Fundamentalist Christians have long encouraged parents to raise young adolescents as mini-adults, focusing on preparation for marriage and family life. Popular dogma suggests that teenagers don’t even exist; there are only small children and fledgling adults.
Families begin praying about future marriages early, and children are raised understanding that marriage and family are the primary purpose of life. In her how-to manual on the Quiverfull lifestyle called “All the Way Home
,” Mary Pride articulates a common refrain in evangelical circles – the idea that teens aren’t really children at all. She writes:
Here we have someone with the body of a man or a woman who is given absolutely no responsibility. This bothered me when I was a teen, and it bothers me today. No other culture enforces childhood as long as ours… [Today’s teen] is bombarded with unheard-of social pressure to use drugs and fornicate…
[A]ll today’s teens really need can be summed up in two words: meaningful work… They need a chance to practice adult virtues (after all, they are already tempted with adult vices).
To Pride, it’s very simple; teens appear to her like small adults, and so they should be treated as one would treat adults. In addition to ensuring that teens stay busy with work, Pride says, parents should do what they can to prepare teens for marriage. She explains:
Once a young man or woman is well-trained, and the young man is capable of supporting a family (which can be sooner than we expect if he has incentive and some help), it’s time to start matchmaking. Help the poor kids out by locating likely marriage prospects and providing supervised social situations where they can meet each other. Now is the time to start training your fledgling in motherhood and fatherhood.
This is not an uncommon refrain in evangelical circles. Young Christian homeschoolers often begin discussing marriage with their parents by middle school if not earlier. They are encouraged to pray diligently for their future spouses in idealized heterosexual marriage, and to compose lists of qualities they hope to find in a future mate.
And just as Pride suggests, parents do seek out potential mates for their children, heavily involving themselves in the “matchmaking process.” Because these children are taught to submit unconditionally to the will of their parents, this practice often becomes coercive and make it difficult for children to say “no.”
Evangelists Michael and Debi Pearl are best known for their book “To Train Up a Child
,” which sold more than 800,000 copies
to evangelicals by 2013. The book is most infamous for training parents in physical abuse techniques which were used in the murders of children Lydia Shatz and Hana Grace-Rose Williams
. It is particularly popular within the Christian homeschooling movement.
And like any other evangelical child-rearing book, it too has a preoccupation with marriage preparation. The Pearls write that:
A mother should always keep in mind that she is molding her daughters into future wives and mothers. Challenge them with sewing, cooking, cleaning and learning about every aspect of household management… Fathers, by the time the boys can follow you around, they should be ‘helping’ you work… Gender role distinction is demeaned in modern education. Don’t let a coven of Sodomites and socialists…reprogram your natural understandings of male and female distinctiveness.
Although boys and girls are raised to prioritize marriage in their adolescence, girls in particular must look toward marriage for any hope of a life outside the immediate family. They are encouraged to look toward motherhood as their future, not higher education or a career.
Homeschooling allows parents to raise their children with rigid gender roles in place. Echoing the contemporary moral panic targeting transgender Americans, the Pearls appeal to parents’ traditionalism or, as they see it, “natural understandings of male and female distinctiveness.” This must be done consistently, and the supposed “weaknesses” of each sex must be heavily policed.
Young girls, according to the Pearls, can be preternaturally attention-seeking and emotional, and the advice given for reigning in these aspects of girls’ “natural distinctiveness” gets particularly cruel. They write with reckless callousness on signs of mental illness like self-injury, a symptom frequently linked to
experiences of child sexual abuse. They suggest that such symptoms can be tamped down and hidden, and that this is a crucial aspect of a girl’s training for marriage:
[We] know an adult who hurts herself every time she gets emotionally disturbed. If, in your family, these extremes never occur, be grateful. It is, nonetheless, far more pleasant to live with a child or teenager who is not a ‘crybaby.’ Also, your daughter’s future husband will appreciate you having trained her.
That is to say, girls who self-injure are not experiencing intense psychological pain; they’re just “crybabies” who annoy their parents. Teaching girls to hide their pain is considered a crucial element of preparing them for married life and motherhood. After all, say the Pearls, a daughter’s “future husband will appreciate you having trained her,” ostensibly so he won’t have to do it himself.
The Pearls may be famous for writing the book on breaking a child’s will, but their influence is widespread. A child’s unquestioning submission to the will of the parents is considered the gold standard in evangelical childhood behavior. Homeschool parents love to regale others with stories about strangers complimenting their children’s “good” – read, submissive – behavior. Obedience is prized, never self-actualization. So it’s no surprise that the concept of consent never enters into the evangelical framework.