I grew up in the same culture as the Duggars. I was homeschooled, I was the oldest of 12 children, and my family was involved in or aware of each of the various ministries the Duggars are involved in. The Duggars parent the way my parents did, listen to the same ministries as my parents, and have the same general beliefs as my parents. You have to understand that the Duggars are not just your typical suburban family plus an extra sixteen children. The Duggars are part of a very distinct subculture, and that subculture has different rules and different norms. I know those rules and norms, because I lived them. [...]
I’m told that the Duggar children are happy, so clearly my concerns are unjustified. But you know what? The fact that the Duggar children look happy does not actually tell you anything about whether they are happy. This sounds like a rather astounding statement on my part, doesn’t it? Well bear with me! The Duggars follow parenting methods that teach that children should only ever be allowed to be cheerful, smiling, and happy. Yes, really. Those are the only emotions that are permitted. [...]
But let’s get back to the point about smiling for a moment here. The Duggar parents are following parenting gurus who teach that unhappiness or a sour disposition is disobedience. In this climate, what child would have anything but a smile? There is no other option. I also grew up on these teachings. I remember being punished for having a “bad mood.” My siblings and I looked happy, on the outside, and that outward appearance was not always wrong. But sometimes it was—sometimes it was very, very wrong, because being discontented was seen as sin, and was punished. Of course children will look happy, when that is the only option they are allowed.
You really should read the whole thing; there’s no way to do it justice in excerpts.
On Facebook, people are discussing this piece (naturally). Some raise the objections that if the Duggar’s parenting methods work for the family, where’s the harm? Certainly the adult children seem to acquiesce in having their careers, their spouses, and their lives chosen for them. If they didn’t like these things, they could just leave, right?
Others are pointing out though that this is the mystery of cult-like teachings: people, even full-grown adults, don’t think they can leave. They don’t think they can make different choices. They think that deciding to pursue their own careers, go to college (especially for the girls in this subculture who are told from a young age that college is not for women), or date or marry someone the parents haven’t selected for them (even if they avoid sexual sin and date/marry a serious Christian who is likewise committed to reserving sex for marriage) is choosing evil and “rebellion.” Rebellious children--defined as the kind of child who thinks he might want to study accounting instead of some other career his parents have chosen for him, not the kind of child who is cooking meth in the basement, say--are often shunned by these kinds of families, in a form of emotional blackmail: e.g., do exactly what I tell you to do for your entire life, or understand that you are choosing to give up forever your relationship with your parents, siblings, and (frequently) entire extended families.
But then, if a child has been emotionally blackmailed her whole life to believe that she must always pin a cheerful smile on her face regardless of what is happening in her life, that to show unhappiness, frustration, or discontent is sinful and disobedient, that she will be under her father’s complete authority until she is handed over to her husband and told to obey him instead, it’s no big deal to blackmail her to believe that any deviation from the path carved by her parents is wicked rebellion instead of an expression of her God-given individuality and talents.
Where parenting like this breaks down, from a Catholic perspective, is in its failure to realize that our children are indeed individual human beings made in God’s own image and likeness, and that forbidding them to make choices for themselves, especially when they have outgrown their need for full-scale parental vigilance, is to keep them in a perpetual state of spiritual infantilism. The Church doesn’t want that. She wants brave, good, courageous young men and women to answer God’s call to serve Him in the unique way that He has planned for them. In terms of vocation, He may call them to priesthood or religious life, to marriage, or even to serve Him in the single state. In terms of how they will fulfill those vocations the options are almost endless--parish priest or order priest, active religious or contemplative, so many specific orders and communities spread over the whole world; married with large families or small families or the cross of infertility and the call to live their marital fruitfulness in a different way which may or may not include adoption, raising children in city apartments or suburban houses or rural farms, sending them to Catholic schools or private schools or public schools or homeschooling them; single women becoming consecrated virgins, other singles living with difficulties and crosses few are aware of as they follow the path to holiness, men or women abandoned by divorce and struggling to raise children alone, the special and difficult sign of the widow or widower in service to God in the community in ways too numerous to mention: and all of that is before we even begin to consider all the particular types of work or jobs or careers or ways of interacting with the world, being in it but not of it, bringing Christ into every doorway through which we pass.
As Catholics, we see our job to raise our children in the faith and by means of patient love, good examples, and perseverance to ensure that they don’t disdain that gift of faith through any fault of our own efforts. But after that, it’s up to them. Because in order to bring Christ through every door, they have to choose Him in the first place. In Baptism we made that choice on their behalf, and in Confirmation that gift of faith is strengthened and, through prayer and the continued practice of the faith, can bear great fruit. But we can’t force our children to take up the Cross, to walk with Him, to serve Him. Only they can really choose that when they are adults in the faith (and they may still be minors in the world’s eyes, as some saints have been, but more spiritually mature than some of the elderly--it happens). God’s gift to humanity of free will is tremendously important--He could have a planet full of sinless slaves tomorrow if He willed to remove that gift. But He didn’t even take it away from Adam and Eve when they made the choice that impacted all of humanity. That means something, and we ignore it at our peril.
Now, some Catholic parents will point out that we do make choices on behalf of our children, especially during their years of minority. We don’t just let them absorb all of our culture’s filth without differentiation; we don’t want them to be caught up in things that are objectively evil; we forbid them to adopt the language and manners of some of their peers. Of course we do! But the goal isn’t to keep them from ever slipping up--the goal is to teach them to make good choices on their own. The best Internet security device for teens is a teen who makes good choices. The best parental setting on a TV is the setting that has been teaching them the difference between entertainment and trash from the time they could crawl. The best parental oversight of a child’s friends is the child who says on his or her own, without any concern about peer pressure, that no, he or she doesn’t want to watch a particular movie or play a particular video game, because the offering in question offends his or her own values. And the best gift for a child in these difficult years is the Sacrament of Penance, where the child can admit without fear of shunning or anything of the sort that he or she has fallen, and be helped to rise again.
But there is only one way I know of to achieve those parental settings, and it is this: you must have a real, honest, loving, close, patient, kind, forgiving and nurturing relationship with your children. You cannot see them as proofs of your own holiness. You can’t objectify them as tokens of your superiority over those people whose kids have bad manners. You can’t think of them as dolls or puppets who please you by responding when you pose them or pull their strings, but who displease you whenever they act like real boys and girls. Above all, you must rejoice in their unique individuality, embrace any and all challenges right along with them, and be as present to them as a limited and sinful human being with an Internet connection and a big mouth can be.
Sure, in our day and age it’s more likely to encounter the kind of parents who complain endlessly about their child or their children, seeing children as a burden and parenting as a chore. When we see a family like the Duggar family (or any family that is part of those types of Christian movements) we are tempted to put them on a pedestal as people who are really involved with their children and see parenting as a God-given mission instead of an inconvenient problem. The devil, as always, is in the details, and while it may seem unfair to infer those details about a specific family, in this case the family in question has put some of those details (career choices, courtship/marriage, the idea that wanting to do something on one’s own is rebellion and discontent) on display. It’s important for Catholics to celebrate the good things about families like these, but it’s even more important to recognize where our Church’s teachings are different and to follow those teachings with fidelity and love.