Duggar family documentary shows harsh way babies taught obedience

It’s hard to know which is the worst thing that reality TV parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar are shown doing to their 19 children in the explosive four-part documentary, “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets,” which premiered on Amazon Prime over the weekend.

Was it the Duggars’ choice to impose a rigid and controlling form of Christian fundamentalism on their children, particularly on their daughters? Was it the couple’s decision to essentially cover up their oldest son’s admitted molestation of multiple girls, including his own sisters, when he was teenager? Or was it their alleged exploitation of their children’s private lives, with their TLC show, “19 Kids and Counting,” in order to be become rich, famous and influential in conservative circles?

There’s so much to choose from when it comes to the outwardly happy and wholesome Duggar family and Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s loyalty to the ultraconservative Christian organization, the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP). The documentary argues that the Duggars raised their children in a patriarchal cult, where harsh parenting practices and a culture that emphasizes obedience to male authority figures allowed physical and sexual abuse to flourish — with Josh Duggar’s molestation of his sisters and 2022 conviction for child pornography just being the tip of the iceberg.

Indeed, parents who have raised very young children have expressed alarm over the documentary’s depiction of some of the child-rearing practices espoused by the Duggars and other leaders associated with the IBLP. One of those practices, known as “blanket training,” is imposed on babies as young as 6 months and involves an effort to “break” a baby’s “rebellious spirit,” as one former IBLP member said.

The documentary features commentary from multiple former IBLP members, who said the Duggars’ TLC show reminded them of their own strict upbringings, as the Washington Post reported. These former IBLP members were especially disturbed to watch the docile Duggar children, obediently doing chores around the house, reciting religious litany, caring for young siblings, lining up for various activities and performing musical numbers for the camera.

“When I was watching the Duggars, the attitudes of the children are what I noticed right off the bat. My heart broke for them, because they were so calm, and they were so peaceful and well-behaved, and I knew what it took to get there,” Lara Smith, a former IBLP follower, said on the show, according to the Washington Post.

What it took to inspire obedience was to instill fear in the children from a young age, sometimes by hitting them or going to other extreme measures, ex-IBLP members said.

The fear begins with blanket training, a method that involves placing a baby on a blanket, as the documentary shows. The parent then places a favorite object just out of reach. When the baby reaches for the object or tries to crawl towards it, the parent hits them. If they continue to reach for the object, they’re hit again.

“The idea is you’re breaking the rebellious spirit,” Eve Ettinger, a writer and podcaster who grew up in the IBLP, said in the documentary.

Michelle Duggar wrote about blanket training her children in her 2008 book, “The Duggars: 20 and Counting!” An excerpt appears in the second episode.

“Throughout the day, when I knew I would have five minutes or more of (un)interrupted time, I would focus on blanket training,” Michelle wrote. “Some days we might practice blanket time three or four times; other days we only got it in once. But gradually, it became a common practice.”

In her book, Michelle Duggar doesn’t specifically say she hit her children, the Washington Post said. Rather, she said she “corrected” them.

The Duggars are closely associated with controversial Baptist preacher Michael Pearl and his wife Debi Pearl, who wrote the 1994 book, “To Train Up a Child,” the documentary shows. The book advocates using a switch on a baby as young as 6 months old to discourage misbehavior, and otherwise tells parents how to make use of other implements, including a quarter-inch flexible plumbing line, to hit children on their arms, legs or back, the New York Times reported in 2011.

When it comes to the Duggars’ use of blanket training, anyone with a basic understanding of child development would know that it is a “pretty awful” practice, as a 2020 column for CafeMom noted. The CafeMom column was written after Amy Duggar King, a Duggar cousin who publicly broke away from the family’s strict fundamentalist lifestyle, condemned the practice.

Amy King, who appears in the documentary, had posted an Instagram photo of her husband and baby napping together. When a fan asked King if she and her husband would employ blanket training, King responded that she doesn’t “believe in that crap!” The CafeMom column followed up by saying: “We are all for teaching our children how to be productive members of society … but what does it tell our kids when they are less than 1 year old, and you smack them for going after their favorite stuffed animal or doll or whatever it is after being placed in the middle of a blanket?”

Indeed, it’s a given in the child development world that reaching for objects and learning to crawl are natural developmental milestones for babies. Parents eagerly and proudly watch as their babies reach each and every milestone.

As explained by countless studies and articles by pediatricians and child development experts, babies generally start reaching for objects by four months, while babies may start crawling at any time from six to 10 months, though some babies skip crawling altogether and go straight to pulling themselves and walking.

In any case, babies have an innate need to reach for objects and to move as they develop their fine and gross motor skills. Sadly, Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar’s belief in blanket training shows that they apparently see this innate need as a nesting ground for future rebellious behavior.

Amy King also said in the documentary that she saw her cousins beaten by Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar when they were children. The parents would use a rod, King said, but would try to minimize the idea that they were being violent with their children by calling the beating “encouragement.”

King said, “It was, like, in the sweetest tone ever. Like: ‘Do you need encouragement? I think you need encouragement.’”

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𝗖𝗿𝗲𝗱𝗶𝘁𝘀, 𝗖𝗼𝗽𝘆𝗿𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁 & 𝗖𝗼𝘂𝗿𝘁𝗲𝘀𝘆:
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