On May 19, 2015, InTouch Weekly magazine published an article alleging sexual abuse within the Duggar family, the stars of the TLC show 19 Kids and Counting. The accusations detailed unwanted and unsolicited sexual touching between their eldest son Josh and 5 young girls, including 4 of his younger sisters, while he was still a minor. Duggar has confirmed the accusations, and he, his wife and his parents have all issued statements about the abuse. While the commentary from the Duggar camp seems to revolve around repentance and redemption, the police report, taken 3 years after the incidents, reveals that the Duggars likely acted to protect their son from the legal consequences of his actions.
The Duggars are considered some of the most influential members of the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, and are well known among conservative circles. The Quiverfull movement encourages parents to put their family planning “in God’s hands,” while the Christian Patriarchy movement asserts that men are the moral and spiritual heads of the household. While these beliefs have long sparked questions about the judgment of the members of these movements, these recent revelations have brought to light even more problematic issues, like the encouragement of victim blaming in handling sexual abuse included in a popular Christian homeschooling program from the Advanced Training Institute. While it may be difficult for many of us to understand what drives these extreme religious movements, there are definitely psychological forces at work here.
We’re going to unpack this scandal, SocialPsyQ style, in a series of 3 posts. In the first post, we will consider the role of obedience and authority.
1) Obedience- A cornerstone of Christian Patriarchy parenting is total obedience to parental demands. Many practices, including blanket training, are essentially just a repurposing of operant conditioning, where repeated consequences or rewards for a certain behavior lead to learned responses.1 In blanket training, the parent puts an infant or small child on a blanket, and tells it not to move. If the infant moves off of the blanket, they receive some form of corporal punishment and are put back on the blanket. This happens until the baby does not leave the blanket. While this may appear to be obedience, this is actually a conditioned fear response. The baby obeys the parent for fear of physical abuse, not because it has learned that obeying mom is better than not. There are no studies that suggest that this kind of will-bending is a good parenting practice.
Evidence from psychology research overwhelmingly endorses attachment parenting, a kind of parenting where the parent acts as a trusted, secure base from which the infant can explore the environment.2,3,4,5 One’s childhood attachment to parents can have long-reaching consequences, affecting the security of a child’s future relationships, their mental health and their ability to regulate their emotions.6,7,8 Practices like blanket training discourage curiosity and may lead to insecure attachments with caregivers. The research suggests that a warm and supportive environment is by far the best for a child’s development into an autonomous person, and that it is the best way to form positive relationships with caregivers. Total obedience is not for a child’s developmental benefit, it is for the adult who wants their child to obey.
2) Authority- In social psychology, Stanley Milgram famously showed that requests from authorities can cause people to do unthinkable things in the name of obedience, namely, to administer increasing levels of electric shock to someone who eventually appears to be in serious pain, or in need of medical attention.9,10 Over 60% of participants were willing to shock the other person up to the highest level of shock available at the behest of the experimenter, even when it was marked to show how dangerous it was and even after the other participant had repeatedly indicated that they should stop.* Phillip Zimbardo also demonstrated, via the Stanford Prison Experiment, that imbuing college students with the authority of a prison guard led them to abuse the “prisoners”, even though all participants knew this was a contrived psychological experiment.11,12 The effect was so intense that Zimbardo himself was even effected by his role as the “warden”, allowing the abuse of the prisoners. The experiment was shut down after only 6 days.
Participants from the Milgram Obedience experiments and the Stanford Prison experiment were shocked by their own behavior, and experienced distress from their involvement in the experiments. It’s easy to imagine how a constant authoritarian environment in the home could lead to very real consequences for children, when even fully grown adults can be disturbed by their obedience, even if just for the duration of a psychology experiment.
With Christian Patriarchy encouraging parents and men to assert their authority over children and women with a goal of total obedience, it seems clear that this is not a healthy environment for child development. It is well known that authoritarian parenting, where the parent strictly controls a child, often leads to unintended consequences, like acting out, and it certainly seems to have contributed to an environment in the Duggar home that both demonized sexuality, and gave Josh Duggar an opportunity to assault young girls against their will.13 Perhaps the Duggars could use a little SocialPsyQ?
Stay tuned for Part 2 on Monday, June 1st!
*The Milgram experiments used a recording or a confederate (an experimenter posing as a participant) to make participants believe that they were shocking another person in a different room, but they actually were not. No one was physically injured in these experiments and there was no evidence of lasting psychological consequences for participation.
NOTE: This article deals with the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements specifically, and does not assert that all Christians believe these things or raise their children these ways.
- Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 18(8), 503.
- Sears, W., & Sears, M. (2001). The attachment parenting book: A commonsense guide to understanding and nurturing your baby. Little, Brown.
- Granju, K. A., & Kennedy, B. (1999). Attachment parenting: Instinctive care for your baby and young child. Simon and Schuster.
- Wearden, A., Peters, I., Berry, K., Barrowclough, C., & Liversidge, T. (2008). Adult attachment, parenting experiences, and core beliefs about self and others. Personality and Individual Differences, 44(5), 1246-1257.
- Bowlby, J. (2005). A secure base: Clinical applications of attachment theory (Vol. 393). Taylor & Francis.
- Schore, A. N. (2001). Effects of a secure attachment relationship on right brain development, affect regulation, and infant mental health. Infant mental health journal, 22(1-2), 7-66.
- Waters, E., Merrick, S., Treboux, D., Crowell, J., & Albersheim, L. (2000). Attachment security in infancy and early adulthood: a twenty‐year longitudinal study. Child development, 71(3), 684-689.
- Main, M., Kaplan, N., & Cassidy, J. (1985). Security in infancy, childhood, and adulthood: A move to the level of representation. Monographs of the society for research in child development, 66-104.
- Milgram, S. (1963). Behavioral study of obedience. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 67(4), 371.
- Milgram, S. (1965). Some conditions of obedience and disobedience to authority. Human relations, 18(1), 57-76.
- Haney, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1998). The past and future of US prison policy: Twenty-five years after the Stanford Prison Experiment. American Psychologist, 53(7), 709.
- Zimbardo, P. G., Haney, C., Curtis Banks, W., & Jaffe, D. (1972). Stanford prison experiment: a simulation study of the psychology of imprisonment. Philip G. Zimbardo, Incorporated.
Aunola, K., Stattin, H., & Nurmi, J. E. (2000). Parenting styles and adolescents’ achievement strategies. Journal of adolescence, 23(2), 205-222.