Shiny Happy Childhood – Background

A couple weeks ago, I watched the documentary series Shiny Happy People about the Duggars (of 19 children fame) and evangelical teacher Bill Gothard’s empire. And oh my goodness I was shook up.

So I’ve decided to process my reaction in a series of blog posts. I’ll call them Shiny Happy Childhood. My goal is not to spend more than a half-hour writing each post. Which will keep them from being long to read. But that means I don’t know how long the series will run.

With this first post, I’ll talk about why the series shook me up so much.

First, I’m third of 13 children. I was absolutely horrified at the thought of the Duggars’ show when it was popular and could not have stomached watching a single episode. This is *because* I knew it would present them as shiny, happy people. I know about big family trauma, and my heart would break for those kids (when my stomach wasn’t turning). Those are kids who are not getting much attention from their parents, with the older kids having to parent the younger. (That’s simply scratching the surface of why I don’t believe they’re shiny or happy.)

However the documentary promised to look into the problems with the shiny happy presentation. And that I just had to watch. But then it turned out that it was also about Bill Gothard, and that’s when it really shook me up.

I went to Bill Gothard’s Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts at least a dozen times, beginning in elementary school.

This was in the 1970s, before he called it the Institute in Basic Life Principles. And from the documentary, it sounds like it was before he formed a full-fledged cult. My family only went to the basic seminars that happened at Long Beach Convention Center. I believe they let alumni attend for free or at least very low cost, so we went over and over again. But we never did a family camp or anything that required traveling. My Mom did buy Gothard’s Character Sketches book, and when she paid us for memorizing (more on that later), we could also memorize Gothard’s “Character Qualities” definitions.

However, my Mom eventually came to believe that birth control is wrong. Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? She began home schooling my younger siblings in the 1980s, after I was already in college (at a Christian university). Did she get that idea from Bill Gothard? Some time when I was in elementary school, she got a ruler and wrote a Bible verse on it about the “rod of correction” and began using that for spankings. I’m quite sure that idea was from Bill Gothard.

She also got a really good idea from Bill Gothard: Start memorizing whole chapters of Scripture. And she went further: She paid us kids to do the same. A whole system. I credit memorizing the New Testament with giving me confidence to analyze teachings of those who claim to be teaching biblical truth. (This will probably be a whole post in itself.) I’m no longer a good follower of authoritarians like Bill Gothard.

I think my parents took me and my older siblings before we were technically “old enough,” because they believed we were smart beyond our years. I probably went to my first seminar around age 10, very proud to get a day off school from our Christian school and go. When I saw clips from the seminar I had the uncanny feeling of remembering when I heard his words and agreed with them with all my heart — thought how wonderful it was to have these principles so clearly stated.

And that’s the thing about Bill Gothard, as I watched the documentary. He’s an authoritarian who says he has the answers and a complete system for how you should run your life and please God.

I’ve always loved systems! And I’m like my mother in that. We ate it up.

I am ever so thankful we weren’t involved in the later years when it did become more like a cult. Last week, I watched a question-and-answer from one of the women interviewed in the documentary, and he even had people following Old Testament dietary laws. And not taking epidurals for labor and delivery. And not sending girls to college.

So it’s not like I had to exit a cult. Not really. Though my own family had its own cult-like characteristics. Remember, we’re talking thirteen kids, with the middle ones home schooled. We went to church Sunday morning for Sunday school and worship service, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night Bible study. No getting out of any of it unless you were sick with a fever or vomited.

Well, my half-hour is up. Where am I going with this? I want to think through some of the teachings I got and absorbed from those seminars and examine them in the light of day.

Thinking about this, I have some sympathy for conservatives so afraid their kids will be “indoctrinated.” Because I’m remembering as a child wholly believing this stuff, to the level of taking for granted this is how the world works.

As an adult, it wouldn’t hurt to pull some of those beliefs into the light of day. I am very much still a Christian, though not necessarily an Evangelical one, and I don’t consciously believe many of Bill Gothard’s teachings any more, but it wouldn’t hurt to take a look.

Please comment if this brings up anything for you or where you’d like my ramblings to go next time.


  1. Ditto, what Maggie says. I look forward to your insider look at what the documentary touched on.

  2. I attended Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts several times as a young person, too. Though you have me beat with a dozen! My family also attended church Sunday am and pm, and Wednesday pm, like yours. Raised evangelical, I’ve now moved on to a Presbyterian church that ordains women and includes LGBTQ+ members.

    So interested to see what you write about Gothard. He certainly took a huge turn for the worse, didn’t he?

  3. Yes, Laurie! I was pretty shocked by some of the things on the documentary. Though also unnerved, because him saying birth control is wrong matched what my Mom came to believe, which I thought she’d come to on her own. And home schooling…. Anyway, made me want to think through some things….

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