Today’s blog readers should be warned that if you are still basking in the warm glow from attending Easter Mass this blog post is not for you. I suppose it is high time for me to admit that I am not a religious person. In fact, I consider all religions to be some form of a cult. Today’s post, however, is not an indictment of religion for 2 reasons:
- I don’t want all those god fearing people to come burn down my house to help me understand forgiveness and God’s healing power.
- There is a bigger, crazier, more powerful cult we need to tackle.
What cult is that you say? What cult could be crazier and more powerful than religion? What cult is more prevalent than religion? It is the nuclear family. The family you grew up in is by far the most powerful cult you will experience in your lifetime.
Today’s column is actually going to help those families that want to raise their children to be good little cult followers. Today’s column is going to help any family anywhere who wants to raise your child to live based on your values and principles. However, this column might also convince you to do the exact opposite.
Let’s first define the characteristics of a cult and see if the nuclear family constitutes a cult. Here is the FBI’ definition of cult characteristics. Go through and check the ones that apply to your family:
- Questioning, doubt, and dissent are discouraged or even punished (Every parent has said the following sentence many, many times, “Because I told you to, that’s why!”).
- The leadership dictates, sometimes in great detail, how members should think, act, and feel; (this is so patently obvious I have nothing to add).
- The group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (how many f@*#ing times do we hear this EVERY DAY, “I have to do what’s right for my family”).
- The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society (my neighbor once complained to my mom that our cat was going to the bathroom in his yard. THE CAT! He woke up the next day to find his house covered in eggs. Hmmmm…who could have done that?).
- The leader is not accountable to any authorities (Classic Dad quote – “When you pay the bills then you can have a say”)
- The group teaches or implies that its supposedly exalted ends justify whatever means it deems necessary. This may result in members’ participating in behaviors or activities they would have considered reprehensible or unethical before joining the group (What was the exalted status your family preached? Mine was that we were a special family in the eyes of god…yikes! Yours could be wealth, winning, achieving, toughness or saving the planet)
- The leadership induces feelings of shame and/or guilt in order to influence and/or control members. (Hi Mom).
- Subservience to the leader or group requires members to cut ties with family and friends, and radically alter the personal goals and activities they had before joining the group (Let’s just say I didn’t visit too many mosques or synagogues. Heck, we weren’t even allowed to watch the news!).
- The group is preoccupied with bringing in new members (ok, I had the big snip done so this one is gonna take some creative thinking).
- The group is preoccupied with making money (LOL!!!!!! Welcome to America).
- Members are expected to devote inordinate amounts of time to the group and group-related activities (NOOOOOOO…not another family vacation).
- Members are encouraged or required to live and/or socialize only with other group members (And I have the scars to prove it. Thanks Bro.)
- The most loyal members (the “true believers”) feel there can be no life outside the context of the group. They believe there is no other way to be, and often fear reprisals to themselves or others if they leave (see next paragraph).
As you read through the list maybe you are thinking my comparison of family life to cults is extreme. But think about it another way. Think about how your family looked and felt from the eyes of a child. Think about the time between birth and 7 years old when 90% of our emotional imprinting will be PERMENTLY laid down (and that’s a conservative estimate). Now go back and read though that list again. Hmmm…how might that feel to a young child?
When a child is born it MUST get care and feeding from the adults and to do that it must conform. It does this by reading, internalizing and prioritizing the emotional patterns that exist in the family. Remember too that every emotion we feel is communicated to our children. Not by words or scripture but by the facial expression, by tones in our voice and by where we give our attention. This is what gets unconsciously imprinted on the child. So every small child will feel like it is life or death to get the approval and attention of the leadership of the cult and failing to do so will leave you vulnerable to death and dismemberment in a big fat scary world.
That’s a cult folks. Most parents have deep beliefs about how the world works and what behaviors will lead to happiness, success, status, and glory and what behaviors will lead to shame, guilt, failure and destruction (or what I called 7th grade gym class).
This all came to mind this week when I stopped by to catch a few innings of a local little league game. I was watching the game when a 13 year old boy came out of the dug-out to bat. As the boy was waiting on deck to hit, his dad was watching intently from the other said of the fence. I had never seen the Dad before but just looking at him here is what I guessed at. The dad seemed to be a very hard man; someone who grew up poor, in a blue collar environment where hard work, toughness and perseverance were required to fit in and have some success.
As his son stood there waiting to hit the Dad barked at him, “Hey, no walks. You go up there to hit, understand?” His voice was menacing and intimidating. There was an emotional tone that made it clear that ignoring the dad’s instructions would not be a wise choice. The kid got up there and right away took a hack at the first pitch singling to right field.
The next batter is now up as the dad’s kid stands on first base. The new batter hits a soft pop fly to shallow right field and the blue collar dad’s kid is caught in a dilemma at first. If he runs to second and the ball is caught he will have run himself into a double play. If he stays at first and the ball drops he might not make it to second base in time. He decides to play it safe and wait at first. The ball drops and the kid is thrown out trying to get to second.
The kid runs back to the dug-out and the dad is now FURIOUS! He walks down to the field and standing next to the dug-out he tells the next batter on deck to have his kid, “get his ass out here.” His kid comes out of the dug-out with a look on his face of a dog that just peed on the carpet and knows what is coming.
“WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT?” The dad is yelling at him now. “YOU GET TO SECOND BASE! THAT”S NOT HOW I TAUGHT YOU TO PLAY THIS GAME!” “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH YOU?”
The kid, meanwhile, has assumed the perfect body language of someone who is routinely abused and knows there is no escape from the wrath of his dad. His best strategy is to try and offer as little resistance as possible because this is the fastest way through. His head is down and shoulders are slouched. He digs a foot in the dirt and the look on his face is one of shame. In essence his body has assumed the strategy of, “I am worthless and you are mighty. Your anger is well placed and I will try harder next time. Please spare me.” As you watch the scene play out you can feel the boy eating the guilt, shame, fear and anger. He is in survival mode and all these emotions must be stuffed and dealt with later when it’s safe. Now is not the time.
I am not judging the dad. I am sure for him there were intense feelings of love, embarrassment, and a desire to toughen his kid up because in his world that is what it takes to be a man. In other words, the Dad was pissed because that is not how cult members behave.
If you read this and are thinking, “Wow, what a messed up dad,” you’re missing the point. We have all been raised in some similar fashion. We either got positive attention or negative attention every day based on what we did and how it related to our parents view of the world. Maybe not as harshly or even in a negative fashion but we were all conditioned to adhere to the cult of the family and the dogma our family lived each and every day. More importantly, if you have kids you are doing the same. Not even on purpose or with bad intent.
Think about this story. Several years ago I decided I needed to clean up my front yard lest my neighbors think me a degenerate (In the sub-burbs if you want to really get to know someone check out their backyard). I decided to pony up about $10,000 to have a landscaper create the illusion that I was a normal neighbor. Once that was done Lynn and I tried to do a better job of caring for the yard. On this particular day my wife and I are out working in the yard, me in the back and Lynn in the front.
My daughter, who was about 3 years old at the time, was also out in the front yard helping Lynn pull weeds. Great, except to a 3 year old, weeding looks like pulling random plants from the ground. She can’t tell a Chinese Starburst from a Creeping Charlie so she is simply reaching over and yanking the plant nearest to her from the ground which happened to be a tulip.
At the exact moment she is playing god with the tulip’s life I am rounding the corner of the house lost in my own thoughts. I was stressing about money and berating myself for being a rotten homeowner. I see Sarah pulling the tulip from the ground and I snap at her, “SARAH – NO!” My daughter freezes, caught completely flat footed. She was out enjoying helping her mom, completely relaxed and when she least expected it….BAM! I blasted her.
She sat stalk still for a few seconds as her lip quivered. You could see her cycle through options quickly. She has been scared badly and hurt. Her instincts tell her to run and hide but she is being overwhelmed by her emotions and there is not enough time to get away before….”WAAAAAHHHHH”.
The tears begin to flow and Lynn and I cannot calm her down. She cries and cries and cries. This one landed deep. There is nothing to be done but wait her out and console her as best we can. Sarah just got a lesson in the cult of the Hoyle Family. She learned that at any given minute trouble can come from someone you least expected it and it you best not let your guard down, which, by the way, is her Dad’s general outlook on life. To this day Sarah HATES crying. She will get VERY ANGRY trying to ward off the tears before she give s into crying of any kind. I’m not saying it’s my fault, I’m just saying me capping on her probably didn’t help .
Of course I didn’t mean it and it was a very human interaction which is why I tell it because these episodes are out of our control. If you are a typical parent then these moments occur over and over again in the family, positive and negative, over and over, like a cult brainwashing their members until they are fully indoctrinated. Another example – my son, who pitches, can serve up a ball that gets hit so hard it might be sitting in your back yard right now. When I talk to him after the game I talk about how courageous he is for continuing to compete even after getting a ball crushed because results don’t matter as much as how you go about it. But another Dad might talk to him about how he lost the game and losing is bad. He might say you need to be more focused or work harder because your team is depending on you. Neither Dad is inherently right or wrong…just different cult leaders.
Ok, you say. I get it. My family is a cult but what can I do about it? I am glad you asked. We can help our kids leverage their cult experience by explaining to them that their family life is only one, very small, very limited view of the world. We can encourage them to take the family lessons and go build on them. We, in essence, must deprogram our children or they will do it themselves. Here are the steps, again from the FBI, on how to deprogram cult members.
- Discredit the figure of authority: the cult leader
- Present contradictions (ideology versus reality): “How can he preach love when he exploits people?” is an example.
- The breaking point: When a subject begins to listen to the deprogrammer; when reality begins to take precedence over ideology.
- Self-expression: When the subject begins to open up and voice gripes against the cult.
- Identification and transference: when the subject begins to identify with the deprogrammers, starts to think of him- or herself as an opponent of the cult rather than a member of it.
Look at his list again. This is the list of how one breaks free of cult programing but I like to call it something else; I like to call it the teen-age years. This is what adolescence is programmed to do. The child inherits the DNA from the parents and then based on the current environment they will undergo genetic mutations (a perfect description of adolescence) as the environment turns on and off different gene sequences.
Your kids will leave the cult one way or another and then spend the next 20 years trying to unpack all those feelings and impressions they stored away. I want my kids to know the cult they were raised in so they can see it clearly and decide for themselves what to keep and what to discard because they will do that any way, with or without me.
As your child comes of age he or she will slowly spends less time in the family cult and more time in environments outside the home (what the deprogrammers call reality). When this happens little cult members will start to resist their programing. Perhaps you can brainwash your kids extra hard. Perhaps you can restrict his/her internet use or send them to boarding school but that is only going to DELAY the moment in their lives when they have to adjust to the reality of THEIR WORLD. Not yours.
Look at the list one more time and decide to help out your little cult members.
Discredit the authority figure. Let them know you are human and therefore flawed.
Present contradictory evidence. Share your history with them, your big wins and failures. Let them know that your values, perspective and beliefs about life are only your views. Share it all not as gospel but more like Rod Serling from the Twilight Zone. “Consider if you will…”
Self-expression: Present your views this way and help them find their self-expression. Ask them how they feel about it all.
The breaking point: Perhaps you can help ease the breaking point moment when the reality of their world clashes with the family cult’s value.
Do this and the deprogramming can be something you go through together. Or you can try and tighten the controls but I don’t like your chances.