I stumbled onto the Duggars accidentally—curious about the little children I saw wandering around a construction site during one of their earliest TLC specials, when the family was building their 7,000-square-foot Arkansas home. I have been fascinated by this family ever since.
I'm not the only one; their show, 19 Kids and Counting (well, it started at 17 kids, then 18, and could very well hit 20), is now in its eighth season. The four eldest daughters—Jana, 24; Jill, 22, Jessa, 21, and Jinger, 20— just published a book about their lives: Growing Up Duggar: It's All About Relationships (Howard Books, 2014).
As Jill announced her engagement to Derick Dillard (the wedding is set for June) and Jessa entered into a courtship with Ben Seewald, the family is gearing up for a season of celebration—and even more public visibility.
Seasoned veterans of reality TV, the Duggars have grown quite comfortable in the public eye. While other shows thrive on controversy and increasingly ridiculous and staged drama, their half-hour program has never done more than portray the simple challenges of everyday life for a 21-person household, and it's never needed to.
At the heart of everything this super-sized family does is their Christian faith, which inspires everything from their commitment to debt-free living to their value of large families to the courtship model undertaken by each of their eldest children as they move toward marriage.
And it's these life choices that make even the most mundane details of their lives so fascinating. How do you raise a child when you already have 18 others? How do you date when you're not allowed to go out in public without a chaperone or text without parental screening? And how do you respond when the man who leads the organization in which your family is very involved resigns amid sex abuse allegations?
In their new book, the girls share the life lessons and biblical principles that have shaped them in their teenage years. They spoke with me about life as a Duggar, what they hope girls can learn from their experiences, and how they view the next phases of their lives.
How long have you been working on this book? What did that process look like?
Jill: It's been about a two-year process. We figured that most people picking it up, because it's from us four sisters, would be young ladies. So we wanted to write it to answer a lot of questions and tell more about our family, and tell stories people have not seen on the show before. It's been a lot of sitting down and talking about stories, talking about principles and our family life.
You describe your experiences with reality TV as "growing up in a fishbowl"—what have you liked about it?
Jinger: Our family has always looked at it as a ministry, a window of opportunity God has given us to be able to share with the world the hope of Christ. We just hope that when people see us they won't necessarily see us girls but that they will be able to see Jesus' love flowing through us.
Why do you think people are so fascinated with your family?
Jill: Probably the size of our family and trying to see how we operate and how we work, with that many people getting stuff accomplished and not going crazy. A lot of people are looking for that fulfillment—they're looking for happiness, really—and they see a family that is working together and happy. What we hope they see is not us but, like Jinger said, that they would see God.
What do you think are the biggest misunderstandings people have about your family?
Jana: People think that maybe we don't enjoy our life or that all the girls are stuck at home, and that's so not true. We're very active in the community around us and have jobs. That's something people don't see. Or the interaction with us older siblings and the younger siblings, they think, They're practically raising the younger children. Well no, we aren't. Not at all. Our parents very much fill that role. We love being a big team and working together, but my parents are very much the parents of the family.
What are you doing out in the community?
Jessa: Jill and Jana both have jobs working at a birth center in the area. Jill is also in college right now, she's studying to be a midwife. Jinger and I are mostly focusing on ministry right now. We were just in a Florida prison doing prison ministry, and locally we also work in the juvenile detention centers. We also travel with our family, doing ministry in that way. It definitely keeps us busy!
This book is all about relationships—with God, with family, with friends, and with ourselves. The one relationship I know you get asked about most, of course, is with boys. Do you feel like you're waiting for marriage right now?
Jessa: Marriage, while it's a wonderful thing, it's not the end-all. You have to focus on where God has you now, and living in the phase of life where he has you. I'm in a courtship right now, and it's a very exciting season of life for me. But even before that, realizing that life does not revolve around having a boyfriend or a special significant someone else but finding your contentment and satisfaction in the Lord—that's where true joy comes from.
Jill: One thing in the book we talk about is the list of things we're looking for in a future spouse. We wanted to encourage our readers to not just look at the outward but really look at the inward character of the heart, even when you're looking for somebody to date. We talk about dating with a purpose, or courtship, and we encourage readers to look at the person in God's eyes. When you're looking at a guy, ask if he's going to be a good father to your children, what is his character like, what is he like in real-life situations and not just on a few dates in settings where it's easy for him to be happy, what is his heart like. And also not just holding a high standard for him but turning that same list—whatever you want in a future spouse—turning it back around on yourself. If I'm requiring this out of somebody, then what do I need to do to also prepare? What kind of godly wife is a godly guy looking for?
We are trying to prepare ourselves so that whenever God brings that person into our lives, we'll be ready to be able to better serve Christ with somebody than without them.
Another major relationship all women have—and so many struggle with—is with themselves and their bodies. It's one thing to know God loves us and created us uniquely; it's another to remember it when we're frustrated by what we see in the mirror, or by how a friend or a guy responds to us. What helps you deal with those feelings in more difficult moments?
Jessa: When I was about 12 years old, I started realizing there are a bunch of pretty people around me, and I don't feel so beautiful myself. I became really self-conscious about who I was. I was not very content with the way God had made me. My parents talked to me about the ten unchangeable things in our life…who your parents are, who your siblings are, the time at which you were born, the physical features God has given you, your birth order, your gender, a lot of those things.
As I began to see that I'm uniquely created and that this is the way Jesus made me, being able to thank him for those things made me have a different perspective on life. I became content with who I was and didn't feel like I had to look around to other people to give me that. If girls cannot accept themselves for who they are, they begin to look for that love and acceptance other places. They go to guys, or will make more mistakes in other relationships, because there's a dependence on needing that acceptance from other people instead of finding that in God first.
What have your parents done particularly well in helping you build healthy relationships, that you would like to model in your own future families?
Jill: They taught us a whole lot, in their own marriage relationship and in observing them and their character. They say you learn by example. We really have learned so much from our parents in teaching us how to be humble. My mom always says God will give you grace when you humble yourself. Trying to make things right within the day that it happens—don't let the sun go down upon your wrath, like the Bible says. Trying to make those offenses right, apologizing when you do something wrong and not letting things linger on, even if it's a small thing, don't let it build up. That's one of the most important things.
What are you most excited about for your futures?
Jill: All of us are really excited to see what God has in store, whether it's on the mission field—all of us have different interests and different things we're excited about. When that time comes, all of us want to have large families; we want to have as many kids as God will give us.
I'm interested in going on the mission field, that's one reason I'm pursuing midwifery is to be able to have a skill to take with me wherever I go. I'm not sure where that is yet, but I've been learning Spanish, and we've had several opportunities to go to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Peru. And Jessa and Jinger have been doing prison ministry.
Jessa: I think regardless of where the Lord leads us in life, and wherever we find ourselves with work, family, or whatever, we want to keep that ministry perspective that our parents have given us. Life is not about us, it's not about what makes us happy necessarily, but it's about sharing the love of Jesus and making an impact with the time we have here on Earth.
Recently Bill Gothard has been in the news for his abuse allegations and departure from ATI—how do you respond to people who might point to one person's failings as a way to criticize the beliefs your family and others in that world live by?
Jessa: We don't put our faith in any particular man or ministry, but we place our faith in Jesus Christ. We don't follow any group; we just try to follow the Bible.
What do you hope people gain by reading your book?
Jill: We really hope that people will come away from our book feeling like they've had a conversation with us, or been able to experience a little bit more of our family.
All four of us girls having recently come out of the teen years ourselves, and we really hope that young girls will be able to see our lives and even through our daily lives—we share a lot of experiences—just how God works.… We really want to encourage, like Titus 2 says: strengthening and encouraging younger girls and even parents, being able to let them get a glimpse into our lives and see how it's not about us or our family; it's about the principles and the love that we've learned from others and from our mentors, and being able to share those and to share the hope of Christ.
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