There is a new documentary about the “19 Kids and Counting” family. Not surprisingly, this document opens the curtains on the Duggar family to reveal it to be as real as the Wizard of Oz.
I wonder if anyone is surprised. I am not. I had been told about this show when it first aired (and was “17 Kids and Counting”). People marveled at how well behaved the children were and how everyone pitched in without complaining.
I knew better. I grew up in a large family. Well, not 17+ kids; but I was one of six children. And I learned one thing. Normal children bicker, cry, have temper tantrums, lie, manipulate, compete, and refuse to do chores. The behavior the Duggar children exhibited could only occur under strenuous and punitive authoritarianism.
The goal of the IBLT Christian cult to which the Duggar’s belong is to produce a large army of God-fearing children. Their mission is for the children to work, vote, and run for public office with the goal of building an impenetrable Christian nation.
It was clear to me that these children’s spirits had been broken. They were harshly punished with spankings for any deviation. Sometimes implements were used, and they were spanked more if they cried. After a spanking, the child was required to thank the parent for the humiliation and promise to be better.
One of the more egregious punishments was called “blanket training.” At 6 months of age, Mommy Duggar placed her baby on a blanket with their favorite toy just outside the blanket. Each time the baby tried to reach for the toy, he was smacked. This would continue until he stopped trying to grasp the toy. It was repeated until the child finally learned to follow orders and stay away from his favorite toy.
Once a baby was weaned, it were assigned to one of the girls, who would be responsible for its care and training 24/7. They were all homeschooled in Bible teachings.
By modern standards, this seems like a harsh way to raise a child. Modern parenting is focused on giving children freedom and opportunities to learn about the world, other people, and themselves.
But while Duggar’s methods are harsh, they do not deviate much from childrearing in the past. A hundred years ago families were much larger. The unavailability of birth control, the need for child labor, Catholicism, Orthodox religions, and culture dictated these large families. Children were a vital part of the family unit: girls had to care for babies, boys helped their fathers, farm children worked in the fields, and some city children worked in factories.
I am grateful that I grew up in a large family. We had a lot more responsibilities than children in smaller households. My sisters and I learned cooking, sewing, canning, gardening, and homemaking.
But most importantly: we learned that we were not special. We were a part of a unit. We learned that if we exercised individual needs, those needs took from the other family members. We learned this not through authoritarianism but through peer pressure.
It is great training for life. It gave me empathy, helped me learn how to fit in, taught me how to love people who are different from me, taught me a higher purpose than self, and has given me lifetime friends. My family. We are best friends and a bedrock of support. When one of us stumbles, five people and their spouses jump in to support…it is a foundation like no other.
But these lessons came at a cost. We fought, we bickered, we created cabals, we argued, we lied, we yelled, we hit each other, we destroyed someone else’s property, someone stole the largest jar in the kiddie pool and when it was time to bring in the toys, tried to bring in the smaller one (my version of just punishment for that infraction was to hit her hard enough to break her collarbone). (Sis, you know who you are.)
When we heard thuds emanating from our brothers’ room, we knew that they were fighting and let them work it out. Eventually, the boys would divide their bedroom in half, one would get the door and the other window. There were winners and losers. As one of my brothers says, “I don’t know how he did it, but my brother always made me feel like I got the worse half of the room.”
The point is, our eventual closeness didn’t happen through authoritarianism, it was from learning that the price to be paid for not getting along was too high.
And our closeness has extended to our children. Affectionately called “the cousins,” they swarm together, play games, gossip, watch each other’s children, and revel in the joy of being together.
As for the Duggars, I know that raising 19 children the way that we were raised would be chaos. So, the only practical method is an extreme domination style of parenting, much like the military, which must break down its recruits to create obedience.
A disadvantage to growing up in a large family is that it causes you to have less self-regard and self-care. For example, none of us tolerate (or empathize) with illness. Because when one child was ill, everyone suffered. I was a sickly child and spent most autumns in the hospital with pneumonia. And it was a terrible drain on everyone else. Our mother would have to take precious time to visit me in the hospital. Effectively, a large family is a zero sum game, the time she spent with me, she couldn’t spend with her other five children. If I was sick, we had to cancel plans. So, we learned that illness vas verboten.
While my family was not harsh like the Duggar family, we did have to follow rules. Today, psychologists refer to this parenting style as authoritarian. Research shows that children in authoritarian situations have lower self-esteem. While they are typically obedient and proficient, they have lower scores for happiness and social competence. They are better liars, as they have learned to lie to avoid harsh punishment. In smaller families, there are more resources, parent/children relationships are more intimate, and parents can be involved in their children’s lives.
As much as I loved being in a large family, with the population crisis, it is irresponsible to have one now. Someone who wants that experience today has to be creative.
My nieces have solved the problem flawlessly. They live in close proximity to each other and whenever possible share parenting. Each has two children, and they get together frequently. Their children view each other as siblings, with all of the squabbles that come with it. Each child feels comfortable putting his or her head on an aunt or uncle’s shoulder for comfort. The three families act as a unit. And as other cousin families expand, they are welcomed into the fold. Their children will learn to play together, different ages, different genders, different capabilities. Building lifelong relationships. It is beautiful to watch.
So, it is actually better than our circumstances. There are six kids of different ages and genders, sharing, fighting, and caring about each other. Instead of two, there are six parents to wipe away tears, guide, and love them.
Angela Rieck, a Caroline County native, received her PhD in Mathematical Psychology from the University of Maryland and worked as a scientist at Bell Labs, and other high-tech companies in New Jersey before retiring as a corporate executive. Angela and her dogs divide their time between St Michaels and Key West Florida. Her daughter lives and works in New York City.