How Focus on the Family Helped Shape My Parenting Style
As a woman who grew up afraid of her mother, cowering at the top of the stairs to listen for the mood in my mom’s footsteps — Were they angry? Manic? Calm? — so I could know what to brace myself for, the decision to become a parent of my own children was fraught with complex emotions.
My mom was what we called a “back row Baptist” — she believed in the doctrine of fundamentalist Southern Baptist faith but wasn’t typically active in church or driven by its principles on a personal level. Instead, she wielded it as an element of control over her family.
Like me, my mom was an avid reader, tearing through book collections like someone would a box of tissues. She also had a predisposition for impulse buying, making her a perfect target audience for everything from Avon to Tupperware to James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, an evangelical media conglomerate that produced (and continues to produce) among other things, loads of books and media with a focus on conservative Evangelical values in the context of family and child-rearing. For context, this is the same organization that has come under fire for teaching that divorce is more harmful to children than remaining with an abusive husband.
For a parent struggling with undiagnosed mental health issues and an inability to understand the son we now believe was on the autism spectrum, Focus on the Family offered clear, actionable guidelines for parenting based on strict Biblical dogma — even if my mom had a habit of taking what worked for her and leaving what didn’t.
The Impact of Focus on the Family’s Authoritarian Parenting
Central to Dobson’s philosophy was an emphasis on strict authoritarianism and a belief that parental permissiveness was responsible for many of society’s ills. I don’t know if their teachings were meant to be used in the way they were in my home, but what I do know is that to someone like my mom, they were ripe for weaponization.
Without getting too deep into the organization’s extensive harmful theological doctrine, the parenting style it promoted created a sense in me that if I disobeyed, disrespected, or even questioned my parents, I was quite literally creating invisible spiritual warfare wherein angels and demons were fighting for my soul. To make sure I understood, Focus on the Family recommended extreme discipline methods of which corporal punishment was usually the lesser evil — things like the public humiliation of taking away all of my clothing but one outfit and forcing me to wear the same thing to school every day or refusing to speak to me for days at a time as part of my punishment.
I’m not talking about punishment for things like sneaking out or talking back. I’m talking about a level of control and fear so complete that it constantly gnawed at me and kept me up at night. Take one of my mom’s preferred punishments, forcing us to stay in our rooms. To enforce it, she installed a buzzer on the door at the top of the stairs that would alert if the door was opened.
I still remember vividly dropping a brand-new piece of sheet music in the snow after piano lessons. It had to be worth a few bucks at most, but I was completely paralyzed with fear knowing that as soon as my mom saw the (barely) damaged piece of music, I would be berated for hours, if not days, and forced to accept a strict punishment to remind me of my transgression.
The transgression of being a clumsy kid.
It has taken me most of my adult life to process the absurdity of a child being so afraid of their parent they can’t make a simple mistake or admit they broke anything — a level of control so complete I struggled for years to admit when I made a mistake and, if I’m being honest, I still do.
Who I was friends with, how I dressed, how I wore my hair, and even the things I thought were completely under my mom’s control, and all of it tied into a self-esteem-crushing belief that I was a sinner who could never be truly worthy of love.
As I grew up and began to understand those things weren’t healthy or normal, I found myself struggling to even understand my own identity for years. To this day, I sometimes find myself questioning my own judgment or memory even when I am confident in a decision intellectually, something I call “gaslighting myself.”
Parenting After Authoritarianism
As a parent to three teenagers, I can’t imagine creating a world where they lived in fear of making a mistake or so completely under my control that they don’t even know their own minds. The idea that they would lie awake in bed each night fearing demonic presence because they have normal teenage thoughts and feelings makes my stomach turn.
Even so, I’ve come to accept the revelation that my mom didn’t have any other parenting tools, and as we bounced from church to church with every bridge she burned, no one would dare intervene — partly because she was following prescribed doctrine, and partly due to the cultural sense among evangelicals that family matters are private matters.
The reality is that someone needed to help, but that particular brand of fundamentalism makes it hard for them to do so. It’s a complicated subject for me — at the same time, I am immeasurably grateful for the youth group church bus that picked me up from my house during my final years of high school and the adults that understood even if they couldn’t intervene.
As I work through the impact of the religious child abuse that was cosigned by Focus on the Family and its brand of authoritarian fundamentalism, one thing is for certain: I am continually reassured every time my kids break something and then tell me, “Oh my god, Mom, I’m so sorry!” or come to me for advice with a serious personal problem.
It’s not a sin to make a mistake — it’s human. And parenting my kids with honesty, compassion, and an awareness of how their actions impact others and their wider role in the community has proven far more effective at raising responsible, respectful kids than any strict disciplinarianism or fear-based parenting method.