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A Response to “Shiny Happy People”

Davis Carman | July 17, 2023

UPDATE: Listen to the continued conversation

Listen to the Let’s Talk Homeschool podcast episode where Davis and Rachael Carman discuss Shiny Happy People with Ladd and April Lesh.

Amazon Prime Video is now streaming “Shiny Happy People: Duggar Family Secrets,” an exclusive four-part documentary that purports to expose the truth lurking beneath the wholesome Americana surface of reality TV’s favorite mega-family, the Duggars. The producers turn a spotlight on the Duggar family’s views and practices regarding modesty, music, dating and courtship, having children, home education and politics, with a particular emphasis on the family’s connection to the Institute in Basic Life Principles (IBLP) and its founder, Bill Gothard. 

The Duggars are presented in the series as the “shiny, happy” face of IBLP, and several clips are shown of parents Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar speaking to large gatherings of moms and dads at IBLP events. Meanwhile, the show explores the darker side of the fundamentalist organization and its longtime leader. A significant portion of the series is devoted to on-camera interviews with young adults who were raised in homeschooling families that adhered to the controversial teachings of IBLP and its Advanced Training Institute (ATI) curriculum. 

In addition to recounting the sexual harassment accusations that forced Gothard to resign from IBLP in 2014, the show also revisits past allegations of sexual abuse committed by the eldest of the Duggar children, Josh. The sexual misconduct described in the documentary is horrific.

However, in reviewing these events and the controversies surrounding the Duggar family and IBLP, the producers of this show paint with a very broad brush, taking unwarranted swipes at the wholesome ideals of faith, family, Godly values, parental rights, conservativism and homeschooling. I believe a response is in order.

Our Own Encounter with IBLP

I am a homeschooling father, leader, advocate and curriculum publisher. I’m a Christian who believes in the beauty of family order and God-ordained parental rights and responsibility. Rachael and I started our homeschooling journey in the fall of 1996. Over the next five years, we met other homeschoolers with large families (i.e., four to ten children). Naturally, we asked them lots of questions about education, training, discipleship, curriculum, routines, schedules and so on with an eye toward understanding what life might be like as we traveled farther down this path. While getting to know these families, we were invited to attend a conference organized by the Institute in Basic Life Principles. We weren’t able to go due to scheduling issues, but we started asking around about what seemed to be a popular curriculum.

I remember visiting with some new friends one Sunday afternoon. Rachael was nursing our baby while our other six kids played outside with our host’s eight children. The parents showed us the curriculum they were using from the Advanced Training Institute. We learned that it was created by Bill Gothard and published by IBLP. 

One detail that jumped out at me was that Mr. Gothard had never been married, had no children of his own and obviously didn’t homeschool. This made everything he published purely theoretical. I’d been a father for thirteen years at this point, and I understood full well that parenting in practice is much different from parenting in theory. But when I mentioned this concern, it was quickly dismissed and brushed off.

We took a booklet or two home to review. After several more private conversations about whether or not to attend one of the IBLP conferences, we decided IBLP was not for us. One of the reasons is that we both grew up in a strict and legalistic denomination. During a series of relocations, we had stepped out of that denomination two years prior, which dramatically changed our Christian walk. We were not very interested in getting involved with something that had many of the old earmarks of formulas, legalism and unhealthy accountability. Nevertheless, over the next two decades, we remained friends with families who continued down the IBLP road.

We’re not big TV watchers. We had heard of the popular reality show “19 Kids and Counting,” but we had never seen an episode. In 2014, Rachael and I were scheduled to speak at a homeschool conference where the Duggars were the featured speakers. We decided to check out the show to see what it was all about. It seemed odd that a family who didn’t watch television was starring in a weekly reality TV show about themselves. After viewing two or three episodes, we felt like we had a handle on the show’s content.

Fast-forward to the present day, and much has changed for the Duggar family. Once the most-watched show on Discovery’s TLC channel, “19 Kids and Counting” was canceled in 2015 after the sexual abuse allegations involving Josh emerged. Of course, you don’t have to be a celebrity with all its accompanying temptations to make bad decisions, and I certainly don’t want to be the first to point out the speck in someone else’s eye while missing the log in my own. But I do think there are some very important lessons we can learn from the Duggars’ fall from grace and this documentary’s attempt at telling their story.

The following is my response to the documentary, presented with as much humility as I can muster. I’m not necessarily recommending that you watch the series, especially as some of it is quite disturbing. But if you do, be sure to pray for the discernment to filter out the erroneous messages while accepting the constructive lessons.

#1 We All Have a Sinful Nature

Ultimately, the story presented in this documentary should remind us that bad things can and have happened in plenty of organizations, faith-based and otherwise. Why? Because they are run by sinful people. That’s not a criticism leveled at anyone in particular. Every one of us was born with a sinful nature that will remain with us throughout our physical lifetime. Even those of us who have accepted Christ’s free gift of salvation must always be vigilant and strive against the pull of our sinful, selfish desires. After all, none of us wants to fall into sin that ends up hurting and disappointing our friends and loved ones.

One difficult reality of our sinful natures is that we can do all the “right” things as a parent, and yet when our kids grow up, they can still make bad decisions. Our kids, like their parents, are born into sin and must be drawn to God by His sovereign hand and choose whether to walk faithfully with Him. Even young men and women raised in the Christian faith from childhood face a lifetime of doing battle with the enemy of their souls.

Admittedly, there is power in journalistic investigations that reveal monsters. And there is no shortage of dark secrets that can be exposed—stories of greed, sexual abuse and moral failure of all kinds. That’s not surprising, given the fallen world we live in. And those who victimize the young and powerless should absolutely be revealed and brought to justice.

However, I think the best stories—even documentaries about the dark side of humanity—are those that end with a message of hope. “Shiny Happy People” does a lot of finger-pointing but fails to offer solutions or a way forward. I hoped to be inspired to respond with honesty, courage, forgiveness, bravery, and compassion and with the hope that redemption is possible.

Best stories end with hope - Shiny Happy People


#2 Seek Out Accountability

This documentary series should remind us of the importance of real accountability. I’m not talking about someone looking over your shoulder all the time. Nor am I talking about being answerable to an authoritarian individual or group. Instead, I’m talking about the wisdom of protecting yourself by inviting one or more Christian brothers (or sisters, if you’re a woman) into your life. This should be someone you can trust with your struggles, someone who will commit to being available to listen and to partner with you in prayer, someone who will speak the truth to you in love. 

Several of the Proverbs extoll the benefits of seeking counsel from multiple trusted sources. Yes, it is possible for accountability to be unhealthy when one person tries to manipulate another. But the wise person will not try to do life alone. Proverbs 27:17 declares that in the same way, iron can sharpen iron, one man can help sharpen another spiritually by providing appropriate and Godly accountability.

Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. (Proverbs 27:17)

Of course, speaking the truth must go both ways. Having an accountability partner will do you no good if you’re not honest with him (or her), a mistake we see played out in the documentary series.

As I watched, I saw a reality TV series that took on a life of its own. I saw a home where crucial parenting decisions were made that put the “family business” before the good of the children. I saw an organization that preached the importance of staying under an “umbrella of authority” yet was guided by a man who was answerable to no one. There didn’t seem to be any checks and balances in place. Even Billy Graham made sure never to travel alone! 

We must avoid the trap of thinking we’re safe and capable of running the show by ourselves. We all need a friend who sticks closer than a brother (Proverbs 18:24), one we can trust to tell us the truth about ourselves. After all, “faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy” (Proverbs 27:6).

A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother. (Proverbs 18:24)

Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy. (Proverbs 27:6)


#3 Beware the Love of Money

Another reminder we should take from the series is to beware of the allure of riches and the temptations that arise when money is at stake. This should be intuitively obvious even to those who have never read 1 Timothy 6. 

According to the documentary, TLC paid the family an estimated $25,000 to $45,000 per episode. Over the course of seven years and more than 240 episodes, some quick math shows that the total earnings from the show alone ranged between $6 million to $11 million before taxes. However, some branding experts say that after “19 Kids and Counting” was canceled, the loss of endorsements, speaking invitations and book deals may have cost the Duggars up to $25 million. 

As the older kids became adults and got married, money seemed to have become a serious obstacle within the family. Some of the adult children claim they were not receiving any money for their participation in the show despite playing a central role in some of the series’ most-watched episodes, which usually focused on births and weddings. Money became a significant stumbling block, and family relationships soured, as they often do when there’s a large stash involved. 

The apostle Paul is quite clear concerning the dangers of pursuing (or withholding) riches:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. (1 Timothy 6:9-10)

No man can serve two masters; money is a cruel tyrant. So let’s all learn to be generous and content with what we have. As the Puritan prayer goes,

“If blessed with prosperity, may we be free from its snares, and use, not abuse, its advantages.”


#4 Beware of Fame

Similar dangers can arise with celebrity status. Not only do we need to be careful about putting anyone on a pedestal, but we should also resist being high and lifted up by others. Few traits are as destructive as an appetite for praise. Let us beware of making an idol of anyone, giving them a place in our lives that only God Himself deserves. 

This is especially easy to do in a time filled with influencers and social media. The dopamine hit from each “like” we receive can be addictive and intoxicating. Young children are reported to spend five to seven hours per day in front of screens; teens spend eight hours or more per day. Of course, it’s easy to be critical of young people and their phones, but adults spend even more time staring at the blue light! A few years ago, adults on average spent eleven hours a day on screens; since the lockdown, this number has increased dramatically. According to the Pew Research Center, about 30 percent of adults say that they’re online “almost constantly.”

We were all meant to worship. The question is this: Who or what are we worshiping? Again, don’t look to celebrities or social media for your inspiration. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of your faith.

looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)


#5 Beware of Pride

I’m all for pursuing excellence and holy living. But once we have managed to create at least the appearance of meeting a high standard in our homes, our churches or our businesses, it’s easy to begin thinking we have it all figured out. 

At that point, we may become blind to our need for Godly advice and accountability. We may become so confident in our own way of doing things that, without realizing it, we stop seeking God and depending on Him. We might even begin preaching our own methods in lieu of the true gospel. All leaders need to be careful not to get drunk on their own Kool-Aid. 

Some say that pride is the root of all sin. It’s certainly easy for pride to become a blind spot. Psalm 10:4 tells us that the proud are so consumed with themselves that there is no room in their thoughts for God.

In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” (Psalm 10:4)

Let us remember that Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18)

On the other side of the camera, we viewers must be careful not to take pride in our own spiritual condition and withhold compassion from the Duggars, Gothard and the IBLP survivors who seem to boast of having walked away from the Christian faith altogether. Granted, it’s not easy to give grace without looking like we’re condoning someone’s sin. Nevertheless, remembering the grace we have received, let us take note of Colossians 3:12 and put on compassion, kindness, gentleness, patience and humility (in extra-large doses).

Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12)


#6 Avoid Making Faulty Associations

This one is more of a critique than a reminder. A glaring and bothersome aspect of this documentary series is the producers’ tendency to use the sordid story they’re telling to make unfair generalizations about homeschooling and the Christian faith. They also make a number of heavy-handed efforts to “poison the well,” to damage the credibility of various conservative persons and groups using the faulty logic of guilt by association.

Offering no real evidence at all, one of the episodes lumps the owners of Hobby Lobby, minister and former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, Patrick Henry College, Teenpact, Generation Joshua and the National Christian Forensics and Communication Association into the same camp with IBLP. The clear implication is that because sexual abuse happened in this organization, it probably happens in these other organizations too. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Just because a scandal occurred in one faith-based organization or in one homeschooling family doesn’t mean there are similar scandals brewing in all such groups and families. That’s nonsense. If the producers have heard rumors of misconduct elsewhere, each accusation should be investigated independently and judged on its own merits based on hard facts and evidence.

Unfair Generalizations - Shiny Happy People


#7 Protect Parental Rights

At times it appears as though the producers are trying to make a case against parental rights. The reasoning seems to go like this: Because they found and interviewed young adults who were disgruntled about growing up in families that used the IBLP curriculum, this proves that parents shouldn’t be trusted to raise their own children. Seriously? 

To be fair, one of the interviewees was sexually abused by her father before and after she was sent to an IBLP training facility for counseling. But as a rule, I believe that parents love their children and care more for their well-being than any other person on the planet. 

Yes, there are rare exceptions. However, if you were to set out to discredit a particular parenting approach, I’m sure it would be quite easy to find several young adults who didn’t like the way they were raised. I, for one, didn’t like some of the dress codes, curfews, dating prohibitions and a few other rules my parents put in place during my childhood. As I mentioned, Rachael and I both left the restrictive denomination in which we grew up. Yet I am profoundly grateful to my parents for my Christian heritage. I know they loved me and wanted the best for me.


#8 We All Need Practical Parenting Advice

Again, as a rule, parents want to do a good job raising their children. But there are no quick fixes or easy checklists to follow. We live in a society that’s always looking for a foolproof formula or an instant solution with guaranteed results.

In the homeschooling world, how can someone be an “expert” on teaching kids at home when they haven’t been married, are not a parent and have never homeschooled? Yet since 1984, numerous IBLP families have relied on the ATI homeschool curriculum created by Bill Gothard. It’s easy to say how raising and teaching children should be done in theory, but it’s much harder actually to do it in real life. As G. K. Chesterton once said,

“The schoolmaster can at best teach morality in theory, but the mother is obliged to teach it in practice.”

Numerous experts purport to offer surefire parenting solutions for those who seek them. Indeed, young parents can easily find themselves desperate for a silver bullet, a miraculous fix that will help them meet the truly awesome responsibility of raising children. I remember reading many parenting books and attending seminars in search of answers when our children were young. Again turning to Chesterton, he spoke of formulaic parenting in terms of a mass-production factory. He said the appeal of such a factory is that ninety-nine times out of a hundred, it can be trusted to turn out its product on time and according to plan. But little boys do not always turn out according to plan.

The point is this: There are no secret formulas to parenting. And expert theories are just that, theoretical. That kind of promise sells but rarely delivers. Parents are better off seeking practical advice and encouragement from someone who’s been there and done that. Rachael and I picked up many effective parenting tips and ideas from attending homeschool conferences. But when the rubber met the road, our greatest lessons were learned in the school of hard knocks—the experience of raising our own kids. 

If you find yourself in need of some practical parenting advice, let me leave you with two pieces of wisdom from the bestselling Author of all time.

First, Deuteronomy 6:4-7 gives four practical ways, places and times to teach your children how to obey the greatest commandment, which is to love God with all their heart, soul, strength and mind. I encourage you to make the most of these four teaching opportunities: 1) when you wake your kids in the morning, 2) when you sit down at the table for meals, 3) when you walk along the way or travel together by automobile and 4) when you put the kids to bed at night.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.[a] You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.  And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. (Deuteronomy 6:4-7)

Second, follow Ephesians 6:1-4 and be patient, gentle and kind as you train and discipline your children and bring them up in the instruction of the Lord. Teach them to obey and honor their parents, but be careful not to exasperate them in the process.

Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.  “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise),  “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.”  Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. (Ephesians 6:1-4)

We CAN Homeschool and Be Happy

As I progressed through all four hours of “Shiny Happy People,” I grew more and more frustrated with the program’s tone and its underlying assumptions that Christian beliefs are dangerous, that all home education is worthless and that all homeschooled children are victims (in one way or another) who are destined to grow into miserable adults. Even the show’s promotional art sends the message that it’s all fake. A façade. There can’t really be such a thing as a wholesome, happy Christian family. Watching the show, I wanted to scream, “I’m happy!” 

This documentary does not portray a typical homeschooling family. Not even close. Yes, all families deal with challenges, and homeschooling does require real commitment, sacrifice and perseverance. But I truly believe that families like yours can go forth with boldness, confidence, enthusiasm, joy and hope.

The facts are there is so much good happening in the homeschooling community. So much good! Family relationships are being strengthened. Family life is being shared and enjoyed. Learning is a natural part of children’s daily routines. Love, grace, peace and happiness are in abundant supply. The overwhelming majority of homeschool graduates are following God’s call on their lives, getting married, having children, loving the Lord and educating their own kids at home. Truth is being taught. God and His Word are honored in the accurate, effective teaching of world history, science, language, the arts and math. Great curriculua is being professionally written and published by homeschoolers and for homeschoolers. These are just some of the good things happening in the worldwide homeschooling community. The resulting fruit includes healthy marriages, loving families, happy children and vibrant churches.

Rachael and I thank God that by His grace, we stayed the course on our homeschooling adventure. We graduated our seventh child last year after 26 years, and we loved every minute of it — even the days, weeks and months that weren’t so fun or easy. We walked by faith and persevered, never looking back.

When we homeschooled in the 1990s, 2000s and 2010s, it seemed like the only logical course of action. We felt like we were on a mission, and we were happy to make the sacrifices required to keep going. Back then, things were bad in the public schools, but they’re so much worse today. If there has ever been a time to homeschool, it is now! Yet while there is plenty of “bad” to run away from, there is so much more good, so many more blessings, to run towards and enjoy as a family! 

So feel the freedom to start or continue your own homeschooling adventure. You can do it. And it’s good—really good—for your kids. Years from now, you’ll look back and be happy you did. 

Creation-Based Resources for Your Homeschool

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Visit Apologia.com—a great place to explore creation.

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Walking by faith,

Davis Carman

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Let’s Talk Homeschool podcast

Apologia.com

Davis is the president of Apologia Educational Ministries, the #1 publisher of Creation-based curricula for homeschooling families. He believes that if there was ever a time to homeschool, it is now! You can read more of his articles and devotionals at the Apologia Blog, and you can listen to a weekly message at the Let’s Talk Homeschool Podcast.

© 2023 Davis Carman