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A recurring question in the comments sections of Recovering Grace and for former ATI (Advanced Training Institute) students who share their stories elsewhere, is how and why loving parents would stay in such a program. Two explanations have been explored on this site, and I’d like to posit and explore a third.
The first explanation: What parents were told in their conference sessions was not as extreme as what apprenticeship students were told in their conference sessions and at ATI training centers. It has only been in the past few months that I have realized my own parents were not getting many of the teachings or were subject to much of the moral pressure that I was and thus naturally thought I was overreacting to the type of milder material designed for parents that they were seeing.
The second explanation: Parents with established adult identities have an easier time sorting through which teachings to accept and reject than do young people, who are being pressured to accept the entirety of IBLP (Institute in Basic Life Principles) teachings while studying and serving in ATI residential environments.
The third explanation: Bill Gothard led parents to believe, through coded language and a relentless stream of anecdotes, that if they made certain efforts and sacrifices, their children would eventually meet the parents’ emotional needs for intimacy, honor, respect, a sense of control over their own lives, and public admiration for their children’s character and achievements.
Gothard seeded these promises in a way that convinced parents that not only could they have these emotional needs met without guilt, but that this was the righteous way of living. I don’t fault parents for having emotional needs, and don’t fault them for believing for a while that they could have those needs met as part of a divinely prescribed lifestyle. I do fault Bill for using this psychological tool to build his own kingdom.
A single example is ATI conflation of parts of the father/daughter and husband/wife relationships, wherein daughters are advised that they must achieve complete submission and adequate closeness to their fathers in order to have hope of a later successful marriage. I first heard this teaching from a then IBLP board member and his wife at a young ladies’ meeting, and my father came home from a father’s conference with a mandate to obtain his daughter’s heart as the “man in her life until she marries.” This teaching prescribes an emotional intimacy that is natural and mutually desired in some father/daughter relationships, but which many daughters do not want with less emotionally healthy fathers… Especially since we were told that intimacy is supposed to manifest as regular confession of secrets or sins to dad, and that any individual identity should be rooted in his goals. The threat seemed to be that if young women couldn’t work for and achieve emotional intimacy with and complete submission to our fathers, we would never earn the possibility of romantic intimacy as adults. (Let’s not get into how this father/husband conflation infantilizes married adult women into perpetual adolescence.)
When I first heard this teaching at the age of sixteen, I spoke to the speaker and his wife soon after their talks and asked for clarity on the distinction between father/daughter and husband/wife relationships, as I was sure I had misunderstood. I was told that there was no real difference aside from the physical relationship and the mother’s authority over children, and that my relationship with my father was training for marriage. Fortunately, my own father never professed to embrace the idea to this extreme, but nonetheless the idea was impressed upon him as something he should be cultivating, was to expect from me, and was remiss to not adequately pursue.
In this and several other ways, the Gothard version of the parent-centric courtship system holds young adults hostage to meeting their parents’ emotional needs before being allowed to start their adult lives or to experience romantic emotional intimacy–or rather before being allowed to experience it “legitimately” without incurring familial rejection and the threat of eventual marital catastrophe. The well-meaning parents, only human, are taught to almost always heed their natural instincts to hold on to their maturing offspring in the same way one would hold on to young children. An interesting exception is that while parental cautions are regarded as divine direction in almost all other areas such as romance, higher education, employment, and leaving home, parents who are reluctant to allow their sons and daughters to leave home to work for the Institute are advised to lay those cautions aside.
For healthy parents, this extreme grant of authority to their emotions is not a problem since they don’t take it seriously. They look to their own spouse, friendships, and faith to meet their emotional needs. These parents don’t abuse the carte blanche authority the system grants their feelings, not because of any checks built into the system, but because they don’t look to their children to fill their emotional hunger. It is a rare individual, though, who is so emotionally mature as to leave all that emotional right-of-way unused.
But for parents who have bought into the system of fulfillment and purpose through successfully-reared and adoring adult children, the parent-centric structure creates a divinely-sanctioned–even mandated–opportunity to prevent an adult child from moving on to the next stage of life until the child has achieved and finished, to put it bluntly, making the parents feel good about themselves. The godly seed must be germinated, cultivated, and pruned into precisely the right range or shape, or the gardener has failed. The adult child can either conform to the exact type of life and relationship the parents want, or sacrifice the relationship altogether.
The standards of what constitutes an adequately godly and honoring adult child are so narrow, they are rarely met to the parents’ emotional satisfaction, leaving the parent and adult son or daughter needlessly alienated from each other as failures. The parents may regard themselves as the failures, their adult offspring as the failures, or both–but failure is the uniting theme. The parents did not get the emotional payoff they felt they were promised. Their kids never made them proud on that Knoxville stage, or they appeared on that stage but then continued to change. Little do these parents realize how many of those showcased families on stage at Knoxville have either left this system or now feel the same failure.
To outright declare: “Your children should not, in good conscience, be able to pursue work, education, marriage, or even moving out of their childhood bedrooms until they have finished satisfying your emotional need for obedience, closeness, and significance; Every whim and pull of emotion you feel about their choices and character is not only legitimate but is divine insight,” would sound obviously psychopathic and narcissistic if laid out so baldly, and most parents would recoil at that kind of language. Instead the promise was delivered piece-by-piece in individual anecdotes, and a lot of parents believed (and still DO believe) that if they paid the right effort into the system, they were sure to receive this elusive happiness.
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