfully, then you will begin to give wisdom behind your commands…..The reasons you give will be brief and may not be discussed at the moment of instruction” (p. 49). Oh wow, what a great reward for the totally obedient child! Allowing them to hear a brief explanation later–really, it’s so generous of the parent. Yes, that was sarcasm, but this book certainly gives parents the impression that children ought to sit around eagerly waiting for the crumbs to fall from their parents’ table of wisdom, and that the parents are very generous to share at all.
In urging parents to withhold information from their children, Reb Bradley seems to put parents in the role of God in their children’s lives. Or, at the very least, he sees parents as siding with God against their children. Discussing the Biblical story of Job–the righteous man who suddenly lost all his children, wealth, and health for no discernable reason–Reb Bradley focuses in on the unresolved ‘why’ of the story. “Although God could have explained to Job His reasons for allowing the trial, He never did tell Job ‘why.’ He would not honor Job’s disrespectful insistence on an answer. Even after Job finally humbled himself and repented of his pride, he received no answer from God” (p. 51). Although the obvious application of the story is that sometimes good people suffer, and we can’t always know the reason why, Reb Bradley decided to put a different spin on it: “as parents we must follow God’s example and not reward our children’s disrespect” (p. 51).
Holding so much power over another person is not something that humans handle well.
This is famously illustrated by the Stanford Prison Experiment run by psychology professor Philip Zimbardo. In this experiment, a group of seemingly normal college students were randomly assigned to play the role of either prison guard or prisoner. The prisoners were given new identities and placed in a mock prison, and the prison guards were told to keep order. According to the Wikipedia article, “the participants adapted to their roles well beyond Zimbardo’s expectations, as the guards enforced authoritarian measures and ultimately subjected some of the prisoners to psychological torture. Many of the prisoners passively accepted psychological abuse and, at the request of the guards, readily harassed other prisoners who attempted to prevent it. The experiment even affected Zimbardo himself, who, in his role as the superintendent, permitted the abuse to continue.”
How long did it take for things to get out of hand? The entire experiment had to be stopped early, at the insistence of Zimbardo’s girlfriend, after only 6 days.
In my opinion, there are far too many similarities between the mentality of the prison experiment and the mentality of this version of “Biblical” parenting.
The parents, like the prison guards, are told that they are managing bad people; in addition, like the prison guards, the parents are also told that they have absolute power over those people. It shouldn’t be surprising that in many cases, the parent-child dynamic gets completely out of hand and becomes abusive. After all, haven’t we learned by now that “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”?
In summary, Reb Bradley’s extreme emphasis on authority and obedience hinder children’s ability to develop the skills they need for adulthood. The child, as a result, is likely to be more vulnerable, while the parent is at risk of developing abusive habits from holding so much power.
To be continued.