Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (3): Power and Control

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by Neil Godfrey


What is wrong with the following maxim?

Train up a child in the way he should go, Even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6)


It’s not true. At least, the second part does not does not necessarily — and sometimes it will never — follow from the first part.

Parents are vain egocentric creatures who are so quick to believe they have far more power over their children than they really do. (I speak as a parent.) On the other hand, when parents attempt to enforce the power they believe they ought to have, or do have by divine fiat, they can too easily influence the children’s development, yes, but not in the way they intend.

Continuing here notes and comments from the work introduced earlier.

Fundamentalist parents are fearful because they lack faith that there is nothing wrong with the way nature has equipped us to develop as we grow — if they work with it, not against it.

Many fundamentalisms quickly poo-pooh science and psychology in particular, and child-psychology in micro-particular. But human understanding and knowledge about the world and ourselves really has grown since the Bible was written. Fundamentalists may find it easier to admit this in regards to the shape of the earth than in relation to child psychology and development. Does not the devil want control of our children? The fear thing.

Marlene Winell writes:

The primary goal of relationships in a rigidly religious family centers around control, because it is believed that people cannot be trusted. There is no encompassing goal to provide support for all the members to grow and flourish in a nurturing environment. (p.119)

I recall glowing with pride when one evening I saw the astonished admiration on the faces of some visitors over a moment’s exchange between my two young children and me. My youngsters had been sitting quietly playing and I told them it was time for them to go to bed. They stood up immediately and went off quietly without a murmur of fuss to their bedrooms. Rarely had these visitors seen such “wonderful children”. How did I do it, they could not help but ask. No, I did not beat them. But I still feel ashamed now when I recall the answer that I gave my visitors and that they appeared to strongly approve.

Marlene continues:

Obedience is stressed as a primary value, similar to the obedience to God that is stressed in the Bible. Parents thus feel justified in their use of power tactics with children. Mimicking the harsh God of retribution in the Old Testament, parents may punish children with a self-righteous attitude of doing their duty. To bolster their own authority, they use Scriptures such as Ephesians 6:1 where Paul says that children should obey their parents. (p.119)

Isn’t it obvious? Without a hierarchy (a patriarchal one of course, not matriarchal) and control surely there would only be chaos and confusion, conflicts, every evil work.

As for conflict management, God’s way is so simple. The godly exercise of power and control. Speak of skills for sharing power or managing conflict and it suddenly sounds like effort and learning and understanding is required. God’s way is easier in the short term, but more damaging and problematic in the long term.

“By adopting such as simple formula [i.e. exercising control], a family can be robbed of the enormously constructive process of consciously developing family values and mores. Absolutism makes it nearly impossible to respectfully consider individual needs and special situations in a respectful manner. As a result, children often fail to learn about personal responsibility or how to make complex choices.” (pp.119-120)

The fundamentalist may not always use corporal punishment but there are other emotional manipulations to keep control that can be far more damaging than physical punishment. Withholding love and approval — that nonsense oxymoron of saying that the act of withholding love or approval is really expressing love — can be very confusing with serious mental consequences for children. No parent really wants their children to always feel sinful, never feel good about what they do, or feel they have to be perfect to be loved.

We know a lot about child psychology and development and it comes from years of controlled research and testing, not the devil. And children are not really little devils.

Understanding the needs of our children at different stages of life — and the reasons for those different stages — is the key to supportive parenting without being a controlling parent. This wisdom will not be found in the Bible, however. Of course . . .

“. . . children need behavioral guidance in addition to love and support. But it needs to be thoughtful, individualized, and developmentally appropriate. This is a parenting task that requires attention and effort. Rigidly religious families often avoid the complexity of this responsibility. Instead, doctrinal rules are applied and fear of punishment used for control.” (p.119)

I know this topic leaves open other questions. One of those relates to the devaluation of feelings in the home. This topic means a lot to me — more Winell in another post.

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Neil Godfrey

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5 thoughts on “Dysfunctional fundamentalist families (3): Power and Control”

  1. Excellent post! I read Winell’s book during my own personal exodus from fundamentalism and found it extremely helpful in unknarling the knots.
    My favorite quote:

    “A big revelation in my professional training was that humans can learn skills for living and relating. We don’t have to be desperate for a miracle of God to make us decent.”–Marlene Winell

  2. So, should we tell our kids the difference between right and wrong? And if we do, will it stick with them, will they learn from it? Cause I think that is the simple truth that was beign portrayed in Proverbs 22:6.

    I don’t think you would argue that if you tell a child not to touch the hot plate, it is in the child’s best interest. The child may still touch the plate, yes, but was it not your job to tell them this?

    I think the verse is a guideline, not a promise.

    I also think that you may be making it too complicated to prove us “fundamentalists” wrong. And I may mistake you talking about religous families and Christian families, there is a big difference from mpv.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. Thanks for the comment. However, I think you have misunderstood the theme of my post, which is about methods of interaction and relationships within families.

    Protecting children from harm is another matter entirely — that is a given and nowhere have I suggested otherwise.

    My point is about the way in which we go about that and other matters that always come up in families; and about the relationships and culture in which we teach and protect children.

    I often heard the same argument (do you really believe in not teaching them not to touch a hot oven etc) against “modern child psychology” when I was a fundamentalist too. I have since had to learn that that no-one teaches or assumes anything like that and there is misunderstanding if we think they do. Maybe many of us parents really cannot distinguish between our methods and our goals.

    As for the meaning of the biblical passage, many fundamentalists do take it as a promise because that is its literal claim. Expectations are built up. Many do do their parenting in fear of failure, or at least with a certain unhealthy expectation, with verses like this in mind. If that’s not your experience, then that’s great.

    But no one is “trying to prove fundamentalists wrong”. I am addressing issues that are acknowledged in the professional literature to be found among fundamentalist families. I began this series with the note by Marlene Winell that this discussion is for increasing awareness of the issues. I found her work extremely helpful — not all of it applied to me either, but enough of it did.

  4. The issue is with the assumption that the verse should be a serious guide to living today, however it is interpreted, simply because it is part of the Bible. Obviously not all fundamentalists agree on specific interpretations.

    To treat any ancient text as a fundamental guide to living is to risk engaging in dysfunctional behaviours within families and other social relationships. (I’m not talking about universal values that define our nature, and to an extent even the nature of nonhuman animals. I’ve discussed those elsewhere. Any text, ancient or modern, that expresses universal values is not an issue. The issue is with texts that go beyond those platitudes and that people venerate as guides for more complex relationships.)

    We know a lot more about family relationships and child development today than the ancients ever did, the author/s of Proverbs included. As very social creatures and can be easily led into inappropriate behaviours and beliefs — but fortunately the same nature also opens us to the possibility of ongoing learning and changing for the better.

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