Families can be pernicious places for children.
Theologian Adrian Thatcher notes this in his book Theology and Families, which I read over a decade ago. Thatcher’s words were a steady refrain in my mind as I watched the new Amazon Prime docuseries Shiny Happy People.
American evangelicals have devoted an extraordinary amount of time, energy, and resources toward the goal of shoring up and strengthening the family. Yet such efforts have largely overlooked the painful truth that appears with chilling clarity in Shiny Happy People: that families can be pernicious places for children.
This claim might sound unnecessarily provocative. Isn’t the family God’s first created institution? Isn’t it the primary place God places children for their benefit? Isn’t it designed by God for the good of its members and broader society? Yes, yes, and yes. But there remains a distinction between “The Family” and “families.” Indeed, the gap between the family in theory and families in reality can be a yawning chasm—just ask the Duggar daughters.
In these and many other cases like it, abusers and their enablers are quick to see sin in young children and especially in the outside world, but not in themselves. It’s a malignant error.
One reason why families can be damaging places for children is because of their innate vulnerability. Due to their developmental immaturity and negligible socioeconomic power, kids are weak and wholly reliant on others to protect them and meet their needs.
Yet in my research on the lived theology of family in US evangelicalism, I found an alarming lack of awareness regarding childhood vulnerability. Among so-called quiverfull families, like those featured in Shiny Happy People, this lack is especially pronounced.
Foremost in the evangelical imagination is the notion that children are sinners. God says that children are blessings (Ps. 127:3–5), yes, but children are also sinners in need of restraint and correction. Hence, there is a plethora of evangelical how-to manuals on childhood discipline.
While there’s significant variety among such books, the most notorious is To Train Up a Child by Michael and Debi Pearl, which features in the docuseries. The Pearls’ manual endorses use of “the rod” to bring the child’s will into “complete subjection” from early on. Spanking begins with infants as young as six months old. (The Pearls’ teaching has been linked to multiple stories of children being abused to death, but the Pearls deny any responsibility for such cases.)
Children are born sinners because we all are (Rom. 3:23). We ought not romanticize children as blameless cherubs. Like all human beings, children are capable of selfishness and cruelty as well as selflessness and charity. It’s not either-or, but a mixture of both—like the rest of us.
At the same time, children are exceptionally vulnerable. By every possible metric, children are weaker, more helpless, and therefore more at risk for harm than adults. Growth and maturity changes that, but until they reach legal adulthood (and, for those with disabilities and other limitations, even beyond), children are quite literally at the mercy of their caregivers. The power parents have is enormous and the responsibility is weighty.
It comes as no surprise, then, that so many evangelical parents turned to Bill Gothard for help in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. In a time of massive social and cultural instability, such parents were overwhelmed by the enormity of the child-rearing task. In Gothard, they found a person with straightforward answers—which came, it seemed, directly from God. And that was the big selling point: certainty amid uncertainty; stability amid instability; assurance amid chaos.
The Institute for Basic Life Principles (IBLP), later followed by the Advanced Training Institute (ATI), offered a simple paradigm for the family with a guarantee: If you follow God’s family blueprint, as detailed by Gothard, then your children will grow up to be faithful Christians.
As Kate Shellnutt reported on Jinger Duggar Vuolo’s new book, it was the comfort and certainty offered by Gothard’s teachings that kept Vuolo loyal: “When you’re in that setting, you can just lean so heavily into it and be engrossed in it, ingrained in it, and think that’s what is best for everyone.”
The problem is that Gothard’s vision of family is not, in fact, God-ordained. Nor is it particularly good, at least not for women and children. As Scripture tells us, “No good tree bears bad fruit. … Each tree is recognized by its own fruit” (Luke 6:43–44).
Moreover, Gothard’s IBLP/ATI paradigm infused its followers with the erroneous assumption that the home is a kind of privileged, sinless space. As long as parents enforce the rules and children keep following those rules, then sin remains “out there” with the world’s disorder while “in here” we are safe.
Homeschooling blogger Amy Sloan decried this perspective in conversation with Shellnutt about Josh Duggar’s trial: The “popular, dangerous idea was widely accepted that homeschooling, following a certain set of rules/regulations, and withdrawing from the world would save and preserve our children and families. As homeschool hero after hero has fallen over the decades, as hidden evil after hidden evil has been brought to the light, that assumption has been proved false.”
The call, as they say, is coming from inside the house. Yes, children are sinners. But so are parents and caregivers. Sin is crouching at the door for all of us (Gen. 4:7). It lives in our bodies (Rom. 7:23). That is why the New Testament writers constantly exhort readers to put off the old self and put on the new (Eph. 4:22–24).
Parents have more life experience and wisdom that can help children as they mature. But those additional years of life also mean we have had far more opportunities to indulge in sinful desires and persist in harmful patterns. This should lead adult caregivers to approach the vulnerability and innocence of children with appropriate reverence and care.
Parents must always instruct and correct their children while seeing themselves as fellow sinners who are desperately in need of instruction and correction.
Family members regularly sin against each other. It’s the nature of family life. But when adults are thought to represent God and exercise unilateral authority and control, then what recourse do children have when they are sinned against repeatedly and grievously? And if their family is isolated from other neighbors and community institutions—if their home is imagined to be a sinless haven from a sinful world—then the domestic realm can become a dangerous place.
In recent decades, evangelicals have begun facing the truth of children’s vulnerability in our churches and tried to do something about it. Now it’s time to take similar action regarding the vulnerability of children in our own homes. Current and former homeschoolers have already begun such efforts, and they need additional support.
Shiny Happy People demonstrates the tragic reality that families can be pernicious places for children. Our preaching and teaching, organizing and advocacy, must name this truth and point God’s people toward faithful, Christ-honoring remedies.
Emily Hunter McGowin is associate professor of theology at Wheaton College. She is the author of Quivering Families,Christmas: The Season of Life and Light, and a forthcoming practical theology of families from InterVarsity Press.