Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Dogging the Duggars, Part Deux

So here we go again with the Duggars. The blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago -- the one in which I urged these parents of 19 kids to raise their own children, not hand the little ones off to their older teens -- generated quite a few responses, and not all of them were positive. One in particular asked the valid question, after speculating that I’m jealous of Michelle Duggar and her prolific womb: “If you hate the show so much, why do you watch?”

First, I don’t hate the show. And second, even if I did, I'd still watch; I don’t expose myself only to things I like. I enjoy watching shows that make me think, and this one does.

In this age of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann, I bristle mightily at the “family values” contingent -- but I also want to understand it. In some ways, I get what motivates the Duggars; they're doing what they feel their own particular brand of Christianity is compelling them to do. I'm all about spirituality, and I’m all about values -- personal values, ethical values, values I’ve passed on to my own two kids over the years. We’re big on treating others with respect, even if those others possess values that are far different from our own.

So I respect the Duggars and their right to live their lives the way they see fit. I respect their commitment to their religion, even if I happen to believe it's pretty darned extremist, and the fact that they're supporting their kids on their own. But I can also express my opinion about the way they do things, as the family has chosen, by being on television, to give me a forum to do so.

I sat through a Duggar mini-marathon after publishing the post that drew the ire of some readers. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t being a little too hard on the family -- that an in effort to write an entertaining post, I hadn’t resorted to being too flippant and dismissive of Jim Bob, Michelle and their 19 kids.

My conclusion: Nope, I wasn’t too hard on them. Others have every right to admire and emulate the Duggars; I also, then, have the right to believe that while I don’t think the psyches of any of the younger children -- or any of the male children -- are being harmed in any horrific way, the family’s five oldest daughters are the casualties of what seems to be a competition to produce the country’s largest brood.

To recap: Michelle has a baby roughly every 18 months to two years. Once she has the child, she’s -- by her own admission -- the baby’s “buddy” for only about the first six months of its life. After those six months, she turns the child over to one of his or her older sisters, who completes the hands-on raising of the child.

Of course, Mom and Dad are on hand to provide financially, to offer an occasional kiss or side-hug or comment, and to somewhat oversee the whole circus. But the young women are in the trenches, and – here’s the thing. They don’t have any other options; their family's religious and societal beliefs preclude the possibility of any professions for them beyond wife and mother.

One of my high-school friends, a woman I respect a great deal, disagreed vehemently with my last post. The woman, A., pointed out that in some cultures, older children are heavily involved in raising younger ones, and that the societal values that I hold dear -- the right of a young person, for instance, to go to college and make his or her way in the world -- may not be all they’re cracked up to be.

I gave A.’s opinions a great deal of thought, and I respect them. I won’t give on my point, though, that because Jim Bob and Michelle were able to choose, as young adults, the paths that would be before them, their daughters deserve that same option.

And here’s what solidifies my opinion most. You can’t possibly make me believe those young women are enjoying what they’re doing. Here are a few illustrations to support that belief:
  • With few exceptions, the girls look miserable each time they’re on camera.
  • They’re often short with the little kids -- through no fault of their own. Folks, there are a lot of little kids in this family, and their behavior is typical of a horde of little kids. It’s loud in that house, and things are sometimes sort of dirty, and the kids sometimes do things that aren’t terribly safe. Nerves have to be a little jangled from time to time -- and besides, these young women are raising kids that don’t belong to them. No doubt they love their siblings, but the parent-child bond that can help see a mother or father through tough times just isn’t there.
  • Some of the little ones seem to have attachment issues. Not long ago, one of the little girls was crying; her mother advised her to “go find (big sister) Jana.” When my own favorite Duggar, a rambunctious, smart 5-year-old named Johannah, had the flu, she sought comfort from, again, poor Jana. When older sister Jill was boarding a plane to travel with her mom to the delivery of her older brother’s baby, one of the other little girls, Jennifer, panicked about Jill's departure and screamed for her until she was almost sick. (Dad Jim Bob, mind you, was within reach the entire time.)
  • Michelle talks about child-raising in the past tense. “(Daughter) Jessa runs a much tighter ship than I ever did,’” Michelle says of her 19-year-old daughter’s “parenting” skills. (Hmmm, sorry, Michelle -- your youngest is 18 months. You still have a big ol' ship to run.)
What a ton of pressure to place on the back of young girls who, in my opinion, should be living in dorm rooms, working part-time jobs, downloading music on iTunes and making regular visits to the mall.

Here’s what I’d like to see happen, in all seriousness. Jim Bob and Michelle, give the young women some options. Allow them to apply for jobs, take college classes, learn a trade, whatever. If they decide, on their own, to remain at home and care for their siblings, then so be it ... but give them the choice. Being moms-in-training is valid and honorable – if it’s what your daughters want.

We purport, as a society, to be incensed with the government of Saudi Arabia for not allowing women to drive and requiring them to be "guarded" by males when they’re in public. But when a family in northwest Arkansas doesn’t allow its women the rights we’ve all rightly come to expect, we condone the situation in the name of “family values.”

Just because it’s happening right here -- and the young women are camera-ready -- doesn’t make it less wrong.

(Note: For those of you who want to check this out for yourselves, “19 Kids and Counting,” the Duggars’ series, is on TLC at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. Central Standard Time. Episodes also are available for free on YouTube and Hulu.)


  1. I still see the poster that says a uterus is not a clown car every time I see their show....

  2. Notice the opening is more secular now than before. It leaves out the part where you see them praying and say' we are a conservative Christian family. They try to deny involvement with Quiverfull and patriarchy but it is obvious if one pays attention long enough. The women nod in agreement with their husbands and often look at them when asked questions like for permission to talk. Fans may say it is good for the older ones to watch the younger ones but I only see girls doing this. The younger girls won't have near the responsibilities. The younger ones calling them ma'm seems kinda wrong. They are the sister. I dont have a problem if they watch the kid a few minutes when the parents run to the store or running things when the parents are ill but not becoming mini-moms. Some may think what are the Duggar kids missing out on by not going to college. True, college isnt all that but why totally dismiss it? And I doubt if many fans could live the Duggar life for one week.

  3. Great post, but I really need to comment/rant on A's "in some cultures" bit. And I'm not trying to say that A is a bad person at all, but it really hit a nerve, because I see that attitude a lot in all kinds of discussions.

    I am so sick and tired of people romanticizing other cultures that they clearly know nothing about. The way people in any culture live there lives is due to what makes the most sense given
    their socioeconomic status and what's considered the standard for that culture. Comparing the Duggars' decision to live the life they do to what people in developing countries have no choice but to do doesn't make a bit of sense. Many of those "some cultures" where people have many children and older daughters raising younger siblings, do so because there aren't any schools to send them to and they have no access to birth control, among other things. Do you know what many people from "some cultures," like my parents, do when they either immigrate to the U.S. or when conditions in their countries improve to the point where they have real options? THEY GO TO SCHOOL! THEY HAVE LESS CHILDREN! THEY SPEND TIME AND MONEY ON LEISURE ACTIVITIES THEY ENJOY! My grandmother, who had seven children and who didn't study past the third grade because after that children had to go into the larger town oustise their village for school, and her father beleived that any girl who spent too much time in town would grow up to be a whore, always told her granddaughter: "Go to school and study something that will make you a lot of money. And always work, so if the man you marry turns out to be no good you can leave him without worrying how to feed your children." Doesn't fit with that nice little image of "some cultures," does it?

    And for all those who say things about "some cultures" to justify the decisions they make in this one (like homebirth fans, the anti-vaccine crowd, "off-the-grid" people)...unless you or your parents are from those cultures or you're an anthropologist who has lived and studied those cultures a great deal, you probably don't know anywhere near as much about "some cultures" as you think you do.