I’m continuing my response to the documentary series Shiny Happy People with my own blog series “Shiny Happy Childhood.”
Post 1 – Background – I talked about why the documentary resonated as I’m 3rd of 13 children and attended Bill Gothard’s seminars many times as a child, in about 5th through 8th grades.
Post 2 – Authority – I talked about Gothard’s authoritarian teachings. And how that was baked into my aspirations – but didn’t actually work out for me.
Today, I want to start by clearing something up. I am not saying that I did not have a happy childhood. I had a *very* happy childhood. Our parents loved us and did their best to be good parents to us. I went to Christian schools from 3rd grade through college, and I enjoyed that.
I’m not at all trying to get into the Bad Childhood Olympics. I am well aware that many people had it worse than me. Pretty much everyone interviewed in the documentary, for starters. I did go to Bill Gothard’s basic seminars, but that was before he had family camps and advanced training institutes or anything beyond that.
I think it’s the Shiny part that I mostly object to. Our family tried to give the impression of being the perfect Christian family. But if you looked under the surface, there was lots of dysfunction. And we didn’t talk about any of that.
And because it *was* a happy childhood, that makes it a little more difficult to piece out where, exactly, the problems were. When I watched the documentary and remembered how fully I believed and got excited about what Bill Gothard was teaching — it disturbed me. Gave me lots to think through.
Today I’m going to talk about what upset me the most in the documentary — the teaching on spanking.
Sometime when I was in first or second grade, living in the house in California pictured above, my parents decided to stop spanking with their hands — because who wants their hands to be associated with discipline? My Mom took a wooden ruler with a metal edge and wrote a verse from Proverbs on it. That was now “the rod.”
The verse might have been Proverbs 13:24 — “He who withholds his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”
Or maybe it was Proverbs 23:13 — “Do not withhold discipline from a child; Though you strike him with the rod, he will not die.”
I was pretty sure she got the idea of using a ruler from Bill Gothard. But I looked up when Dare to Discipline by James Dobson was published, and it was 1970 — so she may well have gotten the idea from that book.
The sad part is that my parents loved us — but they fully believed that if they truly loved us, they needed to hit us with a ruler on our backside whenever we did anything “wrong.” The goal was “instant obedience.” I do remember that Bill Gothard used to talk about how wonderful it was that God put padding onto every child, giving a perfect place for spanking. I laughed along with the rest of the auditorium at that line.
I was horrified by the “blanket training” discussed in Shiny Happy People. I am quite sure my parents never did that, but I do remember that I once saw my mother spank a six-month-old sibling (I don’t remember which one) with a ruler and I was horrified then, too, even as a kid. You see, they believed that we’re born with a sinful nature. So no one is too young to discipline.
The authoritarians my mother learned from believed the goal is to break a child’s will, but not their spirit. They say to not spank in anger and to spank until the crying softens, no longer defiant screaming.
Well, maybe it sounds good in theory. And most of the spankings I received weren’t particularly bad or particularly traumatic. But twice in my life, I received spankings so hard and long that I had bruises on my bottom. One of those was when we were on vacation in Washington visiting a family of cousins. I don’t remember the particulars, but I still remember that I didn’t deserve that spanking. It was something my little sister did. Maybe that’s why I didn’t get to a place of quiet crying any time soon.
Another time, I got spanked because I left the dinner table without saying, “May I please be excused.” — which was something I’d never in my life said before or been told to say. When I tried to explain that no one had ever told me to ask to be excused, my Mom said that spanking would help me remember. But I am still convinced I was never told to do that.
Now, our younger brother (#5) was adopted. The story goes that Dad didn’t think it was healthy for Mom to have more kids, so they adopted. And they changed their minds later. But this brother was not naturally quiet like the rest of us. Not naturally compliant. Needing to move around a lot more. And he got a lot more spankings. I remember telling myself that my parents must love him more because they “disciplined” him more. Yes, I had completely bought the teaching myself. Or perhaps I was trying to convince myself that my parents weren’t being unfair and were good Christian parents, so everything they did was right.
One time I remember we were walking from church in L.A. to our car a couple blocks away. My brother did something that infuriated Mom. She took him on the street corner and pulled down his pants and spanked his bare bottom. The way I remember it, she used the rod — maybe got it from the car? (And I think I remember that she brought it everywhere with us, keeping it in the glove compartment when we got in the car – which was why we had it on vacation.) But maybe she pulled down his pants because she didn’t have the rod. I was on the other side of the intersection with some siblings, and I was mortified and horrified. Mom was incredibly angry, and it showed.
Because no matter how rational and anger-free you mean your discipline to be — we’re humans.
When I became a parent – so young! – spanking just didn’t seem right. We discussed things with other young couples. One friend had been listening to Dobson. I expressed that spanking a young child seemed so wrong. She said, “But it works!” And I’m not sure how I responded, but I hope I said something to the effect of “But at what cost?”
Another friend said in a case of touching something they shouldn’t, she’d use a slap on the hand and say, “No!” We tried that for a little while. But then one day my toddler hit their head on a table. They then slapped the table and said, “No!” That was enough for me! That was not how I wanted to teach my child to react to things.
Not long after that, my then-husband read The Horse Whisperer, by Monty Roberts. We thought that if nonviolence is best for training horses, surely it’s best for training people, too.
Besides, those verses are Proverbs, not promises! Not commands! They are wise sayings — at least wise for ancient times. And I still agree that disciplining and teaching your children is important. But I don’t want to teach them violence.
And how can you punish a kid for being a kid? Curiosity is what children are all about! It’s how they learn! If you squelch a child’s curiosity – teach a baby to stay on a blanket, for example – you’re shutting down a learning machine. Curiosity is not sin.
My mother-in-law was one of the most helpful people I interacted with. When my oldest had just turned two years old and was practicing saying “No” all the time, my mother-in-law told me about an article she’d read saying that they are learning self-autonomy. When my kid would be particularly oppositional, I’d chant “Self-autonomy!” It actually helped. That’s an important part of learning, too. Saying “No” is not sinful!
In fact, I watched a John Bradshaw show on PBS soon after that. He gave an exercise for people who need to learn to say No: First, spend a week practicing saying “No” under your breath, just constantly: “No, No, No, No….”. The next week, maybe warn people around you, but say “No” to everything you’re asked. And after that, actually say “No” to something significant and not prearranged. I laughed at this, because it mirrored what my two-year-old was doing. That was the one time we could get our picky eater to eat anything. All we had to do was say, “That’s mine! Don’t eat it.”
But when I told my Mom about the exercise, she said, “I don’t think you kids went through that.”
Saying “No,” after all, would not be “instant obedience.” The Rod was to teach children not to even say No.
And that makes me think. Does God want our “instant obedience”?
I honestly don’t think God does. Consider I John 4:1 — “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”
If you believe God is telling you to do something, test the spirit.
Remember – the Torah was not only religious laws, but also civil laws for a young nation. Yes, people needed to obey the law.
But Jesus brought a new command — “Love one another as I have loved you.” Obeying this command is not about fear. It’s not about instant compliance. And it’s not about legalism — and maybe legalism is what I should tackle next time.