A Double Legacy: Conform and Be Different

I was recently talking to a friend who grew up in a family much like mine, and we identified something very interesting. We both feel that being homeschooled and raised the way we were left us a double legacy. Since leaving home, my friend has been involved in the Emerging Church and has even spent time on a Christian commune. Her parents have been less than pleased to see her question the traditional doctrines and lifestyle choices they raised her with. She feels this is ironic, because they also raised her to think and to question the mainstream culture, and she feels that what she is doing is merely a continuation of that. The legacy she and I received from our parents was a twofold message: Conform, and be different.

It’s ironic, isn’t it, that for so many homeschool parents a movement that started as radical and counter-cultural has turned into a way to force their children into a specific mold? But the cracks and fissures are there. “If you could be different,” the child wonders, “if you could set out on a radical path and follow your conscience, why can’t I?

Conform!

I have avoided commenting on an article written by Reb Bradley, a homeschool advocate, titled “Homeschool Blind Spots,” because the article bothers me so much.  The article starts like this:

In the last couple of years, I have heard from multitudes of troubled homeschool parents around the country, a good many of whom were leaders. These parents have graduated their first batch of kids, only to discover that their children didn’t turn out the way they thought they would. Many of these children were model homeschoolers while growing up, but sometime after their 18th birthday they began to reveal that they didn’t hold to their parents’ values.

Some of these young people grew up and left home in defiance of their parents. Others got married against their parents’ wishes, and still others got involved with drugs, alcohol, and immorality. I have even heard of several exemplary young men who no longer even believe in God. My own adult children have gone through struggles I never guessed they would have faced.

Most of these parents remain stunned by their children’s choices, because they were fully confident their approach to parenting was going to prevent any such rebellion. Some were especially confident, because as teens these kids were only obedient.  Needless to say, the dreams of these homeschool parents have crashed, and many other parents want to know what they can do to prevent their own children from following the same course.

The author goes on to say that homeschool parents need to change their methods, allowing their children greater freedom and exposure, but he never changes his goal, and that is what bugs me. His goal is to raise children identical to their parents in doctrinal beliefs and lifestyle choices. He sees homeschooling as a process for forcing a child into a specific mold. Like Michael Pearl has stated explicitly, the goal here is to raise clones.

Now some readers may object here, arguing that it’s natural for parents to teach their children their beliefs, especially if they believe that their eternal fate hangs in the balance. By way of responding to this critique, I want to quote an exchange I had with Hermana Linda when she mentioned this article on her excellent Why Not To Train A Child site.

Libby Anne: I was also both heartened and dissatisfied by his article (which I read several years ago). Young Mom points out that he is dissatisfied because he did not get the results and is therefore arguing for changing methods (not because the methods were intrinsically harmful), but I would add simply that he does not change the results he wants: children with identical belief systems and identical lifestyles to his. He wants to produce clones, and he DOES NOT change this desire. It’s this desire that’s the problem, not simply the methods, because if he changes to more loving methods and STILL does not produce clones of himself he will see himself and his children as a failure. Parents need to stop making it their goal to produce clones and realize that their children are individual human beings who need to grow up and live their own choices and choose their own beliefs. That, of course, was exactly what this article did NOT say.

Hermana Linda: I agree with you up to a point but I cannot agree that parents should not have a goal to produce Christian children. For a Christian, a lost child is a great tragedy. They will spend eternity in Heaven but their child will spend eternity suffering the torment of hell. Yes, the children are individual human beings who need to grow up and make their own choices, but it’s the parents’ job to guide them in making wise choices. The fact that controlling and micromanaging them often turns them away from the faith is enough proof that this method is wrong.

Libby Anne: Ah, but I did not say his goal is to create “Christians” but rather that his goal is to create “clones.” I don’t know how you define “Christian,” but I would assume you probably have a broader definition than either Bradley or my parents.

I have known many people for whom being a Christian simply means the desire to follow Christ, and issues like creation or evolution, pretrib or midtrib, the exact type of discipline used, dating verses courtship, stay at home mom verses working mom, small family verses big family, skirts verses pants, homeschool verse public school, and on and on, are largely irrelevant to that desire because they are a matter of individual leading and not Christian dogma. These individuals expect their adult children to follow Jesus FOR THEMSELVES and place them in God’s hands and trust Him to know what is best and to work everything out for good.

For people like Bradley and my parents it is different. For them, being a “Christian” means not being a Christ follower but rather sharing their beliefs to the exact minutia (seriously, questioning the wisdom of parent guided courtship, or rejecting spanking as a method of punishment is enough to show that you are damned or at least headed on a path straight to Satan’s lair). As soon as the child disagrees with this sort of parent on anything, no matter how small a point it may seem, that Child is seen as broken, ruined, no longer truly Christian – EVEN IF THEY SAY THEY LOVE JESUS MORE THAN ANYTHING.

The thing to remember is that I did not become an atheist until years after having trouble with my parents. Actually, when I had trouble with my parents, my faith had never felt so vibrant. It was JESUS who told me it was okay to question my parents’ beliefs, that it was okay to make my own. The issue my parents had with me wasn’t me leaving faith, it was me making my faith my own. So I did not say that the problem was the desire to produce Christian children, but rather that the problem was the desire to produce clones.

Hermana Linda: Oh, I understand. Thanks for clarifying. In that case, I do agree. <3

I understand wanting your children to share your basic faith. What I do not think is healthy is wanting your children to be your clones, miming your beliefs and lifestyle in every detail. Someone once told me that they love what “wild cards” kids are. Kids grow up and make their own choices, and parents can’t stop that – and shouldn’t try to. I wish more parents understood that, but parents like Bradley clearly do not.

Be Different!

But what these homeschool parents don’t see is that by homeschooling, by daring to step out of the mainstream and be different, they are giving their children another legacy altogether. My friend and I both saw the contradictions and grabbed hold of this second legacy. We both became nonconformists in every sense of the word, asking questions and watching as the whole world opened up. We moved beyond our parents’ beliefs in an attempt to forge our own beliefs, just as our parents moved beyond their parents’ beliefs to forge their own beliefs.

By choosing to homeschool, our parents challenged one of the most fundamental parts of American culture: the belief that children should be sent to school to study under teachers and learn to interact with their peers. That’s revolutionary. Our parents dared to be very, very different. That sends a message.

Here’s an interesting analogy. Many historians have argued that during the American Revolution the Founding Fathers saw a future nation in which well educated elite gentlemen would rule the country wisely, applying enlightenment philosophical ideas. The problem was that the common people took the Founding Fathers’ rhetoric of rights and equality seriously, and after the Revolution old ideas of deference faded as the people demanded a truly participatory democracy. These historians have argued that the Constitutional Convention was an “attempt to put the democratic genie back in the bottle,” but even that failed to stem the tide of popular democarcy, and many Founding Fathers died disillusioned, surrounded by a nation a far different from what they had hoped and dreamed of.

I think what you see with homeschooled young people like myself is similar. My parents had a vision for my future, but by homeschooling and daring to be different and question what most deemed common knowledge, they planted seeds in me that I took seriously, and once I was an adult I forged my own path and created a life very different from the one they had had planned for me. The Founding Fathers were disillusioned, wondering where their Revolution went wrong without realizing that they themselves planted the seeds for the people’s “rebellion” through their own rhetoric; likewise, my parents are disillusioned, wondering where they went wrong in raising me without realizing that they themselves planted the seeds for my “rebellion” through their own actions. They never realized the revolutionary potential of their own example.

For more on this idea, see a previous post of mine, I Was Raised To Be A Skeptic.

Conclusion

It is true that many homeschooled children seem to come away with only the first message and not the latter. I am overwhelmed, sometimes, by the inability to think critically that I see in too many of the homeschool graduates raised similarly to me. They seem to be unable to think outside of the box in which they grew up, to take everything their parents taught them as gospel truth without question.

It seems to me that homeschool families run a spectrum, secular unschoolers on the left focusing solely on “be different” and the most controlling conservative religious homeschoolers on the right focusing solely on “conform.” My family was somewhere on the right side of the spectrum, but there are plenty of families even further to the right where the “conform” message is even louder. I think, though, that even as the “be different” message is smothered in those families, it is still there, beneath the surface, waiting for some child coming of age to see it and grab hold of it. The double legacy is alive and well.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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