How to Develop Character in Your Children (TBB)

The “TBB” in the name of this post means that it is part of The Big Box series. If you’re new to Scarlet Letters, read the introductory post to see what the Big Box is all about.

As I’ve said before, when I first looked at all the lectures in my Big Box and tried to put them into a logical order, I realized that they fell into some natural groupings. This post is the first in one such grouping, which will be a kind of “miniseries” within the Big Box. This “miniseries” has four parts and will examine four lectures on child training by S. M. Davis, whom I previously critiqued in Seven Bible Truths Violated by Christian Dating.

Before we begin, I feel obligated to issue a warning about Davis (though Vision Forum’s approval of his materials really ought to be warning enough). I have seen his name mentioned, more than once, in conjunction with some extremely disturbing elements of the Independent Fundamental Baptist church (IFB) – most notably on this thread at Fundamental Forums, which I’ll summarize here though I strongly encourage you to take a look at it yourself. One contributor first claims Davis was or is on the board of an organization known as Hephzibah House, and that Davis sent his own daughter to this institution; another then confirms the first report by adding that she attended Hephzibah House with Davis’ daughter.

Perhaps you haven’t heard of Hephzibah House, but I have. So has Cindy Kunsman, who as usual has done a wealth of detailed reporting on it. To sum up, it is a so-called “boarding school” for girls in Warsaw, IN, though a number of reports from former students indicate it more closely resembles some kind of concentration camp (HUGE TRIGGER ALERT AHEAD!!!):

Once the girls were in bed for the night, it became a waiting game, as each girl waited for her name to be called, indicating her turn to be taken down to the Blue Room. … These girls were beaten to the point of having bloody, oozing wounds on their backsides (buttocks, legs, and backs). These bloody wounds often had to be bandaged. The proof of these bloody wounds was evident in the trash cans, as girls would see the dressings from another girl’s wounds. Several former students have recounted the story of one particular girl who got up from her folding chair to see that she had bled completely through her bandages and through her uniform onto the chair. …

During the 1980’s there were few changes in the way things happened at Hephzibah House. One of the positive changes is that the routine of daily beatings dwindled down to beatings being doled out only for so called serious offenses. These offenses could include anything from not having your hair curled, to refusing to eat a meal, to failing to memorize passages of Scripture. …

In addition to the physical beatings, there are many other instances of outright abuse that are far worse than that. The humiliation, the forced vaginal exams, forced enemas, lack of any privacy even for time to use the bathroom. The girls were oftentimes starved as a form of punishment, they were made to do extra work duties, write sentences, or be shadowed. Shadowing was a very embarrassing punishment doled out by the staff ladies. Once on shadow, a girl could not so much as look at any other girl. She was to be a literal “shadow” of her assigned staff lady. She could not speak, look at anyone, or participate in any type of activity. She was to sit on the ground facing the wall at all times. There were several girls who were on shadow for months on end, with absolutely no interaction whatsoever with the other girls. … Girls were kept from using the bathroom, and then singled out and forced to wear diapers.[1]

In light of the above, it should, to say the least, give us great pause that S. M. Davis’ name has been associated with this institution. While I cannot immediately confirm the veracity of the statements made at Fundamental Forums, I feel it would be extremely unwise to dismiss out of hand the claim of a former Hephzibah House student (prisoner?). Suffice to say, if S. M. Davis was or is on the board of this “school,” then he may be guilty of turning a blind eye to, or even approving, the horrific practices described above. In any case, it would mean that Vision Forum is only two degrees of separation away from Hephzibah House. And my friends, if that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, I don’t know what will.

Chipping away at the old block

Davis’ main metaphor for child training, at least in this lecture, is that of “chiseling”:

The job of a parent is to take a piece of wood and chisel away that which is wrong and shape and mold that which is right, and chisel and shape and cut and mold until the proper image is left on the child. That image, if it is what the Bible teaches, will be the character of Jesus Christ.

Now I don’t think Davis’ statement here, if it were divorced from the rest of lecture, would necessarily cause much harm – at least, not if we looked only at the surface. Some of the implications which emerge later on, however, cause me much more concern. The most fraught, I think, is this statement, after Davis’ description of something he considers a character deficit (more on that later):

The character is lacking. It shows that whoever did the work of chiseling did not finish the job.

800px-Dluta_plaskie_003Davis here reveals a fundamental flaw in his reasoning. Parents can train their children, but they cannot perfect them. Perfection, however, is implied when he says parents can somehow “finish” the job of “chiseling.” It’s further reinforced by the fact that he used a piece of wooden artwork as a visual aid throughout the lecture, and compared “beautiful” virtues developed in children to pieces of art we may be inclined to display on our wall. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t hang a half-finished, imperfect picture on my wall. And that’s all well and good for art, but we’re talking about people. And one thing we can say for certain about people is that they are most definitely not perfect! Even Christians will always struggle with sin until they get to heaven. In other words, the job of “character chiseling” can never really be finished on earth as Davis suggests.

And this leads directly into my next objection: that Davis’ “chiseling” idea necessarily implies that parents have complete and total control over their children’s character. Certainly parents can guide and instruct their children. However, after a certain point, children develop the capacity to make their own decisions, and despite what you may have heard from controlling Christian parenting “experts,” they will make use that capacity sooner or later (probably sooner). Thus, for some children it may not matter how much “chiseling” their parents do; if they choose to rebel, ultimately their parents can do nothing to stop them. Using Davis’ metaphor, I suppose this would qualify as taking the chisel from your parents and taking over the job yourself.

And actually – though of course we’d prefer it didn’t happen via flagrant rebellion – isn’t a child taking the “chisel” from his parents really the endgame of all parenting? Your children must eventually take over the job of looking after their own character, because you, the parent, will not be around forever to do it for them. Character, after all, can change; it does not freeze at age 18, never to progress or regress again (which, by the way, is a third weakness in Davis’ metaphor). In fact, if Davis’ ideas were taken to this logical conclusion, they would actually encourage character degeneration later in life, because the children will never learn how to regulate their own hearts and actions!

Y’all look good now!

But the question of who’s doing the “chiseling” is not the only problem here. Davis says we should “chisel” our children into Christ’s image. Sounds good enough, doesn’t it? Well, see if you can spot the subtle shift below:

What is respectfulness? It is showing honor to others by my words, actions and attitudes. That’s what respectfulness is. I said to my grandson my other day – we were walking along, I asked him a question, he said yes, and I said…I asked the question again, and he knew what I was doing, he knew I was waiting on that yes, sir. And he said, yes sir, Papa. And I said, Judah, why do we say ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir’? And very quickly and properly, he replied, because we want to be respectful. So how are we gonna get to be respectful? By being trained to be respectful. When answering an adult, the child must always be required to reply with a clearly spoken ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’ or ‘yes ma’am’ or ‘no ma’am.’ If the child fails or forgets to do so, then he must reminded until he replies in such a manner by habit. He must never be allowed to say ‘yeah.’ Why? Because that would be like there being a big hunk of wood right here, left right in the middle of this thing, that was never carved, never taken care of and ruins the look of the whole picture. If he says ‘yeah,’ ‘sure,’ ‘uhhh,’ or talks like that, it ruins the image. The character is lacking. It shows that whoever did the work of chiseling did not finish the job.

If you haven’t already spotted the shift yourself, look very carefully at the last few sentences. Davis is disturbed by the word “yeah” because it “ruins the image.” (Remember, we’re supposedly talking about Christ’s image.) It apparently does this by showing “that whoever did the work of chiseling did not finish the job.” In other words, Davis objects to “yeah” and other casual words, not because they make the child less Christlike, but because they make their parents look bad. Thus the image in question has shifted from being Christ’s image, to the public “image” (i.e., reputation) of the parents and family.

Think about this for a moment. For casual speech to “ruin” the child’s Christlikeness, it must necessarily be sinful. Davis did not (and cannot) make this case, at least not in so many words. He did call it disrespectful, but even here he simply assumed his conclusion and offered no arguments to support it. “Yes, sir” is respectful, “yeah” is not, so apparently, the case is closed. Because Davis says it is.

Since Davis didn’t even try to prove from the Bible that casual speech is sinful or disrespectful (probably because he can’t), I suspect his bias against it amounts to little more than a personal or cultural preference. Frankly, given his age and thick Southern accent, I suspect he had “yes, sir” drilled into him as a child and now cannot conceive of a definition of respect that does not include it. In other words, he can no longer distinguish between his own background and God’s standards – so to go against the culture Davis was (presumably) raised in, is to go against God’s will.

If Jesus worshipped Caesar…

In the same discussion as the ode to “yes, sir” above, Davis also brought out that ever-present repeat offender, first-time obedience:

For instance, how does a child learn to obey? Well, by being taught what obedience is – do what I’m told immediately and sweetly – and by being trained in obedience.

Davis’ verbiage here is similar to Voddie Baucham’s (“Teach them to do what they’re told, when they’re told, with a respectful attitude”), and his ideas are identical. Since I already demonstrated in my critique of Baucham why first-time obedience is a standard even God doesn’t apply to His own adult children (let alone developmentally immature youngsters), I’d like to explore one of Davis’ other claims: that disobedience is always “ugly” and “Satanic,” and obedience always “beautiful” and “Christlike.”

Digital CaptureI’m sure, when most parents hear Davis say disobedience is “ugly,” they imagine a toddler throwing a tantrum in the grocery store and are, understandably, inclined to agree with the description. However, since Davis framed the statement in absolute terms, we must take him at his word and not limit it only to children and their frustrated parents. What does he make of Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-Nego’s disobedience to Nebuchadnezzar when he ordered them to worship an idol? Was this “ugly” and “Satanic”? In an effort to be more “Christlike,” should they have obeyed and worshipped the idol after all?

Similarly, since Davis ascribes to an extremely conservative view of male headship, how would he react to a wife obeying her husband’s command to sin? Is this obedience “beautiful” and “Christlike”? If it is, Davis will have to seriously maintain that Jesus would have sinned simply because an authority figure ordered Him to do so. I wouldn’t want to be stuck hoeing that row, but it is the corner into which Davis has painted himself. (I’d also be interested in his take on the American Revolution, and given his apparent Southern background, the Civil War.)

Complimentary, my dear Davis!

Davis comes up with some more odd notions when he discusses praising your children. At first I was happy he even mentioned the topic, since much Christian parenting material seems to either gloss over it or skip it altogether (seemingly to avoid being perceived as “self-esteem-oriented”), and he did issue a few well-taken warnings about not being too hard on your children. However, he almost immediately runs these good things into the ground by burdening down the (otherwise natural) action of praising your children with two weird rules, one for the parent and one for the child.

The parent’s rule is that, though they should praise their children, they should only praise them for the right things – namely, character itself instead of achievement or talent:

If you praise talent or achievement, you get pride. You affirm talent or achievement, and when you affirm them, you are giving acceptance to the person. When you praise character, you get more character, which will include developing talents and abilities to their highest potential. When you praise talent or achievement, you get pride, which limits the further development of talent and stifles achievement.

Aside from the fact that Davis comes off as a bit naïve when he says pride always stifles achievement (has he ever heard of Franz Liszt?), it’s a little unclear how he’s distinguishing between “praising” achievement and “affirming” it. He never defines “affirmation,” and his definition of “praise” touches only character qualities (which makes sense given that he doesn’t believe we should praise achievement anyway). Thus, I can only assume that, strictly speaking, the above rule would forbid parents even from something as simple as telling their daughter she played well in her soccer game.

My suspicion is only reinforced by some of Davis’ examples. For instance, at one point he suggests telling a child in the church choir, after a well-executed song, not that they sang well, but that he appreciates their sincerity. Note first, that this fits perfectly if he really is teaching that parents are never to directly praise their children’s achievements. Second – and perhaps I’m only projecting here – but if someone told me, after a performance, only that they appreciated my sincerity, I would assume they were trying to spare my feelings and they thought I’d done a terrible job! I also know from speaking with others that I would not be alone in that assumption. Thus, Davis’ method may, in some cases, create confusion and unnecessary offense, which I’m sure is not what he intended.

So what is a child to do if someone does praise them for an achievement? Apparently, “pass the praise.” This seems to mean deflecting and reorienting the compliment to make it about someone else. For instance, to use Davis’ example, if a teenager who had just finished mowing the lawn were to be told by his neighbor that he did a good job, he should reply, not with “thank you,” but “my dad taught me how to do that.”

Now certainly there’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, in and of itself. Sometimes others do deserve a compliment just as much as, if not more than, we do. However, I’m concerned that Davis is a little too universal in his language, and comes dangerously close to claiming it’s inherently prideful to simply accept a compliment. Also, a requirement that all compliments must be somehow redirected away from the receiver, no matter how silly and contrived the redirection may be, would probably become burdensome and artificial almost immediately.

Of course I also don’t understand why parents can’t simply give their children a pat on the back for a job well done, in addition to praising their good character qualities. And since Davis’ only justification for the strict dichotomy between the two was his nebulous statement above about affirmation, I remain, as usual, completely confused.

Virtue…in black-and-white

I’d finally like to examine some of the things Davis listed as positive character qualities, and what they reveal about his thinking. Let’s first turn to orderliness, the character trait Davis mentioned more times than probably any other virtue except obedience (though he never defined it). For instance, he seems quite concerned about whether a child’s messy room is symptomatic of a deeper spiritual problem, and even takes time out to mention the orderly manner in which Jesus and the disciples seated and distributed food to the five thousand. I wonder, then, what Davis would think of adults who are not naturally organized. Is it really a sin or some kind of character flaw to have a cluttered desk, or a less-than-perfectly-picked-up house? I suppose it could be, if it was part of a larger pattern of general slovenliness and irresponsibility. But who gets to draw that line? Davis?

Another virtue Davis mentioned is persuasiveness (which personally I’d consider to more a talent than a virtue). In my opinion this reveals one of his big blind spots, which is that many of the virtues he lists can be either good or bad depending on the circumstances. For instance, if we were a persuasive person and we used our persuasiveness to convince someone not to throw themselves off a bridge, then our persuasiveness would be a very good thing. However, it’s not hard to imagine circumstances where persuasiveness could also be a very bad thing. After all, Satan’s persuasiveness played a pivotal role in bringing about the fall of mankind!

We can see the same lack of nuance in Davis’ praise of the virtue of loyalty. I’m sure he has very noble situations in mind here, such as sticking with your friends even in the face of bullying. But sometimes loyalty can be misplaced, even toxic and dangerous. Should a wife remain “loyal” to her abusive husband, rather than divorcing him, separating, or calling the police? Or would Davis recommend following Tammy Wynette’s advice?

There’s also danger in Davis’ construction of the virtue of self-control. At one point he states that a child who shows joy, even when they have a good reason to be depressed, should be praised for their self-control. There’s two problems here. First, I’m not sure when it became taboo for Christians to exhibit sadness, since we’re advised multiple times not just to give it its proper place (Ecclesiastes 3:4, Romans 12:15), but to avoid minimizing and ignoring it (Proverbs 25:20). In fact, there’s an entire book of the Bible (Lamentations) devoted exclusively to grief. But perhaps Jeremiah should have showed more “self-control,” and just put on a happy face rather than weeping over Jerusalem?

Second, Davis’ assumption that depression is merely a failure of self-control is extremely dangerous. A parent using Davis’ methods on a child with clinical depression could easily take the tack of telling the child to “buck up,” “grow up,” or “be happy,” instead of getting them the help they need. This could, of course, have any number of unpleasant results, ranging from parent-child alienation to suicide. In fact, even if all the patriarchal background was removed from Davis’ materials, this alone would probably still be enough for me to never recommend him to anyone, ever.

Lastly, I’d like to examine one of the more bizarre and telling statements in the lecture, not least because it’s of great personal interest to me as a musician:

A child should receive more praise for her initiative in practicing the piano daily without being told to do so, than for her accomplishment in playing in a performance. A talented child could possibly perform well with or without much practice, but if that child doesn’t learn to use, doesn’t learn the initiative to practice and doesn’t learn to follow a leader – did you know what’s one of the most important things anybody playing an instrument can learn, is to follow the leader, because the talent itself is useless until it is harnessed under authority.

I have read and re-read this statement multiple times since listening to Davis’ lecture and to be honest, I still have no idea what he’s talking about. What does it mean that musical talent is useless until it’s “harnessed under authority”? Whose authority? The piano teacher’s authority? The director’s? Sure, musicians have to be able to follow a director, but just as often there is no director and the player is left to themselves. For instance, I have no director when I sing an a cappella solo or when I play the organ in church. Does that mean I’m “out from under authority”? Are forms of music without an “authority” even valid under this paradigm? (Don’t anybody tell Davis about improvisation and cadenzas or his head may explode.)

In fact, I suppose when we really boil this down, it’s a lot like my objections to “chiseling” above, when I stated that children must learn to regulate their own character. If the player or singer cannot count independently and always needs a director to give them the beat, they’re not a very good musician. In fact I would say they’re not much of a musician at all, because they never mastered one of the most basic skills involved in the craft.

But then again, given the “chiseling” metaphor and its implications, not to mention his previous statements[2], perhaps Davis really is interested in creating lifelong dependence and stifling individual development. Certainly Doug Phillips and the Botkin sisters are, with their creepy and controlling philosophy of stay-at-home daughterhood. In any case, Davis certainly doesn’t understand the first thing about music. And after this lecture, I’ve got serious doubts about his understanding of character formation and retention, too.

[2]God has designed human life in such a way that if men will be men of God, if men will follow the principles of God’s Word, then ladies can feel safe and secure basically from the cradle to the grave…Seven Bible Truths Violated by Christian Dating

4 comments on “How to Develop Character in Your Children (TBB)

  1. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    In any case, it would mean that Vision Forum is only two degrees of separation away from Hephzibah House. And my friends, if that doesn’t scare the living daylights out of you, I don’t know what will.

    Isn’t Vision Forum “Reconstructionist”? i.e. Outbreed the Heathen, take back America (AKA takeover), and establish a Perfect Christian Nation(TM)? GOD WILLS IT?

    In which case, Hepzibah House methods would be useful to Re-Educate Heathens, Heretics, and the Insufficiently Devout. So God’s Elect Enforcers are getting in practice. GOD WILLS IT!

    • Gabriella says:

      I am a former HH student. I found your question about SM Davis’ daughter on another board. It was posted in 2015, so maybe you’ve already gotten the info you were looking for.

      Yes, his daughter Jenifer “LaDawn” Davis was a student at the same time I was. (I was there from 1989-1990, and she came about halfway through my stay there). Her father was a board member for sure during that time. I know this because we had to write to board members weekly. We had to report to them all the wonderful things that God was doing in our lives through the efforts of the Williams and HH. And trust me, just like letters to our families, these letters were also censored, and if they weren’t “churchy” enough, they were given back to us to re-write. Oh, we were also allowed to confess our sins in these letters, such as if we were struggling with impure thoughts or weren’t allowing the Lord to work on our hearts. SM Davis was one of the people we had to write to, and he also came and preached at HH occasionally. His writings were also on our approved reading lists. I don’t recall if they were mandatory reading because most of that list was made up of the writings of Ron Williams.

      LaDawn Davis went on to marry Ron Williams’ son Daniel, and they reside in Illinois. I could tell many stories of my experiences with Dawn and Daniel.

  2. Pam says:

    The bit about praise producing pride and laziness: he’s never talked to anybody in academia or science. Smart people who know they’re smart are hugely motivated by their pride to continue to achieve – it’s one of the driving forces for almost anyone who reaches the level of postgraduate study. I should know, I speak from personal experience!

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