Your Children Are the Enemy

The text from my mother read: “You should control her right from the beginning. Kids respect you that way.”


I froze in shock as I read this, the most naked statement I’d ever heard my mother make about her parenting philosophy. We were discussing the upcoming birth of my daughter and how excited I am to meet her, to learn her personality, much as I would a new friend.


My mother’s statement especially shocked me for another reason – the simple fact that she’d raised my siblings and me in a singularly laissez faire manner for the first half of our childhood. Toward the end, we didn’t even live in the same house as my parents. We lived next door in a completely separate house where we made our own meals, did our own chores, and generally lived unsupervised except for occasional, unexpected, and confusing crack downs. Periodically, my parents threatened to and sometimes did install devices, sensors, etc. to monitor our movements. I particularly remember when my stepfather installed a front door sensor, which was intended to send a signal to their house whenever we entered or exited. We used to have fun deliberately tripping it, over and over again until my mother would call us to yell angrily. There was also a sensor for the driveway. A car driving over it would set off yet another signal in my parents’ house, letting them know what time we were arriving home or alerting them that we were trying to sneak our car out the drive. I think, though, that the signals must have become annoying to them as they were eventually disabled.


Despite what these strange and draconian tactics seemed to imply, my parents were generally not involved in our lives. They neither knew our teachers nor our favorite TV shows. My mother had no idea that I loved to read until I was 16. They played no active role and my friends always said that it was funny they had never met my parents. So, one can see why I was somewhat taken aback by my mother’s text. Her peculiar mix of obsessive control and lack of involvement didn’t seem to match up with her stated belief that kids should be controlled from birth so that they learn to fear their parents.


It took me awhile to look back and see it, but I think I now know why she wrote that text. Before my stepfather arrived, I grew up in a pretty secular household. We went to church exactly three times in my early childhood. In fact, I’m not even sure what inspired these attempts at religiosity; none of us actually believed. But when I was 13, my mother married a nice, soft-spoken Catholic man who attended mass every week. She decided that we should all join him, so that we’d be a nice family. It was all very strange, new, and boring for us, but we went. Soon thereafter, she began to crack down on us in new ways, such as the sensors, redoubling her efforts to mold us into that nice family. But it was too late for us. We hadn’t grown up that way and the change was extremely confusing. Naturally, we rebelled.


About then, with my stepfather, my mother also began listening to talk radio. My mother’s favorite show was Dr. James Dobson’s call-in parenting and family advice show. Dobson is the founder of Focus on the Family, an evangelical non-profit association that is the vehicle for his conservative, fundamentalist views on social policy and family life.  Dobson is also a psychologist and spends much of his time pontificating on parenting. He has authored several books on the subject and is considered an authority amongst his flock. His views on parenting can basically be summed up as training a child to be fearful of and responsive to authority.


I was too busy being a teenager at the time to notice, but it seems that my mother was quietly buying into the teachings of Dobson and other advocates of authoritarian parenting, such as Michael and Debi Pearl, who advocate abusing infants in the name of a godly family life. Luckily for us, my siblings and I were all of, or approaching, an age at which the physical discipline central to these teachings would be ineffective. The only option remaining is what I call psychological warfare.


I don’t use this term lightly. Dobson’s and the Pearls’ teachings are based on the idea that your children are, quite literally, the enemy, that they are born in original sin, and that their spirit must be crushed in the name of god. They reduce family life to a power struggle, a microcosm of that greater struggle between good and evil that evangelicals quite literally believe in. If you are unfamiliar with these teachings, check out Libby Anne’s blog, Love, Joy, Feminism, where she, as survivor of such abuse, recounts her story, the stories of others, and even critiques the Pearls’ seminal works, passage by passage. You can find other survivors’ stories at No Longer Quivering and Homeschoolers Anonymous. You will quickly see that families that adhere to these teachings are not only families in which children are the enemy, but they are also families where the abuse can be so severe that children are murdered by their parents.


Again, I was very lucky. I did not endure the kinds of physical abuse that many suffered because I was too old by the time my mother became interested and she was only ever a peripheral devotee, nor was I homeschooled and therefore isolated. But I did suffer knowing that my mother never accepted me for who I was. She regarded me merely as a naturally disobedient child who couldn’t even be kept in check, or fundamentally changed, by years of emotional turmoil and unconscionable surveillance. It took me quite some time to recover from the feeling of never being okay as I am. Even today, I find myself surprised that children around me are granted a basic level of privacy that I could never imagine as a kid. Their parents don’t periodically upend their bedrooms in military-like searches for I-never-figured-out-what, don’t listen in on their phone calls, and don’t threatened them with surveillance cameras.


It now seems like this happened to a different Autumn. I have no idea where it came from, but I had always been a pretty “rebellious” spirit with some seriously feminist leanings. I am grateful for that because I think it’s the only reason I, a very troubled and emotional child, didn’t crumble. It will be the only reason why I can commit to letting my daughter tell me who she is as a person, while providing healthy boundaries with plenty of space for her to explore.



After sitting for a moment with the phone in my hand, contemplating that text, I wrote back, “I don’t see the connection. I know that I never felt respect for any adult who tried to control me.”

Christian Reconstructionism and the Non-Christian Family

I am about to become a mother in just eight weeks. My husband and I are very excited, but like all new parents we are worried about finances, healthcare, daycare, etc. We’re very lucky to have sufficient income and enough money saved that, though we will worry like all parents do, we are not likely to need public assistance. Of course, anything can happen. We could lose our jobs and not find others for quite some time. One of us could become severely ill. In that case, we would find ourselves grateful for public assistance. It would allow us to pay the bills and feed our baby. It would help us, as a couple, to be less stressed out about money and, therefore, our relationship would not suffer as much. In short, public assistance and programs that serve families do more than just feed people; they allow families to be emotionally healthy, keeping them intact.


Have you ever wondered why so much of the religious right is opposed to life-saving programs that serve families? Why would someone, who claims to promote family values and family togetherness, want to abolish the very programs that for many keep their families together and thriving? The answer for some is quite simple – because Christian Reconstructionism.


Christian Reconstructionism is a Calvinistic philosophy founded by Rousas John Rushdoony, a man who has had a profound influence on the Christian right. The underlying premise is that god demands separate roles for government, church, and family. Government, though theocratic, is meant to be limited and all moral offenses are dealt with by the church. These distinctions can become confused because Christian Reconstructionists call for Old Testament law, which would naturally involve both the criminal (government) and the moral (church). Furthermore, Christian Reconstructionism demands that only staunch adherents participate in government, further mingling church and state. However, one area that believers are convinced is firmly in the realm of the church is family assistance or charity. In the eyes of the Christian Reconstructionist, government has absolutely no business whatsoever creating programs to help needy families because god has intended this role for the church alone. To summarize, it is not only a bad idea to create government programs, it is absolutely going against god’s laws.


This might sound like a fringe philosophy, and twenty years ago you would have been correct. However, nowadays, you can find it in the mouths of such right-wing luminaries as David Barton, who said, “It’s not the government’s responsibility to take care of the poor and needy. It’s the church’s responsibility.” The Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America and other notable right-wing groups have also espoused this philosophy. Even more terrifying is that Michael Petrouka, the Republican nominee for an Anne Arundel County, Maryland council seat, openly embraces Christian Reconstructionism and will quite possibly be making and passing laws that negatively impact families in that state. Still more “mainstream” right-wing politicians have made common cause with many Christian Reconstructionists and have worked tirelessly, both in congress and state legislatures, to slash budgets and find other ways to put their theological views to work.


The problem for us as non-Christians is obvious. If the right continues to be successful in cutting programs to families in need, what will be our lot? The Christian Reconstructionist says that we should then look to the church for help. This is problematic in many ways: under a theocratic government, a church may refuse to grant help to non-members or unequal treatment may be given to families who don’t believe. Perhaps a family may not wish to convert and compromise their integrity. Of course, the reality is that many would compromise if it came down to feeding their children and that is exactly what the Christian Reconstructionist would like to see. In short, the religious right is working to destroy the integrity of your and my non-Christian family in its pursuit of what it sees as god’s mandate, that America embraces biblical law. It is time for non-Christian families to make economic justice a priority in the fight against religious oppression.